Jeremy Likes TV

I like TV. Probably more than any human should.

Episode Review: Breaking Bad – “Box Cutter”

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(Disclaimer: I’m trying something a little different in format here. Breaking Bad is such a richly developed show that there is much more to discuss than there is in your average television drama. As such, this review is going to be formatted a little differently than normal and will be a little longer than usual, but I feel that’s necessary for a show like this. It will also be a discussion of major plot points in the episode so here’s your giant SPOILER ALERT. Don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode. It also assumes that you are a viewer of the show and have a basic familiarity with characters and plots. Not sure if this will be a weekly thing. We’ll see how it goes. Also, I realize that this is up a week late but better late than never, no? Onto the review.)

After an incredibly painful 13-month wait, Breaking Bad has finally returned to AMC’s schedule for a fourth set and, if “Box Cutter” is any indication, it hasn’t lost a single step from its near-perfect third season. It was a premiere that can immediately be entered into the Breaking Bad pantheon of classic episodes and saw the status quo of the series restored (in a fashion), but it was done in such a brutal and masterful manner that its repercussions are going to be felt for a very, very long time.

Teaser:
“If he’s not a professional, what does that make me?”
Instead of beginning with the normal abstract season-opening sequence that we’ve become accustomed to (as pointed out by The AV Club’s Donna Bowman), season four opens with a vignette that calls into question whether Jesse actually pulled the trigger on Gale in the final shot (no pun intended) of last season’s finale, “Full Measures.” As Gale giddily sets up Gus’s multi-million dollar meth lab, the camera at one point stopping on a box cutter in a bit of foreshadowing, one easy interpretation from this scene is that Walt and Jesse are now on the outside looking in and that Gale has officially taken over as Gus’s chief meth cook. It’s an immediate signal that, hey, maybe what you think is real isn’t actually real and is a bold choice for series creator/writer Vince Gilligan to make. However, an exchange between Gus and Gale soon reveals that this is indeed a flashback to when Gale was originally hired and shows that Gale was, in fact, the person who pushed for Walt to join Gus’s operation [1], effectively writing his own death sentence. This was Gilligan’s initial gut punch of the episode – it displayed an interesting dichotomy with the late Gale: he was an innocent (witness his almost childlike existence outside of the lab) but at the same time well was aware of the choices he made, choices which ultimately cost him his life.

[1] After Gus insists that he won’t work with Walt because he doesn’t consider him professional, Gale responds with the above quote.

Act One:
“That’s right, genius. Watch me. We ain’t missing no cook.”
Immediately after the opening credits conclude, any ambiguity about last season’s final shot is erased as it’s made clear that Jesse has, indeed, murdered Gale. This is the first time in the series’ run that Jesse has taken a life. All of the killing in the White/Pinkman partnership has been at Walt’s hand. How will that affect him? We’ve already seen him at extreme lows. Will this be the impetus for another downward spiral? If nothing else, it will certainly give Aaron Paul some spectacular material to play coming off of his first Emmy win for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama. The camera pans around Gale’s apartment – now a murder scene – and Victor enters and he’s PISSED. Finding Jesse near catatonic in his car outside, he forces him at gunpoint to return to the super-lab where Walt and Mike are still housed to try to begin sorting out the mess that Team Heisenberg has caused. It’s here that Vince Gilligan sets in motion a series of moves that prove that this episode should be used as an expert example of how to effectively build tension. The fear that Mike and Victor are experiencing at the super-lab is palpable – they are terrified about how Gus will respond to this failure on their parts. Mike ultimately decides to call Gus to inform him of what’s transpired after Victor admits that he was, in fact, noticed at the crime scene and the four men sit to await their fates. The episode takes a quick detour to a Skyler/Marie storyline but we’re ultimately back to the lab as Walt tries to appeal to Mike’s pragmatic side in getting him to allow Walt and Jesse to begin to cook as a way to mitigate Gus’s pending anger and prove their usefulness. However, he’s not at all prepared to see Victor begin the cook on his own like he’s been doing it for years.

Act Two:
“I broke new ground? I walked 16 feet in 20 minutes, which is up from like 15 ½ yesterday. And I had maybe this much less shit in my pants. So yeah, Marie, if you and him and everyone else in America secretly took a vote and changed the meaning of the entire English language then, yeah, I guess I ‘broke new ground.’”
The story (briefly) moves away from the pressure cooker of tension that is the super-lab to focus on Skyler and Marie. Skyler is frantically trying to locate Walt by first contacting an increasingly paranoid Saul [2], and then by conning a locksmith into letting her into Walt’s condo to snoop around. Anna Gunn is very impressive [3] in this sequence as it’s becoming increasingly clear that Skyler is starting to “break bad” herself. While Skyler is beginning to embrace her dark side, Marie and Hank are enduring some dark times of their own as Hank’s recovery from last season’s near-fatal shooting isn’t going as well as either he or Marie had hoped. Marie has to steel herself in her car before entering the house to become Hank’s nursemaid/metaphorical punching bag and Hank himself has become a completely broken and humbled man, far from the once proud and bombastic DEA agent we’ve seen over the past three years. Now? He’s reduced to having his wife place a bedpan under his ass just so he can take a dump. It also brings up a very frightening bit of foreshadowing for the show’s future: It was bad enough when it was just that the most wanted meth producer in Albuquerque was under Hank’s nose as his brother-in-law. Now, after THIS? Having to suffer this emotional and physical pain and becoming completely broken as a person? Walt’s going to have hell to pay.

