When it debuted, Breaking Bad sounded a bit like a twist on Weeds — maybe even a rip-off. A nice suburban person hits some bad luck and turns to the drug trade for a financial assist. And like the trials an tribulations of Nancy Botwin, Breaking Bad‘s early episodes did play a lot of that for comedy.
Except this show was about meth. So there seemed an inherent flaw in its premise — because even if he has cancer, and even if he’s doing it to provide for his family, how do you make a guy who manufactures and sells methamphetamine palatable for a mainstream viewing audience? And likeable?
As it turns out, you don’t.
Breaking Bad is not the show it once was. I suspect creator Vince Gilligan knew how deep and dark he wanted to go all along, but he led us there gradually and deliberately. I don’t think Breaking Bad would ever have gotten on the air if it started off as bleak and hellish as it is in its later seasons. (Not that Season One was a picnic, but comparatively…) The peripeteia came late in Season Two with the death of Jane. Walt didn’t kill her, exactly — but he did let her die. And not out of self-defense. It had nothing to do with his business. It was just more convenient for him with her gone.
Breaking Bad could have turned it around an episode later — had Walt confess to his sins and feel really bad about what happened. Instead, there was a plane crash. In what one of the best hours of TV ever, Season Two finale “ABQ,” Gilligan made it clear he wasn’t fucking around. It was a moment in which Walt’s actions indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Breaking Bad was no longer trying to justify Walt’s actions because the only people he was hurting were junkies and drug dealers, people who willingly walked into this chaotic life, and, arguably, deserved exactly what they got. Because when you make and sell drugs, there’s a chain reaction of consequences that will fuck up the lives of innocent people, too. “ABQ” depicted an extreme version of this, yet it was a point that needed to be made.
I’m only now catching up with the much-hyped Season Four, the season during which Breaking Bad finally got its due critically and from the public at large. (Yes, it’s awfully annoying to have everyone suddenly jump on the bandwagon of the show you’ve been watching for years during the season you’re not currently watching.) So I’ll be writing up this season as I work my way through it, in anticipation of Season Five’s July 15 debut (which I do plan to watch and write up as it airs).
(Need I mention that this will all contain all sorts of spoilers for the entire run of Breaking Bad?)
With a show like Breaking Bad, you know an episode called “Box Cutter” isn’t going to just be a metaphor. You know there will be a physical appearance by an actual box cutter somewhere in the midst of its running time, and it won’t be used to open a box full of happy puppies and sunshine so that everyone can dance and laugh and play. No, this box cutter is bound to be used for nefarious purposes. And so it is.
Here’s where I have to confess that I know the general gist of Season Four — a cat-and-mouse game between Walt and Gus — and I have some idea of how that ends. Some may consider that a huge spoiler, but this is episodic television, after all. Villains tend to stick around a season or two, and the heroes (a term used loosely, in this case) survive. So I obviously knew “Box Cutter” wouldn’t end with Walt or Jesse sliced and diced and dead. As tense as that climactic showdown was, it wasn’t really that tense, except that I thought Gus might just do some nasty Walt-cutting that wouldn’t actually kill him, but it would still make for bloody, brutal viewing. More likely, I thought, Gus would instead off his henchman or Mike the Cleaner, and of course, I was right.
Breaking Bad has always taken its time ramping up tension, then exploding into chaos and violence at unexpected moments. You never really know when the big events are going to happen (except I do know that the biggest is happening in the season finale). Take the gunning-down of The Cousins in Season Three’s seventh episode “One Minute,” which you wouldn’t expect until the finale. Still, “Box Cutter” didn’t really give anyone (except creepy silent Gus) much to do. Hank’s physical therapy (and Marie’s shrill helpfulness), I suppose, is a necessary plot development, but it’s the kind of storyline that will go stagnant if Breaking Bad spends too much time on it just to make sure those characters are in every episode.
