July 17th, 2011
It has been over thirteen months since Breaking Bad finished its third season, which isn’t something that happens all that often. Of course, AMC will be dealing with this issue twice in one year when Mad Men returns early next year, but that show didn’t leave on an arresting cliffhanger. “Full Measure” was a thrilling hour of television, creating suspense through uncertainty as opposed to mystery. We know what happened, and the sequence of events that allowed it to happen were delineated without any sudden twists or turns, but the finale left us with a sense of disbelief: we were haunted by that final image more than we were shocked by it, and we desired its conclusion less to have something resolved and more to see something begin.
“Box Cutter” picks up where “Full Measure” left off, although not immediately. The episode is very interested in the dramatic power of delay, lingering in those moments of waiting for the other shoe to fall. It doesn’t seek to surprise us so much as it seeks to make us reconsider: it knows we spent a year thinking about the various possibilities, so it lays out a likely scenario and then basically sits back and lets our own anxiety drive this story forward. The result is bracing in its minimalism if a wee bit writerly, further cementing Breaking Bad’s reputation as one of the most distinctive dramas on television.
And, yes, one of its finest as well.
The writerly quality I speak to isn’t exactly new for the show, but I’d certainly argue that the episode maybe went a bit too far on that front. When the show has featured the teddy bear eyeball in the past, for example, it was a reminder for Walt – a symbol of the damage he feels responsible for. However, Skyler finding it is a reminder for us rather than something meaningful for her character, a distinction that makes it all seem a bit cute. It’s especially cute when you pair it with Skyler pulling out a pair of Walt’s tighty whities and the use of acid to dispose of the body, both of which are clear callbacks to the first season.
I want to be clear that I enjoyed these details, especially the acid one which led to Jesse’s first real line in the episode: “Trust us.” It was sharp, it was darkly funny, and it was a reminder for the characters as much as it was for the audience. The problem was that the episode already had a central device that existed purely in the writerly context, a flashback to the first moments of the lab that belonged to no one in particular. It was, as Jason Mittell put it on Twitter, “Chekhov’s Box Cutter,” a device named after its author for a very distinct reason. On its own, the box cutter was a smart device, but it seemed to be part of an episode that was over-reliant on those kinds of devices. Even the lab book, introduced during the cold open and returning during the conclusion, was something intended purely for the audience.
It’s not that this device isn’t valuable, as the amount of time I’ve spent talking about it would suggest that it certainly resonated with me as a fan of the show. However, the other parts of the episode are all about immersion, about us becoming lost amidst the intensity of these moments. Admittedly, it is an intellectual intensity, in that it is drawn as much from our minds overthinking the situation as it is from the situation itself. The sheer silence in the climatic scene as Gus arrives to the lab is an incredible creative decision, making the methodical pace excruciating even when the actual result was (for me) entirely predictable. As soon as Gus’ lieutenant (Victor) showed up at the crime scene, a fact that he shared with Mike (who would have shared it with Gus), he became more of a liability than Walt and Jesse could ever be.
What’s important, and what makes that scene so effective, is that my logic was never “Oh, Walt and Jesse could never die because they’re the stars of the show.” That’s the kind of immersion I’m talking about, that point where logic outside of the text has no place in our mental deconstruction of the action unfolding on the screen. I become an obsessive viewer during those sequences, lost in the small details: the sound of the Victor’s weight slightly bending the metal desk as he sits on it, the way Jesse’s oversized t-shirt makes him seem so child-like, etc. The scene tells us things about the characters through their actions, yes, but also through their reactions: while Jesse seems almost woken up by the visceral display, Walt seems visibly shaken, while Mike was actually surprised in the moment (which seems out of character, and it says something about Gus that Mike didn’t think he had it in him).
The show’s characters are strong enough that they don’t need dialogue to tell a story, and “Box Cutter” is a fine example of this. It’s important to note that there is some solid dialogue within this episode, but in some instances it only confirms what non-verbal storytelling has told us. While Jesse and Walt eventually have a conversation as they sit in Denny’s wearing their Kenny Rogers t-shirts, Jesse’s nonchalant breakfast preparation (and Walt’s lack of food) already tell us about their post-disposal states of mind. The fact that Jesse spends most of the episode in silence also makes what he says stand out that much more, just as Walt’s early mouthiness is notably quieted later in the episode. All of this is something the show has earned, and something that Gilligan uses extremely well.
