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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: "Box Cutter"

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: "Box Cutter"
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Breaking Bad has developed a bit of a tradition of wild, inexplicably weird opening images for its three seasons. Season one: Dead guys in a Winnebago, half-naked gas-masked gun-toting Walter. Season two: Swimming pool, creepy pink bear, hazmat suits. Season three: Gangsters crawling through the dust to a shrine containing a skeleton. So a lot of us were probably waiting to see what batshit insanity would take place before the opening credits for season four.

Kudos to Vince Gillligan for deciding to change it up. Instead of some puzzle or ominous bit of foreboding, we get to hang out with Gale again for a few minutes, just to remind ourselves how awesome he is. And that he’s gone. And maybe to introduce one of the themes of the season, several of which are laid out starkly during “Box Cutter.” Here’s my list of the dilemmas and recurring lessons we’re likely to see played out over the coming weeks.

Your own worst enemy. Poor Gale. His appreciation for quality craftsmanship and his loyalty to his employer were what did him in. The cold open is a flashback to the initial setup of Fring’s laundry meth lab, with Gale making adorable gestures of delight as packing material falls away to reveal gleaming vats and instruments. (“That sound? Quality!” he enthuses upon giving the metal a ringing knock.) But then he lays it on the line: The sample of blue crystal Fring gave him to analyze is 99 percent pure, and he can only promise 96 percent (“It’s a hard-earned figure; I’m proud of that figure”). If Fring wants the best, he needs the guy who cooked that sample. Cut to Jesse pulling the trigger and Gale on the floor surrounded by his books, CDs, quirky art, and potato-powered digital clocks. That’s a shorthand way of reading Walter’s story, too; his simultaneous rise and fall have been driven by his best qualities as much as by his failings.

Actions speak louder than words. The big showpiece of “Box Cutter” is Fring’s slow, silent stalk through the lab while Walter—typically—babbles on, desperately thinking he’s got some kind of angle that will transform the situation and save his and Jesse’s life. (“You won’t do this. You’re too smart to do this. You can’t afford to do this.”) Across the bridge, down the spiral staircase, across to the rack of orange jumpsuits, where he disrobes and suits up methodically, then across to his henchman Victor with the neon green box cutter in his hand. He slits Victor’s throat and holds him in a macabre tableau while he bleeds out. Back to the suit rack to reverse the process (my favorite detail here: rinsing off his glasses and grabbing a towel out of the biohazard first-aid box to wipe them down) and then out the way he came without a single word until he reaches the door: “Well? Get back to work.” The contrast couldn’t be clearer, and while Walter is horrified, sickened, and panicked, Jesse gets the message immediately. “At least we all understand each other,” he explains to Walter over a hearty Denny’s breakfast. “We’re all on the same page: the one that says, if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.”

Somebody’s watching me. One of the big stories of this season is that Fring is not now the only one to whom Walter is answering. Skyler expects to know where he is and what he’s doing and gets annoyed when Marie gets the jump on her by noticing Walter’s car in the driveway and drawing her own conclusions (“A big howdy-do to Mister I’m Not Here!”). First thing Skyler does is foil prying eyes by relocating the Pontiac to a nearby cul-de-sac. Then she calls Saul, who is crawling around his office, sweeping for listening devices under his cheesy plaster columns. (He goes to a pay phone to take the call, panics when Skyler mentions the words “meth lab,” and upon hanging up, asks his obese associate: “You got a passport, right?”) Then she packs little Holly in the truckster and heads for Walter’s condo, where the baby becomes useful as a prop to convince a reticent locksmith to let her in, although she has no proof she lives there (and then is unceremoniously set on the floor while Skyler goes prowling). She finds that stuffed-animal eye that we saw rattling around the swimming pool’s debris trap, now in Walter’s drawer. Whatever else she finds, she certainly acts unconcerned when Walter finally gets out of a cab after his long night of terror and body disposal, pointing him toward his car without bothering to ask for an explanation. Meet the new boss.

