Stars: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk
Writer: Sam Catlin
Director: Sam Catlin
Network: AMC, airs Sunday Nights
Original Telecast: September 1, 2013
The latest BREAKING BAD episode “Rabid Dog” concerns itself entirely with the question of what action Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) will take next. Specifically, now that he’s finally seen through Walt’s (Bryan Cranston) mask and knows what kind of person is hiding behind it, what is he actually prepared to do to bring Walt down? And while the answer to that question seems pretty straightforward at the beginning of the episode, by the end it’s clear as mud. And, perhaps more importantly, “Rabid Dog” asks its audience to contemplate the question of what Jesse should do next, and this answer is probably not clear or comfortable for us, either.
The episode picks up with Walt arriving at his house right after Jesse’s been there with a can of gasoline and has doused Walt’s entire living room. Walt enters with a gun, yelling for Jesse to show himself, and it feels like the scene is building to a confrontation between the two men, but that climax never materializes. Jesse’s not there, having fled the scene after dousing everything but before actually lighting the place on fire. So it looks like we’ll be waiting a little longer to find out why Walt’s house appeared to have been destroyed in the fast-forward sequence several episodes ago.
This now leaves Walt to clean up the gasoline in his house before his family comes home, but the two guys Saul sent over don’t have the ability to do it in the time frame he needs. Walt’s Plan B is to pour gasoline on himself and then awkwardly describe the whole situation to Skyler and Walt Jr. as a “total pump malfunction” at the gas station he was using earlier. Neither of them believe him, but each for different reasons.
Skyler knows who Walt really is and realizes that for someone in his line of work, being doused with gasoline is unlikely to have been an accident. Walt Jr. pleads with his father to stop lying to him, but he doesn’t suspect the true nature of the lie. Walt Jr. thinks Walt’s chemotherapy and the resulting fainting spells are responsible for his “accident” at the gas pump. Sensing that this is the best way to make this cover story work on his son, Walt plays along with it. This marks the second time Walt has played the cancer card to keep his son from discovering an awful truth about him, and it’s just as disgusting as the last time. Walt is able to parlay this whole incident into a chance to get his family out of the line of fire and having them stay in a hotel until the gas is cleaned up. He spins it as a family vacation.
Having successfully duped his son, Walt next has to figure out how to address the threat posed to his family by Jesse. He consults with Saul and Kuby in Saul’s car in the hotel parking lot. Kuby hasn’t been able to find Jesse anywhere, having checked every possible place Jesse might have gone. Walt apparently still believes he can get Jesse back under his spell, and his plan to deal with the whole thing is just to have Kuby find Jesse and then go to him and explain his recent actions in a way that Jesse will understand and sympathize with. Even though this has worked virtually every time Walt has needed it to, Saul is understandably skeptical. Saul wonders if this isn’t an “Old Yeller” type situation, with Jesse as the family dog who’s come home with incurable rabies. Walt, surprisingly, shoots this idea down immediately, and makes a crack about Saul’s recent propensity for “colorful metaphors” lately. He wants no more discussion of killing Jesse as an option between them again.
Of course, Saul isn’t the only one concerned about Jesse’s ability to hurt Walt. There’s a nice moment when Walt realizes that Skyler’s been watching his conversation with Saul in the parking lot through their hotel room window, and his response is “I’m sorry – have you been spying on me?” Skyler’s sarcastic reply is “Yes, and I feel just terrible about it.”
Now that he no longer has the ability to keep secrets from Skyler, and she’s fully enmeshed in Walt’s life of crime, she seems to have a lot more power in their relationship. Arguably she could be a more successful crime lord than him because her motivation is survival rather than ego-gratification, and it’s possible Walt is realizing this. He actually levels with her about what happened with Jesse, although he still doesn’t accept that Jesse poses a real threat. Skyler’s appraisal of the Jesse situation isn’t much different than Saul’s, however. Walt explains that Jesse isn’t just the rabid dog from Saul’s metaphor, but she still wants him to kill Jesse. In her most fatalistic, defeated tone she explains, “We’ve come this far. For us, what’s one more?”
Skyler seems to have accepted that there’s no way she can rise up from the depths she has recently sunk to, and hearing it stately as plainly as this is still pretty stunning. But seeing Walt defend Jesse twice, once with Saul and again with Skyler, is pretty interesting too. It provides a nice counterpoint to last episode, when Jesse folded under the pressure of Walt’s “concerned dad” act and agreed to accept a new identity and a fresh start. Apparently that concern is not just a one-way arrangement, as it looks like Walt needs Jesse in his life to fill the roll of wayward surrogate son as well.
So where did Jesse actually go after gearing up to burn Walt’s house down? The second half of “Rabid Dog” starts with a flashback to Jesse driving up into Walt’s front yard then dousing the place with gas. Jesse’s decision not to ignite the house apparently did not originate from a last-minute attack of conscience. Hank got there at roughly the same time with his gun drawn! Given Jesse’s state of mind, and the fact that the gasoline is no longer an option, he’s now much more receptive to Hank’s sales pitch, and decides he’s better off working with Hank to take down his former mentor than going ahead with a strategy that involves poorly thought-out arson. Obviously this is fortuitous for Hank, who was not in good shape after Walt’s “Confession” video had effectively delivered the knockout blow to his investigation of his brother-in-law, but it’s not a sure thing, either, as we learn later on.
