“Box Cutter” – Season 4, Ep. 1

breaking bad 4-1-1If Vince Gilligan’s goal in a season premiere is to set a tone for what is to come throughout the coming episodes, “Box Cutter” indicates that Season 4 of Breaking Bad will be one of high tension.  However, depending on one’s perspective, this episode exhibited either brilliant or awful writing on Gilligan’s part.

The centerpiece of this episode is the scene when Gustavo finally shows up at the lab.  Quietly, he changes into proper lab attire, while Walt goes on and on about how Gale had to be sacrificed and blah, blah, blah.  Gustavo locates a box cutter and reveals the blade.  For a moment, he stares calmly, menacingly at his two employees, Walt and Jesse, who’ve caused him a great deal of trouble.  Then, to the shock of everyone, Gustavo slices the throat of Victor, one of his top, most trusted men.

In the moments when Gustavo is changing, viewers are concerned about their heroes’ mortality.  Though Walt seems to have leverage, Gustavo has to be pretty pissed off at him for ordering the hit on Gale and speeding his car into the bodies of two of Gustavo’s dealers, an event which feels like it happened a dozen episodes prior when it was only two.  The intensity reaches its apex when Victor is slain.  Victor appeared to be the surprising heir-apparent meth cook, seemingly stripping Walt of his already  questionable leverage.  Afterwards, Gustavo instructs his still-living men to get back to work, indicating that Walt and Jesse are, at least for the time being, once again off the hook.  It’s difficult to tell who has won this round.  Jesse laments laughingly that both parties can’t kill the other, but will make it hard for their enemies to enjoy life.  Gustavo has maintained his status as The Boss, while Jesse and Walt have maintained breathing capabilities-a victory in its own right.  Obviously, Breaking Bad is set up then for continuous conflict between Gustavo and the master chef.

This scenario would have likely played out quite differently though if Victor hadn’t examined Gale’s body in front of witnesses, which is one ginormously troubling plot hole.  If Victor knew the cooking steps all along, then what difference did it make to Gustavo and Co. if Gale was murdered?  When Walt announces Gale’s address to Mike and Victor, Walt is pointing out to the would-be assassins that Walt must be kept alive or else the 99% pure blue stuff will be no more.  If Victor knows the methodology, and he seems to exude quite a bit of confidence that he does in this episode, then Gale is in fact expendable, and has been all along.  Yet, Victor still goes to Gale’s apartment, gives the body a once-over, and makes himself a liability to Gustavo, a point Mike makes clear in a brief exchange with Victor upon his arrival back to the lab with Jesse.  Why didn’t Victor just laugh at Walt and say that Gale could die all he wants because “There’s a new chef in town?”

It’s possible that Walt might’ve had a point in saying that even though Victor “knows the steps,” he won’t know what to do should crisis occur.  Maybe Gustavo took that into account, but Gustavo has been a character with a reputation who knows everything all the time and doesn’t need cues from underlings.  It’s also possible that Victor just took off when Walt recited Gale’s address either because Victor didn’t actually know who’s apartment that was or he just wanted to nab Jesse.  Again, neither are likely.  Victor had been surveying everything in the Walter White case for months now.  Both Victor’s and Mike’s reactions to Walt’s knowledge of Gale’s address indicated a distinct fear of losing Gale, not a willingness to capture or kill Jesse.  This shows they completely understood Walt’s intentions.  And if the only reason Victor went there was for Jesse, then there was no purpose in Victor going into the apartment and looking all shocked at Gale’s dead body.

Either way, it was pretty intense when Victor’s throat ceased functioning.  One of the most telling reactions to this was that of Mike Ehrmantraut.  Going forward, it will be interesting to see how Mike continues to view Gustavo.  This is now the second time Mike has clearly questioned Gustavo’s actions.  Though, in both of those instances, Mike would’ve argued that Jesse and Walt should’ve been shit-canned, Mike does kind of like Walt too.  It’s fun and interesting to see Mike tow the line between what is “business” and what is “personal.”  Where he ends up when the something that has got to give does just that will be intriguing.

