Breaking Bad essentially boils down to a long series of narrative curveballs. Over the course of its thirty-plus episodes so far, showrunner Vince Gilligan has demonstrated an ability to consistently subvert expectations without cheapening the series’ grand scheme (to “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface,” as he puts it). So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Gilligan’s follow-up to the tensest run in the show’s history – the incredible final episodes of its third season – turns out to be one of the strangest, most patient hours in the show’s history – almost perversely patient, in fact.
Speaking of perverse, Gilligan has some fun toying with audience expectations from the very first seconds of ‘Box Cutter’, which begins from an unexpected vantage point – that of Gale (David Costabile, in what must be his last appearance), the doomed but cheery chemist, as he unpacks the very expensive parts of Gus’s super-lab with a bright green box-cutter. (Some less-subtle-than-usual foreshadowing at work here.) In just the sort of cruelly ironic twist that Gilligan loves to revel in, it turns out that it was Gale’s analysis of Walt’s super-pure meth that convinced Gus to take a chance on him despite his perceived lack of “professionalism.” (I see the dark appeal of such a reveal, but it might be a little too perfect.) The opening also nods to viewers who theorized that perhaps Gale survived his season-ending shooting at the hands of a meth-addled Jesse.
No such luck. In fact, following the cold open, we rejoin Jesse in the moments immediately following the shooting, and though we don’t see the body at first, it’s immediately clear from Jesse’s shaken expression that Gale didn’t make it. (Any other outcome would have been an awful cop-out, frankly.) Upon being shuttled back to the lab by Gus’s steely crony Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui), Jesse rejoins Walt, and they spend nearly all of the episode seated at gunpoint, awaiting Gus, and his verdict on their fate. What ultimately follows is a bravura sequence of the sort Breaking Bad viewers have grown accustomed, only even nastier than usual.
It breaks down like so: Gus enters the lab, strolling slowly but authoritatively through the metal entryway, stopping for a period in front of Jess and Walt, then continuing past them, beginning to change into lab wear. Just under two full minutes after Gus’s entrance, Walt finally breaks the silence with an extended attempt at a threatening monologue – one that can’t compete with Gus’s continued, stony silence. Victor, too, speaks up (somewhat awkwardly, given his total silence in all of his appearances so far) – he says he’s learned the steps and can cook the same product with ease. Walt and Victor argue, and all the while, Gus continues to change in the background. Finally – almost exactly six full minutes after his wordless entrance, Gus finally plays his hand, taking the aforementioned box cutter and slitting Victor’s throat with it, nearly pulling his head straight back as he opens the wound in Walt and Jesse’s direction. As he kills Victor, Gus keeps his bloodstained face trained on Walt and Jesse for what feels like an eternity. (Actually, it’s another 60 seconds of TV time.) Two notable reactions here: even Mike the Cleaner seems taken aback by the gruesomeness of the act, and Jesse actually appears not scared but emboldened, as though suddenly ready for a fight. Gus then washes off and, finally, leaves – but on his way out: “Well? Get back to work.” Ten minutes of screen time predicated on one significant action.
The rest of the episode mostly consisted of playing catch-up with the show’s other moving parts, in considerably less riveting fashion: Skyler is left to wonder where Walt is, and for the first time in two full seasons actually seems to care; Saul is left terrified after his encounter with Mike last season, and is seen fleeing the country, at least temporarily; Marie is still helping Hank recover, and he seems to have found a strange new hobby in the form of purchasing minerals – for some investigative purpose, no doubt. But the most important player in this episode might well be the dead one. Beyond the extended sequence detailed above, ‘Box Cutter’ is not a particularly rousing hour, even if the callback to Season One’s “acid bath” was a welcome – and gnarly – one, and even though Jesse lays out the new stakes just as succinctly as he did in the Season Three opener. Then, he came to a realization: “I’m the bad guy,” he insisted, and by season’s end he was made into a murderer. This time it’s Jesse who knows all too well what Victor’s death means: “At least we all understand each other. We’re all on the same page.” More than ever, Jesse retains more perspective than Walt seems even remotely capable of.
Possibly the sparsest episode in Breaking Bad history – even more so than the divisive bottle episode ‘Fly’, which was actually rich in character development – ‘Box Cutter’ doesn’t reveal too much of where Season Four is headed, but it’s worth remembering that Season Three took quite a while to get geared up, too – and look where that wound up. Gilligan and his crew have earned the right to take their time.