A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I let my dojo membership run out…
“We’ve come this far, for us. What’s one more?” -Skyler
The summer’s first three episodes weren’t exactly wall-to-wall action, but there was a relentlessness to them – particularly after Walt and Hank in the garage – that made it hard for both the viewer and the characters to breathe. “Rabid Dog” is the season’s first hour where we and they can really pause for air. There’s time to stop and think, whether it’s Marie telling her therapist her fantasies about poisoning Walt(*) or Skyler and Walt having a long discussion about the Jesse Pinkman problem. It’s an episode that begins and ends with the potential for a Walt/Jesse showdown, but the two men don’t see each other at all in the first scene and speak briefly on the phone in the second. It’s not a disappointing episode, but it’s a necessary one, both for storytelling purposes – with Hank and Jesse finally working together, the chess board needs to be rearranged – and simply to keep the audience from having a heart attack before Labor Day. It’s not a vacation episode, even though the Whites check into a luxury hotel and Hank packs Marie’s bags for something similar, but it’s a pause before whatever insane thing presumably happens next week.
(*) If only she knew what was taped to the socket cover in his bedroom…
Though we get two different tense sequences at the White residence – one from Walt’s perspective, then later from Jesse and Hank’s (with the latter cleverly wrapping up moments before Walt’s arrival) – for the most part this is an episode full of conversations, and most of those conversations are about how far these people are willing to go to get what they want (or protect what they already have), and whom they’re willing to hurt and sacrifice along the way.
And the character most likely to be a sacrificial lamb is poor Jesse Pinkman. The episode’s title evokes season 4’s “Problem Dog,” and Jesse’s NA monologue about why he had to murder the harmless Gale. Now, it’s Jesse being discussed in dog terms, as Saul and Skyler argue for putting him down, while Hank makes it plain to Gomez that he doesn’t care if the mutt lives or dies so long as Walter White goes down in the process.
Walt, though? Walt’s feelings for Jesse have always been complicated.
For years, we’ve debated how much Walter White genuinely cares about his former partner and student, and how many of his actions related to Jesse have been driven by need. Walt lets Jane die to protect himself, for instance, but he also knows that she’s likely to be a fatal influence on Jesse, and (as Hank notes in this episode) he pays to put Jesse through rehab. He goes to war with Gus Fring to save Jesse’s life, but then poisons Brock to manipulate Jesse into helping him kill Gus. Once Jesse retired following the Drew Sharp killing, the safest course for Walt likely would have involved sending his protege on a trip to Belize, but he let Jesse live, and eventually paid him the money he’d earned.
The bulk of “Rabid Dog” makes clear that Walt puts Jesse into the same family category as Hank. Killing him would solve so many problems, but Walt won’t hear of it. (When he tells Saul not to float the idea again, it’s with the most conviction he displays all episode.) Some of this is misunderstanding, as he doesn’t realize that it was only Hank’s timely arrival that stopped Jesse from burning down his house, rather than a change of heart revealing what Walt believes to be Jesse’s true colors. Some of this is the usual Walter White arrogance: he genuinely believes that he can string together the right collection of nouns, verbs and adverbs that will justify the near-fatal poisoning of a little boy, and that he and Jesse will be hugging it out once again. But much of it is the paternal feeling Walt has had for Jesse over the bulk of their partnership. Walt and Jesse do not often understand, or like each other, but Walt’s been more of a father to Jesse (for good and especially for ill) than Mr. Pinkman’s been in years, while Walt has shaped Jesse in his image in a way he hasn’t with his biological son. Until their meeting in Civic Plaza goes awry, Walt can’t fathom ordering Jesse’s death any more than he could Walter Jr.’s.
That protective attitude towards Jesse is so outside the normal parameters of the great and terrible Heisenberg that it baffles both Saul (who knows about most of his client’s worst sins) and Skyler (who knows enough that she can imagine the rest). Skyler, having gone all-in on Heisenberg two episodes ago – and having learned almost immediately to regret it after she watched Walt record his fake confession – is now demanding something that would shake the Skyler White from the series’ beginnings to her core. After Walt did so many heinous things for the sake of the family – a group to which this scruffy little drug dealer does not belong, as far as Skyler’s concerned – to not commit one more sin here seems like madness to her.
Understandably at this point, Jesse doesn’t believe Walt cares one iota about him, which ironically works in Walt’s favor here. Walt is so convinced of his powers of persuasion that he’s genuinely willing to sit in public and discuss Brock’s poisoning with Jesse, which would have given Hank and Gomez the opening they needed to build a case against Walt. But because Jesse is convinced, with very good reason, that everything Walt says is a lie, his Spidey-sense starts tingling at the sight of the big bald dude staring in Walt’s direction. As it turns out, the guy is just waiting for his daughter, and by bolting, Jesse both prevents Walt from doing something stupid and convinces him to sic Uncle Jack and his delightful pals on the Jesse problem.
Jesse’s dilemma, and despair, leads to another great episode for Aaron Paul – his bellow of “HE CAN’T KEEP GETTING AWAY WITH IT!” when Hank stops him from torching the White residence is as painful and powerful as any line he’s delivered on the series – and I do wonder what his brilliant new plan is, but our man blew it here, big-time. It’s hard to blame him, though. As he tells Hank and Gomez, “Mr. White? He’s the Devil. He is smarter than you. He is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you, the exact reverse opposite is going to happen.” He fails to listen to his own advice on this – if his impulse is that Walt is lying, then it must mean Walt is actually sincere – but the part where he talks about Walt’s luck is the crucial thing. Walter White has accomplished many extraordinary things in his criminal career, but he’s also been extraordinarily lucky along the way. Events always seem to line up in a way that allow one of his cockamamie plans to work. Here, he’s about to confess one of his greatest sins to a man wearing a wire for the DEA, and he’s spared his own foolishness because an intimidating bald man happens to looking in the perfect direction at the perfect moment.
