Who Was the Most Evil on the Season Premiere of Breaking Bad?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 17 2011 11:28 PM

Breaking Bad, Season 4, Episode 1: “Box Cutter”

[Caution: There are spoilers ahead! So if you haven't yet watched "Box Cutter," come back when you have and share your thoughts and theories.]

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Photograph of Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), Jonathan Banks (Mike), Bryan Cranston (Walter White) and Giancarlo Esposito Gustavo Fring) courtesy of Ursula Coyote/AMC.

 

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June:

Jess, I’m psyched to discuss Season 4 of Breaking Bad with you. I’m a recent convert to the show—for the first three seasons, unwatched episodes ate up disc space on my TiVo’s hard drive—but after a recent binge, I’ve become an addict.

It was a fine opening episode. There wasn’t a lot of plot development—if anything, there was a vigorous reassertion of the pre-hiatus status quo—but it served as an artful reminder of where the characters stand psychologically.

Walt is weak. Sure, he’s a great chemist, and by now he knows just what to do when confronted with an inconvenient dead body, but his attempts to sweet-talk Gus were just as spectacularly ineffective as his attempts to sweet-talk his wife, Skyler, back in his early days in the meth business. His head is packed with facts, but is the heart inside that Kenny Rogers T-shirt strong enough to survive this brutal business?

Skyler, on the other hand, showed herself to be a natural-born con artist. Moving Walt’s car before Walter Jr. got up proved she can think fast, but it was her Oscar-worthy performance for the grizzled old locksmith that convinced me she’s not the weak link in the White family business.

I am worried about Jesse. The shocking fate of Gus’ guy Victor reminded us that this is not a good show for sidekicks—that’s the second time Walt and Jesse have witnessed a drug-world figure turn on his unsuspecting goon. (Remember Tuco’s brutal attack on No-Doze?)

What are you most curious about this season? Oddly perhaps, I most want to know about something in the past—how did the dynamic, confident twentysomething Walter White become the dull, whipped 50-year-old we met at the beginning of Season 1? Will we ever find out how Gray Matter lost its White?

Jess:

I too am thrilled to be participating in this weekly Breaking Bad dialogue. I watched all three seasons during a three-week stretch in late winter in a tweaked-out frenzy, so I was jonesing for new episodes.

Unlike you, I was disappointed by the season opener. My favorite BrBa episodes are the ones where the grimness is leavened by some dark humor—say, the comic relief of Jesse’s stoner friend Badger. But the Season 4 premiere was all claustrophobia and fear: Walt and Jesse held hostage in the lab; Gus’s cold-blooded offing of his henchman Victor; Skyler continuing to descend into the underworld of lies and laundered money; Hank laid up and miserable.

You’re right, though, that it was a potent reminder of the psychological status of our main crew. Walt appears to have zero remorse for ordering Jesse to kill his former assistant, Gale, despite the fact that Jesse is so clearly shell shocked and miserable. I don’t know that Walt is weak; I would say his morals are weak to nonexistent at this point, but he seems to have fallen into his new role as Gus’ rival quite comfortably. He actively wants to be the kingpin now, and he doesn’t care who dies in the process. Walt’s so far from his original, semi-understandable motivation for meth cooking that he’s basically a different person (see this great Vulture slide show “Charting the Increasing Evil of Walter White” for the arc of Walt’s descent). He’s also gotten reaaallly whiny. I know he was trying to argue for his life but sheesh, the guy could do it with a little more dignity.

I am also curious about Walt’s 20s and 30s and hope we get some meaty flashbacks this season. But I’m most looking forward to the White family’s attempts to launder their ill-gotten gains. I have loved Bob Odenkirk as Walt’s smarmy lawyer, Saul, and I want him to be a major player in this season. We get glimpses of him in this first episode, hiding in his office behind a behemoth bodyguard, but I hope the car wash deal (or maybe even the laser tag emporium!) comes through and we get a little dash of Saul in subsequent shows.

Each episode of Breaking Bad feels like it is dealing with epic questions about the nature of good and evil, and it makes me want to rank each character by his or her level of moral turpitude. In “Box Cutter,” I would say Gus was the most evil this episode. It’s a no-brainer. He slit his right-hand man’s throat with the aforementioned box cutter, showered up, and left the building without changing his facial expression. At the other end of the spectrum is Marie, who seems to have discovered a newfound sense of purpose in handling Hank’s disability. Who were your saints and sinners?

June:

I think the show has desensitized me. It’s gotten so I don’t really care about evil anymore—the cancer of moral corruption has eaten away at all the characters, except perhaps Hank, a hard-to-love bigot but a hell of an investigator; Marie, who, I agree, has finally found the purpose her life had been lacking; and the saintly White kids.

At this point I’m more concerned with competence. Gus is a stone-cold killer, but he’s good at his job, and I admire that. Walt could no more become a kingpin than I could, and I find that a bit pathetic. I admire his loyalty to Jesse, even though I know it’s mostly driven by a need to be the smartest guy in the room, but a businessman has to be ruthless, a trait that Walt has shown himself incapable of. I’ve lost patience with Walt’s whining, and I’ve started to wonder if Victor’s accusation that he’s nothing more than a cook following a complicated recipe isn’t true.

I’ll pose some questions for the readers: Have we fallen for Walt’s chemist-speak hype? Am I crazy to think that Walt will be the one who messes up this year rather than Jesse or Skyler?

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