Breaking Bad Episode 401 “Box Cutter”

401indexSo, I think there may be something seriously wrong with me because after finishing this episode, which is brutal and hopeless, I went about my day but couldn’t shake it. And I didn’t want to; I almost wanted to just live in this world and not my own a little longer, stay in that superlab with our guys. Disturbing, huh? I mean, of all episodes to feel this way about, this one’s a little…traumatic.

This episode may break some records for characters going the longest time without speaking. These long stretches without dialogue allow for other sounds, especially the creaking of the chairs in the superlab, Gus’s footsteps, Gus changing clothes, putting on his glasses, but mostly it’s the chairs.

So Saul got himself a bodyguard, Huell. He’s always glided over things before but not now. He’s terrified, looking around his office for bugs (hilarious detail that the columns move), speaking on a payphone, asking Huell if he has a passport. And I gotta say, I usually love Saul’s ridiculous outfits, usually find something aesthetically redeeming about his crazy color combinations, but this time? No way. Worst Saul get-up ever. Gross.

I love when Skyler says to Saul, “He carpools…to his job…at a meth lab?”

So a lot of characters don’t have a lot of dialogue, but man, that baby cries more than we have ever seen! It helps Skyler’s lie that gets her into Walt’s apartment. I love the detail that she finds and looks at the eye from the burnt pink bear from the end of Season Two. Karma is still looking at Walt and now Skyler as well, which makes sense because she’s set herself to be Walt’s criminal bookkeeper. Skyler is definitely concerned about Walt, but her reactions are so different this time he goes missing. She doesn’t tell a soul, plays it totally cool with Jr like nothing’s wrong.

This is the first time we’ve seen Hank since he left the hospital, and his progress is going slowly. This is a great part of the story because Hank and Marie have a really strong marriage but this is hard on them both. Hank is withdrawn, not working, all into bidding on minerals on the internet, a little bitter, and he needs Marie’s help to go to the bathroom. That’s gotta be so hard for Hank, or anyone really. This is such a slow recovery. Marie has a hard time too. What do you say? What do you do? She’s trying so hard to be optimistic and lift his spirits but he’s all sarcastic in response. This is a great arc that will continue for a while.

401aimagesIn the teaser, we get another glimpse at sweet, goofy Gale. The best moment is his little joyful laugh. He really is acting like a kid on Christmas morning before he says that to Gus. You also get the feeling that Gale and Gus could’ve worked together indefinitely without a problem. They could’ve had a long, long run of it. But I also wonder what Gus and Victor really think of Gale. He’s not made of the same stuff they are, not at all.

Walt and Jesse have created a huge problem. I LOVE that at first, Walt assumes Jesse hasn’t done killed Gale, and the look on his face when he slowly starts to realize that Jesse did indeed kill a man to try to save Walt’s life. Ever after, anytime Walt bargains for his life to be spared so he can keep cooking for Gus, he includes Jesse. There is that great line where he says, “You kill me, you have nothing. You kill Jesse, you don’t have me.” Jesse gives Walt a look at that point, a look that has been interpreted differently by lots of fans. Some see it as Jesse feeling like he’s just an afterthought. I didn’t interpret it that way; I saw it more as an acknowledgment and appreciation that Walt is standing up for him.

Because really, Jesse is expendable. Walt may be able to bargain for his life using his knowledge of organic chemistry (more on this coming up) but Jesse can’t. He’s just a short-order cook like Victor, albeit with a lot more experience. Gus could’ve decided to let Walt keep cooking with Victor as a lab assistant, that probably would’ve been somewhat ideal for Gus if not for certain things. Jesse has always been the problem in Gus’s world, the mistake that Walter White made twice.

Walt and Jesse both must surmise all this. The only thing keeping Jesse alive at this point is Walt, the way he includes Jesse in everything he says about getting back to cooking, about how Gus needs both of them. So I took Jesse’s look as like thanks for keeping me alive after what I just did for you, Mr. White. Saying something as bold as, “You kill Jesse, you don’t have me,” is risky for Walt, but surely he owes Jesse at least that. Again, the loyalty.

