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Breaking Bad Watch: Cuts Like a Knife

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, put on your Kenny Rogers T-shirt and finish up researching collectible minerals on the Internet; you’ll need your full attention to watch last night’s season premiere of Breaking Bad.

A very visually minded show, Breaking Bad has always like to used color themes for effect: the bright yellow of Walt and Jesse’s jumpsuits, the dusky browns of the desert, the aqua of Walt’s high-grade meth, the green of the title credits, the blue of the sky.

The color that sticks with me from the season four premiere is the vibrant, insistent red of the superlab, the walls and the jumpsuits. Red like blood. Red like hell.

Make no mistake, the show seems to be saying, that’s where we are going now; it is where Walt–and especially Jesse, having reluctantly taken his first life–now live. Jesse, we quickly see, did put a bullet in Gale’s brain, rather than aiming away as some fans surmised after the season 3 finale. (See my hail of bullets, below, for more on that not-really-a-cliffhanger cliffhanger.) Walt and Jesse may have survived, but they seem to be living a kind of life after death.

“Box Cutter” really played less like a season premiere than like an extension of season 3, and I mean that in a good way: it picked up where the season ending left off, not just on the timeline but in continuing the sense of raw intensity.

Especially during every excruciating moment in the superlab, I was struck by how much this show says with so few words. You need know no more about how truly rattled Mike is by Walt’s move against Gale than seeing this usually cool customer utter a strangled “Shit!” when getting the news. As Walt plays out the aftermath, still not knowing if he has saved his own life, he seems to do 90% of the talking, as when he taunts Victor for his knowledge of chemistry, with a mixture of arrogance and fear. And yet the non-answers he gets are as much a part of the dialogue as his rattling.

And Gus. Sweet Jesus God is Giancarlo Esposito commanding in a lengthy scene in which he utters exactly five words. Through his face and his bearing, he communicates Gus’ anger, his authority and his wisdom (letting Walt go on and bargain while he says nothing, Gus seems to be taking Walt’s measure). Picking up the boxcutter, he both establishes his threat (he could end Walt and Jesse now, and gladly would) and the terms of his acceptance (he has no other choice right now), while in one brutal swipe realizing the violence that Gus has kept implicit behind his quiet words and placid facade. Equally spectacular: the sequence in which he strips off the lab coat, cleans himself off, and turns back into Gentle Gus Fring. Who knew a man could wash scarily?

Don’t get me wrong: Breaking Bad is a very well-written show, and it’s has some real corkers of speeches over three years. But “Box Cutter” was also an example of how, in television, strong “writing” can mean no dialogue at all. (One great little scene: Skyler driving off in the Aztek, then parking it on a side street as we see her, shot from over the rim of a basketball hoop.)

Aaron Paul too, did excellent work in this episode, even as he said very little through the whole horrid superlab scene, looking less frightened than stunned as he processed his taking another man’s life. When Walt finally did draw him out at Denny’s, he made a few words count: “At least now we all understand each other, right? We’re all on the same page.” “And what page is that?” “The one that says, if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.”

And with that, as Gus says, it’s back to work. Walt and Jesse have saved their necks. But have they lost their lives?

Now for the hail of bullets:

* The tricky thing about writing about the new season of Breaking Bad in advance was writing around a spoiler that creator Vince Gilligan never intended to be a spoiler: Gale’s death. In interviews immediately after the season 3 finale, Gilligan said as much, and expressed some chagrin that the choice of camera angle suggested to some viewers that Jesse aimed away from Gale. What we were meant to see was not a cliffhanger, but Jesse crossing a moral point of no return. But after many fans took it as a cliffhanger, Gilligan said he had little choice but to treat it as one. As he told me in my interview with him:

“I haven’t so much backtracked since then as just, well, maybe I try to be retroactively coy. But in those first couple of interviews I was surprised because there’s the whole point of the way that thing was shot was to make it seem very clear to an audience. But unfortunately, I made this camera move—my camera operator—I asked him to make this dolly around so that it was pretty clear that the gun was going off right in the frame, right under the lens. And unfortunately, a lot of people read that visually as not the camera itself moving in, but Jesse moving and not the camera as if he were aiming off.

“It was one of those inadvertent things that I was aiming for clarity and sort of the opposite came about. But, you know, it is one of those things where so many people—I think I realized in hindsight so many people don’t want Jesse to be a murderer. They wanted to keep his soul relatively intact and I get that, and so I just clammed up about it since then pretty much. That’s sort of the way I’ve been playing it. I would have never thought it would be any kind of a spoiler at all. But it appears to be for a lot of people and that’s why we actually have a teaser that, as you saw, starts with the character, Gale, and then you realize it’s a teaser out of the past and not a day in the present. So it’s one of those kinds of deals now. But no, in those initial interviews I probably should have just left well enough alone and not talked too much about my frame of mind when I was directing it.”

* Speaking of Gale, the teaser scene may have been an inadvertent result of an unintended cliffhanger, but it was also a fine and well-earned curtain call for David Costabile. One last time–as he always has–he walks Gale down the line between humorous geekiness (“I doff my proverbial cap to you, sir!”) and touching humility (his inability to hide his admiration for Walter’s work, even at risk of talking himself down to his druglord boss). Granted that the guy was knowingly making poison for money, Costabile made him seem as decent as a guy in that situation could be.

* I’ve discussed the visuals of this episode, but credit is due for the sounds and Foley effects too: the creaking of a chair, the quiet drip of blood, Gus’s patient steps on a metal staircase.

* Though this was a fairly Walt/Jesse/Gus-centric episode, for obvious reasons, Skyler’s investigation of Walt’s whereabouts was revealing, not just for what she found—though I liked the callback to the plush-toy eyeball—but for showing us what a casually good liar she’s become. (Bonus points for using her own baby as a prop.) And yet I like how the scene ended with the suggestion (to me anyway) that the locksmith may not have entirely believed her but simply wanted to be rid of the headache.

* Ditto the episode’s commitment to the slow, frustrating slog of Hank’s recovery; Dean Norris, bound to a bed, shows his character angry and chafing against his immobility and reliance on a bedpan. (“Uno?” “Dos.”)

* Even though I was sure Gus did not intend to slice Walt or Jesse open, I still did not entirely see Victor’s bloodletting coming. Yet in retrospect I wonder if Victor suspected he was dead from the second he told Mike he let himself be seen at the murder scene.

* “I’ve never used this stuff. You sure it’ll do the job?” “Trust us.”

* I feel like we should establish a Opening Visual of the Week Award for these reviews. The submerged upward shot from the perspective of the tank in the superlab was one, but I’m going to vote for the Dexter-ish close-up on the ketchup at Denny’s, following the cleanup of the superlab abattoir. Who wants fries?

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