“It is not as if we walk through one doorway and decide that murder is acceptable. You have to walk through many doorways. … It’s a long, long series of doorways, until you end up in a room where a terrible thing happens. So the question is, ‘How many doorways away are you?’ It’s not a question about a person’s capacity to commit a murder. It’s a question of how many doorways we keep between ourselves and that situation.”— Bill James
“Breaking Bad” is probably the darkest show on television right now, and it’s also the most magnetic. Those two things are not unrelated. Creator Vince Gilligan has fashioned a fantastically layered world that revolves around a man who, at the start of the show’s fourth season, is manufacturing tons of crystal meth and willing to kill to keep doing it. That Walter White didn’t start out this way is the point: Time and again, driven by fear and anger and worry, he has made choices that he has persuaded himself to believe were in the best interests of his family, and each one has brought him closer to being the kind of person he would barely have recognized when he was a middle-class chemistry teacher working two jobs to make frayed ends meet. “Breaking Bad” is a gorgeous, terrifying story about the effects of those choices, and the price Walt and his family have paid for them. Is Walt a wealthy man now? Yes, he is. He’s making more money cooking meth for Gus than he would ever have dreamed possible. (He’s long since shot past his early goal of $737,000.) But Walt’s choices have also created much of the heartbreak around him. To pick just one: Hank is now mostly paralyzed because he was targeted by assassins sent to kill Walt as a vendetta on behalf of their dead cousin, who kidnapped Walt and Jesse after they started making waves in the local drug scene. And Walt carries the weight of that and so many other warped decisions on his shoulders every day.
The first episode of the fourth season, “Box Cutter,” dealt beautifully with such decisions and their consequences. From a narrative standpoint, it’s hard to worry too much about whether Walt or Jesse will actually die, at least in a season premiere. The suspense comes not from whether they’ll live, but just how they’ll get out of their latest bind. And again, that’s the mission of the show: to study the ways in which these men are willing to fight for what they believe should be theirs. So while, yes, you know that Gus isn’t going to come in and knife them to death to prove a point, he’s also not going to just let them off the hook without a warning. The brutal way in which he dispatched Victor — it was one of the series’ most gruesome deaths, and that’s saying quite a bit — was his own best way of telling Walt and Jesse, “I am so much colder than you know.” It took Jesse reminding Walt that they’re now totally owned by Gus for this warning to start sinking in.
The episode also focused on the finer points of the routines these men carry out, from the steps of the cook to the fastidious way Gus changed out of his suit and into protective gear and back again. Ditto the very real problem of how to deal with Victor’s dead body. On almost any other show, the corpse’s disposal would be an afterthought, likely going unseen, but here we saw how Walt and Jesse were forced to deal with the consequences of their actions (indirect though they may be) and clean up the mess. The dragging, the lifting, the chemical application: it all underscored the series’ commitment to showing the cost of doing business. Like the man said, you play in dirt, you get dirty.
It’s also stunning to see how broken Hank has become. He got such amazing depth as the series progressed, turning from a loud-mouthed hotshot into a complicated man trying to balance fear and duty. And now, seeing him bedridden and using a bedpan, you realize just how far he has to go. Marie’s carrying so much of them, too: the shot of her steeling herself to go inside, getting ready to be upbeat, was amazing. As usual, Betsy Brandt and Dean Norris acted the hell out of their scenes, however brief. They’re part of one of the best casts working today, and Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul continue to be the wounded heart of the show. Cranston in particular is phenomenal at forcing himself to keep it together only to crack from the strain.
The episode also nicely set up a season-long story, or at least a multi-episode one, with the closing glimpse of Gale’s “Lab Notes” book. There’s no telling what he put in there — surely even someone as nice as Gale wouldn’t have been dumb enough to write down real names and locations for a meth empire, right? — but it seems likely to lead APD and, subsequently, the DEA that much closer to Gus.
“Box Cutter” ended with Walt and Jesse alive but hardly well. They’re still Gus’ prime chemists, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to have it easy. And Walt’s still convinced that he and Jesse need to keep an eye out for possible escapes, now that their relationship with Gus is officially a little frosty. That’s the beautiful but deadly problem facing the central characters: they all need each other, but they’re all taking steady steps toward becoming the kind of people ready to go it alone at all costs. If the past three seasons are any indication, things are going to get tougher in a hurry.
• This episode was written by Gilligan and directed by Adam Bernstein, who’s helmed some of the series most explosive installments: the two-part “Cat’s in the Bag…” and “… And the Bag’s in the River”; the riveting “Mandala,” when Walt connect with Gus and misses his own daughter’s birth; “ABQ,” the harrowing finish to the second season that sees Jesse dealing with the aftermath of Jane’s death; last season’s “Caballo sin Nombre”; and the staggering “Half Measures,” which ends on one of the most exciting cliffhangers in modern drama. (“Run.”)
• This is the closest Walt’s ever come to murdering someone he knows. Krazy-8 was a dealer, but his death was also constructed as self-defense on Walt’s part, and Walt even received a few wounds for his trouble. Jane’s end was horrific, but also one Walter caused by inaction, not action. It’s only the last few episodes that Walt’s really pushed his limits, killing a pair of Gus’ dealers with a gun and a surprisingly durable Pontiac Aztec. But those were also street men that he didn’t know, and he killed them to take the heat off Jesse. Now, he’s responsible for the death of Gale, someone he admitted was a “good man, and a good chemist,” but it was Jesse who actually pulled the trigger. Little steps; unassuming doorways.
• Cranston is a master at speaking volumes just through facial expressions. The rapid mix of surprise, pride, guilt, and worry when he learned Jesse had actually killed Gale was breathtaking.
• Similarly, Aaron Paul had a nice reaction moment that wasn’t overplayed when Walt told Gus that he’d walk if Jesse were killed. It’s like Jesse wasn’t prepared for such a sudden declaration of Walt’s continued dedication to them as a team. Great little moment.
• Giancarlo Esposito continues to absolutely crush it as Gus. He’s singular in focus and utterly terrifying. When he finally shows up at the lab, he doesn’t say a word, merely lets Walt beg a while before he turns around and kills Victor. He stays quiet after that, too, changing back into his suit with precision and calm. His only dialogue in the scene comes right as he’s leaving: “Well. Get back to work.”
• “Are you sure it’ll do the job?” “Trust us.” A perfectly placed, darkly comic callback to the first time Walt and Jesse ever melted a guy down. (Also: gah.)
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.