Whereas Jesse and Gus and Saul say very little all episode, Walt won’t shut up. Jabber, jabber, jabber. Notice that he says that he would shoot Gale again if he had to. He’s taking a bit of responsibility there, which is good because it was Walt who orchestrated it all. Just like, if Mike had killed Walt that night at the laundry, that would’ve been partly on Gus, since he gave the orders. Walt then turns it around and blames Gale’s death on Gus.

401imagesWalt starts to freak out when Victor doesn’t forget the aluminum, because it means Victor probably could pull of an entire cook by himself. So Walt has to get all “professor” here and shooting out all these questions. I don’t know if any line of dialogue ever made me love BrBa more than when Walt says “enantiomerically pure.” Walt bargains for his life with organic chemistry. There may not be words for how much I love that.

Let’s take a quick tangent and talk about what enantiomerically pure means. As discussed in 203 “Bit by a Dead Bee” and 102 “The Cat’s in the Bag…” there are things called chiral centers. A carbon having four bonds to different things is said to be chiral, meaning it can have an S form or an R form. Think of it like right- or left-handed. What it actually relates to is which way the molecule will rotate plane-polarized light but that’s not important for our purposes. The forms, as long as they are totally opposite each other, are called enantiomers. If you have a 50/50 mixture of the R and S enantiomers, it’s called racemic and there is no enantiomeric excess. That probably sounds like science gobbledygook BUT think of it like if you had a room of an equal amount of left-handed and right-handed people. There’s no excess of one or the other. You have a racemic mixture.

Once you get more molecules of, let’s say for our purposes the S enantiomer, that’s enantiomeric excess. Let’s say your ratio is 85 to 15 S to R (so 85 right-handed people, 15 left-handed) that gives you an excess of the S enantiomer (or right-handed people) or 70%. (85-15)/(85+15) x 100. So you’d say the enantiomeric excess, or ee is 70%. For something to be enantiomerically pure, it should have only one enantiomer present, so all S, or a room with only right-handed people. The different enantiomers can have very different effects on the body, so sometimes racemic is fine, sometimes making sure it is all R or all S is very important. Sometimes drug companies exploit this actually (that may be a post for another day). So for Walt to cook a pure product, he wants to get 100% enantiomerically pure S. That’s what Walt is talking about there.

Although, as I’ve mentioned before, the actual reactions that Walt says that he does would give a racemic mixture. But apparently, according to my advanced organic chem professor, there are ways to do reductive amination that can give enantiomerically pure products. I don’t know what they are but we can pretend that Walt is taking that part of things into consideration in his cook and has just never detailed that part of the chemistry of his process.

BUT, a lot of what Walt says in this scene is almost nonsense. Some of it physically pains me to listen to. His nomenclature is atrocious! He says, “I-phenyl-1-hydroxy-2-methylaminopropane,” and that is just nonsense on a few levels. For one thing, if you draw that out, it’s ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (there would have to be some Rs and Ss in that name to specify between the two), which Walt hasn’t used in his cook since Season One. Walt uses phenyl-2-propanone (that’s the P2P Hank is always talking about). So that’s weird. Second of all, that is not proper nomenclature for pseudo. That should be 2-methylamino-1-phenylpropan-1-ol or that last part could be written as “1-propanol.” But to be fair to Walt, he is bargaining for his life and probably just spit out the first meth-related chemical compound that came to mind and didn’t have time to alphabetize his substituents or correctly name the alcohol. Still, it pains me.

Sigh. Sometimes I want to start a series of blog posts that are very basic introductions to science stuff, especially organic chemistry, for laypeople, because there are ways to start with even more basics. And I don’t even mean just for Breaking Bad but in general. I want to do little chemistry lessons for people who’ve never had any chemistry. I love teaching and tutoring some chem. And it can’t be all about the show because when all my chemistry posts relate to this show and cooking meth, I get worried I’m going to end up on some DEA watch list or some such.

Walt’s totally right about chiral centers at carbons 1 and 2 on the propane chain, but again he’s talking about pseudo (P2P doesn’t have any chiral centers). As for which one is eliminated upon reduction to methamphetamine, it’s carbon 1, but again, all this pertains to pseudo. I think he’s just trying to throw out chemistry speak to confuse Victor, who isn’t convinced he needs to know any of it. I think it’s Walt’s next point that actually matters, because Victor could cook without knowing the more theoretical chemistry–Jesse almost certainly couldn’t answer those questions either–and that’s the fact that Victor doesn’t know how to handle the actual chemicals, determine if precursor is bad, deal with humidity, and so on. That poses more of a real problem for Gus’s long-term operation.

