For the first three hours of this final half-season, Breaking Bad made a habit of doing the unexpected. Every time the characters were pushed near a breaking point – a place where conventional TV logic would tell us the tension must be diffused, the narrative can kicked down the road – Vince Gilligan and company have burst right on through that perceived barrier. From Walt confronting Hank in the first episode, to Hank confronting Skyler in the second, to Marie bringing brought into the fold almost immediately, to Walt making his aggressive move against Hank last week, even on down to little details like the almost immediate return of Walt’s cancer in the return, this final season of Breaking Bad has traded in delivering long-anticipated moments, revelations, and character interactions, and never wasting a single second in doing so. The ‘full speed ahead’ momentum seemed so instantly set in stone that by the time we got to Jesse checking his pockets last week, I instinctively knew he would figure out what Walt had done to Brock. In prior seasons, or on other TV shows, I would have thought the opposite – that surely, the moment would have to be delayed.
With that in mind, it is almost impossible not to feel slightly disappointed by this week’s episode, “Rabid Dog,” which is much more conventional – at two key boiling points, at least – in how it handles big, theoretical turning points. Both at the very beginning, when Walt enters his gasoline-doused home, and at the end, when Jesse makes the long walk to go confront Walt in the park, the new narrative pace of Breaking Bad has us conditioned to expect big, earth-shattering things to come to pass. As Walt makes his way around the house, we expect Jesse to pop out at any moment, for gunfire to be exchange, for a shouting match to be had, and for things to come to a momentary head, just as they did with Walt and Hank in the premiere, or with Skyler and Hank/Marie in episode 2. And as a nervous, terrified Jesse approaches Walt on the bench, it feels like the natural next step is for the two to have it out – and for Hank and Gomez to be given the biggest evidence so far. That is how things had progressed this season so far, and it seemed likely, after three breathless episodes, that that is how things will continue.
But “Rabid Dog”, as previously noted, plays by more conventional rules. As Walt makes his way through the house, Jesse doesn’t appear, and the tension is diffused, rather than confronted. The story is not ready to reach that point. And when Jesse approaches Walt at the end, he is deterred for the same reason – this season may have had its foot all the way down on the gas thus far, but it is not prepared to accelerate quite that quickly. And because those two key moments to defer narrative momentum to further down the line, “Rabid Dog” as a whole is paced differently than the last three episodes. It is slower. It is calmer. Less ‘happens’ in a strict narrative sense.
The question is whether or not one finds this pace and these narrative delays frustrating, justified, satisfying, or a mixture of all of the above. For the most part, I think I feel the latter, and I wish I had more time to contemplate “Rabid Dog” (I write these reviews immediately after the episodes air), because even in the short time since the episode ended, I find my thoughts evolving rapidly. But at the moment, my feelings are mixed, not necessarily in a bad way, but just in a sense of slight surprise and mild critical confliction. “Rabid Dog” is an excellent episode of television. No doubt about that. I think the ways in which it explores these characters at one of (if not the) most significant crossroads in their lives are terrific, and I value the opportunity to have rich, compelling character development in a slightly less breathless, slightly more introspective setting.
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But at the same time, I do feel like the hour’s two major narrative evasions are at least somewhat cheap, and I think it is fair to feel that way in comparison to what we have been primed to expect. On most television shows, a cliffhanger like the one we got last week would annoy the hell out of me. When you have a character do something as big as Jesse storming into the White family home spraying gasoline everywhere, it had damn well better pay off in a meaningful way, or the entire purpose would have been to shock and titillate the audience, rather than actually moving the story forward. And most stories would, inevitably, take the latter path, because fully following up on the ramifications of a moment like that leads to a narrative corner. But Breaking Bad had, as previously noted, built this entire final season on exploring the depths of such narrative corners, and so I did not mind last week’s cliffhanger – instead, I was invigorated by it, because I was sure it would lead to something spectacular.
