So much for easing into the new season of “Breaking Bad.” After more than a year off the air, the show returns with a relentless premiere, starting with a shooting and climaxing with one of the most squirmily intense scenes on TV in years.
There’s really no other place to start than with the long, often silent and incredibly audacious scene in the lab that gives the episode, “Box Cutter,” its name. Watching Gus strip down, put on protective gear, slash Victor’s throat, then go back and take off the protective suit, wash his hands and put his regular clothes back on, all without saying a word, was to watch a master class in building tension by all concerned: writer Vince Gilligan, director Adam Bernstein and the actors, especially Giancarlo Esposito.
It was also illustrative of just how deep the waters in which Walt is trying to swim really are. Bryan Cranston has talked about how Season 4 will be about Walt really embracing his dark side, but he has a loooong way to go to be on the level of Gustavo Fring. You can see it in Walt’s nervous chatter during the scene, as well as in the fact that Gus knows he doesn’t need to say a single word to make his point. Walt may have been feeling like he was holding the cards at the end of last season, but this is a pretty definitive statement that at least for now, the balance of power is still firmly tilted toward Gus. (Esposito, Cranston and Gilligan break down the scene here.)
Victor’s crime, by the way? Nothing more than letting a couple of people see him when he went to check if Jesse had really shot Gale, and possibly being arrogant enough to think he could cook as well as Walt and Jesse do. In different circumstances he might not have faced such harsh punishment, but Gus needed to prove a point.
The scene reminded me a little of Tony and Christopher disposing of Ralphie on “The Sopranos,” but as amazing as that was I don’t remember even it having the air of menace that this one did. (Though Walt and Jesse’s attempts to shove Victor’s body in a barrel was just as grimly comedic.)
And yes, Jesse really did shoot Gale. The show did a slight head-fake by focusing first on the bullet hole in Gale’s tea kettle, but Jesse is now in just as deep as Walt is. He’s maybe justifying it by thinking that he had to shoot Gale as payback for Walt saving him from Gus’ men, but the question of whether Jesse is capable of such an act has apparently been answered. Which kind of sucks — as much of a screw-up as Jesse is, there’s something about him that’s weirdly likable. Against all evidence, it’s fairly easy to root for the guy, but if there is any path toward redemption in this series, it just got a lot harder to walk for him.
What few moments of relief from the tension in “Box Cutter” came mostly courtesy of Skyler and, in the flashback to the building of the lab, from poor, weird Gale. There’s no question about Gale’s fate, but we’re hoping that somewhere down the line this season we’ll see the character again in a flashback.
As for Skyler, she seems to be grasping the family business pretty well — and knowing how to avoid uncomfortable questions at home. She thinks quickly enough to move Walt’s car a couple of streets over so Walt Jr. won’t see it and wonder where his dad is, and while she’ll probably inevitably get sucked into Walt’s vortex as well, she’ll probably turn out to be a pretty handy partner.
The scenes with Hank and Marie were a little tougher to deal with, but that seems like the point. On his best day, Hank can be pretty obstinate, and he hasn’t yet come out of the depression that accompanies his physical injuries. We can see both him and Marie reaching the ends of their respective ropes fairly quickly.
But wow, what a way to start the season. What did you think of “Breaking Bad’s” premiere?