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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