Grade: B+


“Full Measure” – Season 3, Ep. 13

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“Full Measure” begins with another flashback of Walt, with a full head of hair, and Skyler, with a filling womb, about to purchase the home that viewers of Breaking Bad would indeed become quite familiar with as the White residence.  The scene is about hopes and dreams, progress and plans, and not settling for less than what one truly desires.  Walt was assured that he knew exactly which road he, Skyler, and the unborn Walter Jr. were on.  But as Walt sits in his car, a day after prolonging Jesse’s life and waiting for Gustavo to possibly end his, Walt’s view is obstructed.  Once again, his windshield has been cracked as it was earlier in Season 3.  And thus, once again, Walt is unsure about what the future holds for him, his family, and Jesse too.

Then, even though he has never made the same mistake twice, and he employs a hitman who says to never take half measures, Gustavo keeps Walter alive instead of taking “Option A,” killing him on the spot.  Gustavo wants Walt’s recipe for the blue meth and needs more time so that Gale can finally master the process.  This provides Walter with an opportunity to figure out the next step, which is symbolized in the car’s windshield repair.  Walt can see what’s ahead of him after getting the car fixed quickly after Mike’s insistance.  It was Walt’s refusal to get the windshield fixed after the damage caused by the plane crash that caused him to get pepper-sprayed and arrested.  Therefore, the clear glass also now represents Walt’s ability to learn from his mistakes.

Walt quickly realizes Gale’s true purpose for being in the lab with him and plans accordingly.  It hits a snag when Walt becomes Mike’s target a little quicker than he’d anticipated.  Walt then must lay the responsibility of taking the full measure of killing Gale so on Jesse, one who, by all accounts, is not a murderer.

“You don’t need to do this,” cries Gale.  Actually, Jesse really does.  And through tears and bloodshot eyes, Jesse aims his gun, and fires truly.

Eyes have been a constant symbol throughout Season 3 and those of Walt and Jesse that are now wide open.  They are in uncharted territory having killed, on purpose, three people between them over the past twenty-four hours.  The new reality of their lives is that they are going to have to take drastic, full measures to ensure their own forward movement as they travel, at full speed, down unfamiliar roads, deeper into the drug world, all the while trying to achieve their goals, and not settling for less.

Grade: A-  

“Half Measures” – Season 3, Ep. 12

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The centerpiece of “Half Measures,” Breaking Bad‘s prelude to the Season 3 finale, is Mike Ehrmantraut’s recounting of a time when he held back and didn’t do everything in his power to ensure justice.  While a police officer, he could have murdered a man who was constantly beating his girlfriend, but didn’t.  Eventually, the woman he was trying to protect was killed by her boyfriend.  “I chose a half measure,” Mike explains to Walt.  “I should’ve gone all the way.  I’ll never make that mistake again.”  Though a grim example, Mike is providing yet another illustration of what has emerged as the clear theme of Season 3: one must learn from their mistakes.

Gustavo has ascended to the top of the drug trade underworld because he has historically corrected his behavior after making any error, as he told Walt over dinner in the previous episode.  Recently though, because of a mix of greed and hubris, Gustavo has been compromising his beliefs and protocol.  Mike reminds Walt during their chat that they all, including Gustavo, “have a good thing going.”  Mike knows Jesse is a cracked cog in the machine and he is only echoing what Gustavo has been telling Walt all along.  Walt has stood up for Jesse and Gustavo has played along because Walt’s meth recipe blows sliced bread away.  But Gustavo, and now Mike, are reaching a breaking point.

Initially it is Walt looking to take a half measure, trying to get Jesse arrested for a petty crime so that everything “blows over” while Jesse’s in jail.  Ultimately, to the dismay of Mike, it is Gustavo who holds back, essentially letting Jesse off with a warning, like Mike did with that abusive boyfriend some years prior.  Gustavo should probably have known better, but he chooses what he perceives as honor over ruthlessness by telling his street level thugs to stop using children as go-betweens and gun-toters.  They indicate that they will follow this order, but take a full measure by killing Tomas, so as to send a message to, really, both Jesse and Gustavo that weakness cannot be tolerated.

