Breaking Bad – “Problem Dog”

“Problem Dog”

August 28th, 2011

“I never wanted any of this.”

We’re reaching the point in the year where my schedule is going to make covering Breaking Bad weekly a bit challenging, but we’re also reaching the point where I honestly don’t know how much I have left to say.

Now, I could technically write 2500 words talking about what happened in “Problem Dog,” given that the show continues to build on its mythology of tension and self-destruction. However, I’m finding that the show doesn’t really need to be “explained” or even “analyzed” at this point in its fourth season, with the focus instead being on experience. It’s something the show has been doing from the beginning, really, but the fourth season has been particularly built around the audience either sitting back to enjoy the spectacle (as was the case in Hank’s big scene this week) or on the edge of our seats full engrossed in the characters’ plight (as with Jesse at pretty much every point this season).

I’ve stopped taking notes while I watch the show, in part because anything I write down is just as likely to spring from my brain an hour later as I sit down to write a review, and in part because it feels counter-productive. I’m hopeful that I can keep writing about the show in future weeks, but chances are my responses will be a little more free-flowing, and a bit less detailed, given the position the show is in right now.

Which is a damn fine position, just so we’re clear.

I hate what Walt has done to Jesse Pinkman. It’s Skyler who says the line above, and for her it’s true: she certainly never wanted to have a drug dealer for a husband, and she certainly never wanted to feel as though her family is in danger, and she certainly didn’t imagine having to deal with laundering $274,000 through a car wash of all things. It’s not something that Jesse can really say, given that we met him cooking meth and all, but you still get the sense that he couldn’t have imagined getting to this point. Jesse’s life was supposed to be simple, a self-destructive existence that endangered himself more than it endangered others. True, he probably contributed to people’s deaths as a cook, but now he knows the people he is “responsible” for killing, and Walt has the presence of mind to remind him of them so as to guilt him into killing one more.

That “Lucky Cigarette” is a ticking time bomb, and it represents everything that Jesse wishes he never became. That opening scene is maybe a bit on the nose, but the “Restart/Quit” question defines Jesse Pinkman on a number of levels, and it reminds us that he is still struggling with who he is when he wakes up every morning. That he goes to the NA meeting is a cry for help if we’ve ever seen one, and what comes out is explosive and powerful and self-destructive in a way that goes well beyond cooking meth.

And yet Walt sees none of this. We see it all, of course, with Aaron Paul putting in another stunning performance as Jesse descends further into a place from which he might never escape. However, Walt doesn’t want to see it. Walt wants to see a solution to his problem, someone who is loyal (as Mike notes) and someone that could potentially get Walt out of a bind. That scene with Walt running down all of Gus’ atrocities while Jesse stands on the ladder is excruciating, as all of it falls back on Jesse on some level. You realize that he is the one who has born the brunt of the struggle, and you realize that Walt isn’t convincing Jesse so much as he is reminding him. He’s reminding him of all of the things that Jesse loses sleep over, and he’s reminding him that Jesse owes it to himself and to Walt to do whatever he can to make Gus pay…which, of course, requires him to have one more black cloud hanging over him in the form of his Lucky Cigarette.

The show is clearly setting up a battle for Jesse’s loyalty, with Gus valuing him as someone who could be an asset and Walt using him like a trained soldier onto whom he drafts his own insecurities and paranoia. The show has always sympathized more with Jesse than Walt, with the former giving up control where the latter snatches it away at the drop of a hat, but now the show is very clearly positioning Jesse as the pawn in this scenario. As Gus and Walt battle over Jesse’s loyalty, neither seems particularly concerned about his soul, which is what explodes under the pressure in “Problem Dog.” Whereas Walt and Gus have yet to hit their respective breaking points, still desperate to hold onto what power they have, Jesse has reached his own without either of them really caring. Mike is perhaps the one person who could care, but he’s contractually obligated not to, and whatever begrudged respect Jesse has earned is unlikely to turn into loyalty should a conflict arise.

I like the idea that the audience is being given a perspective that other characters aren’t getting – while I’ve seen some logical concerns about the number of “point of view” shots from various objects, I think perspective is a key theme this season. Walt is too busy dealing with things on the home front (a job apparently so challenging that blowing up a car was the only way he could decompress) to focus on Jesse’s side of things, while Gus has a rival cartel sabotaging his efforts and refusing a financial settlement (while holding out for something else, which I sort of presumed was Walt’s meth). Jesse becomes a means to an end, but the show has done a tremendous job this season with ensuring that our end is with the characters. Despite being used as a plot device, the possessor of the poison and our gateway into another side of Gus’ business, Jesse has never felt like a plot device, his journey always resonating back to where the character is situated in the broader, messed up situation he finds himself in.

The same principle applies for Hank, really. Technically, the character is a convenient way to create greater tension for Walt, his investigation getting the DEA one step closer to discovering the identity of Heisenberg. It’s been a slow-moving storyline, moving from initial discovery to casual interest to sudden preoccupation to his fingerprint-finding mission with Walt Jr. and his dramatic reveal of the evidence against Gus to his pals at the DEA. However, the “plot” of the story was so closely paired with the character development that they became merged: Hank’s reveal is a revelation plot-wise, enough so that it closes the episode on its own, but there’s also something triumphant about Hank graduating to a cane and walking on his own. His success with the case becomes synonymous with the success with his rehabilitation, transcending simple symbolism (which the show is also fond of) to a form of parallel storytelling where plot and character are combined in a way that allows them to merge without it feeling forced.

None of this is necessarily news given the show’s level of quality over the past few seasons, but that doesn’t change how satisfying it is when it all comes together. “Problem Dog” would be summarized based on its plot, but it’s experienced based on its characters, and it’s satisfying on both levels by using the latter to fuel the former.

Cultural Observations

  • So do we think the show follows through on Walt getting a job at Pollos Hermanos? Something tells me Hank would resist it given that he thinks Gus is Heisenberg, but Walt might think it’s a good way to keep an eye on Gus, and I like the idea of Walt using both his son and his surrogate son (Jesse) for the same purpose.
  • It’s amazing: I had forgotten about Jere Burns’ character and his back story, but as soon as Jesse started talking about him backing over his own kid, I still felt the shock and horror of that moment. That’s the power of Paul’s performance.
  • I’m hopeful that Skyler will need to go to Saul for money laundering advice, as more Skyler/Saul seems like a great idea to me.
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2 Comments

Filed under Breaking Bad

2 responses to “Breaking Bad – “Problem Dog”

  1. rob

    Something about Walt “decompressing” that way really left me cold. I feel like we’ve seen him in a similar mindset before (like in caballo sin nombre), but portrayed better (like in caballo sin nombre).

    That actually really bothered me, it felt like it was from another, worse show. Like, i imagine that some other mediocre run-of-the-mill show that was centered around a middle aged guy breaking out of his comfort zone would have had that scene in the pilot. So it felt weird to see it here.

    Anyway, really enjoyed this write up, think I’ll go catch some of your other ones.

  2. Sophie

    Great review as usual Myles! That was an excellent episode, pretty sure we saw Aaron Paul’s Emmy submission right there. He was outstanding in that scene, completely broke my heart.

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