Season 4, Episode 1: Box Cutter
“Well? Get back to work.”- Gus Fring
Oh, Gale. This fourth and best season of Breaking Bad begins with a nice little flashback that serves as a final genesis for both the superlab and Gale’s role in it. He was Gus’ original choice, his star chemist, and only though a sense of professionalism did any of that change. He comments that the sample of blue meth Gus gave to him to test is the best he’s ever seen, and that whoever made it is capable of a higher level of chemical purity than he himself is, and that if Gus is paying for the best, then he should get the best. Of course, we know this mystery chemist to be our very own Heisenberg, which places this conversation somewhere during the events of Season 2′s “Mandala.” Unknowingly, he has just vouched for the man who will eventually order his execution.
Flash forward a few weeks and we get back to Gale’s apartment, just after Jesse has shot him in the face. He leaves, and we see Victor show up just as Gale’s neighbors are calling the police. He says nothing and does nothing, but leaves as soon as he sees Gale’s body. He goes outside to find Jesse still in his car and in shock, and forces him to drive back to the superlab. The vast majority of the episode takes place here (aside from Skyler and Sauls efforts to find Walter and a quick check in on Marie and Hank, who are going through difficulties in acclimating Hank to his new lifestyle). After Victor tells Mike that Gale is dead (and that the residents got a good look at him as he searched), Mike calls Gus, and the four of them spend most of the episode waiting for Gus to arrive, with Walt trying his best to convince the two goons to let he and Jesse cook. This prompts Victor to try his hand at the fabled Heisenberg method, surprising Walter with just how much of it he has picked up (“Bet he forgets the Aluminum. Guarantee. Guarantee he forgets.”).
This continues until, finally, Gus arrives, and what follows is one of the most chilling and terrifying scenes in recent TV history. He strides in, and stalks his way across to lab, oblivious to Walt’s frenzied rationalizing of what he’s done. He then, methodically, and with fastidious precision, changes into one of the lab’s orange jumpsuits, grabs a stray box cutter and strides, threateningly, over to where Walt and Jesse sit. As Walt starts to panic and grovel, Gus calmly and definitively grabs Victor and slits his throat, killing him both for his failure in being seen at Gale’s apartment and to send a message to Walt. Gus can’t afford to stop production, not for a single day, and if Walt’s the only chemist he’s got, then he’s going to have to make due. But that doesn’t mean he can’t make Walt’s working life as oppressive and terrifying as he possibly can. After he leaves Victor’s corpse at Walt’s feet, he strides back over to the locker station, removes his jumpsuit, washes his hands, puts his suit back on and leaves. He does all of this without saying a word until, just before he leaves, he tells Walter and Jesse to “get back to work.”
There’s a nice little callback as Walt and Jesse are cleaning up the mess where, as they load Victor’s body in a plastic barrel, Mike asks if the hydrofluoric acid they’re using will do the trick. “Trust us,” Jesse responds, referring to their little adventure with Emilio’s remains in Season 1. Then, we see the barrel containing Victor’s liquidy remains marked as “corrosive” and loaded into the back of a truck. Such is the fate of those who fail Gus Fring. Strangely, the extraordinarily bloody message Gus sent seems to resonate with Jesse, who seems to snap out of the comatose state shooting Gale put him in. He sits up in his seat and locks eyes with Gus, staring him down. As he says later to Walt at the Dennys where they eat in matching Kenny Rodgers shirts (very stylish, very stylish), “we’re all on the same page.” He understands that if Gus cannot afford to kill them, then he’s going to “make you wish you were dead.” Walt seems to feat this more than anything. He knows, intimately, what it’s like to wish you were dead, and he didn’t seem to care for it (refer, of course, to “Fly.”) And as he returns home to find that Skyler has moved his car to another street, he brushes off her questions and walks away to get his car, we see that he sees no conceivable way out of the mess he’s in.
We see differently, as among the evidence at Gale’s apartment, which is currently being combed over by the APD, is his notebook marked “Lab Notes,” which surely has a few things that a certain former DEA special agent might find interesting.
Season 4, Episode 2: Thirty-Eight Snub
“Thanks for the drink.”- Mike Ehrmentraut
This episode’s cold open deals with Walt buying a pistol (a .38 special, of course) from a local gunsmith, played with a Tarantino-esque flair by Jim Beaver, of Deadwood, Supernatural, Justified, and general awesomeness fame. Despite Walt’s clamoring that the gun is “for defense,” the salesman (whos name is Lawson) reiterates that he might best be served buying a weapon legally, since the defaced serial number on the gun he’s interested in could land him a felony charge if he is caught with it. Walt insists that this is how he wants to do it, ending the open with “I’ll take it.” He might not be actively trying to kill Gus, but if the events of the first episode have taught him anything, its to be prepared for it.
