Chekhov’s Box Cutter: Breaking Bad Season Four Premiere

We all know about “Chekhov’s Gun”: that literary device wherein Anton Chekhov argues that you shouldn’t introduce a loaded rifle into the narrative without having it have gone of by the story’s conclusion. Breaking Bad, arguably the best television show on the air, has used this device to great aplomb in the past. The hollow-point bullet from “One Minute” comes immediately to mind, or even the omniscient teddy bear eye introduced in the opening moments of season two. Naturally, you don’t title a season premiere “Box Cutter,” without making daring use of that eponymous tool.

This will be my first season watching Breaking Bad in real-time. I watched the first three on Blu-Ray over the course of the past three months. While it was quite a grueling marathon at times, the upside was that while most viewers had to wait over a year to witness the fallout from season three’s final moment, I only had to wait a day. “Box Cutter,” subsequently, was my first experience with commercials on AMC. Halfway through the episode, the audience is greeted with this potentially spoilery disclaimer:

The following segment contains intense violence which may be unsuitable for some viewers.

Viewer discretion is advised.

Immediately, we are brought out of the context of the scene. Our expectations are set. Something extreme is about to go down. Time to grab a pillow. (I now have a Pavlovian instinct to reach for whatever’s handy, whenever the aural tone shifts and silence fills the scene. When I was a teenager, a friend of mine was sent to the ER due to a box cutter accident, so this segment was particularly intense.)

As a television audience with knowledge of the basic inner workings of television production, we know that Emmy winners Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul will survive whatever ordeal comes their way. So will Mike, played by series regular Jonathan Banks. All three will make it out alive. Shook to the core perhaps, but alive. Through this simple deduction, we can surmise that Victor is doomed. But fitting together the puzzle pieces of the scene’s tv logic doesn’t lessen the impact one bit. Quite the opposite, as the suspense becomes even greater in anticipation of an impending showdown.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

Our senses our heightened and the proceedings are intensified, as our attention is placed squarely on Gus Fring. Seemingly nothing escapes Gus’ steely gaze from behind his delicate frames. And as Gus takes off these spectacles in order to change his wardrobe, our eyes become fixated on Giancarlo Esposito’s masterful performance. His silent command and composed savagery is unsettling to say the least. Gus says no more than five words in the entire lengthy scene, but his actions speak volumes. Every deliberate step he takes sends a message.

Breaking Bad is a series which thrives on its cast delivering meaty monologues, weaving compelling and intricate yarns with emotional prowess. Aaron Paul, whose Jesse has long been the seemingly moral center in this ever-shifting cat-and-mouse game, serves as the storytelling king. His spellbinding delivery leaves us hanging on his every word. However in “Box Cutter,” it’s Jesse’s reactions that communicate the most powerfully: his instability and anguish after shooting Gale, his fierce indignant stare-down with Gus. In fact, it isn’t until Walt and Jesse’s disposal methods are challenged that we Jesse hear speak for the first time. Fifty minutes or so into the episode and Jesse utters two words, “Trust us,” a grim callback to the first season.

My have our former chemistry teacher and his surrogate son have transformed these past three seasons. It has been an engrossing journey to witness, from the two squeamishly dealing with the fallout of Krazy-8 and leaving it to fate with a coin flip, to wordlessly cleaning Victor’s murder as if it were daily routine. (Side note: That cut from spilled blood to ketchup and fries? Quintessential and delicious Breaking Bad bleakness.)

With Vince Gilligan at the helm, Breaking Bad demonstrates just how effective storytelling can be through the lack of spoken dialogue. Through Jesse’s numb demeanor, contrasting his usual turbulence… Through the amplified sounds of Gus’ footsteps down the metal staircase… Through the time spent watching Gus’s dressing and undressing with a chilling control and calculation… Through the stunning breakdown of primary hues: the fluorescent laboratory lamps, the deep blood-red floor, the icy blue shadows cast on Walt and Jesse… Breaking Bad succeeds in showing its story, rather than telling.

As for setting up groundwork for the season, “Box Cutter” hints at themes of building and rebuilding. In the opening sequence, we see the late Gale building the future Walt-Cave. Hank cultivates his new-found collection of minerals, while Marie is left to slowly rebuild her husband’s broken spirit. As Skylar crafts her own web of lies and fabrications to deceive a locksmith, she builds up her capacity for breaking bad herself. Will we journey into Jesse’s attempts to rebuild his damaged soul, or will he go deeper down the rabbit hole with his possibly false sense of security?

Whatever Breaking Bad has in store for us this summer, it surely won’t go the way of The Walking Dead‘s first look at season two, hitting us over the head with blunt force. Chekhov’s Lab Notes, anyone?

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One response

  1. Pingback: The Naughty and Nice of 2011 TV | everybody and television

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