“Breaking Bad” – The Devil and Old Yeller

Be warned: Spoilers for “Rabid Dog,” the most recent episode of “Breaking Bad,” await you after the jump.

“We’ve come this far. For us, what’s one more?”

Over the course of nearly 60 episodes, “Breaking Bad” has vividly peeled away any morality that clung to Walter White, displaying how he slowly revealed his true colors as the series progressed (the interpretation I prefer, and one that matches up with what the show’s creator has said). A less likely explanation might say that the show highlighted how the actions he undertook and the world he entered slowly chipped away at Walter White and left only Heisenberg standing. Still, as we have witnessed this decay, we have seen how Walt’s miasmatic persona has corrupted and corroded those around him.

As we approach the midpoint of the show’s final eight-episode run (this is the fourth of the eight installments), and as Walt has transitioned from the drug business to dealing with the ensuing fallout, this has left the remaining core characters in an interesting place: Walt, having retired from from “the empire business,” seeks to reclaim vestiges of his former humanity; meanwhile, those closest to him are morally hollowed out due to Walt’s actions.

We see this imbalance play out in “Rabid Dog,” an episode that focuses on Jesse Pinkman (brought back to life by his vengeance) and is built around the Walt-Jesse relationship. Jesse is the young man who was driven to murder an innocent-ish Gale (and to enable Gus’s death) by Walt, and who saw a child shot and others killed along the way. He was never a saint before he and Walt began cooking meth, of course, but Walt broke him and drove him into existential despair.

Now that Jesse wants to kill Walt for poisoning Brock, the obvious solution (based on Walt’s history, as Saul pointed out when they spoke about Hank two episodes ago) is for Walt to kill Jesse or have him murdered. But he won’t do that, and while Jesse doesn’t recognize it, Hank sees that it’s because Walt genuinely cares for Jesse. He verbally abuses Jesse and forces him to do terrible things, yet he also cares for him, paid for his rehab, paid him his meth money after Jesse retired and, even when Walt was eliminating the other loose ends by arranging his prison murders, Walt simply wouldn’t consider killing Jesse.

In this episode, Saul suggests to Walt that he take care of the Jesse problem the way he has always taken care of his problems (i.e. running them over, blowing them up, shooting them, etc.). And Walt, much as he reacted when Saul suggested the same thing to resolve the Hank issue, recoiled and shot down the notion. Hank is family, and it seems Walt views Jesse much the same way. The show has long made clear that Walt views Jesse as a son of sorts — not the son Walter White, chemistry teacher and mopey middle-aged guy, could have, but the son Heisenberg could have — and Walt’s reaction to the idea of killing Jesse in this episode showed that these feelings remain strong.

The fact that Walt wouldn’t consider killing Jesse is about more than their relationship, though. It also says something about Walt’s mindset so far this mini-season. Now that Walt is no longer cooking, and now that his cancer has returned, it feels like he is eager to be back in his normal life (or something resembling it), which includes with it his pre-Heisenberg morality. He is still not a good person, and he is still willing to do bad things — the faux-confession recording he gave Hank last week, for instance — but it felt like the Walt of two seasons ago may have considered killing Jesse or Hank if it was the only thing between him and his freedom. Here, now, he resists these thoughts, convinced in his ability to think his way out of these situations (he seems so sure he could calm Jesse down if he could just explain why the poisoning was necessary, a giant mental leap but one that was almost understandable given the bullshit he has spewed to get himself out of trouble int he past), and because they are family.

Walt, ultimately, got into the meth business in the first place to provide for his family, and even if that quickly faded away as a necessity and as his impetus, his family always seemed to be the only anchor tethering him to humanity. Yet again, I am impressed by how Vince Gilligan structured this show (which, considering how Gilligan says they didn’t plan everything out in advance, is all the more impressive): Finally, after eliminating his other enemies, Walt left the drug business and is fully with his family — all he ever wanted, or so he said — only his family (real family, in Hank’s case, or the surrogate son in Jesse’s case) now poses the real threat to him. It’s delicious in its simplicity, made all the more intriguing by the high likelihood that Walt is likely going to kill at least one of these people (or that one of them will kill yet another one, with the end result being tragedy caused by Walt).

“Mr. White? He’s the Devil.”

Even as Walt is resisting the idea of murder — hoping that he can talk his way out of this situation and, with that, preserve his and Jesse’s safety — others around him are showing just how dark things are in Walt’s orbit. Hank talks Jesse out of burning down Walt’s house, gets him to offer a recorded confession of everything they did and orders Jesse to wear a wire and confront Walt. Even Gomez (brought into Hank’s investigation off-camera, so we don’t know the full details about how Hank sold him on the Walt theory or how involved the D.E.A. is in the Walt investigation at this moment) points out that, based on everything they know about Walt now, it seems very possible Walt will murder Jesse. Yet Hank is fine with that because it means they would catch Walt in the act. Hank — who had been the most virtuous member of the main cast (and it’s all relative, of course) — is willing to let Jesse die in his fervor to somehow catch Walt.

