BREAKING BAD Recap: Season Four Gets Off to an Incredibly Bloody Start

     July 17, 2011

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Over the past three seasons, AMC’s Breaking Bad has emerged as one of the best dark comedies/dramas/crime-thrillers on television.  It also happens to be– in this humble critic’s opinion– the best series on that network, a bold statement if there ever was one:  this is the same network that gives us both Mad Men and The Walking Dead, neither of which are slouches in the entertainment arena.  Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and a motley crew of shady junkies, wannabe-gangsters, put-upon family members, and a now-crippled DEA agent, Breaking Bad is mandatory viewing for anyone who enjoys a little edge to their television programming.  Tonight, AMC aired the fourth season premiere of the series…but if you’re a Breaking Bad fan, you probably already knew that, didn’t you?  Read on to find out what we thought about tonight’s premiere (and the show’s future), after the jump.

Breaking-Bad-imageTonight, AMC aired the fourth-season premiere of their best series, Breaking Bad (we could debate whether or not Breaking Bad‘s the best series on AMC all week, but let’s not get bogged down in petty details:  even if you’re particular to a different AMC series– say, the also-awesome Walking Dead– you’ll surely agree that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is a cut above almost everything else on TV), ending the borderline-unbearable 13-month drought fans of the series had been suffering through since season three wrapped.  For fans of outstanding television, this wasn’t unusual– entire civilizations rose from nothing, prospered, reached cataclysmic ends, and rebooted themselves in-between seasons of HBO’s The Sopranosbut still, we’re all happy the wait is over.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the series, Breaking Bad stars former Malcolm in The Middle dad Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a former chemist (and present-day chemistry teacher) who learns that he has terminal cancer.  Realizing that he has  only months to live and no money to speak of, Walt turns to chemistry in a desperate attempt to build a “nest egg” for his soon-to-be-fatherless family.  The twist, of course, is that Walt uses chemistry to manufacture and sell crystal-meth. His partner in crime is one of his former students, the put-upon Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul).  Jessie’s got experience in New Mexico’s drug-dealing game, but he’s far from the world’s savviest businessman.  The bulk of Breaking Bad‘s three-season run has dealt with Walt’s attempts to keep his family oblivious to his terrible secret, his misadventures in the drug-infested underbelly of New Mexico, his run-ins with other local dealers (each more colorful and intimidating than the last), and his love/hate relationship with Jessie.

Breaking-Bad-imageThat’s the best possible overview of the series I can provide you with in a single paragraph.  If it sounds like something you’d enjoy (and trust me:  it almost certainly will be), you need to ignore any potential spoilers about the show (Breaking Bad recaps– including this one– will be packed with ‘em), head out to your local DVD retailer, and purchase the first three seasons immediately:  maybe you can get all caught up before next week’s episode airs.  And, if you’re already a fan of the series, well…you need no further introduction, do you?  You’re here to find out what we thought of tonight’s season premiere, so let’s cut the shenanigans and get down to it.

When we last saw Walt and Jessie, the former was being held at gunpoint by his boss’ number-one henchman, Mike (Jonathan Banks), and the latter  was doing a little gunpoint-holding of his own with Walt’s former assistant, Gale (David Costabile).  A Mexican standoff was in the offing:  if Jessie killed Gale, Walt’s boss would be unable to have Walt killed (something Walt’s boss, Gus– played with a brilliantly understated menace by Giancarlo Esposito–wanted very much by the time season three wrapped).  The last shot of season three was Jessie pointing a gun into the camera (presumably at an off-screen Gale) and pulling the trigger.  And so, when tonight’s episode started, most fans were expecting to be greeted with the aftermath of that scene:  had Jessie really shot Gale?  Or had he– as some had predicted– only “faked” it?  And, more importantly, if he had– would it make any difference?

As it turned out, “the aftermath” wasn’t the first thing we saw on tonight’s season premiere.  Tonight, things started with Gale in the lab, months in the past, wielding a box cutter and unpacking all of Gus’ fancy-pants lab equipment.  The entire pre-credits sequence, in fact, was devoted to this flashback, an extremely ironic little tete-a-tete wherein Gail pleaded for Gus to hire whoever had made the 99%-pure bag of meth he held in his hand.  If the irony wasn’t clear enough, the immediate post-credits shot hammered the point home:  not long after convincing Gus to hire on Walter White, Gail was dead– shot right in the face by Walt’s assistant.  Gale’s successful attempt to get Walt a job under Gus wasn’t the only notable thing about that opening scene, though:  there’s also that boxcutter to consider.  But we’ll get to that in a minute.

