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Seeing the Scene: Breaking Bad, Season 4, Episode 1 (“Box Cutter”), Murder Scene

August 13, 2011

In Seeing the Scene, we give a close viewing to a noteworthy TV  or movie scene, examining the artistry and impact of performance elements (dialogue, nonverbal acting), production/directorial components (camera angles, framing, lighting, editing, sound), or anything that catches our eye. And YES, there are spoilers ahead.

As C.M. Tomlin recently noted in his summer TV roundup, I have joined the ranks of enthusiastic Breaking Bad fans in the past couple months. My wife and I sped our way through the first three seasons in July, and now we’re fully caught up midway through Season 4. I’m actually a little bummed that watching a new installment of this brilliant, riveting show will now be an only-once-per-week engagement for us. As I’ve written before, count me among those who frequently prefer to engage high-quality material such as this in larger blocks. If a great season of a great TV show is like a “visual novel,” and I believe it is, then it can be pretty awesome to “read” several chapters of that “novel” in one sitting. Alas, with Breaking Bad, I’m now past that point.

From the first episode of Season 1 onward, I saw Breaking Bad as something special. I’m hard-pressed to think of another current show with BB’s level of excellence in character development, acting, AND sustained dramatic tension. Whether you want richly detailed, internally coherent characters, world-class acting, or sizzling, edge-of-your-seat plotting and storytelling (or, like me, all three), Breaking Bad delivers. Characters both major and minor are lovingly portrayed, thoughtfully realized, nobly flawed, vividly human and alive. They provide the solid grounding of credibility for dramatic twists and turns (chance encounters, Scylla and Charybdis dilemmas, deadline pressures, even plane crashes) that might be gimmicky and cheap on lesser shows.

In all these areas, the murder scene in Season 4, Episode 1, titled “Box Cutter” and originally aired on July 17, 2011, is wholly remarkable. Along with the usually brilliant acting and plotting, this scene displays and benefits from some thrillingly smart choices in lighting, composition, and camera angle. AMC has a five-minute excerpt of the scene on its website, but I wish the clip started sooner, because the scene truly begins when Gus, enigmatic methamphetamine ringleader and employer of Walt and Jesse, first opens the door and walks into the lab. Gus pauses for a moment to survey the scene, in which his musclemen Mike and Victor are holding Walt and Jesse captive, and Victor has begun to cook the day’s batch of meth according to Walt’s pioneering process.

Walt and Jesse are in custody because of two recent, deadly transgressions, resulting in the deaths of three of Gus’ trusted employees. In their murder of hapless chemist and lab assistant Gale Boetticher, Walt and Jesse have just crossed the line from killing only in self-defense to murder as a strategic act of preemptive self-preservation. Gus is, of course, resoundingly unhappy with this turn of events, but Gus’ hands are tied because of Walt’s talents as a meth producer and his full, no-snitching investment in the criminal enterprise. We enter the scene sharing Walt’s belief that Gus probably can’t kill Walt, and probably won’t kill Jesse because Walt will revolt, but still must send some sort of clear, vengeful message. But we (Walt and Jesse included) just don’t know for sure.

Creeping uncertainty, cloaked in shades of red and blue.

The terror of that uncertainty is conveyed perfectly by the choice of camera angle when Gus enters from the landing in the lab’s upper reaches. We see Gus walk across the landing from Walt and Jesse’s vantage point directly underneath. We literally see the soles of Gus’ shoes through the iron grating of the landing, and we understand just how supplicated Walt and Jesse remain to Gus’ calculations. We may believe, based on available knowledge, that Gus has been backed into a corner and must keep Walt and Jesse alive, but seeing him stride so far above us prompts the question, “What if Gus knows something we don’t?” Gus still has a lot of power, including the power to act against his best economic interests and kill Jesse and/or Walt as an act of strict “eye for an eye” atonement. Gus is still the boss, the judge, and, perhaps, the executioner.

Gus descends the steps and displays another look of outward calm masking simmering rage. He walks over to a row of lockers where the lab coats and full-body protective coverings are stored. He removes some of his impeccable business attire and begins to don one of the head-to-toe coverings. Upon seeing Gus taking this unexpected step, we begin to suspect that some substance—blood? chemicals?—is about to be spilled. This belief prompts Walt to start talking, building his “case” that he and Jesse had no choice, other than allowing themselves to be killed and replaced, when they staged their preemptive strike against Gale. Bathed in blue light, Walt challenges Gus to let them get back to work, and not to be persuaded when Victor claims that he knows every step of Walt’s cook. Walt berates Victor as being little more than a trained monkey who can perhaps mimic the drug-making steps but could never truly understand or adapt them as Walt can. Walt’s agitation grows as Gus remains silent, finishes his attire change, and begins to walk toward his assembled employees.