In an ironic twist, it is Walt that in fact takes the most aggressive stand, plowing into the drug dealers as they’re about to kill a vengeful Jesse.  After emphasizing to Jesse earlier that neither of them are murderers, Walt finishes off one of the two dealers, execution-style, a full measure.  This defense of Jesse probably won’t sit well with Gustavo.  To Walt though, if there’s one thing that is more important than learning from mistakes, it is loyalty.

Grade: B+

“Abiquiu” Season 3 – Ep. 11

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“Never make the same mistake twice” is Gustavo’s advice to Walt over dinner at the end of “Abiquiu.”  Gustavo could be alluding to a few things and, based on Walt’s skeptically anxious body language, Walt isn’t sure what Gus is talking about.

Saul Goodman could have easily relayed the news to Gustavo that Skyler was getting involved in the money laundering.  Gustavo might not be too thrilled about that for a few reasons: 1) Skyler’s just one more person who will have inside knowledge on a portion of the drug trade affairs, 2) she’s a woman scorned, and 3) she’s seeing to it that Gustavo’s pay to Walt assists in the recovery of a top local DEA agent.

If that’s not it, Gus could be aware of Jesse’s lifting of a small amount of product from the lab.  Gus was always hesitant to take Jesse on due to Jesse’s addiction, but Walt insisted and Gus didn’t want to lose the master chef.

The editing of the closing moments of the episode seem to indicate that Gustavo, who has quite wonderful powers of perception, is hinting at Jesse being the problem.  Just after Gustavo gives Walt that piece of advice about repeating mistakes, the scene cuts away to the one of Jesse rolling up on Tomas, the young drug dealer and kid brother of Jesse’s new beau, Andrea.  However, the cut could also be Team Breaking Bad’s hint that it is Jesse who needs to heed Gustavo’s advice, as he, somehow, continues to not learn from his past errors.  “Abiquiu” opens with clips from Jesse’s day out with Jane at the museum.  Perhaps he has moved on from the hurt that was brought on from Jane’s death, but that doesn’t justify Jesse’s getting involved with yet another girl who’s in recovery.  Jesse puts the kibosh on the drug deal once he starts to have some feelings for her, sure, but viewers can see that Andrea, no matter how unwittingly, is still bringing trouble to Jesse’s life.

It is unclear what Jesse’s plan is now that he knows where the murderers of Combo reside and how they can “get got,” to quote the ever-eloquent Skinny Pete.  It also is unclear how genuine Gustavo is being with Walter.  A reference to Jesus’ last supper is made when Gustavo tells Walt that since they work together, they too can break bread together.  However, if one lesson is to be learned from the story of the last supper, it is don’t trust those with whom you break bread – remember Judas turned Jesus over to the Romans the next day.  So, is Gustavo pleased with Walter, as his demeanor, if real, would indicate?  Or is Gustavo, like at the hospital, sending another message to Walter about the company he keeps, be it Skyler or Jesse?

Grade: B

“Fly” – Season 3, Ep. 10

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Poster by Dan Toth

“Fly” is one of the more intriguing episodes of Breaking Bad, an exercise in existentialism.  Walt becomes obsessed with catching an evasive fly that has unexplainably found its way into the lab where he and Jesse have been tasked with cooking major poundage of blue stuff for Gustavo.  He insists that the fly is “a contaminate” and, no matter how badly Jesse wants to remain on task, Walt thwarts his efforts by, sometimes forcibly, getting Jesse to help him rid the lab of the bug.  The creatives at Breaking Bad and Co. wouldn’t have an entire episode revolve around such a tiny detail if it didn’t have grand significance.

In the opening scenes of the episode, two significant occurrences help set the stage for this episode’s themes: Walt not being able to sleep and Jesse noticing a cigarette butt in his car’s ash tray that still has some of Jane’s lipstick on it.