Breaking-Bad-imageNow that we all knew– beyond any reasonable doubt– that Jessie had, in fact, killed Gale, tonight’s premiere was divided into two, main storylines:  Walt and Jessie being held captive inside Gus’ lab, awaiting his judgement, and the characters outside the lab– Walt’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn); Walt’s bedridden brother in law, Hank (Dean Norris), and his wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt);  “Better Call” Saul Goodman (Bob Oedenkirk) and his new assistant– wondering where the hell Walt had disappeared to:  Marie noted Walt’s presence at the White household, prompting Skyler to move his car three streets over, while Saul assured Skyler that he was “100% sure” that Walt was safe…somewhere.  Hank, meanwhile, has taken up an odd hobby (bidding on crystals on eBay), the blandest distraction imaginable for a man suffering through a post-shooting rehab program.

All of these scenes were great in their own way– there’s never a dull moment on Breaking Bad– but every time the show left Walt and Jessie’s side inside the lab, the need to get back would quickly become unbearable:  there was menace in the air on tonight’s episode, and I’m willing to bet that more than a few viewers were predicting the death of Jessie Pinkman about ten minutes into the episode.  Gus’ henchman Mike and the lab’s resident security guard, Victor, had Jessie and Walt under lock and key almost immediately after Gale’s murder, and it just seemed insane to think that Gus would allow Jessie to live through this particular bout of monkey business.  The idea that Jessie and Walt would both be safe with Gale out of the way was quickly thrown out the window, as well, when it was revealed that Victor knew how to perform the laborious meth-cooking process that– as far as Walt knew– only he, Jessie, and Gale were capable of pulling off.

bryan-cranston-breaking-bad-image-02Giancarlo Esposito shined on tonight’s episode, by the way.  Gus Freng has always been an oily, menacing presence, a venomous snake coiled-and-ready-to-strike in human form.  But for the first time, tonight’s premiere showed us just how dangerous Gus really is:  after entering the lab– in a moment that felt a lot like Dad coming home after someone was bad at school– Gus calmly walked past the assembled crowd, took off his suit, put on an elaborate lab-suit, walked back to where Jessie and Walt were seated, and…slit Victor’s throat right in front of them (with Gale’s boxcutter, of course).  Throughout all this, Esposito’s Gus didn’t utter a word, and the cold, hard glare he leveled at Walt and Jessie as Victor’s blood pumped out onto the floor at their feet was truly chilling.  Maybe this’ll be the year that Esposito ends up with an Emmy nod.

People are going to want to pick apart Gus’ reason for killing Victor, but I think it’s simple:  he wanted to show Jessie and Walt just how much he isn’t effing around (that, or he knew that Victor had been spotted at Gale’s murder scene and figured he oughtta get him out of the picture as soon as possible).  The murder seems to have had the desired effect:  after cooking up a batch for Gus, Walt and Jessie adjourned to Denny’s to unwind a bit (both wearing the same, newly-purchased Kenny Rogers t-shirt and white jeans), and it was obvious that– in between Victor’s brutal murder and shooting Gale in the face– Jessie’s starting to come undone a bit.  As long as we’re making predictions about Breaking Bad, lemme lay this one on ya:  Jessie Pinkman won’t be around for season five.  That’s my guess.  He’ll go nuts, or he’ll push things one step farther than he already has, or maybe he’ll just OD– but the bottom line is, I can’t see Jessie surviving this series.

This was a fantastic, bloody, shocking season premiere, one of the best in the show’s history.  While it certainly seemed less darkly comic than the show has in the past, I’m sure that we’ll be seeing more of Breaking Bad‘s trademark pitch-black humor as the season progresses.  It’s great to have the show back– and in such a jaw-dropping fashion!– and it will be (as it always is) a pleasure to see what Vince Gilligan and company have in store for us over the rest of the season.

My grade?  A-

Come back next week for our next Breaking Bad recap/review!  What did you think of tonight’s show:  too extreme?  Not extreme enough?  Just right?  Wish Gale had stuck around longer, or were you happy to see him go?  What’s up with Hank and those crystals?  If you’ve got anything to add, leave it in the comments section below and meet us back here next Sunday for the next installment.

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