'Breaking Bad' Spoiled Bastard: Ep. 7: Problem Dog

Wherein Jesse finds that life is not a video game

Do you hear that barking?

There’s something in Jesse’s head, making a noise, unwilling to go away. There’s something south of the border that sounds ominous. There’s even a yapping revolt inside of Walt’s ego, but what else is new, right? And there’s the biggest bark of all – announcing the triumphant return of Hank.

Yep, there’s more than one problem dog in Breaking Bad’s latest episode, “Problem Dog.” This was an episode that proved even the unflappable, coiled intensity of Gus Fring could start to frazzle. And it was also an episode that let viewers look clearly into how the writers shift the pieces/characters around the story board.

“Problem Dog” opens on Jesse’s continued mental issues, his decision to subvert his morality and accept that he’s a killer and there’s no redemption in that. We then get the pettiness of Walt’s ego – his being forced by Skyler to return the Challenger is like being scolded. And even though Walt was wearing the dreary beige-brown get-up he used to wear when he was the epitome of milquetoast in Season 1, he wasn’t going to take that chiding without lashing back.

By doing donuts in a parking lot.

And then lighting the car on fire and watching it blow up. Take that, Skyler.

But what “Problem Dog” did with a swift economy of storytelling was tighten the circle of doom surrounding Gus. See, Hank is back in a big way – from two-handed walker to one-handed walker and the unwavering conviction that he’s putting a puzzle together at the same time he’s getting his body back together. And that puzzle links Gus to the meth lab (and, by default, Heisenberg to Walter White). And if Hank doesn’t get him first, Gus is fooling himself if he thinks he can buy off the Mexican drug cartel with a mere $50 million.

It was such a great comeback for Hank, even if viewers were left to piece together the fact that he’s only partially paralyzed – able to leave a wheel-chair with enough physical therapy and grit one can muster. I’m not sure that’s the most believable element we’ve ever seen in Breaking Bad, but if they leave Hank dragging one bad leg while gutting it out on the other, I suppose that’s acceptable. I just don’t want to see him running down Gus in the season finale.

Still, it was hard not to root for him. Despite the fact Hank is a blow-hard (and his reunion with “Gomey” only highlighted how juvenile he used to be in the guise of being a bad ass), he’s still a stone-cold solid detective. And he’s clearly pieced this Gus Is the Meth Master thing together nicely. (Don’t you worry, though, that having the big boss shaking hands with a meth mastermind who is pretending to be a friend of law enforcement is the kind of career derailment someone in upper-management might want to screw with to save their own ass? We shall see.)

In what was the equivalent of giving a signal to the viewers at home that they could rise-up for some fist-pumping, the episode ended sublimely with Hank, knowing he’s got a big fish on the line, raising his eyebrows in the most subtle show of cockiness we should ever expect from him.

The Gus issue is interesting in so many ways. I mean, you can see what the writers were doing here. They knew they had to shift gears and that would require Gus and Hank, neither of them the prime players, get most of the screen time. So they had to give Walt and then Walt and Skyler, their small (but important) moments. They had to keep Jesse close to the central action, but used primarily for the beginning and ending scenes of interior woe. But Gus can no longer be the shadowy puppet-master who pulls all the right strings at the right time. We obviously got a glimpse of how he acts, via Victor’s death, when he’s infuriated that things don’t go his way. And it’s essential to the story that they don’t go his way, otherwise Breaking Bad becomes  a story about a meth maker who gets the ultimate job in a super lab and awaits his gold-watch retirement ceremony (or death from cancer, whatever comes first.) And if Breaking Bad has shown us anything it’s that creator Vince Gilligan and his writers are voracious in chewing up story – of frantically moving the various plot arcs forward in crazy, trapped-in-a-corner kind of way. That they’ve been this patient with the Walt-and-Jesse-working-for-Gus storyline is kind of amazing. But they have now sufficiently shaken things up. Something’s gonna blow.

In many ways, Gus is Walt’s new cancer. “He will see me dead. All that’s left is to wait,” Walt tells Saul. Waiting to die is not something Walt likes, so he’s acting out. He’s desperately trying to unleash his inner bad-ass, but as I said last week, Walt is not the one who knocks.

Gus, on the other hand, is at a crossroads. He’s being insulted by the Mexican cartel, which are not taking him seriously. This is not a negotiation, they say. “It is to be yes. Or no.”

