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Breaking Bad: “Rabid Dog”

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Mr. White is the devil, Jesse? This episode left me with the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Gilligan is the devil. Look what he’s done. While we’ve all been distracted with plot and staging and character, he’s quietly maneuvered all the pieces and motivations into position to produce another heartbreaking situation—the most painful one I can imagine for this stage of the series. After all that Walt has done to Jesse, after everything Walt has taken from Jesse, he’s still the only person who cares anything about what happens to Jesse. The only one. This cancer-ridden, deceit-filled, arrogant husk of a man is all Jesse has left.

In terms of the Breaking Bad narrative arc, Walt’s most unforgivable sins are the occasions when he has taken advantage of Jesse and used him for his own purposes. By scheming to distance Jesse from anyone else who might command his loyalty or love, Walt has made sure his young protégé remains a tool that only he can wield. By asking him to kill Gale, by making him think he’s responsible for Brock’s illness, by failing to deliver again and again on assurances that nobody will get hurt, Walt has dealt blow after blow of betrayal to Jesse’s psyche, injuries that only someone you trust can inflict. Jesse lost the last shred of that trust when he pieced together the ricin cigarette gambit. And ironically, at the same time, everyone else who might stand up for Jesse turns away to their own selfish motives, and only Walt is left defending him.


There are two other people for whom Jesse’s existence is significant, and this episode is constructed around two gasp-inducing moments where both of them suggest he might be better off dead. First Skyler, who must surely be as entertained by Walt’s Bellagio fountain of bullshit as we all are (since she has yet to knee him in the groin in the middle of one of his gas-pumping stories), questions his claim that Jesse isn’t really a danger to the family. When Walt asserts that he’ll “make him see reason” once he’s been located, Skyler pushes him past literalism into euphemism. Walt really intends to talk to him, but Skyler wants Walt to “talk to him.” Because number one, literal talking isn’t going to put this problem to bed, and number two, “After everything we’ve done, you can’t just talk to that person… We’ve come this far. What’s one more?” If you’re going to justify murdering people by claiming the defense of your family, your family has a right to expect murder from you whenever they need defending.

The other person with an interest in Jesse is Hank, and while his attitude might be predictable given what we know about his motivations (carefully delineated for us in the last two episodes), it’s still stunning to watch him toss aside basic humanity in the pursuit of his white whale. (I’ll just leave those initials on the back of the can where you can find them.) He can barely maintain the thinnest veneer of personal concern in his rush to get Jesse on the record and seize the opportunity for a sting operation. “We’re going to catch him; we just gotta do this first, okay?” he placates his nervous witness while fiddling with the camera. And then, elated over the chance presented by Walt’s unexpected weakness for Jesse, he says it right out. Jesse’s a junkie murderer, and if he’s right that Walt means to kill him at their meeting in the plaza, then “we’ve got it all on tape.”

And as quickly and simply as that, Walt finds himself a runner-up in the art of using people, outpaced by his wife and brother-in-law. Skyler turns his own boasts about being the danger, and his endlessly-repeated mantra about doing everything for his family, against him. Hank is so eager for self-vindication that he makes only the most perfunctory effort at building a relationship with Jesse before wiring him up and shoving him out of the van. “Ready to kick some ass, partner?” Hank enthuses at the start of the mission, and the lawman swagger sounds eerily hollow, because just like Walt, Hank has misread what this young man needs and misunderstood how to motivate him. Jesse has no interest in becoming someone else’s tool; he’s been passed from hand to hand for far too long. Now he wants to wield some power.

“Rabid Dog” is elegantly structured to turn the tables on Walt. Even his patented bullshit patter, the histrionic spiels upon which he’s relied for so long to deflect suspicion or just to wear his antagonists down, become a trap that Skyler can spring with a single question. Interrupting Walt’s protestations that he knows how to handle Jesse, who isn’t really dangerous even though he almost burned down their house, she asks: “So he has never hurt anybody?” Walt hesitates an agonizing moment and visibly deflates within his outward show of paternalistic bravado. “No,” he lies, and that’s the jaws of the trap slamming shut. Skyler doesn’t even know the extent of it—that Walt put a gun in Jesse’s hand and told him to kill Gale—and she still intuits that Walt has painted himself into a corner. To escape would mean dismantling the fantasy structure of words and energy and bluster into which he’s invested so much of himself. She’s confident that he can’t and he won’t. And she’s right.


Because while Walt prides himself on being several steps ahead of his opponents, his methodology has always been improvisation. MacGyver-like, he uses what’s at hand, often at some sacrifice of pain and moral standing, but with the thrill of victory and the satisfaction of superiority driving him on. Whether it’s an exposed electrical cord, chemicals in a lab, or a human being, anything is a potential cog for his machine. But the endless expansion and maintenance of this ramshackle structure has become an occupation in itself. Look at how he hesitates, then pivots when Walter Jr. asks him to just tell the truth for once about the gas pump malfunction story, which Walt has taken such pains to prop up with gas-soaked clothes and car upholstery. “No, it was the pump,” he insists at first when his son suggests he fainted. Then he realizes the leverage to be gained with Walt Jr. with this narrative: “Maybe I did get a little swimmy at one point.” It’s a parallel moment to his tacit, partial, still-manipulative acknowledgement of Jesse’s demand for truth out in the desert. And the parallel intensifies when Walter Jr. reaches out to embrace him by the hotel pool. Walt already has a son who needs him, whom he can convince of his righteousness. Jesse is superfluous.