We get a little more Marie this week, too. She talks obliquely to her Therapist about how awful an unnamed person in her life has been recently, but refuses to discuss any specifics about what’s happening to her, and only wants her Therapist to focus on her feelings, as though he were a mind reader. This scene has a nice comic touch, but it also brings up something we’ve known for a while now – Marie is not stable. She loathes Walt, she’s lost her sister and her sister’s family, and she increasingly has very little to lose by doing something drastic. She talks about a fantasy of poisoning Walt with “shellfish toxin,” but then says it’s not something she’s actually going to do. But I can’t imagine this will be the last we hear about this plan, either.
Meanwhile, Jesse wakes up at Hank and Marie’s house. Hank has told fellow DEA Agent Steve Gomez everything about the Heisenberg investigation, and he’s there to help Hank appraise his chances of using Jesse to take down Walt. They want to record a video of Jesse’s testimony and then proceed from there. We first get the sense that Hank might blow this, however, during what may be my favorite moment in this episode, (which I’d love to believe was improvised during shooting). Jesse, still groggy from the sleeping pills Hank gave him the night before, picks up the book entitled “Dutch,” (if memory serves, a biography of Ronald Reagan) from Hank’s bookshelf and looks bewildered. It’s a great, subtle reminder that Jesse and Hank come from fundamentally different universes, and that the only thing that binds them is hatred for Walt. But is that enough?
After jumping ahead to the aftermath of Jesse’s confession video, (Jesse having apparently given up every detail of his past history with Walter White), Steve and Hank assess their chances. Steve reminds Hank that they still have no physical evidence, and that their case as it stands would be Jesse’s word against Walt’s. After playing Jesse a very tender-sounding voicemail that Walt left for Jesse on his phone while he slept, they try to convince Jesse that his best option is to do what Walt wants him to do – meet with Walt in the Plaza in the center of town to discuss their situation. Their plan includes Jesse wearing a wire to that meeting and getting them the rest of the evidence they need, however. Jesse protests. He believes Walt will kill him if he goes to that meeting. And this is where Hank potentially unravels his own plan even further.
In order to calm Jesse down and sell him on the idea of a face-to-face meeting, Hank goes over past events gleaned from Jesse’s confession video that actually paint a picture of Walt as someone who legitimately cares about Jesse. After all, Walt has saved Jesse’s life many times. This argument, along with Walt’s refusal to consider Saul’s “Old Yeller” scenario, paint a pretty ironclad case that Walt, in his own twisted way, does love Jesse. Jesse won’t accept that right now, but this scene probably lays the groundwork for him to accept it later.
Since Jesse still has Walt’s poisoning of Brock on his mind, however, he’s convinced Walt can and will kill him the next time they meet. He states that Walt is smarter and luckier than Hank, and will probably get away with whatever he wants. Now Hank pushes even harder, explaining that this is not a negotiation. Jesse’s going to go to the meeting or go to lockup and try to save himself from Walt there. After Jesse’s left the room, Hank lets his true feelings about Jesse out, and they’re what you’d expect from a lifelong DEA Agent trying to flip a street junky to catch a big fish. But Hank’s words still sting. Hank says that he would almost rather Walt kill Jesse at that meeting and get the whole thing on tape, because then he’d have Walt behind bars sooner rather than later.
As it turns out, however, Jesse’s paranoia derails the final meeting between he and Walt, as Jesse believes he sees a potential hit man shadowing Walt as he sits on a bench on the plaza, (even though the scary looking guy was actually just some dad watching his kid on the playground). Jesse bolts, runs to a payphone, calls Walt and tells him “Nice try, asshole!” and threatens Walt with more incidents like the gasoline attack. Hank does not get an audiotape of anything that will help his case, even though Jesse explains that he now knows a better way to get Walt. But Jesse’s actions cause Walt to reconsider the Old Yeller strategy, and in the episode’s climactic scene, Walt places a call to Todd, asking to employ the services of his Uncle’s friends from prison. That can’t be good for Jesse.
What impressed me most about “Rabid Dog” is the way it so skillfully muddled the moral questions at hand, in the way that BREAKING BAD has been doing so well since the beginning. Big picture: We should be rooting for Hank to succeed, and to capture Walt on tape confessing to all his evil deeds because Hank is (broadly) on the side of the angels and Walt is, to put it mildly, not. Small picture: It’s a TV show, we’re presented with a finite number of principle characters, of which Walt and Jesse are the most important and whose relationship has been at the center of the show since the beginning, and they have a tempestuous father-son dynamic that’s never been boring and is occasionally even touching. In “Rabid Dog” we’re reminded that, in a work of fiction, we likely care about this relationship more than we care about abstract notions of right and wrong. And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we should acknowledge that we probably weren’t rooting for Hank this time. That doesn’t make it right, but it is a trick that BREAKING BAD is consistently able to play on us and we’ll almost always go along with it. Walt may be an amoral, murderous egomaniac, but he cares about Jesse and Hank doesn’t, and for a few minutes at least, that was what mattered.
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