Breaking Bad season 4 episode 1 review: Box Cutter

Is Breaking Bad the finest television programme currently on our screens? Paul checks out the opening episode of season four...

This review contains spoilers.

4.1 Box Cutter


The opening scene of the season 4 premiere will have seen the Breaking Bad acolytes all over the world breathe a huge sigh of relief. The excruciating 14 month wait is finally over, and the Current Greatest Programme Ever™ is back on the small screen to entertain and exhilarate us for another 13 weeks.

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Any exultant exhalations will have been short-lived, however, because it’s doesn’t take long for Box Cutter to grab your windpipe and remind you of something you may have forgotten over the long hiatus. Breaking Bad is seriously intense.

The first scene of Box Cutter is relatively low-key: a flashback where we get to see, in an ironic twist, that the unfortunate Gale was in fact at least partly the architect of his own demise. It turns out that so impressed was Gale by the 99% pure blue meth that he persuaded the reticent meth kingpin, Gus, to hire Walt as his head cook, despite the bespectacled chicken man’s reservations about his ‘professionalism’.

After this, we pick up immediately where we left off last season, where in a stunning last-minute gambit Walt managed to finagle his way out of certain doom at the hands of Gus by engineering the demise of Gale – the innocuous and likable chemist who Gus had been grooming as Walt’s replacement – at the hands of Jesse. In the process, he robbed his surrogate son of whatever shred of innocence he may have managed to hold on to.

While Walt is being held hostage at the meth lab by Mike the Cleaner, Jesse staggers away from the scene of Gale’s murder, shocked. Soon, Jesse is captured by Gus’s goon Victor, and the four men sit in the lab, waiting nervously for Gus’s next move. And they wait. And wait. And wait.

We check in from time to time on the other main characters. Skyler is trying to get to the bottom of Walt’s disappearance, Hank and Marie are trying to cope with the enourmous strain of Hank’s new disability, and the live-action Lionel Hutz Saul Goodman has descended into a paranoid mania, tearing his office upside down in a search for bugs reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s breakdown in The Conversation. But the meat of this episode was back at the lab, where we all waited for the wrath of Gus to be unleashed in all its fury.

There’s one word to describe Box Cutter, and perhaps Breaking Bad as a whole: masterful.

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Everybody in involved in the show on a creative and technical level is in total command of their craft. Vince Gilligan’s writing is razor sharp, the cinematography is astounding, the direction is inventive and snappy (I particularly enjoyed the smash cut from blood being mopped up to a hungry diner scooping up ketchup with a French fry), and the actors are uniformly magnificent.

All of this means that the show can pull off virtuosic long, wordless sequences where nothing is said, but everything is conveyed either through a thoughtful shot composition, or through the nuanced gestures and performances of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Jonathan Banks. 

Breaking Bad’s method of storytelling is to show, not to tell, and it’s this ethos, along with the most talented cast and crew currently in television, that makes it so utterly compelling.

Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Box Cutter’s central scene, where Gus finally arrives at the lab to confront Walt and Jesse in possibly one of the tensest and most brilliant set pieces the show has ever done.

Most other TV shows take advantage of the increased runtime that the format allows by filling it with extra plots and characters. Breaking Bad, however, uses the extra time to suffuse its long setpieces with a suffocating amount of suspense and tension. We spent what seems like ten minutes just watching Gus get dressed, as Walt rambles and pleads in the background, and it’s nerve-wracking.

This is the show that spent a whole episode wringing tension out of Walt’s attempts to catch a fly, remember. It is amazing how much menace it can extricate from the mundane: it’s one of the first TV shows where you could accurately apply the adjective ‘Hitchcockian’ (sit down whoever just mentioned Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which is admittedly pretty Hitchockian).

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Thanks to Giancarlo Esposito’s terrifyingly controlled performance and some clever writing, we’ve known for a long time that Gus is an extremely dangerous character, but we’ve never actually seen him personally get medieval in a way that tallies with his fearsome reputation. We knew Gus’s reprisal was going to be terrible, but Gilligan and co made us wait a long time for it, treating us to long, silent passages.

Of course, the longer the build-up, the sweeter the payoff, and when Gus’s feral side was finally revealed, you’d be hard pushed to find a more shocking moment of television in this or any other year (Game of Thrones included). 

This episode was all about re-establishing Gus in the eyes of the audience as a total monster, and to emphasise the deep, deep, ‘dos’, as Hank might put it, that Walt and Jesse are going to find themselves in this season, which it did with style.

For all the excruciating nail-biting, however, it should be noted that Breaking Bad is still genuinely funny, with more than a few laugh out loud lines (“I’m bidding on a mineral,” “Boy, someone’s a chatty Cathy today!”), some great visual gags (the aforementioned ketchup cut, the possible Pulp Fiction shout out of Walt and Jesse frequenting a diner wearing naff, matching Kenny Rogers t-shirts after disposing of a body), and some amusing call-backs and fan service (“Does this stuff really work?” “Trust us.”)

At the end of the episode we’re in a familiar scenario. Walt and Jesse have managed to extricate themselves from an impossible situation, but in doing so have ended up in much, much worse trouble than they were before. We’re only 40 minutes into the new season, and already the noose is tightening.

These reviews are going to become a bit boring if it’s just going to be me fawning every week, but it’s been so long since Gilligan and co have put a foot wrong that for now at least, it just looks like you’re all just going to have to put up with it.

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NB: I am an idiot. It took me the longest time to realise what the  Box Cutter referred to in the title actually was, because in my part of the world that particular object has always been referred to as a ‘craft knife’. Would ‘Craft Knife’ have been a better and more menacing title? These are the questions that keep nobody up at night…

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