(Continuing my assessment of Breaking Bad‘s fourth season. Find the first installment here.)
7. “PROBLEM DOG”
In my last installment, I bemoaned Walt’s twin stupid choices — letting some Honduran maids into the meth lab, and buying his son a flashy new sports car. In “Problem Dog,” Walt makes a decision that’s ten times stupider and more reckless than either of those. It’s the kind of moment Walter White and Breaking Bad do so well — Walt decides to take the new car for a joy ride before taking it back, and, naturally, wrecks it. Rather than do any one of ten more sensible things, he decides to blow up the car. This in no way solves the problem — there’s still a record of him buying it, and it also gets him in trouble with the law (briefly, before Saul makes it all go away). I groaned and gnashed my teeth when Walt took the car for a spin, knowing he was fucking himself over yet again, but this behavior felt more in character than what happened last week in “Cornered.” When Walt makes a stupid move, it tends to be colossally stupid. Not the kind of dumb thing any parent or husband or meth dealer would do, but the sort of thing only Walter White, a man at the end of his rope, would do. Blowing up a brand new car definitely falls into that category.
At this point, there’s no question that Walt has become unhinged. It’s interesting that in Season Four, both Walt and Jesse have hit rock bottom — usually, at least one of them is holding it together for the other — but without really noticing each other’s pain. Walt can’t seem to understand that Jesse is fucked up over Gale’s murder, and Jesse isn’t privy to anything that’s going on with Walt. They have a common enemy — Gus — and a common problem — they will probably be killed sooner or later. In this episode, Walt enlists Jesse to solve that problem, but they’re not on the same wavelength. Walt hasn’t thought through what will happen even if they do succeed in killing Gus — how would Mike react? How about the cartel?
Taking out Gus doesn’t eliminate the problem. Jesse is more level-headed about it all, mostly because he’s been closer to Gus’ inner sanctum than Walt ever will be. Mike tells Jesse he’s loyal to the wrong guy, and we have to wonder. Is he right? What does Jesse really owe Walt at this point? Their relationship is seriously frayed, and Walt has been betraying Jesse over and over, starting with Jane’s death, then asking him to murder Gale, and now trying to get him to execute Gus — which, let’s face it, is more likely to get Jesse killed than it is to wipe out the Big Bad. Walt’s being a pretty shitty guy all around, even by the low bar he’s set for himself in the past three seasons. Even the gift he bought for his son was mainly a “fuck you” to Skyler and a supremely selfish, self-destructive act that only resulted in Walter Jr. being carless again (and unaware that his precious ride burst into flames hours after it was taken away from him). What is Walt thinking?
Of course, that’s the irony. Walt is desperate to “protect this family” when, deep down, he knows he’s actually sealed their fates for the worse. They’ll never not live in fear, and that’s the best case scenario. They can’t enjoy all the money they’re making. They can’t buy their son a new car the way other families can, or even splurge on an expensive bottle of booze. It’s too risky. That’s the guilt that’s eating away at Walt this season, I’d wager. The key to his mindset is found, actually, in the show-stopper from “Problem Dog” in which Jesse “confesses” to Gale’s murder by pretending he killed a dog instead of a person. He laments that he’s shot a man and there are no consequences. That’s what’s gnawing away at him. And isn’t Walt acting out his aggression for the same reasons? He can’t believe the world will really let him get away with being a nefarious drug dealer; he can’t believe he can do these things right under his DEA agent brother-in-law’s nose and go unrecognized. But he can, and so the punishment comes from within.
“Problem Dog” gives us some of Aaron Paul’s finest work in the series. It’s most likely a turning point for Jesse. The other big piece of news coming out of “Problem Dog” is the superb final moment, with Hank revealing just how close he’s come to puzzling out who’s behind all this shady business. In fact, he’s pretty sure it’s Gus. Now Hank and Walt have a common goal and a common enemy — to bring down Gus. (Using different methods, of course.) Is Jesse still on board with that? He calls Gale a “problem dog,” but actually, Gale was about as loyal as they come. If there’s a problem dog in this scenario, it’s Walt — lashing out for no reason, hurting innocent people needlessly. A few episodes ago, Gus realized Jesse was a “problem dog” and found a creative way to get him back on track. But how will he react to Walt’s problematic behavior?
