29
Aug
2011
Breaking Bad: Season 4, Episode 7
Problem Dog
Jordan
Season three of Breaking Bad delivered some of the most intense television I've ever seen. Episodes like "Sunset," "One Minute," and the finale "Full Measures" ratcheted the tension up so high I could barely stand it. The show got so intense that I actually know people who considered no longer watching it (though all of them still do). By this point in season four, it's clear that this season is not about explosive tension and violent twists as much as it is about incremental shifts in position. Every episode of this season so far has given us tiny readjustments in the characters places and attitudes that have slowly begun to change what even Walter White believes is a new, hopeless status quo.

Tonight we saw the first chinks in Gustavo Fring's seemingly impenetrable armor. The first comes from an obvious threat: his former associates in the cartel. Gus, ever the sleek operator, brings out the big guns and sets out the veggie tray for a negotiation. He makes a reasonable (in his eyes at least) offer to pay the cartel $50 million in severance money to leave him to his business. Yet the man that arrives to hear that offer is a stranger to him. He comes alone, and he shuts Gus' smooth-talking down immediately. Gus thinks he has options, but the negotiator tells him it's a simple choice of "yes or no." And in that instance, there is a tiny glimmer of panic in Gus' eyes. Breaking Bad tends to be at its very best either when the tension is so high it's palpable or when it slows down enough to let us see exactly what the characters are thinking. And thanks to a virtuoso performance by the always excellent Giancarlo Esposito, in one small moment, we see that Gus feels trapped, that he is actually afraid. In one small move, Gus has been put in a position similar to Walter's. And Gus Fring in a corner is probably more similar to Walter White than he would like to admit.

The second dent in Gus' control is one he is not even aware of yet. Hank has pieced together the connection between Gale and Gus, and has taken that story to the DEA. We already knew that Hank had his theories about Gale having a connection to Los Pollos Hermanos, yet we get to see Agent Schrader back at the top of his game tonight as he gets Gus to fetch him a refill of his Diet Coke (leading to my favorite shot of the night, a P.O.V. from behind the soda fountain), thus capturing one of his finger prints. It was clear that Hank was angling for a print, yet I honestly thought this was part of a longer game on his part until the final scene when he reveals (to his unconvinced former colleagues) that Gus' finger prints are all over Gale's house. This is solid enough proof that the DEA is going to have to take a closer look at Gus Fring, and just at the moment when Gus is going to be forced into a conflict with the cartel. Things don't look so good for our favorite drug kingpin.

While Gus is shifting more into Walter's position of desperation, another interesting shift is occurring between the dynamic duo at the center of the show, as Walt is acting rash, petulant, and bitter, almost like Jesse, just as Jesse is planning, plotting and maturing, just like Walt. Walt's decision to rebel against Skyler's request to return the car by taking it to do donuts in an empty parking lot is evidence of his pride and his anger, sure, but it's also a pretty clever match between Jesse's grief-stricken go-kart ride earlier this season. And Jesse's hesitating with the ricin, while perfectly in line with his general timidity toward violence, also echoes Walter's hesitation way back in season one to poison Crazy 8 in the same way.

Walter also echoes Jesse in his new-found sense of bleak nihilism. After Saul gets his exploding car problem to go away for a mere $52,000 he seems shocked at Walter's resigned ambivalence, and Walter just mutters, "He will see me dead. And there's nothing I can do about it." As Jesse felt back at the beginning of the season, Walt has reached a point where all he can do is strike out impotently at the world by blowing up a car and walking away from it slowly to feel like Heisenberg again for a moment, even if the gesture is entirely meaningless.

One thing about this central relationship remains the same though. Walter still views Jesse as simply a tool, and Jesse still reluctantly obliges. From day one, Walter has used Jesse for his own ends, from deploying Jesse to procure all the equipment for their first cook to using Jesse to eliminate Gale. At this point, Jesse is just used to it, and when Walter comes on strong with his manipulative speech about the threat of Gus, Jesse just sighs and agrees to kill the man. He knows where he stands with Walt, and he knows what his use is. Yet he may also see that this is no longer his only option. Mike (who is a brilliant guy and plays Jesse's broken vanity perfectly) tells Jesse that what Gus sees in him is "loyalty," and that his problem may be that he is loyal to the wrong guy.

The battle for Jesse's soul that has raged (arguably for the entire series but especially) this season culminates for the moment at least at an NA meeting, in a tour de force performance by Aaron Paul. At the meeting, Jesse comes clean for his crimes as best he can, altering the details to tell the group about his murder of Gale as the euthanizing of a "problem dog." One woman lashes out at Jesse, shocked and angered that he would kill a dog who hadn't harmed anyone, but Jesse's group leader (and, if you'll follow my existential line of thinking, the universe), as always, refuses to pass judgment on him. "If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point?" Jesse asks. He wants to be judged and punished for the wrong he does, but there is no punishment for him in an amoral world, in a churning sea of chaos devoid of any meaning. He pushes his group leader to a point of judgment, admitting that he used NA to sell meth to recovering addicts, but the universe is still silent, refusing to judge. It leaves the judgment up to Jesse himself.

At this point the shift between Walter and Jesse has been established so subtly, its kind of shocking. Walt now hopes to make as much money as possible in the meth industry (though he stops short of calling it "fat stacks" a la Jesse), seeks out endorphin rushes (though not through using as Jesse does), and schemes impotently to take out his enemies, blithely believing himself capable of being the new kingpin (recall Jesse's aspirations of greatness from throughout the series?). Jesse meanwhile is coming to accept the worldview that allowed Walter to get to where he is now, accepting that the world is an amoral place even if that enrages him. Yet Jesse's connection with Mike, which seems increasingly valid even if Mike is getting close only to play him, gives him another move if the Fring Empire begins to crumble. If Jesse starts thinking a few moves ahead like Walt used to, he may find himself in a position closer to the one he used to naively dream about (but at what cost to his soul?). This week we saw minor shifts that may lead to major, series altering consequences, each laid out with such quiet confidence and subtle grace, it's impossible not to just shake your head, sigh, and admit you're watching the best show on television.

Grade: A

Notes:

-"Bzzzt! Wrong answer. That's what the kids call an epic fail."

-"Skyler, this is a simple division of labor. I bring in the money, you launder the money. This is what you wanted." "I never wanted any of this."

-"Please. One homicidal maniac at a time."

-"I was looking him straight in the eyes, and he didn't know what was happening, he didn't know why..."

-"We're not here to sit in judgment." "Why not?"
Tags: Breaking Bad
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