Breaking Bad Review: "Rabid Dog" (Episode 5.12)
Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Breaking Bad each week in a series of letters. Want to join the conversation and see your name on the digital pages of Paste? We publish a Breaking Bad Mailbag every Friday to whet our appetites for the new episodes. Mailbags require actual mail, so send your Breaking Bad questions, theories, and rants to BreakingPaste@gmail.com before Friday, and Josh or Shane—possibly both!—will answer the best ones.)
You may remember my complaints from two weeks ago, when I thought Vince Gilligan and company were dragging their feet just a little on the second episode of the Season Five home stretch, “Buried.” It was the kind of episode that kept your attention, but the main takeaway was that, oh man, next week is going to be incredible. And it was. Now, two weeks hence, at the official halfway point of the home stretch, the pattern repeats; last night’s episode, “Rabid Dogs,” offered less in the way of plot development and action than its predecessor, and almost certainly less than what’s coming in a week. The sine curve keeps flowing up and down, fast and furious one week, slow and brooding the next.
The difference between “Rabid Dogs” and “Buried,” though, was that while both spent the bulk of their hour maneuvering the chess pieces into battle position, “Rabid Dogs” managed to wage war in the psychological realms along the way. This was the episode where we discovered that beneath Walt’s egomaniacal veneer, he actually cared for Jesse, even as their relationship sailed well past recovery. And it was also the episode where he decided to kill him. This was the episode where we discovered that Jesse was too terrified of Walt’s intelligence and luck to face him in the open. And it was also the episode where he hatched a confident plan that will probably require exactly that. The fact that we could go from point A to point B in a single episode without it feeling rushed or false signifies the unusual strength of the writing and directing.
Breaking Bad never exactly lacks for tension, but even by the show’s high standards, “Rabid Dogs” was a molar-grinder. The shot that sticks with me is one that came at the very beginning, when Walt has cleared the last room at the end of the hall and discovered no trace of Jesse. The camera flies backward, revealing the rest of the hallway and the living room, and inch by inch the space floods into the picture. You expect to see Jesse at any moment, dropping a lighted match and watching the flames dance up to Walt, trapped at the end of the corridor. We know it won’t happen, of course—Walt lives at least long enough to see his house condemned—but in that moment, we were waiting for lightning to strike.
The same could be said for the excellent courtyard scene, which reminded me of the opening scenes of Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation (which lost to Coppola’s Godfather Part II at the Oscars that year), as Jesse fought his nerves and the unsettling presence of a thug-like figure who might have been his killer in wait. It was shot so well that when he finally tramped away, part of me thought he was going to sneak around the monument and attack the imaginary hitman from behind. It would have made no sense, but in that moment I was lost in the drama and not thinking with a critical mind. Instead, we got the phone call that changed everything.
In both scenes, it’s tempting to say that “nothing happened” in terms of conflict. The more accurate description is that less happened than we might have expected. The house didn’t burn, Jesse and Walt didn’t meet on the bench. But the directing choices, big and small, ensured that both scenes had a lasting emotional punch. When Walt emerged from the house, three kids raced by on bikes, an unsettling and sudden flash of noise and sound that both startled and brought us back to the desert where Drew Sharp met his end. When Jesse approaches Walt from behind, a jogger rushes by before Jesse can even see him coming—a sign of how quickly death can come, before he’ll have a chance to reflect that it’s happening.
To me, Josh, these two scenes are the bedrock of the episode, and they were strong enough to carry the day. There are other highlights. You know I’m critical of Anna Gunn, but her pronouncement on Jesse—“What’s one more?”—was absolutely chilling. And again, I thought Aaron Paul was unbelievable from beginning to end. There was a new element of suffering for Jesse this week, and it revolved around the injustice of fate. When he tries to tell Hank and Gomez that their plan won’t work, he notes not only that Walt is smarter, but that he’s luckier. “Your plan is his plan?” His incredulity is only logical. And earlier, when Hank confronts him in Walt’s house just before he’s about to drop the lighter, he delivers the wonderful lament: “He can’t keep getting away with this!” It’s no wonder he calls him the devil; I don’t think Jesse believes in God, but the way Walt keeps slipping away from any kind of cosmic justice indicates that God’s opposite might be controlling destiny in New Mexico.
