‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Problem Dog’: In or out?

Senior Television Writer
08.28.11 326 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I’m charged with misdemeanor trash burning…

“Only maybe you got it for the wrong guy.” -Mike

“Problem Dog” is the midway point of season 4, and an episode that finds various characters caught halfway between one world and another. Time and again, they’re asked to choose whether they’re in or they’re out. Some choose right away, some choose and then change their mind later, and some act like there’s no choice at all.

The man most obviously caught in the middle is Jesse. On one side is Walt: his teacher, his mentor, the man who has repeatedly saved his life, but made that life immeasurably worse.(*) On the other side are Mike and Gus: two men he barely knows, who only a month ago wanted him dead, who lied to his face and had Andrea’s brother killed, but who have also showered him with praise and responsibility in recent days in a way that Walt so rarely has, and in a way that only seems like a scam up to a certain point. (Even a man as competent and confident as Mike wouldn’t hand a loaded gun to a man he doesn’t trust on some level in that setting.)

(*) And those are only the ways he knows of. If Jesse knew about Jane, there would be no choice at all for him.

At first, Jesse chooses Walt, who finally figures out a more effective (if blatant and patronizing) way to talk to his partner. He comes up with a clever way to hide the ricin, and is handed as perfect an opportunity as he is likely to ever have to kill the Chicken Man (two if you count the later moment where Gus has his back turned while Jesse is holding the pistol, but that would have been suicide), and he not only doesn’t do it(**), but lies to Walt about the whole thing, and it’s still unclear which side he’s on, or if even he knows.

(**) Not that I expected him to. Not only is there too much to play out between Walt and Gus, and Hank and Gus, for him to get killed so soon, but I’m conditioned by now to the idea that a Walter White murder plot will never, ever go as planned. It’s just not how things work for him.

That’s not the only decision Jesse can’t quite make. He opens the episode reliving Gale’s murder via first-person shooter game, and he’s still struggling with how he feels about it. Eventually, he goes back to his old 12-step group – and note that the counselor has to ask him whether he’s coming in or not, and that Jesse lingers a bit before deciding – and tells a thinly-disguised version of the story (about the problem dog of the title), hoping for something. Is it counsel? Condemnation? Absolution? He doesn’t really know, and eventually lashes out at everybody while hiding behind his “I’m the bad guy” facade, announcing to the room and the counselor why he started coming to the meeting. He doesn’t feel any better, but he gets to make other people feel worse, and that’s better than the absence of feeling that’s so dominated him of late.

Skyler has another moment of doubt when she finally realizes the sheer amount of the money she’s going to have to launder. Walt again offers her a chance to back out, and though on some level it’s not a real offer – once they bought the car wash, Skyler became complicit in everything and can’t really back out – she nonetheless can’t bring herself to say anything in response, and simply resumes putting the stacks of cash into the safe.

Gus, meanwhile, thinks he’s making an offer to the cartel’s representative, but as far as the cartel is concerned, there’s no negotiating on their end, but a simple binary question for Gus, to which we are not yet privy. Is it also an in-or-out issue, where he’s essentially being told to join or die? Or are they interested in something other than money – like, perhaps, the services of a genius chemist, who once upon a time was headed south of the border under Tuco’s watch – to complete Gus’s severance package?

One person not fearing any kind of uncertainty about where he stands and what he should do? Well, that would be Hank Schrader, boys and girls.

First Hank goes to Gus’s restaurant with Walter Jr. on what seems like an innocuous reconnaissance mission, but turns out to be something with a much more detailed plan. I was so busy being in awe at how smoothly Gus put the idea of a part-time job in Walter Jr.’s head – a job that would give him even more leverage over his most troublesome employee – that I didn’t even realize Hank was setting things up to get Gus’s fingerprints.

And then Hank returns to the DEA offices in style – having already graduated from the chair to the walker to a quad cane – with a masterful presentation about Gale, Gus, blue meth, air cleaners, vegan bread and all the rest. That little shrug at the end was perfect, because Hank knew he nailed it and didn’t even need to gloat about it.

