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Breaking Bad kicked off their fourth season with an episode that had just about everything you could expect from the series. The dark humor, powerful drama, brilliant acting, and emphasis on presentation were all apparent. The episode wasn't without its flaws, though, namely some scenes that dragged on and broke the tension that was building so well from all the way back in the third season finale. “Box Cutter” may not have done everything right, but what it did get right made for amazing television.
Watching Gale in the cold open's flashback unwrap lab equipment like a kid unwrapping his Christmas presents was doubly painful. Knowing already he would eventually lose the lab – and as now revealed, possibly even encouraging his own replacement – was almost easy to take, compared to the concern for him losing his life over it. This was confirmed just after the credits, though not until creator Vince Gilligan toyed with the audience for a few more seconds with the shot of the perforated teapot. Making us believe Jesse hadn't come through for Walt – again – was the kind of trick Gilligan loves to play on his audience. Though this one, thankfully, didn't last an entire season. Seeing Gale go from the unbridled joy in the flashback to the lifeless corpse left behind in his apartment was a tragic turn, and a well-executed end to his character.
The episode's low points can almost all be heaped on Skylar. Her scenes added little while detracting from the flow of the episode, starting with the drawn-out moving of Walt's car. Her need to keep their relationship secret, as well as her own want to not to be seen as having worked things out with him, could have been expressed more quickly, or not at all and let the main plot continue on unabated. Worse than that, though, was Skylar conning the locksmith into letting her into Walt's apartment. Nothing was found – besides a callback to the season's long trick I mentioned earlier, with the teddy bear's eye – and again showing that Skylar is becoming more comfortable with lying could have been expressed at a later time (for instance, after the audience had already received the plot resolution they had been waiting over a year for). Having never been a fan of the character certainly didn't help her scenes. In this case, though, it was their timing and how unnecessary they were that caused the Skylar scenes to bring down the episode.
On the other hand, Hank's scene with
Marie was an update on a character who's seen a journey almost as
remarkable as Walt's. It's been incredible seeing Hank go from the
cocky, almost annoying brother-in-law in the first season, to the
broken and bedridden man he is now. It's easy to forget how much
Hank has been through when compared to the two leads, but the man has
seen his fair share of truly traumatic events. Hank's dramatic
changes have been assisted greatly by Dean Norris. His acting has
had to shift right along with the character, and he's always kept up.
The uncomfortableness and pity the audience feels from watching him
reduced to having to request a bedpan was sold flawlessly. Marie has
been gaining redemption as well for her behavior in the past. As we
see how helpless Hank is, we also see how much Marie is doing for
him, and going about it without complaint. Not only waiting on him,
but putting up with his defeatist attitude has definitely earned her
back points she lost with her petty thievery and haughty attitude.
Though even without her having to take a moment before heading inside
to deal with Hank, you have to wonder how long she can keep it up.
With the main plot, and the reason we're all here, “Box Cutter” saw its best moments. Most notable was the incredible acting throughout. As Mike made the call to Gus, the look of confidence on Walt's face that said he knew he was in control was portrayed well by Cranston. The performance got even better as his confidence wavered, before outright breaking. As a chemist, Walt loves when things go as expected, but that also means he's left stunned when they don't. Miscalculations drive him mad; and since in this case they could cost him his life, it's for good reason. Even knowing how serious Walt's plight was, you couldn't help but smile while watching him deride Victor's cooking abilities. Despite wanting to see him survive this, seeing that first crack in Walt's cool, collected facade as he sits and waits for Victor's inevitable failure, only to have Victor shut him up by not missing a step, was a pleasure to watch thanks to Cranston's wonderful acting.
By the time Gus arrives, Walt is a babbling mess of fear. All confidence is clearly gone as he sits there with his hands folded in his lap, looking so much like a child awaiting his punishment. Gus was giving an equally brilliant performance despite it being almost entirely silent. There was an excellent slow build up of tension with Gus changing clothes, and Walt's words falling on his deaf ears. At this point Walt is even unable to come up with an original argument and instead reiterates what he had told Jesse in “Full Measure” to convince him Gale had to die. The reemergence of the box cutter was played well, this time with a much more sinister connotation than the gleeful use Gale put it to. The kill itself was one of the more brutal moments in the series, as Gus showed a side of himself we had never seen. His stoic demeanor as he commits such a gruesome act let the audience know that Gus isn't just a business man, and can get his hands dirty when he has to. The stare down between Gus and Jesse was the highpoint of both the scene and the episode. Gus knew before he even set foot in the lab that Walt, and thus Jesse, were really in control (Gus cannot miss a deadline, and Walt is the only one who can cook – it's as simple as that). But he wasn't going to let them off without sending a message either. Gus's one line of dialogue as he departs, while spoken at a normal tone, shattered the quiet like a gun shot, “Well? Get back to work.”
The one negative that can be lobbed at what was without a doubt the best scene in the episode – as well as one of the best in the series – is how obvious it was that Victor would be the object of Gustavo's wrath. Issues with casting aside, it was inevitable that neither of the lead characters would die. Though perhaps knowing that his death was coming, yet it still having as much impact as it did, says something about the series and its ability to always top what is expected. Whether it was in spite of, or because Victor's death was obvious, the scene stole the show.
The cleanup of Victor's remains, while certainly macabre, felt like such familiar territory for Walt and Jesse that it was almost comforting to see the two of them carrying out such grisly work. Using a method they are more than familiar with built on that feeling, and garnered Jesse's first line of the episode. His silent performance was excellent throughout, but it was the scene in the diner where Aaron Paul really shined. Seeing Jesse flippantly discussing Gale's murder only served to reinforce how badly shaken up he really is. The ridiculousness of their outfits garnered a good laugh, too, but also squeezed out an impressive dramatic scene. As Walt hoists his belt-less pants and walks to his car, all humor is forgotten and replaced with a feeling of remorse and regret, both for those who died and for Walt who looks more haggard now than he ever has. No matter how flawed he is, Walt is still our protagonist, and is still the man we hope to see make it home safely above all others. A hope that was put on edge once again, with the reveal of Gale's lab notes left behind in his apartment with the police. Walt's walk and the shots at Gale's apartment were both elevated further by a well-chosen song in Alexander Ebert's “Truth.” It fit well both for the overall tone, as well as the lyrics themselves. Lines like, “Your darkness is shining, my darkness is shining” can't help but make one think of Walt and how his grossly immoral actions have been the only thing to save him.
The adrenaline ride that is Breaking Bad, didn't let up with this episode. “Box Cutter” wasn't perfect, but it had some moments that came very close. Throughout the episode, it stayed true to the elements that brought the series so much acclaim. And like almost any episode of Breaking Bad, it left fans dying for the next installment, which thankfully we don't have to wait another year to see.