Rituals of humiliation. And here’s where the rubber hits the road. Back when we started this journey with Walter, it was all about freedom—from social standards of propriety, from an indefinitely long future, from his two crappy jobs. Now the lab is his prison, sure as the sad bachelor condo is. It comes complete with uniforms: the identical white jeans, Kenny Rogers t-shirts, and red Converse sneakers Jesse and Walt pick up at some big-box store before getting breakfast (Walter doesn't remove the “LARGE” sticker off his shirt front, leaving Skyler to rip it off during their driveway meeting). But like every prison, it’s also a theater, and those uniforms are part of the morality play. As is Victor’s frightening assertion that Walter isn’t indispensable because it’s called cooking—as in, following a recipe. As is the lengthy, awkward process of wrestling Victor’s bloody body into a barrel (Mike the Cleaner finally rolls his eyes and helps them tip it upright). At least Walter and Jesse have some relevant expertise when it comes to dead Mexicans; as they pour hydrofluoric acid into the barrel, Mike the Cleaner asks “Are you sure it will do the job?” and Jesse snaps, “Trust us.” Then it’s squeegees and mops until the lab is sparkling again. Part of their job is doing whatever the job requires, and that’s no different from the car wash.  

And speaking of prison and humiliation, how about Hank’s bed attended by the relentlessly positive Marie, who calls, “I walked 16 feet in 20 minutes, up from 15-and-a-half last week, and had maybe this much less shit in my pants” progress and then wedges a bedpan underneath him for “numero dos”? Marie has her own shame, though, showing up at Skyler’s door with their medical bills and apologizing, “They seem to be getting bigger instead of smaller.” Look for this season to explode with the revenge of the temporarily powerless.

Isn’t it good to have Breaking Bad back and to anticipate all the ways these characters are going to deal with their new realities (signalled by pre-season publicity photos like this one)? And a little bit… not.

Stray observations:

  • All the A.V. Club's BB-related features—including interviews, every post from the first three seasons of this blog, and a new introduction by yours truly—have been collected for you in a bargain-priced Kindle edition called "Buy The RV, We Start Tomorrow": The A.V. Club Guide To Breaking Bad. We may do more such e-books in the future if this one goes well, so please lend your support if the idea pleases you and suggest other features that might work well in this format to The A.V. Club and its editors.
  • The police are about to connect up mild-mannered Gale with the meth trade, since his brightly-colored lab notebook (complete with analysis of that mysterious blue crystal) is lying on a table in his murder scene.
  • I wasn’t sure if the premiere would spend much or any time in the immediate aftermath of Gale’s shooting, anticipating a possible skip forward of weeks or months. But I’m glad we’re still right there in all the desperation and drama of “Full Measures,” even with Gale’s cell phone still vibrating away unanswered.
  • Hank has taken up buying crystals. Marie doesn’t get it: “You buying a new rock?” she asks brightly, seeing his computer screen. “I’m bidding on a new mineral,” he corrects both her verb and objective noun.
  • Anna Gunn’s altered face is a bit weird when she smiles. There’s the slightest bit of Jokerface there. I imagine I’ll get used to it, but it’s a little jarring after a year of hiatus. I wish TV producers could put clauses in contracts forbidding plastic surgery, the way athletes are not supposed to do any extreme sports in the offseason.
  • Somehow, Walter still puts great stock in speaking a truth into existence. Maybe since it worked to convince Jesse to commit murder for him. Tonight’s examples: “Gale’s death is on you” (stabbing a finger at Fring); “I just want to go on record, we should all be wearing gas masks”;’ and “I bet he forgets the aluminum… guarantee he forgets.”
  • “I doff my proverbial cap to you, sir!” I wouldn’t mind more Gale flashbacks, but in case there are no more, I’ll bid him the fondest of adieus.