Despite last week’s gasoline-soaked promise, “Rabid Dog” was an episode that never quite ignited. Rather, it was a slow and steady burn, its rhythms more in tune with the drip-drip-drip of minibar vodka into smudged water glasses than Jesse Pinkman’s late-stage diet of black coffee and fat lines of meth. The way Breaking Bad unspools its story is often dazzling but it’s far from magic; it’s the rare show that insists on taking the time to demonstrate just how each trick is accomplished.
And so last night was one of its painstakingly constructed connector episodes, an hour that dug deep into the minutiae necessary to understand just how where we’ve been will directly inform where we’re going. There were conversations about carpet cleaning and hotel room keys. We learned about the new parking rules at Marie’s office and the river stones spa treatment she prefers. Saul recapped the plot of Old Yeller. If it felt like a change of pace from the breathless crescendos of this mini-season so far, that’s because it decidedly was.
This is a very good thing, by the way. Breaking Bad has earned its reputation as a twitchy thrill ride, but its brilliance often comes from the juxtaposition of Heisenberg’s high-stakes power moves with the low-key mundanity of Walter White’s daily life. And now, even as events conspire to burn said life down, it’s the little things that are still capable of knocking Walt down even as they crack us up. Case in point: Do most multimillionaires who pack pistols in their underwear also remember to recycle? (Hi, Carol!) And when Walt retrieved the CD from Jesse’s abandoned car, did anyone else for a moment think that it contained a message beneath the streaks of drug residue? Perhaps a video of Badger confessing that Hank is actually responsible for all of the Babylon 5 fanfic he’s posted on Reddit? Or just an explanatory mixtape?
There’s something clownishly noble in the way Bryan Cranston walks — or, more often, stumbles and runs — us through Walt’s thinking process, the way he’s always spinning like the centrifuge in the late, lamented superlab. But no one was laughing much in recent seasons as his increasingly intricate plans and desperate improvisations began to bear fruit. There were the deaths of Gale and Gus, the great train robbery, even the twin cover stories of gambling and car-washing. But I’m thinking specifically of the hard-drive wiping stunt that got Jesse more excited about simple science than the dudes in Insane Clown Posse. It was ludicrous and it was a long shot — Mike made that abundantly clear. But when it worked, Mike didn’t see Walter in the rearview mirror. It was Heisenberg that sat in the backseat with a smug smile clinging to his lips. It had worked, he purred, “because I said so.” Even on a show as obsessed with process as Breaking Bad, it’s the ends that people crow about, not the means.
But now the means are breaking down. The White household may be untraditional in many ways — the lighting choices, for example, predate Edison — but Skyler clearly enforces a very old-fashioned rule about no hats being permitted inside. And so watching Walt flap his gums to his family about pump malfunctions without the benefit of his signature black porkpie was sad and bordering on pathetic. The lies poured out of him, same as ever, but instead of soaking in like Jesse’s gas, they pooled on the surface of everything around him, oily and viscous. Junior only bought it because, in his innocence, he still ascribes good motives to his father’s bad behavior. Skyler wasn’t buying it for a second. Has Walt’s mojo worn off completely? Or is this what happens when he can’t keep his two lives separate, when he’s no longer able to stop the terrible things he’s done from staining the people he’s done them for? Either way, the callback was clear even before Skyler brought it up at the hotel. Potentially deadly drama had barged into the Whites’ living room. And no one had bothered to knock at all.
The family stuff was brutal throughout the hour, though things got appreciably worse at the hotel. I tried to lose myself in visions of room service waiters dropping like cartel bosses at Gus’s Mexican pool party due to the strain of carrying multiple trays back and forth to Flynn’s room, each one groaning with mountain ranges of pancakes bisected with running rivers of syrup — but it was no use. Even my best breakfast jokes go cold in the face of Walter Jr.’s heartbreaking reality. Having him call his dad on his bullshit back in the kitchen only to slip in more bullshit was one thing. But the moment when he once again caught his father brooding by an eerily lit swimming pool was another thing entirely. In the middle of the night, with no one but us watching, Walt still uses a tender interaction with his offspring to feed him lines. “You think I came all this way just to let something as silly as lung cancer take me down? I’m not going anywhere,” he says, more to himself than to the son who probably could stand to hear the truth for once. The hug was like a sprinkling of razor blades atop an already agonizing pain sandwich. Breaking Bad has moseyed up to plenty of uncomfortable truths in the past, but this one might dwarf them all. How can Walter Jr. handle the betrayal of his father’s real life when it’s eventually revealed to him? How can the show?
Maybe that’s a charitable way to look at Skyler’s escalating ruthlessness, a window into her thinking in the Kokopelli Suite when she downs her drink and Lady Macbeths her husband like she was to the Scottish castle born. “We’ve come this far, for us,” she tells Walt, darkly. “What’s one more?” Initially the “for us” could have meant “for our future,” or “for our kids.” Now it may as well mean “for our own survival.” I said last week that no character on this show needed anything more than Skyler needed Walt to really and truly be done. (This week I might add Saul needing rhinoplasty to the list.) I think it’s possible to imagine that Skyler is thinking of her children in a way that Walt — deluded, still dreaming of winning — never actually has. She knows that keeping them rich and keeping them alive are only any good if they can also keep them ignorant. So it’s telling that it’s Skyler who’s able to suggest putting down Walt’s sniffly problem dog. While Walt, stripped of his Heisenbergian swagger, can’t even bring himself to say the words. (I love the way, even at this late hour, Walt still has to play the innocent, if only for himself. “What are you suggesting?,” he always sputters, as if he hadn’t personally done far worse.)