And in its own diffuse, unconventional way, the cliffhanger did lead to something spectacular – more on that in a moment. But the opening scene of “Rabid Dog” still felt at least a little like a let down, even if it was brilliantly directed – the long, tight tracking shot of Walt going through the house was an absolute master class of tension, but it was also an exercise in tension without fulfillment, and at this point, having been conditioned to crave the fulfillment, that bothered me at least a little. What “Rabid Dog” winds up doing with that initial dispersal of tension is absolutely justified and satisfying, but if I am being honest, in the moment, it felt cheap. Same goes for the final scene – I think it is brilliantly, beautifully executed, but after spending an entire week and then this entire hour waiting for Jesse to confront Walt, the show backing out on that confrontation does not, immediately, sit right, even as what they ultimately do with it – Jesse essentially declaring war on Mr. White, and Heisenberg responding in kind – seems, for the moment, justified.
And ultimately, that reflects how I feel about “Rabid Dog” as a whole – minor disappointment in two key moments, mixed with a pervading sense of satisfaction at how things are handled overall. Let us examine how the first dispersal of tension is handled to further explain my reasoning.
From the end of last week’s episode, “Rabid Dog” proceeds from two different points of view, starting with Mr. White’s as he enters the gasoline-soaked living room. While the eventual discovery that Jesse has left the scene serves as a diffusion of tension for the audience, Walt’s sense of danger is in no way dissipated. Not only is he thinking Jesse could return at any moment – needing only a match to destroy everything at this point – but he also knows he has to cover this incident up for his family. Through the first half of the episode, we follow Walt’s side of this story as the aftermath of Jesse’s near-rampage forces him to reconsider his and Jesse’s relationship.
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Thus, when it comes to Walt, the dispersal of tension acts paradoxically as a heightening of dramatic unease. The confrontation both Walt and the audience expected has been delayed, but in Walt’s mind, at least, it could still happen at any moment, and he has to prepare himself for what he will do when it arrives. So he lies to his family for the umpteenth time – which, after his impeccably performed symphony of dishonesty last week, is rather horribly put together and presented, so much so that even Walter Jr. sees through it (if not all the way) – and moves them to a hotel, where Skyler (who, unlike Walter Jr., fully understands what is actually going on) confronts him about the situation.
Up to that point, I was a tad confused by Walt’s seeming desire to resolve the Jesse situation peacefully (as expressed in the car with Saul, which is a great scene filled with absolutely crackling dialogue). Would Walter White, at this point in his career, with so many bodies left in his wake, be anything less than ruthless in dealing with Jesse? But the confrontation with Skyler is an exquisite character moment – for my money, the best and most insightful one concerning Walt himself since Season 4 – because it clarifies just how much trouble Walt has seeing the forest for the trees. Skyler’s logic, however depressing, makes perfect sense – with the situation as dire as it is, and with the number of people Walt has killed in the past, why not put Jesse down and be done with it? Walt, however, thinks he can make peace with Jesse via a nice long chat (even though his fib with the gasoline proves he is not an all-powerful orator). The difference in their respective points of view is that Skyler can view Walt’s criminal career holistically, and see him for the overall, ruthless monster he has been, while Walt is, of course, living in his own moment, and while he probably considers himself a mastermind of some sort, ‘murdering mastermind’ is probably not the title he would give himself. Walt wants to believe he can resolve this situation without violence, but the truth is, when one looks at the last year-plus of his life in context, one is hard pressed to find a problem he did not tackle with bloodshed and brutality. Skyler sees it. The audience sees it. Walter White does not.
And it is specifically because the tension was dispersed earlier, back at the house, that the show is allowed to arrive at this truly significant moment. Had Walter and Jesse confronted each other at the house, the show would probably have had to A) end right then and there with a mutual double homicide, and B) push Walt to committing instinctive violence. And that would be interesting and explosive and exciting, but it would not, necessarily, lend us insight into who Walter White is at this point in time. Because the tension disperses, and Walt is allowed to mull things over as his fear of Jesse stews, we get to see how he actually views himself, Jesse, and the situation at large. And I value that immensely, because my main complaint with last year’s episodes, and something I have been waiting for this final batch to address, is how little I feel I understand Walter White. Last year, he was a manipulative, inhuman monster from start to finish, with nary a shred of humanity in sight. This year, he seemed to have regained some semblance of humanity, whether it was honest or not – and “Rabid Dog” puts that all in context by clarifying that while Walter White has done horrible, horrible things (and is obviously perfectly proud of many if not most of them), he is, like most people, trapped in his own perspective, unable to sense exactly what his actions have meant holistically, and confused as to why he cannot simply live in peace now that he has retired.