401bimagesBut I don’t think that’s why Gus kills Victor. And I don’t think it’s Walt’s theory in 503 “Hazard Pay.” It’s partly a message to Walt about what an enraged, cold, silent Gus can do, a message that Jesse gets more than Walt does, but it’s also practical. Okay not exactly Gus’s method of killing Victor, that’s just vicious, but killing him at all. Victor got himself seen. It’s one of the only questions Mike asked. I think that if Jesse had been seen, there would’ve been a very different ending to this episode. But he didn’t and Victor did. We don’t see Mike’s call to Gus, but I think it’s safe to assume that Mike reported that part. Mike is a very pragmatic man with no special ties to Victor. Of course he would’ve told Gus about this problem. Victor got seen and they need to get rid of this loose end.

bbjessThe reactions of the three onlookers are priceless. Mike is so surprised that he aims a gun at Gus, his boss. Walt puts his hands up and hides his eyes, and even afterward is all hand over heart and trying not to look. Jesse locks eyes with Gus as Gus murders Victor.

So sad when they put Victor in the barrel. You all, if you’ve been reading, know I had a strange soft spot for that thug, sad to see him go and in such a brutal way. There is an alternate scene of Gus cutting his throat with the box cutter on the DVD, shot from a different angle, and it seems drawn out even longer (though I’m not sure it actually is). I think Victor talked more in this episode than ever before. I will miss him. I don’t have the same soft spot for his replacement.

Much as I hated to see him go, I love the shot of the blood on the red floor, and later how the mopping up of the blood on the red floor cuts to swirling french fries in ketchup at Denny’s. Perfect cut.

At the Denny’s scene, it’s a little reminiscent of the Season Three premiere. Jesse has a clear appreciation of the bald facts about their circumstances, Walt doesn’t. Jesse has always had a slightly easier time seeing the truth than Walt has. Jesse miming the throat cutting with his knife is eerie.

This episode is not as funny as some. Sure there are tiny moments, like Walt’s movements and gestures when Mike pushes him back into the chair when he starts to lecture about the chemistry, or when Mike has to help them get Victor in the barrel. But a lot of the people who usually lend humor are out of commission. Saul is too scared to be funny. Hank is all miserable and slogging through a slow recovery. Marie, who can sometimes be funny in the way she treats Skyler, is subdued now that she has to turn to her sister for financial help. Jesse is practically catatonic and doesn’t say a word for most of the episode. Even Mike, who can be funny in his deadpan way, doesn’t say much.

The only real humor comes from things outside of dialogue. Like the fact that Walt and Jesse are eating at Denny’s with the very Denny’s music playing and the two guys in their ridiculous Kenny Rogers t-shirts and pants and sneakers, and the fact that Walt’s Kenny Rogers shirt still has the size tag on! And then when Skyler peels it off and asks how he is and Walt goes, “Right as rain.”

This absence of humor is an indication of the direction the season is taking. Not that there won’t be humor, but that things have gotten darker and more serious than ever before. Jesse will have a lot to deal with–he already seems so numb and in shock from killing Gale and then witnesses another, more violent murder less than twenty-four hours later. Walt seems to really wonder how Jesse’s doing, and then launches into saying that Jesse did the only thing he could. Whatever helps you sleep at night, Mr. White. I mean, sure there’s truth to it, but it’s a very tidy way to sum up something that is pretty messy.

And there’s no way that Gus and Mike are going to just let this slide, let Walt and Jesse go back to cooking as if this little hiccup never happened. And let’s not forget that they have the cartel to deal with as well as we saw in the Season Three finale. And Gale’s Lab Notes have been found, which can’t be good for anyone in our little criminal enterprise. Walt thinks they will try to find a new chemist and kill them. Jesse thinks they can’t, that instead they will make Walt and Jesse wish they were dead. That’s what I mean about the new tone of hopelessness, of bitter darkness.

Welcome to Season Four.

~Emilia J

Next Episode: Thirty-Eight Snub

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