Breaking Bad Breakdown: Postponing Progress
Can an episode be simultaneously very good and disappointing? That’s what I was left feeling after “Rabid Dog,” especially coming down from last week’s phenomenal “Confessions.” There was nothing wrong with this latest installment, but it didn’t quite hit the heights of stunning surprises, character depth, and visual splendor that previous episodes had reached, making the episode a casualty of the season’s heightened expectations.
In large part, this letdown is because much of the action takes characters to places they had previously seemed to be going. At the end of “Buried,” we anticipated that Jesse and Hank would team up against Walt, and “Confessions” delightfully thwarted those expectations. In “Rabid Dog,” we arrive at that pairing, with the surprising reveal that Hank interrupted Jesse’s attempted arson and took on a new house guest. We knew from the flash forward in “Blood Money” that Walt’s house was not burned down, so the real suspense was how and why Jesse failed to light the fire. The reveal of Hank’s intervention was well done, effectively built up through the previous scenes where Walt and Saul could not find Jesse. But even though Jesse’s emotional journey provided better motivation, in the end we got Jesse’s confession to Hank just as we’d been expecting in the previous episode.
Breaking Bad has always been exceptional at playing with pace while maintaining momentum. There are episodes in early seasons 3 and 4 that felt slow and some fans complained that nothing happened, but I always felt the momentum building from episode to episode no matter the varying pace—slow and deliberate moments and even episodes usually feel linked into something larger. I’m sure “Rabid Dog” will feel more focused and driven upon re-watch, but on my first watch, I felt like it was a bit too much piece moving and delaying inevitable confrontations, lacking sufficient narrative progress.
As always, individual moments are quite enjoyable and provide many of the pleasures we’ve come to expect from the series. Walt’s failed attempts to clean-up the gasoline, and then deciding to lean into the deception are a nice callback to his ass-covering scrambling from earlier in the series, back when Skyler was slightly suspicious rather than fully attuned to his particular bullshit frequency. I enjoyed Junior finally calling Walt on his bullshittery, although of course the “truth” that he’d imagined was cancer-related rather than a vengeance-seeking arson attempt from his father’s discarded protégé and surrogate son.
We also finally meet Marie’s much-touted therapist Dave, who seems to be pretty unhelpful to Marie, but useful for us to hear of her attempts to plot Walt’s death by untraceable poison, making her another candidate to use (or ingest) the ricin. I have enjoyed Marie’s increased prominence this season, finally getting into the A plot line as Hank’s primary ally and anti-Walt cheerleader. Likewise, seeing that Hank opened up to Gomie was a relief, making him less of a lone wolf in the DEA and hopefully helping to protect his reputation if his pursuit of Walt falters.
And then there are the two characters I care most about. Skyler had her moment in the hotel room, first calling Walt on his lies and forcing him into a rare moment of truth. But then she pressures him, like Saul, to put down the rabid dog, with the chilling question, “What’s one more?” I’m quite mixed on Skyler’s arc over the past few episodes—I buy that she sticks by Walt in the hope that his cancer cleans up the mess he created with as little trauma to the kids as possible. But I have always felt that her willingness to support him was based on limited knowledge of how horrible his actions truly were, how many lives he’d destroyed. Yet here she sees Jesse as just another casualty, and one that she is willing to actually demand rather than simply tolerate. As always with a highly serialized program like this, we cannot really assess a character’s arc like this midstream, but as of now I’m skeptical that her story will cohere as much as I’d thought it would a year ago.
As the title references, this episode is about Jesse, with virtually every scene either portraying or discussing him. Jesse’s arc from the beginning of last week, where his emotional numbness and contempt for what Walt had done to him did not override his loathing for Hank, to his willingness to testify against Mr. White, felt well earned. As he awakes at the Schrader’s Jesse finds himself in the familiar position of needing an older man to guide him forward. But just as Jesse has been let down by many men before him, Hank ultimately thinks of him as no more than a lever to open up his case against Heisenberg, content to sacrifice Jesse if it means catching Walt. And thus he’s willing to roll the dice by wiring up Jesse and sending him into a parlay at the plaza with Walt that looks like a scene from a 1970s paranoid thriller.