If I had to guess, I’d say the standard way — by putting him to sleep.
Breaking Bad is about as cinematic as TV gets. Hell, it’s more cinematic than most movies get. And I think, in many ways, “Hermanos” is its most cinematic episode yet.
It’s not as flashy an episode as “Fly,” nor as epic as “ABQ,” but in an hour that’s all about Gustavo Fring’s past, present, and future, “Hermanos” doesn’t feel like TV anymore. A very long climactic flashback is in entirely in Spanish — not something you see on CBS very often. And the mood and menace of that scene feel as grandiose as anything in Scarface or The Godfather. We have a pretty good sense that Gus’ “brother” won’t make it out of this scene alive, but waiting for the inevitable is particularly gripping, even for this show. We still don’t know everything there is to know about Gus — his history in Chile remains especially murky — but “Hermanos” tells us quite a lot about his early days in the drug trade and his relationship with the cartel. It’s to Breaking Bad‘s credit that we end this episode identifying with Gus, even feeling sorry for him, and rooting for him to beat the cartel even as we root for Walt to outsmart Gus. There’s a chain of command in this show of who we want to see outmaneuver who — not that Breaking Bad has ever been particularly concerned about giving us what we want.
Meanwhile, Hank isn’t letting his hunch about Gus go, and that results in another tale about hermanos when he enlists his brother-in-law, of all people, to assist. He wants Walt to bug Gus’ car, resulting in a tense sequence at Los Pollos Hermanos (made all the better by the hilarious arrival of Mike, whose face says it all). Hank is a DEA agent, but when it comes to dealing with someone as deadly-dirty as Gus, he’s clearly a rookie if he thinks a low-tech tracking device is going to bring him down. Much in the same way Walt was in over his head when he tried to merely ring Gus’ doorbell and shoot him in “Thirty-Eight Snub,” Hank just isn’t taking Gus seriously enough. But if Mr. Fring has gotten this far, why can’t these guys realize that he’s already so many steps ahead?
Beyond that delightful sequence at the chicken place, this episode doesn’t do so much to drive the story forward — at least not for our central characters. Skyler barely appears (as the title might suggest, this one’s all about the guys). Walt and Jesse are still at odds, having essentially the same conversation they had last week. (But this time, Walt realizes Jesse’s not telling him everything.) There’s a nice reminder that Walt still lives in the shadow of cancer; after a CAT scan confirming that he’s still in remission, Walt tells a less-stoic patient that he has to live life on his own terms. But “Hermanos” is, predictably, a Gus episode, and a very satisfying one at that. One of the final images is blood soaking into a pool, which says plenty about how shedding even one drop of the stuff will sooner or later stain everything it touches. It’s also fun to watch Gus work his charms on the DEA and emerge scot-free; I’m curious as to whether I’ll continue to sympathize with him in the next handful of episodes.
I have a pretty good idea of how this season ends, but is Gus’ death a triumph or a tragedy? I’m sure he’ll do at least one unspeakably evil thing before he’s dispatched, and maybe change my mind. But Gus is smart, professional, and a generally pleasant person 99% of the time (you know, when he isn’t holding a box cutter) — that’s more than I can say for Walt these days. As I’ve said before, hoping for the best on Breaking Bad is useless, and I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why Gus deserves what’s inevitably coming. For now, I enjoyed this fleshing out of a formidable villain, who didn’t necessarily need a pitiable backstory to be compelling as all hell.
And going back to that whole thing about Breaking Bad being cinematic, I am enjoying the way both “Hermanos” and “Problem Dog” make the police work believable — actually explaining the methods the DEA is using, minus the usual Law & Order-type shortcuts. I’m not sure if it’s all accurate, but it sure feels that way, which is one reason why Season Four is taking on mythic qualities that break the boundaries set by TV shows before it.