One night last year, I received a call from my friend Ben who was at a Lollapalooza afterparty in Chicago, saying he had something to tell me. Apparently while on the dance floor he’d seen none other than Aaron Paul, better known to the both of us as screwup meth dealer Jesse Pinkman of AMC’s Breaking Bad, and struck up a brief conversation. He then got very excited, told me he was going to hand off the phone, and without further preamble I found myself talking to one of my favorite actors on television. Paul apparently saw him move off to the side, figured that he was calling a friend to say who he had seen, and decided to say hello himself. Though we only chatted for a couple of minutes, I found him to be a very nice guy, perfectly willing to take some time to talk to a fan and very appreciative as I expressed my support for his Emmy nomination (an award he would win only short weeks later).
I mention this somewhat as a humblebrag, but chiefly in the context of season four of Breaking Bad. While he obviously couldn’t give me any specific details at that time, he did share with me that he been in the writers’ room for the show as the fourth season was put together, and warned me that the notes he’d seen on the season premiere indicated it was was going to be incredibly dark, to a degree that he hoped wouldn’t drive me away from the new episodes. I assured him that any show that was willing to put Danny Trejo’s decapitated head on an exploding tortoise, I was prepared to stick with to the end no matter how dark it got – which, judging by how hard he laughed, was a sentiment he loved.
And now that we’re three episodes into the fourth season? Well, he wasn’t kidding. The pilot episode “Box Cutter” and the following two installments were certainly dark – darkly lit, darkly themed, and darkly comic in the way only Breaking Bad is, frequently managing to hit all three at the same time. But more than that, they are episodes that don’t lose a beat from the tension of season three, which I’m willing to put on the pantheon of finest seasons of television I’ve ever seen, and fills me with a manifest amount of confidence that the show knows exactly where it’s going heading into the next chapter in Walter White’s journey to Hell.
A large part of that certainly falls on the fact that it literally picks up exactly where the show left off last season, with Walt’s partner/surrogate son Jesse shakily pointing a gun at fellow chemist/cook Gale Boetticher’s head. There was a lot of speculation after that episode aired about whether or not Jesse could pull the trigger in the end, and we get definite confirmation that not only did he do so but he delivered a Richard Harrow Special – one just below the eye, with such force that it pierced the teakettle halfway across the apartment. And with that execution, Walt and Jesse executed their plan to keep themselves alive, rationalizing that without a trained chemist to cook the batches master distributor Gus would have no choice but to keep the two of them alive.
They were apparently right on that, as Gus has seen the truth of that equation and kept them alive – but as Jesse shrewdly observes, he’s cold enough to make sure they wish they were dead. In front of their horrified eyes he slits his henchman Victor’s throat wide-open, clearing up a loose end from the murder scene and also proving to them in no unequivocal terms where the power ultimately lies. And from there he transforms himself into something of a boogeyman, with fixer Mike (Jonathan Banks) blatantly telling Walt “You’ll never see him again” and stringing up the lab with security cameras that follow his every move right down to the impotent middle finger he raises.
A lot of people in review comments have been somewhat critical of how much slower it seems this season in comparison to the vicious suspense of last season, but all those people are missing the point entirely. Breaking Bad has always been at its best when its focus is not only the consequences triggered by Walt and Jesse’s actions, but the slow burn it takes to get to those reactions – and this show is starting to simmer at its highest levels. This is a show that’s willing to spend the time to watch a man get dressed before and after slitting a man’s throat, a show that views a debased party from the viewpoint of a Roomba, a show where the epiphany for a criminal conspiracy can come from watching dishwater spiral down the drain. Certainly this year has been quieter without the almost supernatural threat of cartel hitmen, but the methodical nature only makes it seem more carefully constructed – and winds you up even more, because history has taught us that sooner or later something’s going to give.
And even more than the sword hanging over Walt’s head, what we’re seeing in a very stark matter this year is just how corrosive his decision to stay in the drug business has been to the people he surrounds himself with. We’ve known from the start that people around Walt tend to make poor decisions, meet with unfortunate circumstances and wind up dead from bullets or overdoses or bike locks, but now we’re seeing a much slower rot to his immediate friends and family. In many ways, it seems like Walt’s own priority to the story has been pushed aside, as if we’ve already witnessed his reaction and the time has come to focus on the equal and opposite reaction his decisions have triggered.