“Rabid Dogs” wasn’t without its weaknesses. Oddly enough, it might have been the low point for Dean Norris, who turned in a very unconvincing performance as Hank. As with the Skyler/Gunn question we tackled in the mailbag, though, it’s hard to know whether to blame him or the writers. Hank’s bumbling seems to know no bounds, and suddenly he has this weird habit of hatching his plans without telling the key players first. How else to explain the fact that he packs Marie’s bags and expects her to just leave the house without explanation? Or that he has the video camera set up and ambushes Jesse after his nap without using any of the soft touch or charisma we’ve seen throughout the show?
I’m also not impressed with the bumbling act Walt keeps pulling off with his family. I think you were the one who pointed out that while Bryan Cranston is a great actor, Walt is a bad one, but at this point the writers are leaning on that crutch too often and it honestly just seems like bad acting. Also, come on, Walt Jr.! Open your eyes, dude! The scenes between he and Walt fell flat to me, but that’s also because I don’t really buy any heartfelt emotion from Walt at this point.
Okay, I’ve typed plenty of words for now. I’m curious to hear any and all thoughts on this one as I work out how to incorporate the latest and greatest Saul-ism in my next dispatch: “He’s like a bad penny…sooner or later he’s gonna turn up.”
This may have been another slow burn, but it was masterfully written and directed. I love the Coppola comparison because while Vince Gilligan has likened the story arc to Scarface, the show’s epic set pieces and pacing owe more to earlier American New Wave of the ‘70s. If we didn’t have huge payoffs in terms of action, the tension was as high as Jesse.
And I love that the only person who has Jesse’s back in this episode is Walt. Saul is wondering if this is an “Old Yeller situation.” Skyler, shaken that Walt’s business has finally arrived on their doorstep, wonders, “What’s one more?” Even Hank sees the drug-addict-murderer as an expendable pawn to be used to bring down Walt. Everyone wants Jesse dead but Walt. Walt’s twisted moral code only extends to his family, and we see that he considers Jesse family—until that final phonecall.
Aaron Paul was uniformly great throughout the episode, but it has to be said that so was Betsy Brandt. The scene with her therapist was a superb sidebar to the main action and actually had me laughing out loud as the out-of-his-element shrink tries to shift gears—“How’s work? Last week you were upset about the new parking rules.” As Marie answers with her Walt-murdering fantasy, we’re reminded that this whole drama has unfolded amidst what was once a simple, suburban life.
And I know that you’ve been arguing that Walt has been stripped of all his humanity, but I’d counter that, as a TV character, he’s intentionally been stripped of his likability and charisma—and that’s a very different thing. His worst actions have alternately stemmed from desperation, hubris and self-preservation. And he’s lost sight of the family he was originally trying to protect. But we see glimpses of Walt still there in “Rabid Dogs,” both when he acts as Jesse’s only defender and when he sits by the poolside with a son who still deeply cares for him (if Marie feels betrayed, how deep is Walt Jr. going to feel it when he finally learns the truth?).
It was really interesting to me, though, that even at his most confessional—in his voicemail to Jesse—he stops short of any repentance or remorse. His voice sounds sorry, but he isn’t. “I want to fix this,” he says. “I’ll do whatever it takes to fix this.” It’s another problem to be overcome, but not something he can actively regret. It’s the unbidden knowledge of his action that’s the root of his problem, not the fact that he poisoned a kid.
So lines have been drawn with Jesse’s declaration that “Next time I’m going to get you where you really live.” What do you think it means now that Walt is out of the drug business? And did we just witness the final appearance of a pay phone in a major moment of pop-culture history?
I love that you brought up the “new parking rules” line. One of the funniest in Breaking Bad history, surely, especially considering that Marie had just threatened to kill somebody. Classic tonal shift.
“Next time I’m going to get you where you really live.” That is a puzzle, isn’t it? It can’t mean Walt’s house, since that’s the heart of the line’s contrast. And it seems like he’s willing to bring Hank in on the plan, so that’s out. My only guess is that where Walt “really lives” must be a meth lab. And since Walt is retired, I can’t even begin to fathom Jesse’s intent here. Other possibilities that come to my mind are the car wash, or Saul’s office, but neither one is forming a clear picture in my head. He’s done it, Josh! Vince Gilligan has wrapped me up in his web of suspense!
