Monday, 18 July 2011

Back To Work: Breaking Bad review


BREAKING BAD: 'Box Cutter'

Last week, I concluded my retrospective look at Breaking Bad's first season. There, watching as his psychotic new business partner drove away with a battered corpse left in his wake, Walter White realised that his transformation into the ice-cold meth pusher Heisenberg wasn't going to be as simple as first appeared. Just over two seasons later, on my hundredth post no less, that's a lesson Walter still hasn't learnt. At the end of last season, he took full measures to protect himself, even at the cost of a good man's life and the soul of the partner and friend he had earlier risked everything to save.

Yet where Heisenberg is prepared to commit the gravest atrocities to keep himself alive, Walter White remains the same short-term thinker he has been from the start, ignorant to the greater cost of his actions. At the end of the first season finale, he realised that the meth dealing which had started out as a break from the prison of his everyday struggles had trapped him just as much as his old life. Last season saw him lose control of the drugs empire he was starting to build and turned into a glorified worker bee. In the first episode of Breaking Bad's fourth season, Walter's prison is fully rebuilt, stronger than ever, and the worker is being turned into a slave.
I said in my summary last week that as much as I love the programme, Breaking Bad hadn't quite won my adoration to the same extent as its most ardent fans. 'Box Cutter', though, represented it at its best, a masterclass in compounding tension and communicating huge amounts of information without saying a word. If the rest of the season continues in this form, I will happily join those proclaiming the programme as one of television's greatest dramatic achievements.

This episode's main flourish came through Gus' delayed appearance as Walt and Jesse were being held in the lab by Mike and Victor. The sequence amounted to Gus appearing, changing into a hazmat suit without saying a word as Walt desperately tried to explain and save himself, giving a horrifying demonstration of intent, then changing back into his work suit and instructing Walt and Jesse to return to work before leaving.

For once, almost all the words spoken in the scene came from Walt: he's usually the silent, brooding type, yet tonight and in last season's finale (it's odd writing those words, for me, since I only watched that episode for the first time yesterday), his attempts at negotiation have quickly been turned into begging. When Walt put on his infamous hat at the beginning of 'Full Measure', it looked like Heisenberg was set to return in force. As it turned out, Heisenberg might now be almost completely gone. At the time when he needs him the most, Walt finds that the man who conducted those explosive negotiations with Tuco in 'Crazy Handful Of Nothin'' is but an inaccessible memory. 

Perhaps Walt had convinced himself that Heisenberg was no longer needed - he was making good money and in the employ of a man whose efficient manner and modus operandi seemed a million miles away from Tuco's psychotic instability. We already knew that Gus had it in him to coldly command the death of others to achieve his goals, proven by his masterful plan to take out a key member of the Cartel and the killer cousins when it suited him, but tonight, we saw for the first time that he is just as much of a hands-on killer as Tuco was, only cleverer and more focused in his intent. Witness that stare he gave Walt whilst holding up Victor as he died a prolonged, bloody death. That was a man sending a message. Tuco's violence was reactionary and sudden. Gus' is meditated and precise, perhaps more dangerous still for a man like Walt, who has shown little capacity for thinking ahead to any degree of success.

The main theme running through this episode seemed to one of powerful men losing control. Walt's downfall has been taking place over a long period of time, but 'Box Cutter' saw him fall further than ever before and in a shorter space of time. As Jesse pointed out, if Gus can't kill them, he's damn well going to make them regret them still being alive. Even though Walt knows that he has only bought the time until another suitable chemist can be found - and Gus showed in the cold open that he was willing to compromise on quality if need be - does he really think that Gus won't have anticipated moves being plotted against him? Gus is a man who prides himself on always being in control, but he too is one of the powerful men whose grip has weakened. Much as he would like to, he can't kill Walt or Jesse just yet. In a chess match between him and Walt, there can surely only be one winner though - if Gus can devise and deliver such a powerful message in the time it takes him to reach the lab, what terrible retribution will he be able to come up with in the time Walt has bought himself?

Of course, this being Breaking Bad, the game-changer might not end up being delivered by either of those two men. Mike, another man whose success is built on brutally efficient professionalism, was wrong-footed by Walter at the end of last season, when offered a half measure exchange (Walt offering Jesse for his own life) that was a bluff to cover a full measure action (the elimination of Gus). He works best when people react in the way he expects them to - see his systematic clearing out of the cartel thugs who had taken over Gus' factory earlier in the same episode - and won't be happy that Walt got the better of him.

Yet in Gus' haste to show Walt how far he was prepared to go, his powers of anticipation for once failed to take a possible outcome into account, the effect of Victor's death on Mike, who saw his boss kill a loyal underling without hesitation and for the sole purpose of making a point. Cracks are appearing everywhere in a worldview that Mike had previously considered utterly solid. Let's also not forget Hank, humiliated in his own bed but moving further towards recovery with every passing day: he's going to want to take out his full fury on the people who put him in that situation and while Gus is an obvious target, Walt is a more personal betrayal. Which way will he go?

As those men began to lose their stranglehold on the power that rules Breaking Bad's world, smaller fry began to assert themselves. Skyler showed her willingness to use her daughter as a means of achieving a deceitful goal, becoming ever more comfortable descending into the moral darkness which has engulfed her husband. Will his fall be proportional to her ascent? The eye of guilt, taken from the pink teddy which fell into the White family pool following the plane crash which Walt was indirectly responsible for, was turned on her for the first time. 

Meanwhile, as Gus' message crippled Walt, it seemed to break Jesse out of his stupour. He'll still be feeling the consequences of pulling that trigger, but Victor's death seemed to alert him to the reality of his situation. He knows what Gus is doing and is able to stay more rational about it than Walt, judging by their conversation at the diner. As Walt is being increasingly beaten down by fear, Jesse could yet step up to the plate and take charge of their situation.

Long ago, back in the pilot episode, Walter told his students that chemistry was governed by change, brought about by explosive chemical reactions. Breaking Bad respects the laws of chemistry above everything else, and in common with all the programme's greatest episodes, 'Box Cutter' seemed to set its most combustible elements on a collision course.

Best Moment: Gus makes a short but deadly visit to the lab.


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