'Breaking Bad' recap: You don't mess around with Gus
These are the first words Jesse speaks in the entire fourth season premiere of “Breaking Bad.” He’s arguably the second most-important character on the show, the series’ moral center despite all the terrible things he does. He’s played by an Emmy winner, for God’s sake, and you’re supposed to give Emmy winners plenty of scenery to chew, right? Yet there he sits, silently, clearly waiting for his death to come, clearly deeply bruised by the fact that he just took a man’s life to save his own life and the life of his unlikely father figure. He doesn't speak for something like 40 minutes of this episode's running time.
The genius thing about “Breaking Bad” has always been that you can take any plot point you want to think of and draw a mostly straight line between it and Walt’s decision in the pilot. Hank ending up confined to a bed, unsure if he’ll ever walk under his own power again? He’s there because the Cousins popped up last season to kill Walt but were warned off and toward Hank by Gus. Skyler’s loss of love for her husband? That happened because he started hiding huge, horrible secrets from her. Saul crawling around his office, looking for bugs? That’s ultra-paranoia at its finest, but it’s also attributable to Walt, the man who keeps improvising his way out of one tight corner and into an even tighter one.
We get a vivid depiction of the difference between Walt and Gus’ approaches in tonight’s episode as well. After an episode wondering just what Gus would do to them, the man himself makes an appearance, and Walt starts anxiously trying to win his freedom, talking and talking and talking, hoping he’ll hit on something that will pique Gus’ interest. Yet Gus strides methodically through the lab, pulling on a plastic suit to cover his clothes, grabbing a box cutter (perhaps the very one Gale was using to open crates in the opening sequence), and slitting Victor’s throat.
Now, it’s easy to say that this scene is meant to show us that where Walter is impulsive and rash, Gus is deliberate and works carefully. But at the same time, what Gus does is something completely improvised and in the moment. It solves a number of problems for him—Victor, after all, was seen at the scene of Gale’s death, and he probably knows too much about Walter’s blue meth formula—and it both warns Walter about what Gus is capable of and weirdly reassures him that he and Jesse are safe for a while (even if it’s the most unsettling reassurance ever). But at the same time, it’s a look at Gus being backed into a corner, just as Walt often has been. And like Walt, he comes up with a completely improbable solution that seemingly fixes everything but simultaneously creates just as many problems.
I think the question of Season 4 may very well end up being whether Walt can become Gus. Was Gus once like Walt? Did he once find himself boxed in and try to motormouth his way out of situations? Or was he always this calm, cool and collected? “Breaking Bad” holds that people can change, particularly if they’re bent on ill. (Poor Gale seems to have been pretty much the same guy from when an offhand mention of the purity of the blue meth doomed him to his ultimate death.) Has Gus gotten to this point because he knows the power of saying very little? Will Walt get to that point? I think by making the central conflict of the season—at least in this first episode—Walt vs. Gus, the show is delving into some of these questions and also playing around with Bryan Cranston and Giancarlo Esposito’s very different performances.
If I have a complaint about this premiere, it’s that when Gus killed Victor, it felt to me for the first time like the show was keeping Walt and Jesse alive, simply because it had to. They’re the main characters of the show, after all. Vince Gilligan and his writers have gotten Walt and Jesse into stickier situations before, of course (think of Hank pounding on the door of the RV last season), but the paths out of those situations have always been blindingly unpredictable and taken the story in wild, new directions. Here, it seems obvious from the instant that he starts the cook that Victor is doomed. And indeed he is. While the show earns the fact that Walt keeps his life by being just that good—thanks to that opening scene with Gale and the scene in Denny’s where Jesse explains just how hard it must be to find a good meth cook—it still felt like a moment where Gus, coolly rage-filled Gus, would have just killed Walt and been done with it. This isn’t a big complaint. I’d rather have more “Breaking Bad” than less. But it does feel like the writers are punting just a little bit. (Of course, if the season shapes up as I hope it will, then that punt will have turned out to be a very smart move.)
But if this episode drove one point home, it was in that look on Jesse’s face when he realized he wasn’t going to die: All of these people are trapped – Hank in a bed he can’t get out of without help, Marie in a marriage where her husband treats her poorly, Skyler in a situation where her husband and income flow could be killed at any moment – but there’s a moment here where they all spot daylight and grasp at it. And in that moment, they regain their confidence, their swagger. This is the show itself retrenching, buckling down and asking us to trust it. And with the police finding Gale’s lab notes (and presumably realizing he’s connected to the New Mexico meth trade), the writers remind us that we are in very, very good hands.
Photo: Jesse (Aaron Paul) takes a long time to say anything in Sunday's premiere. (Credit: AMC)