This is an episode split in two, not only in the parallel Walt/Jesse storylines, but in theme. One is plot, one is character development. Walt’s half deals with his attempts to find a way to kill Gus, while Jesse’s deals with how he’s dealing with Gale’s death. He spends it hanging out with Badger and Pete at first, gradually progressing into a full blown, episode-long party that he only leaves to go to work and to catch up with Andrea, who wants to know if anyone’s going to come looking for the stacks of money he’s been having given to her. When Badger, Pete and the rest of their guests (including the guy who looks uncommonly like Bryan Cranston in a wig) leave after more than a day of partying, and Jesse is finally alone with his thoughts, we see him crack and collapse inward. He’s so terrified of what he’s done, of what Walt has made him do, that even the idea of being alone is causing him to implode.
The rest of the White Clan gets their fair share of screentime, starting with a visit to Hank and Marie’s house, where Hank is beginning to make serious progress in his physical rehabilitation. Of course, he still can’t stand being alone with his wife, who, to her credit, has yet to give up on him. I will, without hesitation, tell you that Marie is my least favorite thing about this show, but her dedication to Hank is easily her most endearing character trait, and Betsy Brandt deserves all the credit in the world in making me feel sorry for Marie early in this season (at least until the third episode). Skyler, meanwhile, spends her screentime scouting out Bogdan’s car wash, keeping track of the comings and goings to give herself an idea of how much the place is worth. She then uses this information to give an offer to Bogdan, who places his price at $20 million. After Skyler scoffs and beings telling him her estimation of the car wash’s value ($879,000), he reiterates his price, telling her that if Walter White wants to buy his car wash, 20 million dollars is the price he will pay.
I skipped over Walt’s half of the episode a bit, because, upon first viewing, it seems to be the more pertinent and noteworthy. The first instance of his new plan occurs when he thinks he sees Gus coming down into the superlab, only for it to be a new, unknown man (Victor’s replacement, Tyrus). When Walt asks the arriving Mike where their boss is, Mike responds by saying that Walt’s “never gonna see him again.” That night, Walter drives over to the house Gus invited him to late in Season 3, where, after a moment spent gathering himself, he dons the Heisenberg hat and begins marching towards Gus’ house, stopping only when someone (later revealed to by Tyrus) calls his phone and tells him to go home. In the penultimate scene, Walt visits Mike at a local dive bar. He buys Mike a drunk and they start talking about their respective jobs, and when Mike asks Walter why he’s carrying a gun, Walt makes him an offer. If Mike can get him in a room with their boss, he can get rid of Gus before he kills one or both of them. Mike asks him if he’s done, and when he says yes, punches him in the face and kicks him around a bit before thanking Walt for the drink and leaving. Even if Mike is afraid of his boss (as his pulling his gun when Victor was murdered might suggest), he’s far too much of a professional to stage an insurrection just because this so-called genius can’t. He’s not going to risk his life by backing the losing side.
Season 4, Episode 3: Open House
“To clean cars…and clean money.”- Walter White
Quick little open in this one, where Walt, after coming in to work, notices a camera on the wall of the superlab. After testing its motion-tracking capabilities, he tells it (and the person or persons watching it) that he thinks they’re just the best. That they’re number one, even. After the intro, at Walt’s apartment, Skyler pressures him about the car wash and discovers the black eye he received from Mike the night before. After pestering him about whether or not he is danger, Skyler makes Walt deliver what is assuredly an empty promise that he will go to the police if he has to, as a last resort.
Walt’s main focus in this episode is hosting a pow-wow of sorts, where Saul and Skyler (and, tangentially, Saul’s bodyguard, Huell) bounce ideas off of one another as to how to get Bogdan to sell the car wash. Things stall until, when pressured about why exactly it has to be this car wash, Skyler slyly lets slip to Walt that Bogdan insulted him personally. This gets Walt’s attention, and gets him fully behind the idea of taking the fight to Bogdan personally. Later in the episode, Skyler formulates a plan of attack, and coordinates with Saul to place one of his men (played by the comedian Bill Burr, of Chappelle’s Show fame) at the car wash as an EPA agent who, while being coached by Skyler, finds enough contaminants to convince Bogdan that selling would be preferable to being fined or having to pay full retrofit of the filtration system. Later, when Bogdan calls, Skyler lowballs him on her original $879,000 offer. Eventually, he accepts, at $800,000, to Walt’s astonishment.
Jesse takes a backseat in this episode, though the scenes he does get do well in illustrating just how fucked up a state he’s in. After asking Walt if he wanted to do anything later in the lab, we see him at an indoor go-kart track, alone. When he returns to his house, we see that the somewhat good-natured party house from the second episode has devolved into an embryonic form of the same sort of meth hellhole that Walt rescued him from after Jane’s death. Later, as he regales his guests by making it rain on them with money and drugs, we see Tyrus watching his house from afar.