However, when we aren’t quite as immersed in the action on-screen, there is the risk of these devices pulling us away from the narrative being told. Skyler’s storyline was always going to seem a bit disconnected, an investigation that we know the answer to, but the little easter eggs only did more to make it seem like something Gilligan is constructing rather than something Skyler might actually do. In truth, I don’t necessarily think this is the case, as Skyler’s instincts show her own response to what would be a “difficult” situation for her to handle, but those moments pulled me out of the intensity of the other side of the episode more than Hank and Marie because of those little symbols of seasons past rearing their heads. While Hank’s plight felt like a necessary detour, as Dean Norris acted the hell out of Hank maintaining his bedpan position, Skyler’s storyline ended up seeming a bit more pre-packaged than I would like.
Again, this is a minor complaint, one that isn’t even that big a deal: when I suggest that it took me out of the episode, I simply mean that it took me to a fan/critical space in which the series’ intratextual references are sorted and analyzed. There’s something pleasurable about those callbacks, satisfying in a way that is central to my appreciation of the series. However, it’s also something that doesn’t always jive with the sense of immersion the show is going for, and the sense of immersion that drove much of the rest of “Box Cutter.” I love the mechanics of forcing us to examine what we’ve seen to this point, and the way the episode was structured (with the flashback to the lab’s construction, followed by Gale’s death) served as its own “Previously On” segment in terms of forcing us back to the emotions we felt last June. However, that kind of recall can be overdone, and it can vary in terms of how essential it is to the story being told. Perhaps one of you could make an argument for every bit of meta-symbolism on display in the episode as essential to the episode’s aims, but I felt it was used to the point that it clashed with the minimalism of other elements of the episode.
None of this gives me any concern for where the story heads from here. The season is off to an intense beginning, and Jesse is entirely right: now they know, and we know, where things stand. As the aforementioned Jason Mittell wrote after The Killing finale had everyone up in arms, “surprise” is not a necessary component of narrative so long as suspense can be built through mood and character. We can almost see Walt and Jesse’s diner meal as a metaphor of sorts: while Walt seems obsessive and paranoid following Gus’ actions, the kind of uncertainty that some serial narratives seek to create, Jesse realizes that there is a different – and maybe even thrilling – kind of suspense to be found in knowledge. While I’m sure that some might still watch the show like Walt, the fact that you could watch the show like Jesse and still enjoy it says a great deal about the strength of the show’s storytelling.
And while that metaphor might also be a bit writerly, it’s certainly not enough to overwhelm a very welcome return.
- Nice to get a brief scene with Saul, although I would have liked something a bit more substantial – Bob Odenkirk is hilarious, and the phone call with Skyler was sharply done, but I want to be able to explore the character with more depth this season. A potential trip to Mexico would definitely fit the bill, so curious to see where that passport conversation leads.
- I always like it when dead cast members get a chance for a swan song, so the flashback to Gale’s giddiness was a nice moment for Dave Costabile.
- Love the similar tracking shots with Skyler and then Walt walking towards the camera – bonus points to Cranston for holding up his newly purchased white jeans as he walked. Tremendous detail.
- No surprise that the show lingered on a number of camera shots: Hank’s final scene was particularly devastating, but the red-on-red of the blood moving across the floor was truly striking.
- I know that some people like to pick on Skyler, but I thought her fake panic attack/purse stealing story was effective at showing her willingness to get her hands dirty – not a complex story development, but a valuable one. I actually thought Walt was by far the more reprehensible human being here: while I noted that Jesse’s t-shirt made him look like a child sitting in that lab, Walt’s heckling of the assistant was a temper tantrum in disguise, and was less than flattering.
- I presume I’m not the only one on the lookout for that Kenny Rogers t-shirt? I’d even buy a Large just to keep the sticker on it, even though it would be too big to really wear.