For the most obvious example, once again look no further than his partner. Jesse’s begun yet another season recuperating from an incredibly traumatic moment, and once again, he seems to embrace the soullessness of his circumstances at the start – in this case, staring Gus straight in the eyes as Victor bleeds out and then nonchalantly sucking back a Denny’s breakfast. However, we’re now to the point where we know exactly how strong he is (or isn’t), and we know that for all his bravado he’s going to fall apart almost immediately after.
As a parallel to last season, it’s actually quite interesting how he’s completely reversed his coping mechanism. While his early episodes last year put him in an empty house desperately trying to hang onto some memory of his dead girlfriend Jane, that same house has dissolved into a massive crack den with a non-stop party in order to keep his thoughts from consuming him. The broken look on his face as his friends bail in exhaustion, as he has to send his girlfriend away from what he knows is a dangerous relationship, even when Walt passes on driving go-karts with him – it all shows a man who feels like walking dead. Paul told me it was going to be dark this year, and this is certainly the darkest it’s ever been for Jesse, but that darkness it’s also giving him some of the best material he’s ever had.
And that’s only Walt’s surrogate family – his real family is also splintering and corrupting at an even more gradual pace, even if none of them have joined him in the confines of the superlab. Now that Skyler’s been opened up to the breadth of her husband’s criminal enterprise, she’s trying to help steer it in the right direction. Her theory to purchase the car wash Walt worked at in the pilot episode has driven her part of the last two episodes, and after being backed into a corner early last season she’s demonstrating far more resolve – and Anna Gunn has been terrific as Skyler’s realizing how much muscle she has to flex. She’s trying to paint it as taking the high road for his sake – much as she prepared his low-salt breakfast in the pilot episode – but she’s still coming across as someone who’s breaking bad* in a much quieter way, pulling exactly the right triggers to steer Walt in her direction.
*It certainly doesn’t help her moral case that she’s turned baby Holly into a co-conspirator, using her as a prop to have a locksmith get her into Walt’s condo and cooing quietly to her at the same time she’s feeding a bogus environmental inspector lines. The baby on Raising Hope might be in less danger by the time this season hits the midway point.
Walt and Skyler appear to have approached some form of detente in their marriage, but across town that of Skyler’s sister is being slowly ground to rubble. Hank’s out of the hospital but not on his feet again, and the loss of his tough-cop image has pushed him into a funk where all he wants to do is categorize a collection of rocks (or, as he insistently corrects Marie in every single instance, his minerals). And he might as well be throwing them at Marie for how much passive aggression he’s throwing her way – it’s gotten so bad that she’s returned to her kleptomania from the first season, and taken it to a new extreme by doing it at open houses she attends under false identities.
These two have been put into a box, and while it doesn’t seem likely their marriage will survive it feels like there’s even more potential here to set a match to the status quo of the show. Marie has always been the catalyst for change – it was her suggestions that led Hank to Tuco, and that led Hank to indirectly tip Walt off about his search for the RV – and it’s no stretch to imagine soon she’ll blurt out the half-truth about where the money’s coming from. It’s remarkable that Hank hasn’t yet connected the dots to equate Walt with Heisenberg, and with so much time to think (the only alternative being his bedpans and late-night bowling shows) how long before he overcomes the mental block that keeps him from considering the possibility that his docile brother-in-law could be a drug kingpin? And how soon before he gets the idea to run Gale’s lab notebook past Walt, and indirectly force yet another confrontation – this time without the bullet-pierced door of an RV separating them?
Even the people who have been on the shady side of things since the start are starting to feel the repercussions of just how fragile the bonds between Walt, Jesse and Gus have frayed. Mike, so much in control* since we first saw him, is now appearing to be on shaky ground in seeing how his boss treats employees, even if he’s still loyal enough to beat Walt to the ground for suggesting an alliance. Saul’s so paranoid about Mike’s threats from the season finale he’s hired a dimwit 400-pound bodyguard, and he’s increasingly miffed about how many of his suggestions Skyler shoots down when it comes time to purchase the car wash. And poor Badger and Skinny Pete – swept up in Jesse’s desperate desire not to be alone, he’s keeping them up for three days and feeding them meth until their zombie comparisons reach epic levels.
