Hopefully it didn’t surprise many this week that Walt would enter his house after Jesse, only to see that his former partner had for some reason vacated the gasoline-doused home before lighting a match. The eagle-eyed viewer certainly foresaw this, as it was frequently brought up in recaps (like Matt Zoller Seitz’s) that the White residence showed no apparent signs of fire damage in the episode 5.09 flash-forward. Other critics, like David Chen of the “Ones Who Knock” podcast, used last week’s false cliffhanger as part of an argument that the Breaking Bad writers had potentially mis-stepped in showing the ransacked White household in the first place, as it severely diluted the tension of wondering what fate might befall its residents.
Personally, I have no issue with Breaking Bad’s decision to so sacrifice some latter-season information. While I do concede that such a writing choice defangs the dramatic tension as we might traditionally experience it on this show, I maintain that the flash-forward essentially sets up the show for a new kind of dramatic suspense. The principal source of tension on Breaking Bad has always been based on a single, rather simple question of its protagonist’s resourcefulness: “how does Walter White get out of his impossible situation this week?”
We are being asked now to reflect not on Walter White’s resourcefulness, but on his soul. What happens when Walt has nothing else to lose? What will happen to him to bring him to that point? Bringing my flash-forward defense back to this week’s “Rabid Dog,” I like to think that Jesse’s sudden, (semi) predictable disappearance this week undercuts the criticisms of how this season is being structured. Of course, Jesse wouldn’t torch the White residence. Of course it couldn’t all be that easy. Now that Breaking Bad is showing its characters at the end of the line, showing each soul on the cusp of shattering, we can see now how everybody will work to be able to live with themselves once again. And when one soul, like Jesse Pinkman, equates redemption with the undoing of his partner-turned nemesis, nothing should be as simple as throwing a match on a puddle of gasoline, should it? A more liberalized reading of Breaking Bad is required for this, though I honestly don’t think that’s very much to ask.
What I loved most about the opening to “Rabid Dog” this week, though, has little to do with how Breaking Bad is reframing itself or with Jesse’s disappearance, but with how Walt deals with the minimal damage Jesse’s done. Understandably hoping to cover up this breach on his home from his wife and son, Walt quickly gets his door repaired, and concocts the kind of elaborate lie only Walter White could muster. He further douses the cabin of his car with fuel, strips to his skivvies and drenches his clothing, disposes of the fuel container Jesse abandoned (in the neighbor’s trash bin) and weaves some yarn about a malfunctioning gas pump. It’s almost as if we are witnessing the old Walter White again, all the way down to the tightey-whities, scrambling fervently to cover his tracks. And the lie he tells his family is a comically terrible one – as bad as he’s ever told. But I must acknowledge how fun it is to see Walt as he attempts to cover his tracks. There’s a frantic energy to how fervently Walt scrambles, which I don’t feel I’ve seen since the series more or less shed its black comedy early on. It’s a delightful reversion, but what does it mean? Perhaps it shows how Walt is quickly losing grasp of the entire situation?
At any rate, neither Skyler nor Flynn actually believes Walt’s lie, albeit for very different reasons. Flynn is convinced that Walt collapsed while pumping gas, and Skyler’s face makes no effort to hide how little of the story she will swallow. But in Walt’s semi-defense, I think he recognizes the futility of deceiving Skyler. Anyway, the lie is just enough; he manipulates Flynn to agree to spend a night at a nice hotel (admittedly not the toughest sell), and Skyler is really given no choice but to play along. At the hotel though, she catches Walt talking with Saul Goodman in the parking lot, as they are trying to track down Jesse. In my favorite exchange of the evening, Walt grills Skyler, “I’m sorry, were you spying on me?!” Without missing a beat, Skyler venomously shoots back “Yes. And I feel just awful about it.”
After some grilling of her own, Skyler squeezes the truth out of Walt, and learns what Jesse was about to do. Visibly nerve-wracked (and more than a little intoxicated), she expresses skepticism in Walt’s ability to “take control” of the Pinkman situation, the strategy of which still centers around trying to reason with his former protégé. Yet having gone so far down this rabbit hole, Skyler is clearly not willing to nullify all the horrible things she has done all because of some loose cannon to whom she’s never even given a second thought. “What’s one more?” she asks Walt, and we know exactly what she means. Brrrrr.
Speaking of Jesse, we have to wait about a third of the episode to see what exactly happens to him. It turns out he had been followed, and subsequently taken in by none other than… Hank! Before Jesse gets a chance to set Manderlay ablaze, Hank talks him down and takes him in personally, all while he schemes up a plan to get back at Walt. With the help of Steve Gomez (turns out, Gomey knows), Hank coaxes Jesse into a videotaped confession – one presumably more truthful than Walt’s taped confession last week – and convinces him to rendez-vous with Walt while wearing a concealed wire. Needless to say, Jesse is reluctant to put himself in the open, vulnerable to bodily harm should he make himself shown to Mr. White. Hank convinces Jesse to set up the meeting, but later admits to Steve that Jesse might have reason to be worried. Dismissing Jesse as a “the junkie murderer,” he elaborates on a truly fantastic scenario: “Pinkman gets killed, we get it on tape.” Hank wants to get Walt, like Skyler said in “Buried,” at any cost.