Another great call on Walt’s lack of open remorse to Jesse on the phone call. It reminds me of the scene from Mad Men when Don has to confess to Betty that he’s cheated on her, and all he can say is, “I was…disrespectful to you.” But at least we understood Don’s intent, even if he couldn’t bring himself to say the words outright. With Walt, as you noted, there seems to be a cognitive disconnect where the minute he admits he’s done something wrong, his whole world will unravel, which means he can never truly repent. So there’s some part of him that considers Jesse family, but if bringing him back into the fold means giving a full confession and apology, it will never happen. And things have gone so far south between the two that Jesse will accept nothing less. The two were already at war based on their own inherent limitations—Walt can’t confess, Jesse can’t forgive—and “Rabid Dogs” just got us to a place where the cold war became hot.
I’m intrigued by your idea that while Walt has lost his likeability and charisma, he still retains some humanity. I think the flashes of heart he shows—refusing to kill Hank a couple episodes go, originally refusing to kill Jesse last night, and the affectionate pool scene with Walt Jr.—indicates that you’re probably right. But my problem is that he’s so quick to change. Within a day, he’s ready to kill Jesse. I think we both know that if he has to kill Hank, he’ll do that too. And so I’m wondering what these brief moments of sympathy even mean…are they the last vestiges of a man who is almost totally lost, or is it just a facade Walt is maintaining because it signifies something noble, and he’d prefer not to view himself as the monster he’s become?
Pay phones—yes, this is it. That was the last time we’ll see them in a tv show that’s not set in the past. And I know we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief for this show, but I’m sorry, Josh, this is where I draw the line…there’s no way a stoner like Jesse has anyone’s number memorized.
I wonder if by calling Todd to engage his uncle in one more job, Walt is going to have to come out of retirement for one final cook. But I’m apparently terrible at predictions since I was ready for Walt to meet with Jesse and pull out the little gadget that detects radio transmitters that Saul showed him the last time Walt and Jesse met. But the voicemails between Todd and Walt provided a nice pair of bookends to the last two episodes—Todd letting Walt know about the change in management, Walt letting Todd know he’s got another job. The tone of both could be two business associates discussing next week’s
We only have four episodes left—four. At 47 minutes each, that’s just more than the runtime of Scarface. I don’t expect a lot of loose ends on Sept. 28, so I don’t expect any more slow burns. This felt like the calm before the storm, and no one right now feels much in control of anything—except maybe Jesse. Hank and Marie are panicked. Saul and Skyler are advocating murder. Walt has had to blackmail his brother-in-law and ordered Jesse’s hit. Lydia, Todd and Racist Uncle are all feeling the pressure from the Czechs. But Jesse has a plan. His drug-fugue/wallowing ended in that plaza with the rush of adrenaline as he sensed his assassin somewhere out there and the jogger brushed against him. Jesse has needed some sense of purpose, and on that (inexplicable) pay phone, he found it. And I can’t wait to find out what it is.
And that’s, I think, the biggest accomplishment of this last season of Breaking Bad. Did The Sopranos feel like this? Maybe Season Three of The Wire if it had ended there. There have been plenty of TV shows that I didn’t want to end, but now I just can’t wait for the ending. I want to know the rest of the story and I want that to be the end. Five seasons feels like exactly the right amount here. As much as I love Bob Odenkirk, I don’t even really want a spinoff. But man, next Sunday can’t come soon enough.
I only have one thing to say about your predictions: Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you, the exact, reverse opposite of that is going to happen.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun, and your idea about a tit-for-tat deal between Todd and Walt—you give me another meth-cooking lesson, I kill Jesse for you—seems like a good proposition. That would get Walt back into the game, bring Lydia and Todd into play, and provide the framework by which Hank and Jesse can catch him red-handed. Because, let’s be honest, this retirement stuff can’t last. From there, though, I think we’ve seen enough of Hank to know that whatever plan he hatches is bound to backfire on him. He lacks the cunning, the luck, and the common touch with people like Jesse to wrangle a fish like Walt. The snare will be set, and that will be the sign that things are about to go haywire. And that’s where even my poor predictive abilities end.
However, I must fervently disagree with you on the spin-off issue. Anyone who isn’t breathless with excitement about “Bad Penny: The Goodman Chronicles” really needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I thought I knew you, Josh.
It’s Labor Day, so I’ll end by quoting modern organized labor hero Bill O’Reilly: “I disagree, but I’ll give you the last word.”
Oh, and please don’t die, Jesse Pinkman.
Saul wants Walt to kill Jesse. He’s now dead to me. Huell, on the other hand, I’ll watch all day long.
Remember, send your Breaking Bad questions to BreakingPaste@gmail.com and check back on Friday for more Breaking Bad goodness. Also, follow Shane Ryan at @ShaneRyanHere and Josh Jackson at @JoshJackson on Twitter.