Breaking Bad
Season 5.12
An Old Yeller Type Situation
Guest Writer: Ina Rae Hark

Monday, September 2, 2013

posted under , by Unit for Criticism
[The fourth in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad]

“An Old Yeller Type Situation”

Written by: Ina Rae Hark (University of South Carolina)

Breaking Bad episode titles sometimes relate dialogically to each other, as when “Full Measure” (3.13) answers “Half Measures” (3.12). This week’s episode “Rabid Dog” calls back to episode 4.7, “Problem Dog.” There, during a therapy session with his Narcotics Anonymous group, Jesse Pinkman confesses his murder of Gale Boetticher through the metaphor of shooting a dog. The animal was neither sick nor vicious he says, only scared, but because it was a “problem,” he looked it in the eye and put it down.

Jesse has known himself to be a problem dog ever since Walter White ordered the murders of Mike Ehrmantraut’s ten imprisoned “guys” and personally killed Mike. Haunted by guilt and dread as he anticipates the inevitable, Jesse has sunk into an almost catatonic depression. At the end of last week’s installment, however, the realization that Walt poisoned the boy Brock turns him manic and sends him off, armed with a gas can, to douse the living room of the White home while growling like, well, a rabid dog. Thus, Saul Goodman will advise Walt that the time has come to give Jesse the “Old Yeller” treatment. Skyler White also coldly tells her husband that indeed Jesse has to go. Saul falls silent when the suggestion incenses Walt and he commands Saul, “Do not float that idea again.” Skyler does not. To his protestations that Jesse isn’t some rabid dog but a person, she retorts, “A person who’s a threat to us. We’ve come this far, for us. What’s one more?” The question hangs in the air until the episode ends.

To those he has deceived and manipulated, Walt is just as much an Old Yeller, the beloved paterfamilias who one day turns deadly. How far will they go in their quest to put him down? Will they catch up with Walt and Skyler in murderous intent? Marie’s sententious therapist cautions her that there’s no problem violence won’t make worse. As the Schraders continue to lack any concrete proof to make the wider world view their monstrous brother-in-law as anything but “Mr. Rogers with a lung tumor,” however, violence becomes increasingly tempting. If “Heisenberg” eludes the law and those who long for revenge refrain from murder, where’s the answer to Jesse’s cri de coeur, “He can’t keep getting away with it!”

Sam Catlin, who wrote “Rabid Dog,” scripted some of the most intense scenes of the Jesse-Walt partnership in episodes like “Down” (2.4), “Four Days Out”(2.9) and “Fly” (3.10).Here, although the material once again concerns Walt and Jesse at a crossroads, they remain physically apart for the entire episode. Structured to highlight the contrapuntal relationship between what Walt does to deal with his Jesse problem and what Jesse, now allied with the Schraders, does to deal with his Walt problem, the narrative doubles back upon itself, in the process obliterating any moral high ground. As Maureen Ryan observes, “Walt's cancerous nature -- the unthinking worship of the unbound ego -- has spread all around him and infected these otherwise law-abiding people.” At the same time, incomplete information and mutual misreadings make it impossible to know how or if any of them might alter their behavior if privy to an omniscient perspective.

Catlin, who makes his directorial debut here, excels in using the conventions of the paranoid thriller—subjective camera, canted angles, and other visual distortions—in both the opening and concluding sequences. This style complements the narrative’s concern with compromised perceptions. But during the middle portions of the diegesis, heavily dominated by, for lack of a better term, strategy sessions, he falls back on trademark Breaking Bad visuals in ways that don’t really match the thematic material they accompany. Close-ups of a yellow fire hydrant, the red gas can and the interior of a blue carpet cleaning vacuum hose assault the eyes with primary color versions of Breaking Bad’s usually more nuanced symbolic color palette. Placing the camera under a carpet being vacuumed or at the bottom of an ice machine seems like arbitrary showing off. Framing characters in mirrors or viewfinders seems more a matter of checking off boxes than revealing psychology. Of course, any show with as many recurrent cinematic tropes as Breaking Bad risks them devolving with familiarity into stylistic tics.

The first half hour aligns the viewer with Walt’s point of view as he discovers the White home drenched but unignited and Jesse apparently vanished into thin air. The cold open has Walt making all the moves of a cop hoping to surprise a suspect, only to clear the house without finding anyone. Another of his many seriocomic improvised cover-ups follows as he first tries to eradicate all signs of the spilled gasoline and, when that proves impossible, crafts one of his patented lies about having been the victim of a “pump malfunction” at the service station.

The flashforward in episode 5.9 establishes that the house eventually becomes a ruin. (A group of boys on skateboards race down the street, prefiguring those who will colonize the empty White swimming pool months later.) Here the first signs of contamination and exile appear. The gasoline has soaked into the padding and sub-floor; no ordinary cleanup will eradicate it. Nor do Walt’s lies fool his wife and son any more. Jesse’s house, previously the residence of his other mentor who was dying of cancer, his beloved Aunt Ginny, has undergone extremes of pollution, restoration, dispossession and repossession throughout the series. Such tendencies have to a lesser extent afflicted the White home, emblem of everything Walt says has driven him in all he does, but now Jesse’s revenge will put them on an equal footing. The family checks into a luxury hotel whose upscale contemporary décor retains the retro oranges and avocados of their house and provides a much larger glittering blue pool where Walt can sit and ponder his options. The echoes merely underline their alienation. It may look like home but it is not.