About that dog. Breaking Bad fans are practically unanimous in their happiness with this final season so far, but I have seen at least a handful of commenters take issue with the circular nature of one Jesse Pinkman. More specifically, they’re a little tired of his constant and, by now familiar, swings between jittery mook of action and catatonic trauma victim. (In fact, it’s a swing we saw in its entirety again last night.) But the thing about Jesse is that, in his natural state, he’s neither a problem nor rabid. What he does resemble is a rescue dog. Jesse’s emotional scars have always been right there on the surface: his neediness, his loneliness, his self-medication. All of his attempts at maturity and happiness have been touchingly childlike in their simplicity: he wants the same house, he wants the same friends, he wants parties and pizza and video games. And each time he grasps for contentment he gets smacked on the nose by the rolled-up magazine of life. Everyone — Hank especially — keeps dismissing Jesse as a drug addict, which has been true and, who knows, may be true again. But the various chemical highs he’s chased offer only temporary relief from the real void, the one he desperately tries to fill in other ways. First there was Jane, and then Andrea. In other ways there was Mike, too. But behind all of it, there was always Walt.
Rescue dogs who have been taken from abusive situations can act in unpredictable ways. They can bite you or they can ignore you, they can jump and whine when you least expect it. They can ruin your couch. But if you show them just the slightest bit of the love they’ve been denied their entire lives, they will follow you anywhere. For the first few years of Breaking Bad it was possible to view the White-Pinkman partnership as a mismatched buddy comedy — they were two opposites who kept finding themselves pulled together. (All together now: magnets, bitch!) But all of a sudden, in the sober light of day at Hank’s house, the partnership seems abusive and horrific. It was chilling, the numbness in Jesse’s voice as he stared into the camera and confessed that Walter White, the scourge of New Mexico, “was my teacher.” All of the terrible things that Jesse did, from shooting a man in the face to giving up a chance at having a family of his own, were all in the hopes of gaining the approval of this toxic father figure. It’s the betrayal of getting kicked in the teeth again that stings him, yes, but his rage and fury are mostly at himself for offering up his face in the first place. That’s why he seethes “He can’t keep getting away with it,” and how he finds himself browsing a Reagan biography and sitting across from the two DEA agents he’s spent the better part of a year avoiding. (At least it got Aaron Paul into a scene with Betsy Brandt. She made him coffee!)
I thought it was telling the way Hank slipped right into the Walt role with Jesse, patting him on the shoulder, nudging him toward a preferred outcome, even calling him “partner.” What was truly interesting, though, even more so than the fact that Hank and Gomez now know the full story, up to and including Lydia and Drew Sharp, was that Hank may have gone too far in his cowboy-like devotion to the truth. “He cares about you. Can’t you see?” he explains to Jesse as an attempt to get him to agree to meet Walt at high noon in Civic Plaza. “Look how far he’ll go to convince you he’s not a bad guy.”
Would anyone have been surprised if “Rabid Dog” had ended with Hank braying about how, if “Pinkman gets killed,” he at least will have it all on tape? Would anyone have been let down? But instead we pushed forward into a The Conversation–aping mini-masterpiece of tension, wonderfully shot by Sam Catlin, the longtime Breaking Bad hand who also wrote the episode. Since Jesse proved he had been paying attention to one of the central lessons of the series — always be afraid of bald people — we’ll never know what Walt’s true intentions in this rendezvous were. But I actually believed him when he said all he wanted to do was talk. (Of course, since Jesse wouldn’t listen and Flynn was passed out after the all-you-can-eat morning buffet, Walt places a call to his third — and worst — son, Todd. I suppose we’ll see the bloody fallout from that conversation next week.) Walt dissembles with nearly every breath, but his refusal to consider Belizean holidays for key family members — and Jesse is family, almost more so than poor Walter Jr. — rings true.
The biggest lie Walter White ever told may just be the one he’s never stopped telling himself: that he’s the hero of his own story, not the villain of everyone else’s. A few seasons ago, Mike taught Walt a lesson on the difference between half and full measures and it’s something he’s struggled with ever since. Walt wanted to be both Heisenberg, the estimable crime lord, and Mr. White, the responsible family man. He wanted to be feared and loved at the same time. By wanting to have everything, he seems to have ended up with nothing.
By way of contrast, the reason Gus Fring was successful in his chosen field was because he didn’t actually care what people thought of the real him. What mattered was that they did what they were told. The reason for this is because “the real him” died the moment his partner’s brains splashed all over Don Eladio’s deck. And this brings us to the endgame, to the tolling bells in Plaza Square, to the very public showdown still to come. What occurred to me last night was that for all his black eyes and flop sweat, his anguished tears and his desperate gambits, Walter White is the only character on Breaking Bad who has never really suffered. Yes, he has cancer, but that’s always been an excuse more than a disease. But pain — real, irreversible pain — has rained down on nearly everyone else like stray bits of airplane debris. Hank was shot and nearly crippled, Skyler had the fiasco with Ted and now has had her sister ripped away from her. And Jesse’s had it worst of all, something I think he’s finally realized. That’s why he says what he says into the receiver of America’s last functioning pay phone: “Next time I’m gonna get you where you really live.”
Walt can scheme and plan and lie all he wants, but sooner or later he’s going to have to pay up for everything he’s taken from those around him. A few years ago, after Tio’s bell tolled for Gus, Walt declared that he had “won.” But only when you have actual skin in the game do you realize it’s not really a game at all.