The most significant moment in last night's "Breaking Bad" wasn't when Gale's body hit the floor. It wasn't when Mike first glowered at his prisoners, Walt and Jesse, or when Victor arrogantly proclaimed that he could do the cooking from now on because he had studied Walt's recipe. It wasn't the excruciating lead-up to Gus' murder of Victor -- the ritual of donning the red uniform and gloves and shoes -- or the equally drawn-out undressing and cleanup, or the nonchalant kiss-off line: "Well...Get back to work." It wasn't even that Brian DePalma-like shot from Walt's point-of-view showing Victor's blood welling out on the floor like a sunburst.
It was the moment when the episode cut to Walt and Jesse dealing with the remains of Victor -- stuffing his corpse into a container and pouring acid on it and mopping his blood off the floor. One especially chilling shot showed Walt glopping some of Victor's blood toward a grate with a push broom, like a sidewalk cleaner pushing wet leaves toward a gutter. (I once thought the red floor in that James Bond lair-looking meth lab was an ostentatious design touch, but now the color makes sense.)
If you'd watched the previous three seasons, you couldn't help thinking about Walt and Jesse's moral degeneration over time. They've gone from small-potatoes hustlers on the fringe to major players. It's impossible to make that trip without becoming desensitized to violence, and increasingly willing to rationalize the most horrific crimes.
Arguably the most shocking moment in the first part of Season 1 was when Walt and Jesse cleaned up the gory remains of Emilio's acid-dissolved corpse that had leached through the ceiling. They battled nausea all the way.
Their reactions in this episode were totally different. They barely reacted at all. Their non-reaction was partly due to shock at seeing a man murdered right in front of them, but I don't think shock was the whole story. From the moment that Gus walked out of the Super Lab, Victor's death was just another inconvenient event to be mastered. Walt and Jesse are no longer hapless wannabe-players spelunking in the underworld. They're full-blown drug traffickers and cold blooded murderers.
And if you total up the deaths caused directly or indirectly by their adventures in the meth trade -- including the "fiftieth worst" air disaster in U.S. history, for which Walt was indirectly responsible -- it's impossible to describe Walt and Jesse as a couple of guys who are just doing what they have to do to survive. They're gangsters. To quote Hyman Roth in "The Godfather, Part II," this is the business they have chosen. (It's the business that Skyler has chosen, too, even if she doesn't consciously realize it yet. The moment when Walter arrives home wearing his white slacks and Kenny Rogers t-shirt and Skyler tells him she moved the car was definitely a moment of complicity.)
If Walt and Jesse are horrible human beings, then what does that make us, the loyal viewers? Complicit. They're our stand-ins. They are capable of almost anything, and there is almost nothing we won't watch them do. It's the line about how to cook a frog in a pan of water; the show's writers turned up the heat so gradually that it isn't until season two or three that you looked down at your arm and thought, "Hey, are those blisters?"
This is the aspect of "Breaking Bad" that elevates it into the pantheon of great crime stories, and the aspect of the series that improves on "The Sopranos," "Deadwood," "The Shield" and other popular, crime-driven cable shows. It's not dropping us into the middle of an unfamiliar world and asking us to empathize with characters whose moral compasses are (one would hope) horribly defective compared to most people's --- characters we could always choose to feel superior to, if things ever got too icky. Gilligan's series starts with an ordinary, law-abiding man, Walter White, deciding to become a criminal, then hooks him up with Jesse, a petty criminal, then slowly introduces us to other, harder sorts of criminals, all of whom have certain awful lessons to impart to Walter and Jesse. Then it gradually takes us deeper and deeper into a criminal world, starting from the outside and moving slowly in. We don't realize how deep inside we are until we realize we've spent the better part of an hour in an underground meth cooking facility watching two guys being threatened and a third being murdered, and it seems perfectly normal.
Our surrogates, Walt and Jesse, have become acclimated to the most repellent aspects of their trade, to the point where -- to paraphrase David Simon on the violence of "The Wire," the only other cable series that routinely and convincingly explored this aspect of criminal life -- they go from being horrified newbies to hardcases who see murder an economic transaction. The words "deeper" and "underground" acquire a metaphoric meaning in the scenes set in the Super Lab. Where Walter and Jesse's first lab was above ground, in a mobile home with a jumble of chemicals and equipment and no fixed address, this multi-million dollar facility is stocked with state-of-the-art technology and literally rooted in the earth, like a missile silo or a dungeon.
I've written previously about the greatest advantage of series TV storytelling, the ability to take an elastic approach to narrative and let certain incidents or moments expand to fill up most or all of an episode. "Box Cutter," written by Gilligan and directed by Adam Bernstein, was the best example of this since "The Suitcase" episode of "Mad Men." It didn't quite focus on the Super Lab horror exclusively; there were many cutaways to Skyler, including that fantastic scene where she amped up the desperate mommy routine (juggling a crying infant) to convince a locksmith to let her into Walt's condo.
But maybe 70 percent of its story took place in the lab, and during most of that time, Walt and Jesse were tied to chairs, reacting to what other people were saying and doing. The episode was about complicity and powerlessness, and about putting the thumbscrews to viewers. Judged purely as a merciless exercise in audience manipulation, it was first-rate, as squirm-inducing as the most brutal moments in Alfred Hitchcock and the Coen Brothers. (The cut to the fry being dipped in ketchup was very Hitchcock, and the cleanup sequence reminded me of the disposal of Marion Crane's body in "Psycho" and similar scenes in the Coens' "Blood Simple" and "Barton Fink.")
"Box Cutter" could also be described as an episode of "Breaking Bad" that's very much about "Breaking Bad," and what it means to be "Breaking Bad," a smart, stylish, audacious drama that is feeling its oats and is eager to see what it can get away with.
I was reminded of a remark that Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott made in a panel discussion of "The Sopranos" about ten years ago, something to the effect that ambitious series are about what they are about, until they become hits, at which point they start being about themselves. Last night's installment teetered on the brink of self-indulgence through its running time and sometimes tipped over. As scary-funny as Gus' dressing/undressing routine was, it was so showy, in a Quentin Tarantino-eseque way, that it made me think about the filmmakers' choices rather than the characters' mental states. And I'm not totally convinced that a cool customer like Gus would kill a valuable human asset just to put Walt and Jesse in their place -- as if they weren't already there from the minute they became hostages. (The phrase "cutting off your nose to spite your face" sprang to mind.) [UPDATE & CORRECTION: In this article's Letters section, readers point out that Victor was also killed because he was careless and got made at the crime scene. True -- but it's not as though Victor was the only person in that room whose continued existenced posed a security risk to Gus. I think it's more of a red shirt-on-"Star Trek" situation.]
In the end, I think the episode stayed on the right side of that line -- "right" meaning the side that "Breaking Bad" specified early on, when it announced itself as a series driven by story and character rather than filmmaking audacity. Can the rest of Season 4 season maintain that balancing act?