The action then goes back in time to pick up where last week’s episode left off, Jesse as mad dog, preparing to burn Walter White’s house to the ground, only to have Hank prevent him at gunpoint. To ensure Jesse’s safety by keeping him out of the system, Hank contaminates his own home by installing him in the Schrader guest room. Hoping to conceal this fact from Marie, he packs her wondrous purple luggage and books her a room at a spa. There’s no exiling Marie, however. She sees through this ruse as easily as her sister saw through Walt’s; once she knows that Jesse’s presence may lead to Walt’s downfall, she’s all in.

As the parallel schemes to deal with their respective rabid dogs unfold, the Schraders have the advantage of fuller knowledge and belief that their quest for vengeance is righteous. Marie tells her therapist how she has spent hours online searching for untraceable poisons. She fantasizes with pleasure at the excruciating deaths they might inflict if administered to Walt. Hank tells his partner Steve Gomez that he’s fine if sending Jesse to meet with Walt while wearing a wire results in the death of the “junkie murderer that’s dribbling all over my guest bathroom floor”: all the better to build a case against Heisenberg.

The Whites, on the other hand, cannot be sure whether or not Jesse thought better of torching the house; they certainly have no idea he has told all to Hank (and still don’t as the episode ends.) Despite all the dead bodies Walt has piled up, they still never say out loud to each other that their debate concerns murdering Jesse. Given how much they talk in code, Skyler at first takes Walt’s plan to “talk to him” and “make him see reason” as euphemisms; her arguments that something must be done about the threat never articulate the fatal solution except by inference. Likewise, although Walt ridicules the cagey Saul about his endless “colorful metaphors” for having someone killed, when he finally decides to adopt the Old Yeller solution, his call to Todd simply says, “I think I may have another job for your uncle.” Seeking to maintain the fiction of being good people pushed to extremes in order to protect the family, Walt and Skyler cannot admit to themselves the active desire to put down a rabid dog.

As Breaking Bad reaches the halfway point of its eight-episode concluding arc, the details of Walter White’s secret life as Heisenberg become known to more and more of the people from whom he tried hardest to conceal them. Hearing Jesse’s detailed account, Hank and Gomie have in essence just binge-watched the series. As they discuss tactics for how to proceed, the script goes meta. Jesse is the viewer who’s been there from the beginning, having had much time to obsess over every little detail, while Hank is the eager newbie. Their arguments soon coalesce around two questions familiar to every fan. First, what does Walt’s failure so far to rid himself of his problem dog signify; does he truly care for Jesse, merely need him as an accomplice, or regard keeping him loyal as a prop to his own ego? Hank offers the evidence for Jesse being the one exception to the Heisenberg policy of ruthless self-protection; Jesse counters with the many instances where the man who “was my teacher” used and abused him. We might as well be on any Breaking Bad discussion board or comment section.

The second question again returns to Jesse’s “problem dog” therapy session. He went on to question why nothing happened to him for killing this innocent beast, mocking the self-acceptance mantra of the program that focused on confession of and repentance for sins rather than punishment for committing them. He in essence longed for an Old Testament God to smite him where he stood. Now Jesse seems convinced that only God can stop Walter White, who is far beyond the reach of mortal man: “Mr. White is the devil. He’s smarter than you, he’s luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you the exact reverse opposite of that is going to happen.”

Opportunities for the audience to evaluate whether or not Walt has set up the meeting with Jesse as a last chance to forestall the Old Yeller solution and whether or not Hank’s scheme to entrap Walt into incriminating himself might work vanish when the panicked Jesse mistakes a random stranger for a hitman there to execute him. More than his valid insights, this misperception focuses and energizes Jesse, rendering him neither cowering problem dog nor snarling rabid dog. He phones Walt and coolly ups the threat ante, promising to “get you where you really live.” Jesse subsequently tells an apoplectic Hank that he has thought of a better way to ensnare their prey. In an episode that alternates between revealing and concealing our knowledge of the whole, we are now back to waiting to find out what only one character knows and isn’t at present revealing. Can Jesse, the erstwhile pawn, make a move that checkmates Heisenberg? Will divine intervention occur to save one and doom the other?

Since Walt received the death sentence for his crimes prior to committing them, is there a condign moral punishment even at hand, given the ethically compromised status of every one of the regular characters except for Walter Jr., the only one still completely in the dark about his father’s true nature. Critical consensus deems Breaking Bad‘s universe as founded on a rigorous morality absent from many anti-hero dramas. If we see that morality operating in the show’s insistence that bad deeds always have bad consequences, we do not see any facile corollary that bad people suffer and good people prosper. Indeed, that we cannot determine whether a person is good or bad from moment to moment is at the basis of the series’ moral philosophy. Will the gods of the Breaking Bad narrative offer up a provisional answer to the moral questions it raises? Or is some degree of uncertainty the whole point of the show’s epistemology? Whatever you think is supposed to happen, I’m telling you the exact reverse opposite of that is going to happen.


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Lauren said...

Thanks for these excellent reflections, Ina. It seems increasingly as though Walt is being re-humanized in contrast to our seeing the lengths to which hitherto "better" characters including Skyler and Hank will go.

Walt Jr. hasn't yet lost his illusions (if they are illusions) about his father but Jesse clearly feels little of "Mr. White"'s affection for him (if that is really what it is).

Are we supposed to believe that the return of cancer and thus impending mortality has restored a fuller range of Walt's humanity? Or that he has he just gotten so good at deception that he's now deceiving himself.

Just some musings inspired by your excellent post.