And it’s almost funny to see Walt escape that situation after an episode in which he seems so hapless, so often. Last week’s episode had Walt’s master thespian side on display, while “Rabid Dog” showed us the difference between acting and improvisation. Walt is great when he has even a small amount of time to plan out his lies or actions, but when he has to perform without any sort of script in his head, he runs into trouble. Look at the Walt who sneaks into the house(**) looking for Jesse in the opening scene: this isn’t the master criminal Heisenberg, but a guy uncertain of the situation or proper outcome. Or listen to Walt recalibrate his lies in mid-sentence as he talks to Skyler at the hotel; he can think and lie on his feet, but it doesn’t come as easily to him as when he can rehearse the scene in his head. (And even then, he’s not always perfect: the “pump malfunction” lie is so ridiculous, and told so poorly, that he’s only saved by Junior giving him the out to tell a second lie about a cancer-related mishap.)
(**) Walt’s become a master at breaking into his home, hasn’t he? We’re at the point where I assume he just doesn’t lock the sliding glass door to the pool because he knows he might have to get in that way at a moment’s notice.
Nearly everyone else in “Rabid Dog” is ready to get rid of Jesse, but Walt fights that instinct as long as he can, then finally places the reluctant call to Todd. Based on the massacres of Mike’s guys and Declan’s crew, I suspect Uncle Jack has both the ability and pure nastiness to take care of Walt’s Old Yeller problem. But earlier in the episode, Marie’s therapist Dave offers some advice: “There is no problem, no matter how difficult, or painful, or seemingly unsolvable, that violence won’t make worse.” It’s an old saw, but an interesting one to insert into a series like this, about a man who has solved so many of his problems through violence – but usually in a way that begets more and more problems that require violence to solve.
Uncle Jack may not be the most unsavory character Walt’s ever teamed up with – Tuco was also a charmer (and the young Hector was even worse), and we know just how wicked Gus could be once you got past the businessman facade – but there’s an air of doom around him and his neo-Nazi buddies, especially given how close we are to the end, and what little we know about what Walt’s situation will be a few months down the road. Had Jesse walked up to the bench and let Walt talk to him about Brock, Walt might have been in handcuffs shortly thereafter. But I have a feeling Jesse’s decision, and Walt’s phone call, are about to make things exponentially worse for everyone involved.
Some other thoughts:
* For those of you who read the “Confessions” review on Sunday night and never came back later in the week, I added a timeline of the events circa “End Times” and “Face Off” to explain all the moves with the ricin cigarette and how/why Jesse was able to piece it together so quickly when he realized Huell had picked his pocket again.
* Vince Gilligan has been using this final season to give many of his longtime writers their first shot at directing. This week was Sam Catlin’s turn, and he introduced us to both Vacuum Hose Cam and Ice Machine Cam.
* Funnier Badger-related humor: after all this time, Walt thinks his name is Beaver, or that Kuby listened to him talk for hours about “Babylon 5”? I vote “Babylon 5,” and now want to know whether Beaver prefers that to “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
* A big deal was made of Walt ditching the Aztek in favor of his new car, whereas Skyler trading in her Grand Wagoneer for a new vehicle happened casually back in “Gliding Over All,” as a way to signal both the passage of time and the way the Whites were embracing their new fortune. I’d forgotten about it, and thus was surprised to see her pulling into the driveway in something other than the old woody wagon.
* A busy week for Marie: she goes to therapy (and declines to vent some more about the new parking rules at work) and makes both lasagna and coffee for Jesse while meeting him for the first time. (I believe this leaves Walter Jr. as the only regular character to never be in Mr. Pinkman’s presence.) All in all, it’s an appealingly pugnacious side to Marie, who felt defeated by Walt but has hung onto her anger.
* Interesting that the episode skips over both Hank bringing Gomez into the fold and the bulk of what sounded like a very thorough confession from Jesse. I suppose the latter would have been overkill after last week’s fake confession from Walt – and would have covered material we all knew, filtered through Jesse’s perspective (and Aaron Paul’s performance) – but I’d have liked to see Steve’s reaction to Hank’s crazy new Heisenberg theory.
* Also, I’m guessing we’re in for another round of debate among the lawyers and armchair lawyers among you about the legality of Hank’s operation at this point. Jesse hasn’t been Mirandized that we’ve seen, but a confession was videotaped, and Hank and Gomez are using DEA equipment to try to record this meeting with Walt. Is the goal here to get the evidence that can put Walt away, or simply to find something that they can then go to the DEA at large with?
* “Yeah, Mr. White’s gay for me! Everybody knows that!” The line that launched a thousand GIFs, and at least that many slash fiction sites?
* Also, I will be very disappointed if the internet hasn’t by tomorrow night given us at least three different 5,000-word dissertations on the parallels between Walter White and Santa Claus, inspired by the family photos Jesse found in the Schrader guest room.
* Jesse’s attention is caught by Edmund Morris’ “Dutch” on Hank’s bookshelf. Me? I was pleased to see that the Schraders own the “Deadwood” complete series box set, and in the week when I finally finished reviewing that series.
* Once again, Walter White finds himself staring at a pool without actually going in it. But he does get a hug from Walter Jr. Which is nice.
* When Walt was figuring out what to do with the gas can, did anyone else feel sad that he didn’t so much as consider Carol’s recycling bin as its final resting place? After a huge entrance in the premiere, poor Carol’s been forgotten.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org