Walter White is, simply put, blind, just as blind as he was back in Season 3, when Mike informed him of the danger of taking half-measures. He thinks he could have his empire, step away, and continue to be on top, away from reproach or violence, but he is, of course, wrong. And for Walter White, the arc of “Rabid Dog” is one of taking off those self-imposed blinders, seeing the situation for what it really is, and, in the end, getting his hands dirty once more by calling Todd to put a hit out on Jesse. For the second time in his life, Walt has learned he is long past the point of taking half-measures; only going all in can save him now.
So when it comes to Walt’s point of view, I can ultimately forgive the two dispersals of tension, because I feel both – the absence of Jesse at the house, and Jesse calling, rather than meeting, him at the park – push Walt to interesting points. “Rabid Dog” is unquestionably a transitional episode, but I find the transitions interesting, and when it comes to Walt, I feel it delivers some long-awaited character introspection.
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From Jesse’s point-of-view, however, things are much more interesting, even if Jesse’s story too is one of transition rather than action. On his side of the story – which the episode returns to around the halfway mark – tension is diffused by the arrival of a new variable, Hank, to the situation. My initial reaction – recorded in my notes as a series of expletives, many reputations of the word YEAH in all caps, and copious amount of exclamation marks – was enthusiastic, to say the least, because if the scenario with Jesse and the gasoline had to be avoided, having the interruption occur because Hank has arrived to team-up with his former nemesis is one hell of a way to do it.
I would, in fact, put that sequence among the most satisfying this final season has delivered so far, not just because it is viscerally thrilling to have two opposing characters finally unite over their mutual hatred of Walter White, but because both Aaron Paul and Dean Norris are spectacular in selling every single note of that confrontation. Norris plays Hank as fully in control, knowing he has the biggest opportunity he will ever have to put Heisenberg down, and determined to not mess it up. Paul, meanwhile, is just an absolute emotional powerhouse, and no matter how much we may come to expect that from him, when he belts out lines like “He can’t keep getting away with this!” it is impossible not to be taken aback.
I think some of what follow Hank and Jesse’s team-up is a tad bit wonky; all the material with Jesse in the Shrader house and Hank and Gomez interviewing him on tape is well executed and acted – one of Paul’s greatest strengths, in addition to grief-filled outbursts, is playing Jesse in fish-out-of-water scenarios – but I also feel like it moves very fast, and that some narrative steps are glossed over in ways they maybe shouldn’t be. It probably isn’t essential to see the moment when Hank went to Gomez with this information, but it does feel like something that should have been there, given Gomez’s relative prominence as a supporting character; similarly, we don’t need to see Jesse go through his whole confession, but one has to imagine there are some stories in his statement that would shock the hell out of even Hank, who has put together many things about the Heisenberg case, but certainly would not know everything. For instance, I would think Hank and Gomez both would be fairly horrified to hear about how Jesse and Walt dismembered bodies and melted them into barrels with hydrofluoric acid, at least where the little kid from last season is concerned. It is entirely possible Jesse left some major things out, of course, but therein lies another problem – we do not know what Jesse did and did not tell them, nor how he told it, and given that that is almost sure to be important in the last four hours, it feel sloppy to skip past it in this hour.
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That being said, I very much like where Jesse’s story leads, with Hank and Gomez convincing (or forcing) him to wear a wire and meet with Walt, and Jesse abruptly changing the plan when he thinks he sees someone standing guard. This is the other major tension dispersal in the episode, as Walt and Jesse do not meet each other here, and while that is, as previously noted, disappointing on the surface, I am hugely intrigued by where Jesse’s actions transition us for the final stretch of episodes. When he goes rogue, moving for the payphone to give Mr. White a call, Jesse is not chickening out or losing his resolve, but instead doubling down, letting Walt believe the alternate version of events – that Jesse chose not to burn the house down in favor of something more nefarious – and in the process making Walt believe that Jesse really is an elusive, vicious mastermind. Whether Jesse is or is not has yet to be seen – he tells Hank he has a plan, and while we have yet to hear it, I suspect that with only four episodes yet, it must be partially successful – but that phone call is a brilliant bit of psychological power play. Most crucially, it gives Jesse back the agency he has long been bereft of, making his role in the story even more unpredictable and compelling as we head into the back half of the season.
