“Get back to work.” So spake Gus, giving the order to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Aaron Paul’s Jesse, in the season premiere of Breaking Bad. Getting back to work – resigning oneself to a life of both rigorous tedium and unnerving danger – is as good a way as any to think of the theme developing this season. The shoot-‘em-up action thriller has always resided around the edges of Breaking Bad, with a few notable exceptions (the shoot-out in the parking lot in the “One Minute” episode; Mike’s masterly clean-up of some Mexican cartel thugs in last season’s climactic “Full Measure”) rarely at its center.
And so while the season-premiere scene that everyone will be talking about today is the moment when Gus calmly slit Victor’s throat with a box-cutter (that instrument of death was the very title of the episode), flooding around the series like so much spilled corpse blood is the red, rueful acknowledgment that Breaking Bad always circles back to the drudgery of work. From the series’ first-season scenes of a weary Walt teaching bored students chemistry to a stunned Jesse and Walt resuming their meth manufacturing labors in the big red room, Bad is uncannily attuned to two key audience desires: We like to see that people on TV can be as sick of working as many of us become, and we like to see heightened-reality ways in which work can be escaped, money can be made, and happiness is held out like a mirage.
As though to make absolutely sure there can be no doubt as to what Aaron Paul’s Jesse did to the fastidious meth-maker Gale at the end of the last season of Breaking Bad, show creator Vince Gilligan offers a close-up shot of dead Gale, with actor David Costabile making a (final?) appearance laid out with a gunshot in his eye. So much for the theory I and a few others held that Jesse may have moved his arm away just a few inches, thus sparing Gale.
Indeed, as a result of Jesse’s action, one dictated by Walt, Jesse spent much of the new season’s opener in a mute state, shocked into silence as he tries to absorb the fresh hell to which he’s consigned himself. Hellishness also figured in other subplots. Hank is sitting in bed, enduring the tortures of physical and mental pain as a result of another of Walt’s earlier decisions, and Hank is lashing out at wife Marie. The idea, so dear to the concept of marriage, is that if one mate is suffering, so must the other. Hank’s verbal abuse and emotional neglect of Marie is as quietly powerful as any scene of violence, and even under these trying circumstances, I’m glad to see more of Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt. Much less of a victim is Skyler, who is now working with with a firm, quiet intensity on making the most of the mess and profits Walt has created.
But to return into the red room of the meth lab, as deliriously evil an environment as David Lynch’s red room in Twin Peaks: Gus, covering his red shirt and tie, putting on a red jumpsuit to commit his ruthless murder, demonstrated how likely it is that a control freak can go freaky on you. Walt’s moments-earlier threat-pleas to Gus to spare him – “You kill me, you have nothing. You Kill Jesse, you don’t have me” – only serve to confirm to Gus that he’s chosen wisely to kill people around Walt and Jesse (Gale; Victor), but not the meth makers themselves. (Keeping this in mind, I’d say, “Watch out, Mike! The way Walt and Jesse disposed of Victor’s body showed that, in certain areas, these two amateur cleaners know even more than you about ways to wipe away the existence of someone.”)
The body was put in a container, sizzled with acid (the box cutter with Gus’ fingerprints on it also met the same fate), and carted off with a label slapped on it: “Corrosive.” A good word, that: It also applies to the corrosion of Jesse’s soul, as he sat, in the final moments this week, in a Denny’s with Walt, scarfing down pancakes and still coming to terms with a life that’s gone too far to ever be redeemed.
As I look back on the hour of TV I’ve just described, I wonder a little at why I was so exhilarated after watching it. I do know why, of course. For all the talk we can have about how “dark” and “bleak” and “gritty” Breaking Bad is, for all the doom toward which Walt and Jesse are heading with a ferocious inevitability, the formal beauty of this series – its eloquent silences; its breath-taking pictorial compositions; its fine, essential moments of comic relief courtesy of Bob Odenkirk’s Saul; the neatly-tucked corners of its tidy story-telling – these are pleasures that transcend 98% of television’s usual attempts at dirty realism or fashionable pessimism. Bad slices through prime-time cliches, depressingly predictable dialogue and plot turns, with the clean efficiency of a box cutter.