At the end of the episode, Mike hints that the decision was no. Gus isn’t going to give into the cartel. And now a war is about to start. You have to wonder, by the motley crew Mike assembled for him, if Gus really has the manpower and weaponry for this war. It’s one thing to battle Walter White, but a full-on ruthless drug cartel?

You’re looking at the powder-keg that is likely to blow up this season. And somewhere in there, you have to factor in Hank and Walt.

But don’t underestimate Gilligan and his writers –they have proven time and again that they know how to get into and out of dangerous situations. Slipping the noose is what they do best.

So “Problem Dog” did a fine job of propping up Hank and pushing Gus toward the teetering edge.

But the reference in the title is obviously Jesse’s lie about killing a problem dog (that dog being Gale) at his NA meeting. It’s a testament to the greatness of Breaking Bad that the most powerful bit of the whole episode unfolds like a stage play – a circle of addicts under a bright circular light (and the return of Jere Burns as the therapist/healer/leader). With an abundance of minimalism, the writers tackled an incredibly complex subject – Jesse’s interior battle with morality and reality and how the two sometimes don’t add up to anything that makes sense. I loved that scene. If you go back and watch it, all the tiny moments really matter: Jesse’s crying, it’s all starting to bubble out – he killed a man (or dog, if you will) who didn’t deserve it. Trying to explain that, in allusions, he has to admit the hardest truth – not only was Gale not a problem dog, thus didn’t deserve his fate, but Jesse never wanted to “put him down.” He was forced by circumstance to do it and, as Season 4 has proven episode after episode, he’s haunted by it. I like that the writers don’t let this go.

“Problem Dog” opened with Jesse killing video game characters and, as he shot them in the head/face, with blood spurting everywhere, it brought back all the Gale memories he’s been trying unsuccessfully to tamp down. No matter how many times he presses replay, he’s never going to be able to erase Gale’s innocent goofy-vegan head snapping back from the bullet.

And yet, Jesse hasn’t paid for his crime. If there’s morality still in him – and obviously there’s a lot (he hasn’t been able to subjugate it like Walt), it just reminds him that he needs to pay. That’s why the scene at the NA meeting was so powerful – it was an indictment of therapy speak that says you shouldn’t beat yourself up, you shouldn’t make the accountability crush your life. What Jesse is saying is, yes, you should. “So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I’m a great guy?” Jesse wants to be judged. It’s why he can’t really kill Gus (at least not yet). Why? Because it’s killing. That’s why. Some part of him wants to pay for what he did. And by reminding the NA leader that he backed over his own son – and you can’t ever forgive yourself for that – it was an incredibly damning, excruciating and powerful moment. As for the small details – when Jesse asks him point blank if he thinks its OK to cut himself slack for the horror, the answer is a whispered, defeated “no.”

Yeah, feel the rage. Mission failed.

Epic fail, actually.

And right now the best thing about Season 4 of Breaking Bad is the best thing about Mad Men all along – how an existential crises can tear a man apart in so many different ways. Jesse and Don Draper have different “conditions of existence” they are dealing with, but it’s the interior volcano that’s riveting. Aaron Paul has dominated Season 4 so far, and that NA scene in “Problem Dog” was an Emmy moment melting into itself.

Quick notes: The episode was written and directed by Peter Gould.

Walt using “ameliorate” with Saul, who says:  “Let’s ditch the thesaurus. Are you talking about a hit man?” Even Saul knows no good can come from trying to kill Gus. “That’s what the kids call epic fail.”

Walt’s salary? $274,000. Give or take. And this is how often?, Skyler asks “Every two weeks.” She does the math: $7,125,000 a year. “Seven and a half before expenses,” Walt adds.

Good luck laundering that through the car wash.

$50s are going to be a problem, Skyler tells Walt when he drops the money at the car wash. Deal with it. “This is what you wanted,” he tells her. “I never wanted any of this,” Skyler says in return. And then, right there, the Carmela Soprano Moment. “If you want out, just say that you want out.”

She doesn’t.

Camera-placement update: Camera in the air/duct or vacuum!

Here’s why I’m hedging my bet that Jesse won’t kill Gus. I don’t think he can do it with a gun. But Walt’s poison? Yeah, he could probably do that. My guess is that poison gets used and something goes horribly wrong.

Great quote, with Hank and Walter Jr. “walking” into Pollos Hermanos: “Jesus, ain’t we a pair.”

Another quote to file away: “But seriously, how does that happen?” Hank to Walter Jr., about how Walt just up and bought him that expensive Challenger.

 “Eyes open, mouth shut.” – Mike to Jesse. It ain’t “Friday Night Lights,” but it works great.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine