If you’ve seen seasons 1, 2 and 3 of Breaking Bad, I’m going to assume that you have excellent taste, a morbid fascination with either drug kingpins or Albuquerque, N.M., real estate, and, under duress, could probably whip up a passable batch of methamphetamines in an RV while wearing only underpants and a gas mask … and also that you don’t require spoiler alerts. If you haven’t seen Vince Gilligan’s dark series about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who “breaks bad” (definition: begins skirting the law, in this case by becoming a sought-after meth dealer) to keep his family afloat and do require spoiler alerts, then I applaud you for jumping in now. You’ll need a pitch helmet and a strong stomach.
When we last left our protagonist-cum-antagonist Walter White (the grave, excellent Bryan Cranston, now as far from Malcolm in the Middle as Frankie Muniz is from a salvageable acting career), who has evolved over three seasons from an ailing, mild-mannered family man to a ruthless criminal in remission, he was awaiting possible execution by the order of his taciturn employer Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), having recently dispatched his tortured mentee and former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to murder nebbishy replacement chemist Gale (David Costabile), thus saving their jobs—and, by extension, their lives. It was the very definition of a cliff-hanger: The screen went to black just as Jesse’s gun went off, leaving some viewers to surmise that he might have missed his target. But, as macabre as the show may be, creator Gilligan doesn’t play games. Within the opening moments of “Box Cutter,” the first episode of the AMC drama’s fourth season, which aired July 17, Gale’s fate is made clear. But, like most things in Breaking Bad, this plot development raises more questions than it answers.
Has Walt crossed the point of no return? Has he been totally consumed by his calculating, porkpie-hatted alter- ego Heisenberg? Will his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), crippled after a brutal attack, begin to put the pieces together? Will ex-addict Jesse be sent back over the brink? The new season’s first episodes consider these questions with the show’s typically brutal gimlet eye … and a taste for blood. Breaking Bad is known for its occasionally indirect episode titles—take last season’s “Fly,” which is superficially about Walt trying to swat an insect that’s infiltrated the lab, but that’s really about Walt’s guilt over letting Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Jane die in her sleep as he watched. But “Box Cutter” is as steely and deadly as it sounds, proving Esposito’s Gus to be the most chilling villain on television (and yes, I’m counting Heidi Montag in Famous Food).
See, I had to make a joke there, since Breaking Bad grants its audience no such release. If the new season’s premiere is any indication, we’re in for a particularly bleak ride as the main characters deal with the ramifications of (OK, fine, SPOILER ALERT) Gale’s death. Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt), who could be always be counted on for occasional moments of, if not levity, at least inanity, enter the season as if preparing for battle: Skyler, now a willing accomplice in Walt’s nefarious business dealings, takes pains to hide her double life, while Marie suffers at the hands of Hank’s invalid rage. Even Walt’s greasy strip mall lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) appears shaken, a shell of his former, hammy self. It was, of course, only a matter of time.
Breaking Bad, much like the desert it’s set in, leaves us nowhere to hide. But it’s as riveting and unforgiving as ever.