The major sideplot (to the point of almost being the main plot) of this episode concerns Marie and her visits to various open houses in the ABQ area, where she gives a different false name and background before surreptitiously stealing some sort of trinket from the homes. Eventually, she gets caught by suspicious realtor who had seen her before, and has to call Hank for assistance with the police. Despite proving once again that she’s the least essential and most aggravating character on the show, these scenes do well to show just how trapped she feels in her own home, and how escaping into these false lives is her only release. This is best seen when Hank’s detective friend Tim (who assisted when Walt was missing in Season 2) comes to take Marie home, only to have her fear in stepping foot in that house break her down. As I said before, things in the Schrader household are very, very bad right now, but they receive their first little ray of sunshine when Tim pays a visit to Hank, and asks him to review a notebook they found at a crime scene: Gale’s notebook. Hank is noncommittal at first, but as the episode ends, his interest gets the better of him, and he takes a peek. Things are going to be picking up very soon, plotwise.
Season 4, Episode 4: Bullet Points
“Oh, God. How did everything get so screwed up?” “Yeah, you do have a little ‘shit creek’ action happening.”- Walter White and Saul Goodman
One of the simmering plot points brought up near the end of Season 3 was Gus’ impending conflict with the Cartel. Until the cold open of this episode, this had yet to materialize in any meaningful way. Mike is providing protection for a Los Pollos Hermanos delivery truck that gets pulled over by a pair of Cartel thugs. When the driver begins speaking in English (to give Mike an idea of what’s going on), the thugs kill him and fire on the back of the truck, where Mike hides as best he can among the batter. He survives, though not without losing a chunk of his ear, and summarily eliminates the two gun-toting Cartel boys. Jonathan Banks is just the right amount of exasperated for all of this to play as more a shitty part of a shitty job than a high-stakes gunfight.
The first major scene in this episode is one of the longest (and most humorous) in the history of the show, as Skyler walks an unwilling Walt through the script she’s prepared for their long-awaited confession of Walt’s “gambling problem” to the rest of the family (sans, Marie, who of course already knows). It’s not a particularly complicated set of scenes, but they do well to illustrate just how goofy a criminal combination Walt and Skyler are (I also love how terrible Skyler’s writing is, which hammers home the old plot point that she’s something of a failed writer). It also serves, in a roundabout sort of way, as a form of meta self-commentary by the writers (you can imagine them having similar conversations about what Walter would and wouldn’t say), who must have gotten a kick out of writing it. Just before they actually “come clean,” Hank shows off a piece of evidence from a case he’s working on, which just happens to be a ridiculous video featuring the recently departed Gale singing a karaoke version of Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” (which is interesting, because in many ways, Peter Schilling is to David Bowie what Gale was to Walt. I’m not being serious).
When it actually comes to revealing the tale, Walter seems to have a bit of trouble playing the contrite and sorrowful role Skyler has picked out for him. After excusing himself, he sneaks back to Hank’s room and starts going through the case notes. Later, he convinces Hank to show him the notes in a more open manor. While they’re poring through Gale’s notes, we’re treated to one of the most sneakily tense scenes in the show, where Hank tells Walter the grand tale of his hunt for the mysterious Heisenberg, which culminates with Hank throwing out possible names that fit the “W.W.” found on the first page. “Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?,” and with that last one, he and Walt share a laugh. “You got me,” Walt jokes (and then immediately flips to Gale’s tribute to Walt Whitman’s “The Learned Astronomer”) but I’m not so sure Hank is entirely joking. He’s shown a bit of a blind spot where Walt is concerned, but the story of this hardened gambling mastermind he’s just been fed seems to have re-awakened him to just how brilliant his brother-in-law really is. I’m not saying it’s going to happen soon, but Hank’s too good of a cop to not put the pieces together some day. And what a day that will be.
Jesse spends the first half of this episode conspicuous in his absence. Once Hank mentions to Walt that a “person of interest” was seen in connection with Gale’s shooting, we cut to Walt pounding on Jesse’s door, who’s sporting a newly shaven head. Jesse scoffs at the idea that the police have any interest in him, or else they’d already have knocked down his door. Walt visits Saul after Jesse proves unwilling to help, and flies into a mini-rant after Saul tells him not to worry. He’s got everything to worry about, and as a last resort, Saul tells him about a guy who can make him and his family disappear. This seems like a red herring, but it plays a relatively important role in a future episode. Either way, Jesse has descended into an unstable maelstrom, and neither of them think he’s going to last very long.
Walt’s fears are pushed further when he notices the camera in the super lab has begun to focus almost entirely on Jesse, and sure enough, the next morning, Mike and Tyrus wake him up, having put an end to his permanent house party and caught the thief who stole his giant bag o’ money. Jesse is nonplussed, and surprises Mike when he not only sees through his attempt at intimidation by noting that they aren’t going to kill the thief, or else they wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of putting a blindfold on him. Mike goes to Gus with his concerns that Jesse is a liability and that “something has to be done,” and when Walter shows up at work the next day, Jesse is nowhere to be found. When he goes over to Jesse’s house, there’s no one to be found, and Jesse’s cell phone is still next to his bed. We cut to Mike driving Jesse to an undisclosed location in the desert and a major cliffhanger to end the first four episodes of the fourth season.