Breaking Bad‘s Fourth Season may also be considered by some to be the slowest, but that’s largely because after an explosive opening, things slowly burn and simmer until the stunning reveal of “Crawl Space” and the terror that follows it.
Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC
S4E1 Box Cutter
“Box Cutter” marked three transitory moments in Breaking Bad history. Two deal with the actual narrative while the other marks a turning point for viewers. Those three things?
1) While the show can be perceived as nothing more than a platform to dissect how severe and/or drastic a person’s evolution can appear, Season Four’s first episode is the first time Walt begins to allow his ego to climb toward inevitably obnoxious heights (the peak of that trek, for those keeping score, comes about five or six episodes into Season Five). “What did you expect me to do?” he defiantly asks Gus seconds before Victor falls victim to one of the most affecting tableaus cable television has seen. “Roll over and allow you to murder us?”
Yes, we’ve seen him act outlandishly and sure, we’ve heard him utter petulant demands at his friends, family and coworkers prior to this moment, but with hindsight now an available tool, it becomes evident that this was the first time he used that tone. That intangible, insufferable, egomaniacal and delusional tone that ultimately makes good-ol’ Walter White become detestable by the time Hank takes his legendary (read: game-changing) shit during the last two minutes of the Fifth Season’s eighth episode.
At the moment, Mr. White’s repugnant nature could have been dismissed as mere desperation (to be fair, it did sort of look like Gus was going to, at the very least, cause some fairly gnarly paper cuts in strategically placed areas of the chemistry teacher’s body). However, as we would find in subsequent episodes, that abhorrent mindset has only increased in breadth. Walt eventually becomes a brat, a benchwarmer who can’t understand why coach won’t put him in the game, despite his best efforts in practice. As the rest of the series would continue, however—and as the examination of his transformation becomes more complex—this would ultimately be a flashpoint in the enabling of Walter White: The Punk.
2) Jesse has now officially come of age. Besting his cooking buddy’s observational skills, Pinkman almost instantly understood what Gus was trying to say to the two as they witnessed a killing so cold, it made even Mike The Cleaner cringe. The episode’s best moment comes when Walt and Jesse share a Denny’s breakfast (and some slightly humorous Kenny Rodgers T-Shirts, of course), and the student winds up enlightening the teacher.
His revelations are refreshing, a sign that he now accepts what his life has become. Killing Gale was just one in a series of What-Has-My-Life-Come-To moments, though because of its enormity, his free-wheeling presence at the restaurant either meant that he simply doesn’t care about how dysfunctional his life has become, or that he now feels genuinely aged (and wiser for it) because of all the absurdity that surrounds his mere existence. Gone is the pouty, guilt-ridden young adult and present is a mature, weathered man whose awareness has come full-circle.
All told, the acquiescent, “What now?” Jesse is a lot more fun than the tender, “What have I done?” Jesse. His return to enlightened ignorance made for a stronger, more sincere approach to his character development. When he mouthed off in Season One, it simply sounded like a pot-head teenager who never had interest in authority or conformity, though when the same happens in Season Four, he actually comes across as more level and logical than his cooking partner. It’s Jesse functioning at his highest level. It’s Jesse at his best.
And 3) From a consumer’s viewpoint, the notion that Walt will never die becomes concrete after seeing how this particular episode’s crux plays out, which in turn, would prove to be the most predictable, yet bothersome, flaw of the entire series. OK, we get it: you can’t kill the main character. Without Bryan Cranston and without Walter White, you have no Breaking Bad. You have no story.
But there are different ways to advance the plot without constantly having its protagonist cheat death. “Box Cutter”, while a hauntingly great piece of television, would mark the moment that defined Breaking Bad‘s repetitiveness. For as intelligent and talented as creator Vince Gilligan is, the thing that stops the series between good and great is its constant return to some faraway possibility that Walter White might actually work his way into a situation of which he won’t be able to get out.
The way the show built up the Gus and Mike characters was utterly and completely pitch-perfect. Portrayed as emotionless, expressionless tough guys, these were people introduced with the explicit caveat that they were people not to be fucked with. These were people who turned the intimidation knob to 11, people who had no problem offing someone they felt needed to be offed. So ... what took them so long with Walter White? Even Jesse noted at Denny’s that this was a “golden opportunity” for Gus to kill them. Mike would eventually end up pointing a gun at Walt’s head, supposedly counting down the seconds until he pulled the trigger, no less than three times in Season Five.
Are we to believe that with what we already know about these two bad-guy characters, they wouldn’t just immediately put an end to the problems Walt and Jesse have caused, no questions asked? I mean, these are the same guys who went down to Mexico and poisoned about five billion people, not to mention the time they sneaked into a hospital to kill a guy with no legs. And yet, both Gus and Mike allow Walt to hang around so long, he kills one in a an old-folks home and the other by a lake with his own gun?
All things considered, it cheapens the deceased characters and their legacy. Maybe more importantly, it cheapens any drama the series could organically create, moving forward. Granted, there isn’t much of it left to cheapen, but even so, it sure does force the viewer to reconsider a lot of the story’s past under the same, formulaic microscope. It just seems lazy, which is odd for a series so intent on examining the finer points of a story.
That said ... boy that scene with Gus slowly walking downstairs, killing Victor, and then uttering “Well, get back to work” sure was great, wasn’t it?! Casting Giancarlo Esposito for that role was a stroke of genius, a moment of pure perfection. His presence is so powerful, so commanding, and the nuances he brought to Gustavo Fring milked every inch out of everything that character could ever be.
Still, the sequence in question all but sealed Gus’ fate. “If I [Gus] can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead,” Jesse explains to Walt at breakfast when pondering what it all meant. Too bad the drug kingpin hardly lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of that message. Colin McGuire
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