Man in a Barrel.
The Breaking Bad story is perhaps the most romantic in television history. Obviously when I say this I'm not referring to the show's content, which is about as far from warm and fuzzy as it's possible to be without circling back round again. A brutal, uncompromising tragedy about how the choice one man makes erodes his soul and the souls of the people he most cares about. It's about watching a good man slowly and methodically become a monster, from hero to villain in a way series television hasn't quite seen before. No, when I say romantic, I mean the story of how it went from a low rated, mixed reviewed show on the brink of cancellation to creative juggernaut, sure to be in any conversation regarding the pinnacle of what the medium can do.
How it went from a rejected FX pilot, passed over for what my calculations tell me can only be Dirt - the paparazzi show starring Courteney Cox. To a low-rated, abbreviated and frankly mixed reviewed first year that stared cancellation in the face until an unexpected and incredibly unlikely Emmy win for Bryan Cranston (Also known as the most important Emmy win ever) bought it enough clout to be given a second year, where it really had to do or die. It did, ironing out problems and just getting insanely better every week. The critics responded and the viewers responded, and the rest as they say, is history. Breaking Bad earned every bit of praise it gets and every viewer it gets, because it has an unyielding desire to improve, a mandate to take risks and to never sit comfortably. It's the rarest of example of a show becoming incredible out of a sheer Darwinian need to survive, and to go from there to being the best show on television, well like I say, it's the most romantic story in television.
- But anyways, to business. Box-Cutter was perhaps in a better position to carry on momentum than last year's No Mas, because the soul-crushing cliffhanger at the end of season three informed most of what would and could happen in this episode. So in advance we knew the whole episode was ostensibly going to be about Gus' reaction to Jesse and Walt killing Gale, and on top of that we knew Gus wasn't going to kill either of them, both because he needs a chemist and because these two just won Emmy's and are the stars of the show. Is it suddenly going to be about Skinny Pete?
- No. So what they had to do was draw pathos and tension out of a story everyone knew the resolution of, even the characters to certain respect. And to that the episode had to make it seem neither obvious or rote. Plus there's the specter of the masterful third year finale hovering over, daring it to flub the landing to one of the best episodes in television history. Looked at in this way, Box-Cutter had quite an unenviable job, it had to be about giving us answers we already knew, yet the expectation level for it be amazing was going to be stratospheric. But it's this show we're talking about, so naturally it met both obligations nicely.
-Can I just take a minute to say how glad I am that Jesse killed Gale? Not in a sadist sense, well maybe a bit, but more in that moment was so dramatically perfect that copping out of it would have been some 'Lila Kills Doakes' type shit. I guess it was silly of me to assume these writers would do anything that lame.
- What I particularly liked was how much the episode was about waiting. Too many season openers deal with cliffhanger's as if they were something to be ticked off, a necessary evil to dispense with in the first 5 minutes before they can get to the story they want to tell for the year, but rather than make the ' Gus reacts to being beaten' scene a stumbling block, or even a cheap in your face moment, they make it the set-piece of the episode, one they make you wait for and anticipate, with Jesse and Walt sitting silently in the super-lab, waiting their fate. Some great reaction acting here from everyone involved, saying everything whilst saying nothing.
- If anything, Gus' lieutenant Victor was the protagonist of the episode's first half-hour, in both his anger reacting to Gale's death and his eagerness to show that he can cook the Meth recipe so Gus can kill Walt and Jesse. On paper, a minor character being a glorified extra for over a year and than suddenly getting lines and emotions is a telegraph that they're not long for this world. And sure enough that's how it played out, but I found myself not minding because of the execution. Victor's been around sporadically since season 2, and thus far has only been asked to play a one-note of emotionless, cold enforcer. But I think actor Jeremiah Bitsui stepped up here and adeptly handled the meatier material to the point where his death meant perhaps more than it would have at the start of the hour.
- It's often said that you can measure the strength of a TV show by the way it treats it's minor characters, as pawns to service the story or credible characters in their own right. And the fact that Gilligan can't even kill Victor, quite possibly the show's most inconsequential recurring character, and someone who's racked up an episode count of eight without many viewers noticing he was even there, without making it so it felt as if we were losing a human being. RIP Victor.
- And if you're gonna go, what a way to go. The Gus kills Victor set-piece is one of the most tense, bleak edge of your seat sequences the show has done. And believe me it has done many of them. From the minute Gus enters the lab, his familiar calm, unflappable demeanor just about containing the volcanic rage underneath. Every step he takes stings, and Gilligan knows he's got us here, so he makes everything last that little bit longer, we watch Gus' entire methodical process for slitting someone's throat. He gets changed into a hazmat suit, he washes his hands, he takes off his glasses. He doesn't respond to Walt's desperate/pathetic rantings. Everything without a word.
-Then the moment itself is still somehow surprising and horrific. Watching Gus, a man we've never seen commit an act of violence up to this point, approach the act in the same rational way he approaches everything else, not to mention the very clear message of murder by surrogacy he gives to Walt. That, make no mistake, he wishes he could be doing this to him ,was just awesome. Giancarlo Esposito is just about my favorite performance on the show at this point, in spite of how incredible everyone else, but this was a masterclass to be frank. Everything done with expression, yet everything being underplayed. Emmy's better pay attention.
- Kudos too to Aaron Paul, who by my estimation didn't get a line till around the forty minute mark, and did so much to show how killing Gale has affected him. More darkness seems to be on its way for poor Jesse Pinkman. The scene in the dinner, was almost as chilling. Seeing Jesse become this hardened man, almost unaffected by seeing a man garroted in front of him. It's like he's hit his limit for all the suffering he can take He was just so broken, so for the lack of a better word, dead. This character is going to be awesome this season.
- I liked seeing Gale building the meth super-lab in the cold open but, to be honest that scene felt a little on the nose. Even if I liked that in terms of principles, Gale was a better chemist than Walt. Because for him the chemistry truly came first.
- If I did have a problem with the episode, it was with the Skylar stuff. Now to be clear, I both love Skylar the character and Anna Gunn's terrific performance, but her search for Walt just felt like it was there to give her something to do in the first episode, and while Gunn played it well, particularly the scene where she Broke into Walt's apartment, it felt a little arbitrary. I did like how the show weaved the rest of the cast into little vignettes throughout the episode. Saul's scenes in particular will bring people joy, in which he hires himself a bodyguard that is just exactly the kind of bodyguard Saul would hire, and scans his office for bugs.
- The Hank and Marie stuff was fucking brutal, to say the least. I get the feeling given Hank's level of popularity, it's going to leave quite a few people miffed to watch Hank be so utterly incapacited that he can't even shit by himself, in a harrowing scene in which Marie has to attend to this need, but for me it's going to give Dean Norris and in particularly Betsy Brandt's Marie, the show's most underused character up this point, something to different and new to do with their characters.
- Overall the episode felt a lot like the season 2 episode 'Grilled' in which Tuco held Walt and Jesse hostage in an enclosed space and we weren't sure what he was going to do with them. It was a similar deal here, only the approach to it shows how much this show has grown. While that episode was purely about tension with nothing really going on underneath, and its villain a lunatic who could do anything at any moment, here there was so much subtext, so much that every character, Walt, Jesse, Mike, Victor and Gus were communicating without verbalizing. It's just such a rich show these days.
- I wouldn't say it's quite up there with the best of the show, but it's a fantastic opener, containing one of the best sequences the show has ever done. And I'm ridiculously excited to see where it goes from here.