And that, in short, is my reaction to “Rabid Dog” in a nutshell. This is not the best Breaking Bad has delivered this year, nor is it designed to be. It is a transitional episode, but I am absolutely on board with where we are headed, and I am mostly quite fond of the dramatic material that gets us there. Pay-off is everything, of course, and the next four episode will have to make good on what “Rabid Dog” lays down to make this deceleration of pacing fully justified, but at this point, I have little to no qualms with where the series is going. Breaking Bad has been spectacular this year. “Rabid Dog” is a different sort of episode than the last three, but is absolutely of a piece with the creative and qualitative aims of these final hours.
- This episode was written and directed by longtime Breaking Bad scribe Sam Catlin, who has written or co-written such classic hours as “4 Days Out,” “Fly,” “Half Measures,” “Crawl Space,” and “Fifty-One.” This is his last contribution to the series, and also his first time directing, and whatever minor narrative qualms I have with “Rabid Dog,” I think Catlin’s work in both roles is exquisite. I love the writing throughout – I mentioned the quality of the dialogue in the Saul scene, but really, I found myself copying down quotes more throughout this hour than any of the previous three – and the direction is sharp, taut, and suspenseful even when the storytelling is purposefully diffusing the tension. As with other Breaking Bad writers who have said goodbye over the past few weeks, Catlin has delivered an excellent send-off to his time with the series.
- Walter Jr. finally realizing his father lied about the gasoline is probably more significant than it seems. Keep in mind that before Jesse could go cuckoo bananas about Brock and the poison, he first had to recognize what a Walter White lie looked like. Walter Jr. now has that in the back of his mind as well, and I have the feeling that knowledge will come back into play before the end. He is, after all, the only adult cast member not in the know about his father’s actions.
- Staying with Walter Jr. for a moment, I want to give a big shout out to R.J. Mitte for his truly fantastic work in the scene by the poolside, in which he breaks down and hugs his father while expressing his concern about the cancer. Having been in that exact same situation before (minus the crazy, manipulative meth-dealing father – my Dad was a good and sincere man when he had cancer), I can attest to the sheer emotional honesty of Mitte’s work. That is what that moment is like, and if you have lost a parent to cancer at a young age, you have been in that situation, hopelessly scared for the health of your parent, confused by their seeming lack of concern, and desperate to show how much you care in case things end before you get to say goodbye. Breaking Bad is not a show that typically makes me emotional in a severely sad or introspective way, but when Walt Jr. goes in for a hug, I’ll admit to tearing up a little. Walter White may be a thoroughly despicable human being, but Walter Jr. doesn’t know that yet, and what hurts so much about watching those scenes is how genuine his emotions are, in contrast to how little Walt Sr. seems to care about his son’s emotions. Great, great work by Mitte.
- Marie in counseling is a nice example of how Breaking Bad can meld pathos and laughter – the scene says a lot about what Marie is thinking and feeling, but we are also struck by the sheer absurdity of dancing around the issue with the therapist – and also another reminder of how great Betsy Brandt can be when given real material to work with. It took them five-and-a-half seasons, but I feel they are finally making good use of Marie this year.
- “Yeah. Mr. White’s gay for me.” Oh God, Breaking Bad, do you realize what you have done? If there wasn’t already a mountain of slash-fic on the internet, there will be now, and none of it will be pretty…
- Note just how ruthless Hank is when discussing Jesse with Gomez, essentially welcoming the possibility of Jesse getting killed as a means to catching Walt. I think we all expected Hank to become the hero of Breaking Bad when he learned the truth, but that has not been the case at all, as his investigation has revealed both the best and worst qualities Hank has to offer.
- I’m calling it now – the Ricin in the future is for Jesse. Assuming they don’t kick Aaron Paul off the show before the end (which would be a huge mistake), Jesse survives the looming encounter with Todd’s neo-Nazi Uncle, leaving Walt to clean up this loose end in the future. Which probably leaves the giant machine gun in the back of Walt’s car for the Neo-Nazis themselves, who will probably be mad at Walt when everything inevitably goes to hell over the next four episodes.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.Previous