Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: “Problem Dog”

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: “Problem Dog”

In the introduction to “Buy the RV, We Start Tomorrow”: The A.V. Club’s Guide To Breaking Bad, I wrote the following: “Rather than the armed standoffs or RV chases, the defining image of Breaking Bad is what shows on the face of a person whose brain is churning desperately to find the right words or actions for some no-win situation. It’s not just a thinking person’s drama; the drama is most engrossing when it’s about thinking.”

I have to tip my cap to Vince Gilligan and company. They have decided to make this season an audacious illustration of those words. Here at episode seven, we should be starting to realize that the action of season four is about invisible shifts of power rather than guns going off in our faces. And the fulcrum of the story is now Gustavo Fring, whose sudden removal from the center of power is as shocking a twist as anyone could want.

It comes without warning, and its significance can be read in the slightest glimmer of panic behind Gus’s stoic eyeglasses. He sets up a meeting to come to some new understanding so his men and the cartel’s men will stop killing each other. He deploys his guards, sets out his veggie tray, and waits at the table. And the cartel does not come. They send a stranger with no entourage who has no interest in negotiating. Gus isn’t in charge of this moment; he isn’t even a player. His choice is “yes or no.” From man in charge to powerless bystander in one move.

And there are threats coming from his other flank of which he is not yet aware. Hank, who seems to have soaked up all the energy and self-determination that is sapping out of Walter, has pieced together the story of Gale Boetticher, Genius Meth Chef, and gotten the goods that connects Gus to the dead cook. I don’t expect to be more delighted and energized by any explosions or shootouts still to come than I am by Hank’s perfectly understated “except… ” right before he pulls out the shots of Fring’s fingerprints on the Los Pollos Hermanos cup. He’s in his element as he describes the tenuous path he followed to unravel Gale’s suite of clues: the part number for an industrial HVAC filtration system on the Los Pollos napkin; the delivery of that part to Gale without any record of payment or a buyer; the multinational conglomerate, Madrigal Electromotive, whose “highly diversified” holdings include “a tiny little foothold in American fast food.” And then agreeing, with the sweetest sense of drama, with his colleagues’ assessment that accusing Gus was a reach—“except… ” There are the man’s fingerprints in Gale’s apartment. Gus is marked and made by the man whose Diet Coke he refilled a few days earlier. As Hank’s star rises, Gus’ takes a nosedive.

Meanwhile, Walter is still acting out like a petulant child, but his efforts to pull others into his Walter-centric reality seem to have some bite for a change. One of the most beautiful sequences of the season occurs when Walter decides to rebel against Skyler’s dictate that he return the Challenger to the dealership. “Talk to the general manager, his name is Glenn,” Skyler directs, and Walter mutters derisively, “Glenn.” When she mimes a reminder to tip the car wash employee, hereafter to be known as Muy Bueno Martin, it’s the final straw. Off he charges to an empty arena parking lot to do pure adrenaline doughnuts, tracing three gorgeous circles of burned rubber on the asphalt as he whoops it up like a kid on a go-kart. (He’s channeling his inner Jesse, just when Jesse is starting to channel his inner Walt and grow up.)

Then when the car is helplessly draped over a concrete parking barricade, with its nose in a ditch, he decides on a private demonstration of his own awesomeness, with the car’s sales papers stuffed in the gas tank to serve as a fuse for the explosion that he plans to coolly walk away from without turning around. Except it doesn’t explode. So he sits down cross-legged on the ground and coolly calls a taxi while he waits. Finally, just as he’s telling the dispatcher, “No, I think he’ll see me,” the car goes up in flames with a satisfying thwump. Badassness achieved, if belatedly.


The price Walt pays for this bit of juvenilia? $52,000, arranged by Saul to make the various legal problems go away. (“I sweated him down to misdemeanor trash burning,” he gleefully reports, presumably talking about the police, which is alarming in itself since you’d think Walter would want to avoid police attention, although the danger may be mitigated by Saul’s cozy golfing relationship with the officer on the other end of the line.) Quite an uptick from the $800 restocking fee that Skyler bemoaned a few hours earlier. And Walter couldn’t care less; he regards himself as a walking dead man unless Gus can somehow be taken out of the picture. To his carefully couched request for a “third party” to “ameliorate the situation,” Saul responds that all the reputable hit men west of the Rockies know Mike, and that finding some rogue operator through Craigslist or Soldier Of Fortune risks not getting the job done, which would leave Walter worse off than before. But maybe Walter’s operator is already spending time by Gus’s side—Jesse.