Walt’s restlessness is a result of the guilt that he continues to carry around.  As indicated before, Walt has been resilient, but ironically, his biggest enemy might be himself.  Walt still isn’t sure why he cooks or why he ever got into it.  Now and again, he’ll mention that it’s for his family, but that point continues to ring insincere.  Part of it is the thrill of it all and the pride he takes in chemically manufacturing excellence, even though “it’s all tainted,” as he says in “Fly.”  But Walt struggles with admitting that to himself because taking part in drug trafficking for fun, kind of makes him a bad person.  Furthermore, the actions he has felt he needed to take, has lead, either directly or indirectly, to the deaths of, literally, counting the plane crash, hundreds of people.  So, this all might be starting to wear him down some, especially with the departure of his wife and children and the continued angst Jesse feels regarding the death of Jane.

Jesse feels guilt as well, mostly for bringing the addict in Jane back to life, which lead to her demise.  He doesn’t know that Walt could have saved her, but, in many ways, that’s irrelevant because her self-destructive tendencies were about to pull Jesse under as well.  He says in this episode to Walt, “It wasn’t my fault; it wasn’t her fault.”  That’s one way to look at it.  However, the reality is Jane’s death was both their faults.  Jesse might be treating himself a little harshly and unjustifiably so, but he’s not blameless either.  And knowing that Walt didn’t take the opportunity fo flip Jane over on her side when he could have, doesn’t change that fact.

Regardless, they both have some shit to work through, which is what the fly represents.  Walt is questioning whether or not he should continue cooking (or even living) and he uses the fly as an excuse to skip out on work.  Though he spearheads the initial fly hunting efforts, much to Jesse’s dismay, eventually, Jesse becomes the more fervent one and actually takes care of the problem with his newspaper, while Walt has finally passed out from exhaustion and the sleeping pills Jesse used to spike Walt’s coffee.  Just before Jesse kills the fly, Walt says he’s sorry about Jane in a kind of half-assed effort by Walt to rid himself of a shred of his layers of guilt.  Jesse says that he is sorry too, but it’s nobody’s fault.  The fact that it is Jesse killing the fly means that he can finally move on from the torture of Jane’s passing.

Walt, however, still can’t sleep.  The blinking red orb of the smoke alarm, yet another ocular shaped symbol, is keeping him up.  Somebody’s always watching him.  Somebody knows he has done wrong and is continuing to do so.  In previous episodes, Gustavo’s seemingly limitless coverage and ability to perceive has been symbolized by eyes or anything eye-like.  The red LED here is yet another symbol of that, as expressed by Walt early on saying that “there’s no room for error” with Gustavo.  But the episode’s final image of another fly being stuck inside the little blinking light represents Walt’s guilt being coupled with the stress of being under the watchful eye of Gustavo.

Grade: B

“Kafkaesque” – Season 3, Ep. 9

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Gilligan and co. referred back to one of their most pronounced themes of Breaking Bad in “Kafkaesque.”  This episode is rife with subtle criticisms of the American way and the rampant corruption throughout the landscape.

The Los Pollos Hermanos ad provides a backstory for the fictional business, highlighting the fact that it’s the realization of a dream of two Mexican immigrants.  It’s the classic story of folks looking to come to this country for a better life.  Then, the video dissolves into a fantasy-like shot of a flowing waterfall of blue crystal meth, representing the tainting of that dream.  But it’s ok to push all kinds of drugs in America!  There are ways around indictment as long as one is careful.  And with 96 million dollars to be made from three months of production time, it seems plenty worth the risk, if all one needs to do is hide some drugs in buckets of chicken gravy.

Later in the episode, Saul Goodman explains how money laundering works.  The ease in which Saul speaks on the subject to Jesse coupled with the visual representations he uses that are fit for a fourth grader, indicates the frequency of the practice.  It’s almost as if Gilligan is saying it’s silly not to be a criminal in the United States.  Certainly there are benefits, like being able to pay expensive medical bills.