What I found most disappointing was how Jesse backed out of the meeting—not that he backed out, but how his reluctance was triggered by mistakenly assuming that a bald muscly dude was Walt’s bald muscly dude. There’s an often repeated maxim about effective dramatic writing that coincidences should be avoided if they help the protagonist, but they can work if they hinder the hero. At this point in the story, Jesse is Breaking Bad’s protagonist, the character capturing my moral allegiance (especially now that Skyler has embraced her “by any means necessary” philosophy), so the coincidence with the bald bystander feels too neat to inspire Jesse to take the lead in his partnership with Hank. The moment where the bald dude greets his daughter to highlight the coincidence was a bit too cute in feinting that he was Walt’s muscle, underscoring the clunky coincidence.
Of course, we still do not know whether Jesse would have been better off meeting Walt and recording the conversation. His turnaround does inspire Walt to call for the services of Todd’s uncle, so that cannot be good news for Jesse. But Jesse taking control of the plan from Hank seems like it should lead to a better outcome than the wire would—Jesse has proven himself as a successful idea man in recent capers, such as the magnets and train siphoning, so I have no doubt that Jesse does know how to catch Walt better than Hank does (see below for my hypothesis on what that plan might be). Every other character sees Jesse as a disposable pawn in their games, and even Walt finally has seemed to give up on him by calling Todd, so Jesse taking over the game feels like a real win for him. And thus the episode ends in a showdown that it felt like we’d been going for awhile: Team White, with a neo-Nazi army at his back, vs. Team Pinkman, backed by a renegade lawman and his poison-Googling wife. My money is on the rabid dog.
Random Pieces of Gasoline-Soaked Clothing:
- Saul gets the line of the night: “Let’s say that, just for the sake of argument, the kid’s not in the mood for a nuanced discussion of the virtues of child poisoning. His plans are running more toward stabbing you to death with a pointed stick.”
- After a string of perfectly-directed episodes, this one felt a little less compellingly paced and shot (by writer Sam Catlin). Overall, the visuals were not noteworthy, aside from nice use of hallways in both the White and Schrader homes. Again, this episode is probably more visually vibrant and tautly-directed than anything else on television this week, but Breaking Bad’s track record sets a very high bar for itself.
- Fans have taken note that Deadwood was seen on Hank’s bookshelf. Remembering that Anna Gunn was featured on that series, can we imagine what Hank and Marie thought of Martha Bullock?
- While Walt’s scheming brilliance peaked with last week’s video, this week he seemed more flustered, as reacting to Jesse weakens his abilities. If Heisenberg were on top of his game, I think Walt would have reacted to the gasoline-soaked house by dropping a match—not only would it cover up an unexplainable situation, but it would allow Walt to upgrade his house to a more fitting castle for an emperor.
- The episode ends with Jesse telling Hank that he knows how to catch Walt where he lives. I have a theory about what that plan might be—skip ahead if you don’t want to read such speculation. Jesse knows that Walt’s real motivation is to be an emperor, feeding his ego off the legend of Heisenberg. So if Hank arrests Jesse and publicly declares that this ne’er-do-well kid is the almighty Heisenberg, Walt’s ego might not be willing to take a backseat to his protégé. Of course, I can’t quite see how that would play out exactly, but I’ve long learned not to try to outthink or out-scheme Breaking Bad’s writers’ room.
Paratext of the Week:
Last week’s scene of Hank and Marie watching Walt’s fake confession video has spawned a lovely meme of “Hank & Marie Watch Horrible Things,” where fans edit other videos into the scene to prompt the Schrader’s disbelief. Variety highlights some examples, starting with the originating Miley Cyrus VMA clip and going on to other clips of both fictional and factual footage, but my favorite is a bit more meta: presumably Walt gives them the wrong DVD, letting them witness a mortifying moment of Walt’s younger days (courtesy of Malcolm in the Middle):