Breaking Bad [AMC, Sundays, 10/9C] is one of the strangest, darkest TV series ever made. It tracks the descent of a decent man into a hardened criminal – exactly the opposite of a feel good dramedy. Yet, it is absolutely one of the best shows on TV. Tonight’s fourth season premiere is proof that is continues to excel.
When Breaking Bad premiered, Walter White [Bryan Cranston] was a high school chemistry teacher who had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Because he thought his time was short [eighteen months], he needed a way to raise a lot of money to provide for his family – wife Skyler [Anna Gunn] and son Walter Jr. [R.J. Mitte]. So, he did what anyone in his situation would do – he went into the business of making the purest crystal meth anyone had ever seen. [Okay, maybe he took a more rarified path…]
Working with Jesse Pinkman [Aaron Paul], a student he had flunked, he built up a reputation as a player in the New Mexico drug trade – as a mysterious figure known as Heisenberg. As the show’s third season ended, Walter was facing death when he told Jesse to remove the chemist who had been trained to replace him from the equation. Thus, the final scene of season three was a shaky Jesse pointing a gun at chemist Gale [David Costabile].
After almost a year, comes the season four premiere, Box cutter – which opens with a teaser that will drive everyone who’s hooked on the show nuts: Gale setting up the superlab that Walter and Jesse worked in last season. Once into the ep’s first act, we get to see what happened in the cliffhanger and, well, if Jesse hadn’t pulled the trigger, there’d have been no more show, so…
Box Cutter moves past that revelation with a tension packed episode that finds Walter and Jesse sitting on chairs in the superlab, waiting to see what happens next – especially once their boss, Gus [Giancarlo Esposito] arrives and begins carefully donning one of the lab’s clean suits. The presence of a box cutter adds to the suspense.
Elsewhere, Skyler is alerted to Walter being missing when her sister, Marie knocks on her door and Walt’s car is still in the driveway. When she can’t get a satisfactory response from their lawyer, Saul Goodman [Bob Odenkirk], she tries to get into Walt’s condo.
Marie is stuck looking after her husband, DEA Agent Hank [Dean Norris], who is bedridden and spending a lot of time [and money] buying ‘minerals’ from online shopping sites. No one is in a particularly good place here, and no one seems to be in a position for things to get better.
Series creator Vince Gilligan [The X-Files] has described Walt’s journey through the first three seasons as being in danger and that, in season four, he will become the danger. There are hints of that already, in the season premiere. Meanwhile, Jesse, who has always seemed too innocent to be in the drug business, is showing signs of shell shock. The balance between the two is unique and complicated, but as Walt tells Gus, ‘You kill me, you have nothing. You kill Jesse, you don’t have me.’
AMC made the first three episodes of the season available to critics and, as dark as the season premiere is, it’s sweetness and light compared to what’s coming: Walt considers an extreme action for protection; Skyler goes to great lengths in pursuit of a money laundering business; Hank is stuck in a serious depression; Marie takes up a hobby [checking out houses for sale] that leads to a relapse with a certain problem she has…
Throughout, the writing is as sharp as – or quite possibly sharper than – it’s ever been. The characters are becoming more complex and the plotting is becoming denser. The cinematography is beautiful as it’s ever been and the overall production remains among the best on TV.
Gilligan’s script for Box Cutter makes use of minimal sets and little physical action to produce one of the most disturbing and brilliant hours of TV you will see this season [or ever, for that matter] and the season is just getting started. Adam Bernstein takes Gilligan’s taut script and finds a deliberate pace that cranks up the tension without sacrificing the small, human moments that make Breaking Bad so compelling – even as characters make exactly the wrong choices in their lives. Shakespeare should be so good!
You are standing on a hill, looking down on an intersection. Cars coming from one direction can’t see cars coming from the street at right angles because the hill is in the way. You see two cars speeding toward the intersection and, even knowing that – since they can’t see each other – they are going to crash, you still can’t look away.
That is the fascination that Breaking Bad generates at its worst [which is most shows’ best, but that’s another discussion]. Now take the sensation generated by that experience and increase it exponentially, and you’ll have some idea of just how absorbing the first three episodes of season four are. Not only can’t you look away, you don’t want to.
Final Grade: A+