I cannot possibly be alone in how little I think of Det. Schraeder’s police work, can I? Has Walt, who’s sunken so far and implicated his brother-in-law in the process, finally managed to shake Hank’s scruples so thoroughly that he would willingly risk the life of another human being (even one he hates) in his single-minded plot for justice and self-exoneration? How much farther will Hank reach to nail Walt, and to what extent will he compromise both his own moral code (and professional standing) to get what he needs? While it all makes for compelling drama, and while it supports my ongoing theory that Hank’s skills as a lawmen will suffer greatly now that his family life is in the mix, I cannot help but leave this episode sincerely disappointed in Hank.
It’s not as if Hank’s deeply problematic (and stupid, frankly) machinations do him much good anyway. Jesse agrees to meet Heisenberg, in a crowded plaza, but balks at the sudden sight of a strange man nearby their meeting place, purposefully examining the space. Is Jesse about to walk into a trap? He’s not sure, but he’s not about to take his chances.
Actually, I feel Jesse’s decision to walk has least to do with the ambiguity of his safety. I believe that Jesse sees that man, later revealed to be some anonymous schmuck taking his daughter to the park, experiences that inevitable bout of anxiety, and then recognizes that anxiety as yet another stage in a year’s worth of deception, manipulation, murder and regret. Jesse’s no longer afraid of his situation. He is tired of it. He is done. He calls Walt on a nearby payphone and lets him know he is done:
“I’m not doing what you want anymore. Okay, asshole? This is just a heads up to let you know I’m coming for you. See, I decided that burning down your house is nothing. Next time, I’m gonna get you where you really live.”
There we have it. Jesse has a plan to really get to Walt, and Hank is left hoping to God that the plan works, whatever it is. And Walter? He knows he’s finally lost the one person he had done unspeakable things not to lose. All that killing, all that deception, all that manipulation, and (to borrow from Saul’s colorful Book O’ Metaphors) “Old Yeller” has finally gone rabid. Walt has no choice but to heed the advice his wife gave him earlier: he calls Todd, and asks for the help once again of Uncle Jack.
With half of this abbreviated season completed, is the proverbial board set? Are the pieces ready to start moving? I certainly hope so, because if this week’s episode proved anything, it’s that I am itching to get to the good stuff already. I am ashamed to admit it, but I feel myself growing almost impatient, and it is for that reason that I feel “Rabid Dog” might be the weakest entry in this final batch of episode so far. It’s not that it is a particularly bad episode – it’s quite entertaining in parts, and director Sam Catlin adequately upholds Breaking Bad’s reputation as a show that knows how to keep a meagerly plotted episode chugging along at a brisk clip. As usual, time flies while watching Breaking Bad.
But in terms of theme, in terms of plot, in terms of character exploration, Catlin (who also wrote the episode) struggles to add texture to developments we sort of already explored in last week’s “Confessions.” Characters who sink to new depths – particularly Skyler and Hank – may be given revelatory scenes written with due gravity, but the dialogue this week (for example, Hank addressing Gomez’s concerns for Jesse, or the heavy-handed depiction of Marie’s festering rage) occasionally feels too clunky, too quick to reveal characters’ true feelings, to feel completely authentic or welcoming of subtext. There is just a bit too much wheel-spinning to justify how little gets spread across a full hour, as if everybody is frantically scrambling to not move all that far.
Still, I must admit even a weaker episode of Breaking Bad clearly gives me more to reflect on than most other creative works today (hence the still-positive grade below). But I do think Breaking Bad has gone as far as it can to tease the end, without actually giving it to us. Now that stalemates have collapsed, now that new plans and partnerships are formed, let’s see if the final four episodes make good on the relentless satisfaction and deliverance we’ve been made to believe is coming.
- As I mentioned, I guess Gomey knows about Walt now. Fascinatingly, this continues the Breaking Bad staff’s choice not to show scenes in which Hank actually breaks the news about Walt (he had told Marie and Skyler earlier, though we never saw the conversation). Is this just a way to economize screen-time? It could be, since it might have been redundant to show such moments when we had those great Skyler/Walt and Marie/Skyler showdowns in “Buried.” What’s more, Hank and Steve’s friendship is so well-established, maybe we didn’t need to see their initial conversation right away. Still, it’s an interesting choice.
- I rather parenthetically shot down Marie’s few scenes this week. In particular, her scene with her therapist – during which she admits to researching untraceable toxins – felt either like awkward foreshadowing or a rather blatant red-herring. Her scene in which she agrees to take in Jesse (“Is this bad for Walt? Good.”) might have been a cute exchange between her and Hank, but her quick acquiescence to Hank’s terrible police work seems a bit too rash, even for her.
- In praise of Marie, though, she does get to feature in my favorite “Shot A/Shot B” moment of the night, standing at the end of her hallway, staring at Jesse, eventually asking if he would like some coffee. I love the use of space in these shots, and how it gives context to these characters’ tangential relationship: two people, inhabiting different worlds, one alien to the other, forced by entirely bizarre circumstances to coalesce.
- I find it interesting that Walt would expect that the gentlemen cleaning his fuel-soaked carpet would simply “get it done” if he threw more money at the matter. This reminds me of what Walt said to Uncle Jack in “Gliding Over All” when plotting to kill all of Mike’s former associates; Walt simply expected that things can get done for him, when he wants it, and how. More than ever, Walt is becoming less interested in the details, and more obsessed with the bottom line. Perhaps this is what makes it a little easier for Walt to call upon Jack to help deal with Jesse: the bottom line.