Episode Title: "Box Cutter"
Writer: Vince Giligan
Director: Adam Bernstein
This advance review will cover all of the major story beats from the fourth season premiere of "Breaking Bad." If you don't want to know what's going to happen, stop reading now and check back on Sunday.
Previously on "Breaking Bad":
Former high school teacher turned methamphetamine manufacture, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was at odds with his boss, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) after Walt killed two of Gus' drug dealers to protect his friend and partner, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Gus pretended to let Walt stay on as his primary drug cook, but he secretly planned to have Walt killed in order to let Gale (David Costabile) take his place in the organization. Walt realized Gus' intentions and he was preparing to kill Gus himself in order to make himself invaluable to Gus before he was captured by Gus' henchmen, Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui).
Forced to plead for his life, Walt told Mike that he would give up Jesse's location to them. But instead he warned Jesse to find and murder Gus immediately in order to save both of their lives. Reluctantly, Jesse followed through with the order and he confronted Gus at gun point in his apartment. Then Jesse fired his weapon…
In a flashback, we see Gale overseeing Gus' new state of the art drug lab. Gale also briefs Gus on the purity of Walt's infamous blue meth; which Gale proclaims to be the purest form of meth that he's ever seen. He practically talks himself out of a job by praising Walt's talents, even though it's clear that he doesn't know who Walt is yet. Gus assures him that he wants Gale to be his chief drug cook because he's reliable. Cut back to the present, there's an eerie silence coming from Gale's apartment as the kettle on the stove goes off. The neighbors gather and see Gale's dead body strung out on the floor. Victor arrives moments later, causing some of the neighbors to become suspicious of him.
Outside, Jesse gets in his car and he is too stunned to do anything else. Victor finds him minutes later and he drags him back the drug lab where Walt is being held by Mike. In the morning, Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) visits her sister (and Walt's estranged wife), Skyler White (Anna Gunn). Marie mentions that Walt's car is in their driveway and she gives her approval towards what she thinks is a reconciliation between him and Skylar. Puzzled, Skyler finds the keys to Walt's car hidden under a wheel and she moves it a few blocks away so as not to draw any attention to it from their son, Walter White Jr. (RJ Mitte).
Worried about Walt's whereabouts, Skyler contacts Walt's lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). But Saul not only doesn't know where Walt is, he's also become hilariously paranoid that someone is spying on him. Back in the drug lab, Walt attempts to talk their way out of trouble by pointing out that they're almost at the time where they need to start cooking a new batch of meth to stay on schedule. And to his shock, Victor starts the cook and he's seemingly learned everything that he needs to know in order to recreate Walt's formula. At Marie's home, she attempts to comfort her crippled husband, Hank Schrader ( Dean Norris) despite his surly attitude towards her. There is also a bedpan involved.
Back at the lab, Gus finally arrives. Walt justifies his actions towards Gale at length as he tries to convince Gus not to hurt them. All the while, Gus calmly takes off his business suit and he puts on protective chemical gear. Gus says nothing as Walt says that he needs him and Walt won't work for him unless he spares Jesse too. Even as vacant as he appears, Jesse seems to appreciate just how far Walt is putting himself out there for him. But Walt's appeals begin to take on a desperate pitch as Gus remains silent and he seemingly prepares to kill them both himself. However, he kills Victor instead, much to their shock. Even Mike is taken aback.
Gus leaves just as calmly and quietly as he came, turning back only to tell them to get back to work. Walt and Jesse finish the batch and they also dispose of Victor's body with an assist from Mike. Later, Walt and Jesse reflect on their survival at a local restaurant. Jesse seems incredibly vacant as Walt converses with him. Walt mentions something about being on the same page with Gus, when Jesse finally explains that Gus' intended message was "I may not be able to kill you, but I can make you wish you were dead." Finally, Walt goes to his old home and he's surprised to find his car missing.
Skyler comes out and explains why and where she moved the car. Walt seems hopeful of a reconciliation with her, but the distance between them is still too great.
The fourth season premiere of "Breaking Bad" not only lives up to the hype of the previous seasons, it manages to be one of the best hours on television this year. While there was little doubt that Walt and Jesse would survive their ordeal with Gus; the story still managed to build suspense about their fate right up until Gus' rather extreme demonstration with a box cutter. And as Jesse seemed to indicate, he and Walt are far from safe.
Adam Bernstein's direction is very strong, especially within the opening minutes of the episode in which the camera lingers on Gale's apartment while the viewer searches for any indications about his fate. We never actually see the bullet strike Gale, just the aftermath. The flashback sequence also built some sympathy for Gale by demonstrating just how earnest he could be. He may have been in line to become a major drug manufacturer himself, but Gale really did care about his illegal job in a perversely noble way.
Bryan Cranston carries most of this episode through Walt's seemingly never-ending plea for his life and Jessie's. Very quickly, it's apparent why Cranston won so many Emmy awards for playing Walt. His pleas go from arrogance and a sense of grandeur to a noticeably desperate tone when it looks like Gus won't listen to reason. Just the growing sense of fear on Walt's face and in his voice bring those scenes to life.
Gus' silent demeanor and subsequent violent actions went a long way towards making him the scariest villain to hit TV screens in a long time. This was a perfect fusion of writing by Vince Giligan, directing by Bernstein and performance by Giancarlo Esposito. As television viewers, we've been conditioned to expect our villains to be over-the-top caricatures. And yet the calm and pragmatic actions of Gus seem even more heinous and deadly compared to the villainous stereotype. Gus kills his own loyal flunky just to make a point, and he does it so effortlessly that even Walt is taken aback and has nothing to say about it. Gus clearly hasn't forgiven Walt or Jesse for their transgressions and he would have killed them had he not needed them at this moment. At some point, Gus will either take out Walt and Jesse or they'll find a way to get rid of him. But they clearly won't be able to coexist forever.
Sklyer's search for Walt in the subplot had a few fun moments, including her use of her baby to trick a locksmith into breaking into Walt's house. But her search never puts her in any jeopardy nor did it really serve the story in a strong way other than giving Skyler a chance to riffle through Walt's things. Marie and Hank's interlude also didn't serve much purpose other than to remind us that Hank is still paralyzed and still a jerk. However, Bob Odenkirk does get a few laughs as Saul's paranoia takes over in full swing. His security guard's ability to sleep while working may have been the funniest moment of the hour.
Minor gripes aside, this was an extremely compelling episode of a fantastic series. "Breaking Bad" is back with a vengeance as one of the can't miss TV series of the summer. This is television at its finest.
Crave Online Rating: 9.5 out of 10.