S04E01: As most season premieres tend to be, tonight's Breaking Bad was in the tradition of the aftermath episode. The third season ended with more intensity than the climax of Collateral Damage (which was playing on AMC in the preceding time slot), and tonight's episode, throughout, is a relatively calm collection of the pieces... with a couple of scenes playing exception to that.
The episode opens with a brief prologue that introduced us to a Gale of the past who apparently sealed his own fate by provoking Gus to hire Walt after observing the quality of his product. The scene is a nice way to send off a really enjoyable character (and human juxtaposition to the mood of the show) after his murder at Jesse's hands. Once the chronology sets in, Victor takes Jesse to the lab, where he and Walt await -- under Victor and Mike's supervision -- Gus' arrival to determine their penalties. Jesse is frozen and wordless throughout, attempting to digest what he has just done. Even though he doesn't speak a line until the last ten minutes, Jesse's struggle is palpable for the entirety of the episode; hats off to Aaron Paul for a terrific performance (his unbelievably subtle reaction to Gus entering the room while he is still entranced was Emmy-worthy alone).
But what this episode is really about begins with Walt demanding that he be allowed to cook. Walt takes jabs at Victor while the latter attempts to create a batch of meth on his own. Once Gus arrives, Walt rationalizes with Gus, claiming that his and Jesse's presence in the lab is an undeniable necessity to Gus' business. The episode is in direct contrast to last season's finale, where Walt proved himself the King of ABQ.
When tonight's episode opened, Walt (and many of us) assumed that the title was guaranteed and irrevocable. He tries to lead the room by patronizing the man in charge and talking down to the hired hands, thinking all the while that he is the controlling force of the situation at hand. But Gus removes this idea in Walt's head and ours when he takes Victor's life (the first time the notoriously, hauntingly zen Gus has spilled any blood on his own).
Walt: "You kill me, you have nothing. You kill Jesse, you don't have me."
Walt loses his calm and he doesn't regain it. He and Jesse are then forced to pay homage to one of their first exploits together by disposing of Victor's body with chemicals. This scene is where Jesse first speaks, and we see that he has, likely out of a combination of intolerable anger and guilt, numbed himself entirely.Walt and Jesse get their jobs back, but Walt realizes that their fates are in Gus' hands, not his. When he discusses this with Jesse (in a hilarious scene at a Denny's where Walt and Jesse wear matching Kenny Rogers t-shirts they bought to replace their own clothes which they had to discard after that corpse-removal process), Walt recognizes that Jesse is far from okay, which seems to take Walt a step back towards humanity. He regrets making his friend do what he did, and, even more so, is recognizing that he is far more vulnerable, both to external dangers and emotional traumas, than he previously thought.
The B and C stories cover Skylar attempting to locate Walt (via breaking into his home and calling the always-a-pleasure-to-see-onscreen Saul Goodman) and Marie's attempts to deal with a bitter Hank, recovering from last season's gunshot wound.
Saul: "People carpool to work, right? It's good for the environment."
Skylar: "He carpools? He carpools to his job at a meth lab?"
All in all, it was a great and intriguing way to start the season. Gus' evolution from the man-behind-the-action to an actual murderer—and one willing to kill strictly for practicality, without so much as a flinch—gave me some mixed feelings. On one hand, his presence last season as a sophisticate who refuses to dirty his own hands was terribly chilling. But this new Gus is indicative of higher stakes, and what's more, an inevitability of the unexpected. As Walt loses control, so does the reality surrounding him. Gus cannot be bothered with bounds any longer now that chaos has insisted itself into the Breaking Bad universe. Bearing this in mind, it's pretty thrilling to understand that anyone is becoming capable of anything, while Walt struggles to maintain some degree of stability in and around himself. The real emotional pull of the episode is Jesse. Every facet of Aaron Paul's performance was phenomenal, from his hasty exodus of the crime scene (wherein a book of lab notes is revealed), to his silent staring-contest with the floor, to his crumbling at the sight of Victor's murder to the point where he seems to have accepted this new lot. I look forward, more than anything, to seeing how Jesse progresses this season. The episode left us with a few things to consider: will this loss of control reunite Walt with his humanity? Will Jesse manage to come back from the "dead inside" state that his murder of Gale has provoked? Does Skylar seem to be warming back up to Walt now that all the secrets are dropped? And why did Saul, after speaking with Skylar, ask his associate if he has a passport?