*I’ve mentioned this on Twitter and in comments on other blogs before, but based on his scenes in “Full Measures” against the cartel hit men and the general sense of possession Jonathan Banks has, I would totally watch a spin-off series of Breaking Bad called Mike: PI, centered on his interactions with the power players of Albuquerque’s underworld. How spectacular would that be?
Everyone else has been more overt in their degree of corruption, but what’s winding things up the most is the fact that Walt has been somewhat marginalized lately. Walt’s spent much of the last three episodes trying to find the “certain words in a certain specific order that can explain all of this” to everyone he’s connected with, and his words and actions have all been for naught. Jesse’s not even trying to find a bond with him anymore, beyond a weary observation that he’ll probably get used to being beaten down. Skyler’s usurping control of his criminal proceeds (even going far enough as to chew him out for buying an expensive bottle of champagne), Gus won’t even be in the same room as him, and even the occasionally sympathetic Mike kicks him in the ribs a couple of times.
And that’s the most ominous part of the show. If the last three seasons taught us anything, it’s that Walt hates nothing more than anyone trying to take control from him. He could have walked away from the business at twenty different times, or simply gone to the police at any moment, but he refused for reasons no more complicated than his pride and his spite, and that for the first time in years he felt like he was the master of his own destiny. And with that control being stripped away from him, surrounded by reminders that other people are smarter than he are and have more power than he does? He’s losing it episode by episode, quietly seething to himself – a bad sign for a man who just bought a gun.
And we all know that the more control he loses, the better this show gets. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.
- I’m not sure how often I’ll be writing about Breaking Bad, but I’ll certainly be checking in as the season progresses. I’ll likely write some reviews grouping episodes together as I did with the above, with individual reviews when an episode goes above and beyond in terms of throat-grabbing. If you’re looking for week-to-week coverage, I recommend Donna Bowman’s absolutely superlative reviews over at The A.V. Club, Alan Sepinwall at HitFix or Todd VanDerWerff’s Los Angeles Times Showtracker coverage.
- Vince Gilligan might be the only showrunner who is able to terrify me with the titles of his episodes as much as the episodes themselves, because of the strange and dark places his imagination takes him. Next week’s “Bullet Points” already has me uneasy, and I don’t know a damn thing about the episode other than its title.
- Something else I really appreciate about this show is how it’s willing to reward viewers who’ve been with it for a while. When Mike questions the efficacy of hydrofluoric acid in getting rid of Victor’s body, Jesse’s assurance that it will work reminds us they’ve done this before at the expense of a perfectly good bathtub. And when Jesse comments on the massive unsliced pizza delivered to his den, all I can think of is the arc one of those pizzas followed as Walter impotently hurled it on the roof following Skyler’s rejection.
- I spent most of my time above talking about the characters and the tension above, but it really does bear repeating how fucking good this show looks. Director of photography Michael Slovis is an absolute genius in terms of lighting and camera angles, and the Southwest atmosphere he has to work with gives this show colors and vistas that nothing shot in Vancouver or California can match. Having directors like Michelle MacLaran and David Slade to shepherd that vision along does nothing but strengthen that position.
- And the show also continues its trend of the best cold openings in currently airing television, with each of the short scenes beforehand almost working as their own short films. “Box Cutter” shows us how the fastidiousness Gale showed last season is what sealed his fate in singing the praises of Walt’s meth; “Thirty-Eight Snub” gave us a masterful interplay between Walt and a gun dealer played by Jim Beaver of Deadwood fame; and “Open House” showed us Walt’s impotent rage through the all-seeing eye of Gus’s security cameras.
- I do have one complaint about the show so far, in a scene from “Thirty-Eight Snub” when Walt plans to murder Gus. Putting on his Heisenberg hat, walking purposely from his car toward Gus as the camera lingers behind his head, ominous music playing – it feels so much like the brilliant opening of “Full Measure” that for the first time the show feels like it’s copying its own playbook. It’s forgivable, but still something I notice.
- “Well? Get back to work.”