[2] Shown on his hands and knees sweeping his office for bugs and then humorously being very careful when talking to Skyler on a pay phone away from his office. Bob Odenkirk is, as always, very welcome and essential comic relief.
[3] Particularly in how her visage immediately shifts from sweet smile to stone-faced the second the locksmith closes the door and leaves.

Act Three:
“Well… get back to work.”
Wow. Just… WOW. So much is done with so little in this centerpiece act that I hardly know where to begin. First, a standing ovation to Giancarlo Esposito for his performance here [4]. Chilling in every way possible, the man does so much breathtaking work in this scene and only says the five words in the above quote. Everything he does is methodical and with purpose. Undressing. Redressing in an orange jumpsuit. Walking over to the other four men in the room as Walt first pleads for his and Jesse’s lives (“You kill me, you have NOTHING. You kill Jesse, you don’t have me.”) and later bickers with Victor over what constitutes a successful “meth chef.” It doesn’t sound like much but my words can’t do this sequence justice. If you’ve seen the episode, you know what I’m talking about. When Gus arrives to assess the situation and eventually mete out his punishment, as a viewer, you legitimately have no idea where he’s going yet you cannot look away and that’s one of the things that makes Breaking Bad so brilliant. After circling Walt and Jesse like a predator, he grabs a boasting Victor and shockingly slits his throat (still not having said a word after what feels like an eternity) with a box cutter in brutal fashion [5] . He chillingly holds Victor’s head and neck down for maximum blood spurtage as even the hardened Mike looks on like a terrified child. After dumping Victor’s exsanguinated body at the feet of Walt and Jesse [6], he just as methodically undresses, redresses, cleans his glasses, and leaves the room but not before barking, “Well… get back to work.” I really can’t say enough about this scene and everything that it does. It was brutal. It was shocking. It was harrowing. I have no doubt that this will end up as a touchstone for the series whenever it ends – it’s the type of scene where people will go, “There. That is just an example of why and how great this show was.”

[4] He gains immediate entry into the Badass Hall Of Fame for this scene as well. And very likely an Emmy nomination next summer.
[5] Literally laying Victor’s death at their feet. Very chilling.
[6] In an interview with Grantland’s Steve Kandell, Gilligan said that he sees this as not only punishment for Victor being seen at the crime scene in Gale’s apartment, but also because of his arrogance in thinking that he was Walt’s equal. He says that this is an insult to Gus and is partially why Gus takes the route that he takes.

Act Four:
“The one that says, if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.”
It would be near impossible to try to follow or top the previous act so Gilligan wisely dials down the tension for a scene that shows Walt and Jesse at a Denny’s [7] dealing with the aftermath of what they’d just witnessed. After spending literally the entirety of the episode to this point catatonic and silent, Jesse’s nonchalance over Victor’s murder and his role in Gale’s death comes as a surprise to both the audience and Walt as Jesse sits eating his pancakes like nothing had happened. And when he pragmatically lays out the reason why Gus won’t do anything to them now, even going so far as to chuckle at Gale’s fate, Walt just sits there dumbfounded. Between the catatonia and sociopathy that Jesse displays in equal measure it looks like the aforementioned downward spiral could be starting soon. And then the final shot of the crime scene as the camera pans through the apartment at all of Gale’s various gadgets and collectables before finally stopping to focus on the folder that says “Lab Notes”? Oh, yes. Shit’s on now.

[7] And I’m sure Denny’s is pleased to be the breakfast establishment of choice for murderous meth producers.

Overall Impressions: This is a stone classic episode, on par with any one of “Grilled,” “4 Days Out,” “One Minute,” “Half Measures,” or “Full Measure.” The majority of the episode is four (and then) five men in a lab by themselves, yet the episode is bursting at the seams with tension. There’s no question that Breaking Bad is well on its way to being in the conversation with some of TV’s all-time great dramas if it isn’t there already and “Box Cutter” has set the bar very high for the fourth season but if there’s any show that can live up to such lofty standards, it’s this one.

Rating: 100/100

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Written by jeremylikestv

July 24, 2011 at 4:36 pm

2 Responses

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  1. So an AMC executive was forced to do damage control and said, “Hey, don’t run away. We promise we’ll reveal Rosie’s killer next year.” Will anyone be watching?

    And I’ve heard so much about “Box Cutter,” and the pictures are picquing my interest so much, I’m almost considering doing the unthinkable and skipping the last few episodes of season three to watch it.

    Jon Fassnacht

    July 29, 2011 at 8:26 am

  2. It’ll be very interesting to see what the ratings are for The Killing’s second-season premiere. I know for certain that they’ve alienated the TV critic community and there has been a fairly loud backlash from a large segment of fans as well. I just don’t see any way that this ends well for AMC.

    And I can’t caution you strongly enough to NOT skip the last episodes of season three. There are too many incredible moments (some of the best in the entire series) that you’d miss, not to mention the fact that “Box Cutter” deals with the aftermath of those moments. You really wouldn’t get the proper impact of “Box Cutter” by skipping them. Don’t do it.

    jeremylikestv

    July 29, 2011 at 10:30 am


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