There are limits to Walt’s control, however. Jesse pegs it when he warns Hank that Mr. White knows everything, thinks of everything, and is lucky. The stars have aligned over and over to keep Walt’s plans on track, but sometimes randomness throws a wrench in the works. A plane falls out of the sky. Cancer cells start multiplying again. A tough-looking dude watches his daughter play on the plaza. And sometimes improvisation gets messy, especially when you’re using people as tools—people like Todd who’s not as professional as one might hope, or his Uncle Jack who might have his own agenda.


As the jaws of the vice tighten, the two families pushing Walt and Jesse closer and closer together, I feel sympathy for Walt for the first time in ages. And there’s a pang of nostalgia, a twinge of vain hope that finding themselves similarly at the mercy of others, they will find a way to join forces. As I exulted back in season four’s “End Times,” there’s nothing more exhilarating than a Walt-Jesse team-up, even when it’s based on a monumental web of lies. When the two fail to meet on the plaza, that hope dies, dashed by justifiable paranoia and by a surfeit of puppeteers pulling at their strings. Not much time is left, and nothing we’ve seen in the flash-forward indicates that Jesse is in the picture. I’m still pulling for a reveal like the one in this episode where Saul’s abandoned car and Jesse’s abandoned gas can turn out to be Hank’s doing. Breaking Bad started with the Walt and Jesse joining forces. I can’t help but wish it would end the same way. And I never thought I’d say it, but: Justice be damned. Call off the war. Nobody needs to win. It seems the only route to victory is scorched earth, deaths merited and collateral, and the irretrievable end of all the relationships that have steadily eroded over these five seasons, especially Walt and Jesse. I don’t think I can take it.

Stray observations:

  • But maybe they can wait a couple of episodes before they team up, because it sounds like Jesse has a plan (“there’s another way to get him—a better way”), and Jesse’s had some pretty awesome plans since the days when he was trying to broker peace between Mike and Walt. Let’s see what the kid has in mind.
  • I shouldn’t neglect Marie’s rapid and frightening progression from mild kleptomania to full-on Lady MacBeth, complete with her whispers about untraceable poisons in the office of her ineffectual therapist Dave. (Love the guitar at the ready beside his chair, by the way.) She refuses to be shunted off to a spa weekend for her own good, and instead asks Jesse how he takes his coffee, as soon as Hank assures her that Jesse can be used as an anti-Walt device.
  • Marie quotes nearly exactly the Wikipedia entry for saxitoxin: “… [P]roduces a flaccid paralysis that leaves its victim calm and conscious through the progression of symptoms. Death often occurs from respiratory failure.” Also, when the FBI show up at my door and cite my incriminating search history, you are all my witnesses that I was just researching for this recap.
  • Tremendous direction in the cold open by Sam Catlin, who also wrote this episode and deserves all the credit for the elegant structure I praised above. When Walt cracks the master bedroom door then darts through and the low-angle camera begins retreating back down the hallway, the tension cranks up to near-unbearable levels.
  • The sequence of Walt prepping his gas-pump-malfunction story, complete with brainstorms that send him back to the neighbor’s garbage bin to retrieve the gas can after he initially disposes of it, showcases his furtive, walking-fast-but-trying-not-to-draw-attention gait that I’ve come to think of as his “bullshit walk.” It’s the pace of his furiously improvising mind, and it never fails to amuse me.
  • “I hear the chunk, the pump’s nozzle, the metal thing,” Walt sputters with rehearsed incoherence as Skyler and Walt Jr. watch unsympathetically. “I suppose in my naïveté that gas is no longer coming through the nozzle.” What’s awesome about Walt’s bullshit is that it’s so floridly self-deprecating.
  • Saul never should have let his dojo membership run out. He’s also full of colorful metaphors, like “trip to Belize” and “an Old Yeller type situation.”
  • Good try with the “Are you spying on me?!” outrage, Walt. Skyler’s already got you covered: “Yes, and I feel just awful about it.”
  • When Hank reaches across Jesse to fasten his seatbelt after talking him down inside Walt’s house, it looks at first like a moment of parental care. Later, when he makes the same reach across to open the van door and send Jesse out to face Walt, the earlier moment starts to seem more like a wildlife biologist restraining an animal before fitting it with a tracking device.
  • When Saul’s henchmen divvied up Jesse’s likely haunts, Kuby drew Badger duty: “For three hours straight all he talked about was something called Babylon 5.”
  • “Whatever you think’s supposed to happen, I’m telling you the exact reverse opposite of that is going to happen."

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