The season premiere finds all the characters, much like Hank, sitting still and waiting — Walt and Jesse waiting for Gus to kill them, Skyler waiting for Walt to come back and get his car. Once the episode confirms that poor Gale is, indeed, a goner (which is a shame, since he was one of few characters to bring lightness to the show), “Box Cutter” deliberately takes its time doling out the consequences of last season’s climax. I liked the drawn-out suspense of Gus’ entrance into the lab, as he slowly puts on his kill clothes and lets Walt lose his cool bargaining for his life; it demonstrates who currently has the power in this relationship. (Jesse is uncharacteristically cool-headed in the face of death.)
I also enjoyed the conclusion, with Walt returning to Skyler; you expect her to chew him out for leaving his car at her place, but instead she’s calm and practical, signalling a change. This is a different Skyler than the one we’ve seen before, leaving room for all kinds of intriguing possibilities for her character. Is it wrong to hope that Skyler’s growing acceptance of her husband’s life of crime might allow them to get back together? Maybe these crazy kids can still work it out!
I preferred “Thirty-Eight Snub” to “Box Cutter,” because in many ways it felt more like a season opener than “Box Cutter” did. (Would “Box Cutter” have been more tense at the end of the season, when a major shake-up would have been more likely? Probably.) “Thirty-Eight Snub” got all the characters moving again — even Hank, slowly and steadily (while doing his best to push poor Marie away).
(Sidenote: Marie is one of those characters I wonder what Breaking Bad is going to do with, since she’s only ever on the periphery of the good stuff, and isn’t someone we find all that endearing — though certainly we can pity her. Maybe she’ll only ever represent “normal people” in their cluelessness, which is fine. But I wonder if she’ll ever get a meatier storyline. I wonder the same about Walt Jr. I guess time will tell.)
“Thirty-Eight Snub” begins with Walt purchasing a gun, which surprised me mainly because it shows he doesn’t already own one. You can’t help but wince through Walt’s entire story this episode, because for as much of a badass as he’s been during select moments of this show, he remains, at heart, a dorky science teacher who’s in way over his head. He tries to strike an alliance with Mike the Cleaner and ends up getting his ass handed to him in a crowded bar. He tries to take out Gus, only to have Gus call him on his cell phone and tell him to go home just when he thinks he’s being super stealthy. It’s like in horror movies, when you’re screaming at the screen for the blonde chick not to go in the dark basement. We know Walt’s actions are embarrassingly obvious and not likely to go off without a hitch, but he somehow goes through with them anyway. Really, Walt? You think it’s that easy to sneak up on a guy like Gus Fring? We want Walt to be a suave, smooth criminal, but more often than not, he just isn’t. At all. His sniveling in “Box Cutter” and now, “Thirty-Eight Snub,” are potent reminders.
But there’s something even more arresting going on in “Thirty-Eight Snub” — a Roomba and a kick-ass stereo factor heavily into the episode’s star storyline, which is Jesse’s. His nihilistic (but otherwise fine?) attitude at the end of “Box Cutter” has given way to a need to escape his guilt and fear and confusion; his words from the last episode echo throughout: “If I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.” Jesse’s spending money and partying like he’s only got a few days left to live, which for all he knows, might be the case. While Walt is being proactive about getting to Gus before he gets to them, Jesse is burying his head in the sand like an ostrich — and hey! There are lots of drugs down there!
I suppose it’s pointless to hope for the best from Breaking Bad‘s cadre of miscreants, but “Thirty-Eight Snub” found me disappointed in them, anyway — both in Walt’s inept assassination attempt, and also when Jesse encouraged his newly-clean fuck-up friends Badger and Skinny Pete to get high with him. Sure, we have no idea how long they’ve actually been clean, and we have little faith they’ll stay that way. (They sure give in easily.) But still, even in a show about making meth, it’s painful to watch these characters actually use the stuff. (The show has never once made drug use look truly appealing.)
Of course, it’s a reminder of who the true victims of Walt and Jesse’s crimes are, but true to Breaking Bad‘s form, “Thirty-Eight Snub” is one bleak hour — especially for an episode that’s ostensibly about throwing a kick-ass party.
(Note on grades: I am grading against other Breaking Bad episodes, not against all other TV at large. A B-level Breaking Bad is still an example of some of the finest television there is.)