So far, this season has been shaping up as a simple war between Walt and Gus, with Jesse caught in the middle. But now the cartel is a significant player, and the DEA is about to be. In other words, life is about to get very, very messy on “Breaking Bad,” and this is a show where the messier it is, the better.

Damn, that was good.

Some other thoughts:

• This episode was not only written by “Breaking Bad” vet Peter Gould, but it was his first directing job in 11 years, and second directing credit ever. He did a terrific job, especially in his work with Aaron Paul and Dean Norris. The one thing I wish that he had done differently as writer, director or whatever, was to not insert those brief shots of Gale into Jesse’s video game shooting spree in the teaser. The scene was so clearly evocative of Gale’s murder in the way Jesse was standing and holding the gun, and the look in his eyes (and even the way his aim seemed to adjust right at the end, the same way we all wondered if Jesse had wimped out on shooting Gale based on how Vince Gilligan shot the finale) that it wasn’t needed.

• During the set visit I went to a few months ago, we had some downtime midway through the day, and the reporters were invited to watch a scene being filmed, something involving Hank visiting the DEA field office. A few other writers went downstairs to watch, but I declined, worried that I might get spoiled on something I wouldn’t want to know going into the season. They came back an hour or so later, and one looked at me, shaking his head, and said, “You made the right call. It was Dean Norris doing a four-page monologue explaining everything that’s happened so far this season.” Having watched the scene in context, I’m even more glad I didn’t go, even if I missed the chance to see Norris do it live. (At a dinner with the cast the night before, it was a running gag that Norris always gets stuck with the expository monologues, and according to the reporters who observed it, he nailed this one, doing the whole thing in one take at least a couple of times.

• On the podcast this week, Dan and I talked about Walter Jr.’s fairly marginal role on the show and concluded that it wasn’t a case of the writers not knowing what to do with him, but of Walter Jr. having a very specific role (symbol of the family Walt claims he’s trying to protect, and a pawn in the fight between Walt and Skyler) and the show wisely not trying to expand that role just for the sake of giving RJ Mitte (who’s been quite good, don’t get me wrong) to do. But now I wonder if they’re going to go through with the idea of Jr. taking that chicken job, or if Hank and Walt simply wouldn’t allow it. (Another show might try to do a story where Hank deliberately sends Jr. in undercover, but this doesn’t seem at all like that kind of show.) Hmm…

• This was another episode that wasn’t really about Walt – except in the sense that every episode is about Walt and the circumstances he’s created for those around him – yet it did give him that one great moment with the Dodge in the parking lot. (Accompanied by The Pretenders’ kick-ass “Boots of Chinese Plastic.”) He’s been so cooped up all season, kept in check by Gus and emasculated by Skyler, and for once he got to be unfettered and just do whatever he wanted. Of course, doing whatever he wanted ended stupid and destructively – because, again, Walter White plans almost never work out the way he intended. On the plus side, he got to blow up a car again for the first time in a while, and the big where he’s sitting casually on the ground talking to the cab dispatcher while waiting for the thing to explode was priceless.

• Two episodes is too long to go without Saul Goodman. Was very nice to have him back tonight, even for just a scene.

• Even Marie’s making fun of Bogdan’s eyebrows now. Heh.

• I alluded to it before in talking about the direction, but holy cow is Aaron Paul great. Jesse’s been in shut-down mode all season, and Paul’s been really compelling doing that, but it was so welcome to see him let all his tangled emotions out in the scene with the 12-step group. Hell of an actor, and he had a good partner in Jere Burns as the counselor, who said so much with the quiet way he said “No” in response to Jesse asking if he was okay with all of this.

• Many of you have been speculating since “One Minute” that the head of the DEA field office might be in Gus’s pocket. I guess we’re about to find out, one way or the other.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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