Gale, we doff our proverbial caps to you, sir. Breaking Bad’s spectacular third season ended with Walt in the clutches of drug kingpin Gus’s lackeys and Jesse pointing a gun at the face of that Birkenstock-wearing, tea-swilling chemistry nerd. In season four’s opening flashback, Gale unwraps the lab equipment for Gus’s super-lab and signs his death warrant by convincing Gus of the “tremendous gulf” between the 96 percent pure crystal meth he can produce and the preposterously 99-plus percent pure product that Walt cooks up. Instead of making a cool million a month producing meth, Gale signs his death warrant.
Yes, Jesse’s aim was true. Gale’s murder propels a startlingly tense premiere forward, ratcheting up the stakes just when it seemed like Breaking Bad couldn’t get any more nerve-wracking. Walt and Jesse get locked up in the lab, and the action is literally do-or-die: Will Gus kill Jesse and Walt and risk his supply chain? Will Gus’s henchman
VincentVictor be able to replace them? Gus’s inexorable preparation is slow-mo, horror-movie terrifying. Walt babbles like the undisciplined motormouth he’s become recently, the opposite of a scientist. But Gus knew exactly what he was doing from the moment he loosened his necktie.
In retrospect, Gale became Walt’s foil: proof that not any man in such a situation would be corrupted as thoroughly as Walt. The difference isn’t just that Walt is a better scientist; the difference is that Walt is ruthlessly determined to survive at any cost. “I’d shoot him again tomorrow and the next day and the day after that,” Walt yells at Gus (perhaps an easy thing to say, since Jesse pulled the trigger). “When you make it Gale versus me or Gale versus Jesse, Gale loses, simple as that.” Gale never even knew there was a game to lose.
When Gus finally slits
VincentVictor’s throat and he falls to the cement with a wet thwack, it’s a sick shock. Walt almost vomits, but there’s a live-wire gleam in Jesse’s eyes, who has just committed his first premeditated murder, after his first meth-addled attempt (on two kid-employing drug dealers) was interrupted by Walt’s SUV. “Well, get back to work,” is all Gus says. Five confident words, in contrast to Walt’s desperate babbling. The swirling blood of the cleanup segues to the swirling ketchup in a diner, where Jesse and Walt debate whether or not Gus will kill them now and Jesse says, “We’re all on the same page… The one that says if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.”
In science, accurate observation is everything, and the episode is packed with surveillance, record-keeping, and evidence. The premiere hints at all sorts of potential calamity: Who’s watching who? What evidence is left behind?
The first establishing shot of Gale’s apartment sets the tone: a rack of antique cameras, with a skull sitting on top of one. Gale’s corpse reveals that he was shot through the eye. Panicked, the sleazy lawyer Saul roots around his office, trying to detect hidden microphones, then he freaks out when Skyler mentions the meth lab over the phone. Skyler, ever more comfortable with deceit, lies her way into Walt’s apartment to look for information, and finds nothing more than that all-seeing, super-symbol fake eye that fell from the sky (Gatsby’s TJ Eckleburg eyeglasses, with a morbid twist).
Even Hank, who’s found his own new crystal obsession, can endure his rehab — but only if Marie isn’t watching, and perhaps making him feel like less of a man. A gaggle of neighbors witness Victor storming into Gale’s apartment — and Victor tells Mike that he was just another Lookie-Lou at the crime scene. Victor’s exposure is likely what gets him killed by Gus, but only after he confirms all of Walt’s season-three fears of lab surveillance by proving that he’s studied Walt’s meth recipe, move by move.
Though the episode is titled “Box Cutter,” the knife is a red herring, dissolved in acid, disappeared forever. The weapon is far less incriminating than Gale’s notebook. First seen in Gale’s hand in the episode’s opening flashback, the notebook fills the episode’s final shot. Near Gale’s surely-incriminating cell phone and CD-ROMs full of god-knows-what evidence, Gale’s “Lab Notes” folder is decorated with corny, middle-school-cool lightning. Earlier in the episode, the car stereo tells Skyler, there’s “330 days of sunshine a year” in Albuquerque — that’s ninety-plus percent of all days, but as Gale noted, that last few percent makes all the difference. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.
That final scene in Gale’s apartment introduces a new threat. A careful team of police investigators, armed with high-tech CSI equipment, marks evidence with yellow number tags, measures distances to the millimeter, and calculates a bullet’s trajectory to the slightest degree. The scene casts the police as a swarming team of scientists — rigorous, careful, educated. Are these Walt’s true rivals? A threat more dangerous than even Gus?
The last we see Walt, he’s walking away from his biggest gamble yet, hitching up an ill-fitting pair of beltless white jeans, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the beard of music’s most milquetoast bad-boy, Kenny Rogers, whose “The Gambler” may be music’s least threatening crime song. Walt’s newish cover story is that his money came from gambling winnings, and for much of last season, he behaved more like a gambler than a scientist, taking ever-bigger, ever-more-hotheaded risks as the distance between Jesse and him shrank and Gus and Mike emerged as the show’s new chess-masters. Now, Walt may have to be more precise if he’s going to elude the coming investigation and out-maneuver his sadistic boss. Will Walt continue to bet the house — or will he more carefully calculate the odds? Who will be watching from here on out?
More questions: Is Saul, who made sure his slothful bodyguard had his passport, about to flee the country? Will Walt go on the offensive? Will Gus renegotiate Walt’s deal, leaving Hank and Marie bankrupt? How bad will Jesse break now? What did you make of the premiere?