After Gus reaches the group, we frequently see the scene from a ceiling-level viewpoint directly over the men’s heads. The lighting and color choices here are striking. As mentioned above, Walt is bathed in blue light, as is Victor from this angle, and both are wearing blue shirts. Blue, a cool color, the color of the “Blue Sky” meth itself, perhaps indicates the rationality and scientific focus that Walt believes still guides all his choices. Victor believes that he can immerse himself sufficiently in the science to produce the drug and make himself as indispensible as Walt, thereby rescuing himself from his error at Gale’s murder scene that led to his being seen by several witnesses. Whereas Walt and Victor, the current and aspiring men of science, are bathed in blue, Gus and Jesse are both cloaked in red, a warm color, a color of heat and action and motion. We know that Jesse is fresh off pulling the trigger on Gale, basically upon Walt’s order, establishing Jesse as one who acts, even murderously, when called upon and forced to do so. Walt has killed before as well, but as a defensive act only. I see this color-based connection between Gus and Jesse as a purposeful indication of a link between the core of their characters. Both like to project an air of coldness and hardness (both are covered in the blue light, though less so than Victor and Walt), but red heat burns within both of them, with potential for whatever they touch to be ravaged and destroyed.

Gus joins Jesse in having committing murder that day when he uses a box cutter to slice Victor’s throat. This is the message that Gus chooses to send, his approach to addressing the multiple problems  that have presented themselves in recent days. In so many ways, this terrible act is the best choice for Gus. That Victor was seen by witnesses at Gale’s murder scene is no longer a problem, of course. But Gus also has clearly demonstrated to Walt and Jesse that he holds all the power to act in whatever ways he chooses, even exceptionally costly ways. Quarts of blood have now been spilled inside Walt’s formerly pristine laboratory haven. This sullying is likely especially disturbing to Walt, who once spent an entire day in the lab obsessively trying to kill a fly because of the impurities it represented. Walt and Jesse are literally wearing some of Victor’s blood, perhaps indicating that Gus wishes them to know that their survival has come at the ultimate cost for another human being. Gus opened the artery, but Jesse and Walt also must carry yet another stain.

The remainder of the scene’s impact is conveyed through the nonverbal reactions of Walt, Jesse, and Mike, along with continued excellence in camera angles and lighting. Regrettably, AMC’s web excerpt cuts off before we see this extended nonverbal coda. Walt is horrified, nauseous, and instantly suspicious that his own demise at Gus’ hand has been merely delayed. Mike seems angry and perhaps even defiant, but only internally, understanding that he can never rebel against Gus, who has held Mike in his employ and confidence for years. Death for Mike (and his beloved family) would be nearly certain.

Jesse’s reactions are a bit more puzzling, but I think actor Aaron Paul is attempting to convey that Jesse now knows that Gus’ murderous capacity is unbound by personal conscience. Based on Jesse’s later words when he and Walt are enjoying a post-terror breakfast at Denny’s, I think Jesse looks upon Gus with a dreading, awful respect after he spills Victor’s blood. Jesse seems to think, “We’ve never known Gus until now—at least the monster has come out of the shadows.” As we know, Jesse believes he is on a similar journey of embracing that he is, at root, “the bad guy.” Tellingly, however, during the aftermath of Victor’s murder, we see Jesse more completely bathed in the blue light that has also covered Walt throughout the scene. The redness of Jesse’s shirt is now barely detectable. I believe we are being told that Jesse and Walt are now even more inextricably bound than ever. Jeez, after they leave the lab, they go buy (hilariously) matching Kenny Rogers T-shirts to replace their blood-stained clothes. They’re clearly a team, right? They may both act like the “bad guys” with ever-increasing frequency, but they will never have Gus’ relative luxury of being unburdened by the nature or impact of their actions. This leads us back to one of the core questions of the show, of course: Do we believe that evil acts done with reluctance, or even with reasonable justification, are any less condemnable than those done with little or no remorse?

With this brilliantly conceived and executed scene as yet another precursor for the seemingly inevitable showdown between Walt/Jesse and Gus, the remainder of Breaking Bad (promised by the show’s creators to end after five seasons) promises many more provocative moments. This murder scene is a perfect encapsulation of why Breaking Bad already belongs in the pantheon of the great artistic and storytelling achievements of its era. It’s certainly reasonable to think that Emmy will once again reward Breaking Bad‘s greatness later this month.

One Comment
  1. christianstrevy permalink
    August 28, 2011 12:16 am

    Great analysis! Perfectly crafted scene. I love the camera angles in breaking bad; always right in on the action and not afraid to take risky shots that really put you in the scene. Just watched the whole scene again and it is even more chilling when you know what’s going to happen.

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