Breaking Bad gets a lot of mileage out of shortcuts. We never see Hank approach Gomez, come clean, ask for help, convince him to give it – Gomey’s just there, in the house, waiting for Jesse to wake up. The moment we see him, we understand all this entails for both agents – the risk, the trust. We see only the very beginning of Jesse’s videotaped confession (“He was my teacher”; Christ, what a line). The next thing we know, Gomez is talking about Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, Vamonos Pest, the Drew Sharp killing – elements of the “imperial phase” of Walter White’s criminal career, meaning Hank and Gomez now know everything, everything, up until that point. The technique keeps the audience active, enlisting us to fill in the gaps. And when the show does go step-by-step methodical, the contrast is striking.
Contrast is the name of the game in “Rabid Dog,” written and directed by Sam Catlin. The episode’s audacious hit-the-rewind-button structure puts the juxtapository technique front and center, leaving a major question ostentatiously unanswered, then answering it with relish.
The mystery of Jesse’s apparent change of heart and subsequent disappearance from Walt’s home drives much of the first half of the episode. It gives us the suspense of the opening sequence, with Walt methodically searching his own house for his protégé, shot and scored like a Halloween-era John Carpenter thriller. It gives us his crucial, character-revealing arguments with Saul and Skyler about Jesse’s eventual fate, showing us that, amazingly, there are still lines even Heisenberg won’t cross. (I admit I didn’t think Walt would balk at having Jesse killed at this point.) It gives us a seemingly never-ending stream of midnight-black dialogue: Skyler weakly playing along with “So. Uh. Pump malfunction.” Walt’s weird catalog of gas-splashed body parts: “My arms, and my legs, and my groin . . . ” His fury at Saul for suggesting Jesse’s murder: “You’re full of colorful metaphors, aren’t you, Saul? ‘Belize,’ ‘Old Yeller.’ Just brimming with advice. Do not float that idea again.” His instantaneous transformation from Walt to Heisenberg when Skyler confronts him about Saul: “I’m sorry. Were you spying on me?” Skyler’s chilling, broken-down justification for murder: “We’ve come this far. For us. What’s one more?”
(I hesitate to even look at any Breaking Bad comment threads now – this will kick Skyler hate into the stratosphere. So much so, in fact, that it feels like a miscalculation on the show’s part. Of course you shouldn’t tailor your story to the preferences of your worst viewers, but it’s worth thinking about whether you’re handing them ammo unnecessarily. Having Skyler dismiss Jesse’s life with a shrug in the very same episode that Walt – Walt! – adamantly refuses to even entertain the idea is just asking for trouble.)
Then, with no fanfare, we jump back in time and solve the mystery. Jesse didn’t change his mind, at least not without help – he was prevented from burning down the house by Hank, whom we’d last seen calling off the tail he’d placed on Jesse and leaving the office for “a walk.” Turns out he’d taken over tailing Jesse himself, putting him in the position to effect a last-minute save that’d make Walt’s SUV proud. “You really wanna burn him down?” Hank asks in one of the best lines of a truly sparkling episode. “Let’s do it together.” In classic Breaking Bad fashion, we get a parting shot that shows Hank and Jesse were about one second away from discovery by Walt – a cheap thrill, maybe, but wooooo is it thrilling!
The Hank/Marie scenes are a mirror-universe version of Walt and Skyler’s. Walt needs his family out of his house, and he concocts that absurd, try-hard-y bubbe meise about a “pump malfunction” to get them out. Hank needs Jesse in his house, and to make it happen, he’s simply honest to Marie (and Gomez) about it. The alliance between Skyler and Walt is frayed, with Skyler going along begrudgingly and miserably at every step, needling Walt for his obvious lies and scoffing at his sudden outbreaks of morality. The alliance between Marie and Hank is rock-solid, with Marie absolving Hank of even needing to justify Jesse’s presence in the house, just so long as it’s bad for their common enemy.
Skyler and Walt wind up in the lushly appointed antiseptic space of a luxury hotel, its rich Gordon Willis browns and golds reading as chilly and ominous, its enormous pool a parody of the in-ground backyard model that has figured so prominently in the couple’s crises over the show’s five seasons. Marie and Hank stay in their own home, its idiosyncratic personalizations – Marie’s omnipresent purple, Hank’s bookshelf full of Ronald Reagan biographies and Deadwood DVDs – reading as silly but sincere evidence of the pair’s true selves. Marie vents her shame, self-loathing and violent impulses safely (and heartbreakingly – hearing her call herself “an idiotic stupid idiot” crumpled up my soul with its childlike sense of frustration) to her therapist. Skyler finally gives up and asks Walt to kill a man.
But the contrast doesn’t run that deep. I spent the scene in which Hank first tries to convince, then straight-up orders, Jesse to meet with Walt yelling at the screen: “Oh God, Hank, no, you’re wrong, it’s over, he doesn’t care anymore!” I thought that Hank’s alliance of convenience with Jesse was actually predicated on empathy for the kid, that in addition to wanting to take Walt down he also wanted to rescue Jesse, and that if Walt had a Skyler-instigated change of heart about Jesse and used the meet-up to kill him, Hank would be heartbroken as well as defeated. I was wrong – Hank doesn’t care. “Pinkman gets killed? We get it all on tape,” he shrugs. Jesse’s as expendable to the “good guy” as he is to the bad guys, if not more so. Of course, call it a hunch, but I doubt Hank will see an iota of the viewer vitriol spewed in Skyler’s direction for her very similar sentiment.
(At this point, since I can’t think of any other place to do so, a word about the tragedy of Badger and Skinny Pete. Pete’s been shown to be a piano virtuoso when he’s not tweaking, while Badger turns out to be a very serious science fiction enthusiast, writing Star Trek original-series spec scripts in his head and, according to Saul’s guy Kuby, spending three hours straight talking about “something called Babylon 5.” In a world without crystal meth, Badger would be replacing Steven Moffat as showrunner on the next season of Doctor Who.)
In the end, Hank’s omelette recipe (if an egg breaks, so be it) never gets tested. The justified paranoia about Mr. White that served Jesse so well last episode, enabling him to make the leaps of logic required to piece together the Walt/Saul/Huell ricin-cigarette theft plot, has him jumping at shadows, or in this case a waaaaaay too obvious red-herring glowering bald dude. (Waiting for his kid, no less; Jesse would have approved.) Jesse claims to have “a better way” to get Mr. White, one that may or may not involve his telephone threat to hit him where he really lives. But Walt is a stateless actor now – his home vacated, his relationship with Skyler as chilly and utilitarian as his relationships with Mike Ehrmentraut or Gus Fring, his relationship with his son a fragile one based on increasingly obvious lies. With only four episodes to go, there aren’t likely to be any good ways to get him left.
Last episode: Meth, Lies and Videotape