We have seen Hank’s willingness to break the law before (tailing Gus), and we have seen Hank’s anger overtake his decency (that time he beat up Jesse), but here we see just how little he cares about who gets hurt in his crusade. Marie, meanwhile, is discussing poisoning Walt, another person so inured to the death and despair around Walt she is (perhaps idly, perhaps not) considering murder as a way to make sure he suffers for his crimes.

I found the hotel room conversation with Skyler to be a particularly fascinating exploration of this vein. She, like the others still standing, has descended into the darkness alongside her husband. She looked at a potential way out of this life two weeks ago (when she could have worked with the D.E.A. to bring down Walt) and decided, seemingly once and for all, that she was with him in this. Yet it’s one thing to decide to stick with him now that he’s out of the drug business and they are trying to protect their family during whatever time he has left and quite another to tell Walt to kill someone, which she does during that stellar hotel room scene.

(By the way, there should be some kind of rule against invoking Lady Macbeth while watching a show like this. We get it. You read some Shakespeare in high school. But any time there’s a female character telling the male central character to do some evil or immoral act, people seem to love citing Lady Macbeth, even if the character in question [like, say, Skyler] doesn’t actually fit the Lady Macbeth comparison. The point here isn’t that Skyler is encouraging her husband to get over his uncertainty and take decisive action at the outset, a la Macbeth; the point is that this person who two seasons ago wanted to turn her husband in is now so corrupted she will encourage him to murder someone.)

The episode also continued a wonderful recurring visual element that had been used with Skyler over the two preceding episodes: That of the woman bathed in light confronted by a man cloaked in shadows. When Hank confronted her in the diner two episodes ago, it was lit as a de facto interrogation, with her in the light across the table from a shadowy Hank. Last week, it was Walt approaching her in the car wash, and she was again well lit as he loomed in the darkness. The latest episode showed light shining on her from above in the hotel room, while Walt again lurked away from the light.

Sam Catlin, the writer behind a stellar batch of “Breaking Bad” episodes, did a great job both writing and directing this episode. The first half was very tense, starting with the fraught scene of Walt checking his house for Jesse, and the second half pivoted in a different direction with its own rhythms (focusing on the Jesse/Hank scenes). Everything was held together tightly by the unusual decision to only resolve last week’s cliffhanger at the midpoint of this hour, which gave the episode essentially two starting points and worked very well. And Catlin delivered several memorable shots, including the dual hallway images (Walt in his hallway looking for Jesse in the opening scene, which is mirrored by Marie finding Jesse in her hallway later in the episode), Walt and Walt Jr. by the pool and Jesse slowly fading from view as the camera focused on the viewfinder capturing his face during the confession recording.

So much of this episode belonged to Jesse and to Aaron Paul, who was alternately energetic, beaten, matter-of-fact, funny and paranoid over the course of “Rabid Dog.” Jesse’s desire to destroy Walt’s home is temporarily eased when Hank offers him a chance to take down Walt, but even Jesse knows his confession about his actions with Walt boils down to a he-said/he-said. He wants to cause Walt pain, yet as he tells Hank and Gomez, Walt is smart and he is lucky. Through it all, we see the pain on Jesse’s face as he recounts his history with Walt — “Mr. White. Walter White.” — and as he struggles with the idea of meeting him.

That pain and that fear come from the same place, the same basic thing that also fuels Walt’s desire to talk with Jesse rather than hurting him: Theirs is the strongest relationship on the show, the deepest one we’ve seen built from the ground up (they met before the series began, but the relationship we’ve seen started during the first season). Walt looks at Jesse as a son, and when he isn’t busy abusing him or using him, he views him as a person he took and built up and improved and someone he taught to be better than he was. Jesse, meanwhile, looks at Walt and sees the only person who cares about Jesse, or at least the one who stuck around; his parents wrote him off a long time ago and Mike, who actually did care about Jesse’s well-being more than Walt ever did, had his own family (his granddaughter). Hank recognizes that after listening to Jesse’s stories, hearing that Jesse may be Walt’s only remaining weakness (his family would be, but Skyler is on his side). Jesse doesn’t seem to fully appreciate it because Jesse, at this point, knows what Walt is capable of and because he knows him better than anyone by now.

At the end, it’s this relationship that seems likely to doom one or both of them. Jesse knows Walt too well to meet him where he’s asked, believing (wrongly, as it turns out) that it’s a setup. He seems to have another idea, another plan to beat Walt, something of his own rather than something from Hank (and Jesse’s ideas do turn out to be pretty good). Walt resists the advice of Saul and Skyler, but after Jesse threatens him again Walt relents and calls Todd to contact his Neo-Nazi uncle (a bad idea, and one likely to cause bloodshed, and also something he also could have done sooner if not for his feelings for Jesse). It’s unclear exactly what will give first, Jesse’s plans or Walt’s new associates, but it is clear that this new paradigm is going to lead the show further into the darkness. What remains to be seen is if Jesse will survive his association with Walt or if Walt’s current situation can survive whatever Jesse has planned.

One comment

  1. Pingback: “Breaking Bad” – A shattered visage | Digressions

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