All her life, Marie Schrader has done things the right way.  (Well, her bout with kleptomania not withstanding.)  She’s paid the premiums on her family’s health insurance and now, when her husband needs the kickback most, he’s slighted, only being offered minimal coverage.  So, Walt’s dirty money is going to help, says Skyler.  But the money isn’t that dirty.  Skyler says it’s from gambling, a tiny vice that most have indulged in in one form or another, be it side Super Bowl bets or playing the lotto.  Marie’s more open to taking advantage of that than she would be if she knew it was drug profits.  Clearly though, this is a double-standard because in Skyler’s story of Walt’s new card-counting talent, Walt has bucked the system.  He’s been cheating.  It’s not much different than what Gustavo does on a daily basis, but, according to Gilligan, society perceives drug trafficking as much worse.

It’s hard to tell if Skyler is getting closer to taking Walt back.  Seeing Marie’s pain and worry for Hank, reminds her that Walt took to selling meth for the benefit of himself, but also his family.  If it weren’t for lofty medical bills that Walt was facing, he wouldn’t have done the drug thing in the first place.  So, she seems sympathetic, but really likes making Walt squirm too.  Skyler gives away Walt’s drug money and tweaks him by pointing out that she knows how to lie so well because of him.  Skyler clearly doesn’t want Beneke either.  Skyler might understand Walt’s hiding of the drug production the previous year, but she’s now struggling with the fact that Walt might lie to them again if he needs to.

Grade: B+

“I See You” – Season 3, Ep. 8

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As mentioned before, eyes have been a prominent symbol in Breaking Bad, especially throughout Season 3.  “I See You” reaffirms that point, and reminds viewers of what the characters have the ability to perceive and what they are blind to.  

Though Jesse’s beating occurred in the previous episode, along with his left eye’s ugly swelling, the eye remains closed in this one, symbolizing his partial ability to see.  What doesn’t he see?  Jesse is a bit in the dark about how much is going on around him.  He’s not educated on the, apparently growing, reach of Gustavo.  Gustavo knows everything that is going on and isn’t keen on Jesse.  If Jesse is going to take 1.5 million of Gustavo’s dollars, he’ll have to be on his best behavior.  Jesse had also failed to see the growing wrath in Hank Schrader.  Jesse’s been on Hank’s radar for a while now and he probably shouldn’t have called Hank “bitch” from inside the RV.  Yeah, it was Saul Goodman’s idea to get Hank out of the junkyard by cooking up a story about Hank’s wife being in an accident, but Jesse lead Hank there in the first place.  Jesse is correct in telling Walt from his hospital bed that ever since the two had gone into business together, that Jesse’s life has become one of much pain and suffering.  So, he can see the chaos that is brought with having Walt in his life.  However, he agrees to cook with Walt once again anyway.  Jesse’s always had problems learning from his mistakes.

Walt asks Gustavo if the fact that the drug kingpin has shown up to the hospital is some kind of “message.”  It surely is.  Walt’s ego gets the better of him when he thinks he can lie to Gustavo about his whereabouts and about his chances of reaching his quota.  Gustavo’s eyes are everywhere.  His scout sees Jesse fooling around in the lab.  His hitman, Mike Ehrmantraut takes care of the second Mexican twin the hospital.  Gustavo even tips off the Mexican government on the location of his partner so that they can arrest him.  Like with Jesse’s sloppiness in bringing Hank to the junkyard, Walt should’ve fucking known better and not lied to Gustavo who has eyes everywhere.

With that stated about Gustavo, he does have glasses, an eyesight aid.  Therefore, his perception isn’t perfect and he has made a lot of exceptions to procure Walt’s blue meth for resale.  Gustavo seems to be going above and beyond for Walt – taking Jesse on as a lab assistant, letting Walt miss quotas, etc.  It will be interesting to see if the blue stuff will be worth it for Gustavo in the long run.  He might not see something coming after all.

Grade: B