And so we are back in the excruciating territory of Walter marshaling all his influence to get Jesse to kill someone. Jesse cringes and wields his paint roller more and more viciously as Walter unreels the reasons Gus is a threat to him, including a litany of the man’s victims, direct and indirect. (Tellingly, he includes Gale, as if Gus’s threat to Walter makes him responsible for Walter’s act of self-defense using Jesse as his weapon.) When Jesse agrees to do it, it’s not so much a capitulation (as it was with Gale’s murder) as a weary claim on the identity Walter has constructed for him. I kill people for you. Why would you expect me to say anything other than yes?


That epic three-way battle for Jesse’s soul (between Mike who suggests he might need to use a gun, Walter who’s already put on in his hand, and a Jane-era version of Jesse that had non-murderous hopes and dreams) plays out at his NA meeting, where he euphemizes Gale’s killing as taking care of a problem dog—not one who bit anybody, not one who’s sick, just one whose existence was a problem—and lashes out at the group leader (and the universe) for refusing to pass judgment on him. “The thing is, you just do stuff and nothing happens—what’s it all mean, what’s the point?” he despairs. “No matter how many dogs I kill, I just do an inventory and I accept?”

As Walter and Jesse change places—with Walter strategizing to make a bundle in the meth business (so much that Skyler can’t see how the car wash can launder it all), take out his enemies, and give himself an endorphin rush, while Jesse seeks moral clarity, self-discipline, and maybe even a future—the organization that sustains them both is abruptly under threat. Walter doesn’t seem to have thought past Gus’ future tragic death from ricin poisoning, but there’s no doubt he considers himself capable of stepping in as the kingpin of the operation. Jesse, on the other hand, has a better exit strategy if he hooks his wagon to Mike, who is clearly an independent contractor with the means to escape a Fring Meth Inc. meltdown. Just as Skyler doesn’t realize the scope of Walter’s job, Walter doesn’t realize how far and wide Gus’ tentacles and troubles actually range. Maybe Jesse is the only one in a position to hit “restart” and craft a life of criminality that’s actually sustainable.

Stray observations:

  • That’s the Pretenders’ “Boots Of Chinese Plastic” blasting while Walt lays down those sweet doughnuts. I hope that scene moves some bits for the Pretenders’ back catalog, because how exciting was that combo of music and visuals?
  • Mike and Gus have given Jesse quite the new lease on life—he’s sober four days and is cleaning up his house. Still needs to learn to dress like muscle rather than a slacker doofus, yo.
  • When Marie visits the carwash, she suggests that Skyler throw a grand opening with balloons, hot dogs, bouncy house for the kids, with the idea being to “get on TV, let people know that they’re not going to face the eyebrows of doom when they come in.” The difference between how you run a business in order to avoid attention, and how you run a business like a normal entrepreneur, might be a source of ongoing difficulty.
  • Love that awkward “hello, here’s your soda/cash delivery, pretend to be a happy couple for the in-laws” peck on the cheek Walter gives Skyler.
  • Jesse’s plan to carry the ricin capsule—half-emptying a cigarette and then packing some tobacco back in on top—is, again, much more thoughtful and competent than we’ve come to expect from him. Walter feels compelled to point out that he’s reinserted it into the pack upside down, as if that wouldn’t be an excellent idea so you don’t grab the wrong one by mistake. (Jesse: “It’s my lucky cigarette.” Walter: “Just be sure you don’t smoke it.”)
  • Did anybody else scream “No!” at the television when Gus invited Walter Jr. to consider an after-school job at Los Pollos Hermanos? That’s the last thing the Whites need—another Fring employee in the family.
  • When people comment on how good Hank looks, he has a stock answer: “Chalk it up to clean living and vitamin pills.”
  • Walter scoffs at the idea that Gus actually sees anything in Jesse, but Mike suggests that it’s “loyalty—although maybe you’ve got it for the wrong guy.”
  • “There is total contrition here! Mountains of contrition!”
  • Jesse seems to consider for a moment shooting Gus in the back of the head as they watch the cartel rep drive away. He has a loaded gun and poison in his pocket—where is he going to aim them?
  • Walter on his security-camera-evading, break-room-toaster-oven-and-petri-dish ricin manufacturing process: “Making this in his own lab seemed appropriate.”