Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 12
If Mr. White really is the devil, as Jesse claims tonight, then the greatest trick he’s ever pulled is his long-term manipulation of Jesse. We have seen Walter White do some horrible things over the run of this show, but all of the ones that we read as the worst stem from betrayals of Jesse. If Walt hadn’t betrayed Jesse and let Jane choke to death, the plane crash he caused never would have happened. If Walt hadn’t asked Jesse to kill Gale, we wouldn’t have watched another piece of both characters’ innocence whither and die. And when Walt poisons a child, what he’s really doing is betraying Jesse by hurting the people he is closest to in order to manipulate him into doing what he wants. There are many tragedies bubbling to the surface within “Rabid Dog,” but for me, the most potent is the fact that despite all of his awfulness, Walter White is possibly the only person left in the world who cares about Jesse at all.
At every turn tonight, we see people who might at one point have had a vested interest in Jesse’s survival perfectly willing to watch him die. Saul, ever the pragmatist, suggests that Walt has an “Old Yeller” situation on his hands, that Jesse is a rabid dog that needs putting down. Walt reprimands him for constantly suggesting murder as the answer to their problems, but Saul has some pretty good reasons to do so. First off, they’ve done it a lot before, and it has always worked out well for them. Second, things have never been as bad as they are lately, and adding a few more bodies to the pile beneath Heisenberg’s empire isn’t going to make much of a difference in the long term.
Skyler seems to think exactly the same way. When Walt tells her the truth (and man, he hasn’t done that in a while), she assumes he plans to “make him see reason” in the metaphorical sense. Skyler is accustomed enough to the rhythms of her new life as a criminal mastermind (or at least, a close accomplice to one) to assume that when someone is a threat, you don’t talk to him, you “talk to him.” We’ve talked a lot in the past few weeks about how the brilliance of Skyler’s arc is really just coming into focus in these final episodes, but here again we see that Skyler too has broken bad. She lacks the emotional connection Walt has to Jesse; she sees him as a problem with a very clear solution. “After everything we’ve done, you can’t just talk to that person,” she tells him. “We’ve come this far. What’s one more?”
That Skyler has come to accept, and even argue for, murder is not all that surprising given what we’ve seen recently, but the moment is still chilling to watch. It is downright scary to see Walt arguing for leniency in the face of his wife, arguing there is a better way than murder. Hearing Walt parrot back Saul’s language and argue, “Jesse isn’t some…some rabid dog. This is a person” is amazing both for the hypocrisy there and for the fact that, for once, Walt actually means what he’s saying. He doesn’t want to kill Jesse because Jesse means too much to him. To Skyler, Jesse is just “a person that’s a threat to us.”
Even a week ago, it was clear that Hank, too, had a vested interest in Jesse’s survival. Yet the show has been quickly turning Hank’s nobility into just another form of Walt’s obsessive compulsive need to control. It’s clear Hank is willing to do just about anything at this point to get his man (though, for now at least, he is staying inside the law, hoping to bring Walt to justice), but it was still shocking to see him completely disregard Jesse’s humanity. First, he drugs Jesse with sleeping pills and then caffeine, in an attempt to get him into a state where he will be a believable witness. Then, he forces Jesse to tape a full confession, one that somehow convinces Gomez of its veracity (I have serious problems believing that Jesse Pinkman is a credible witness to anything at this point, but I guess I’ll allow it). And then he sends Jesse in with a wire and a secret win-win scenario for himself. Either Jesse gets Walt to confess, or Walt murders Jesse and Hank gets it on tape. Hank sees Jesse as a junkie and a killer (he’s not wrong about either), but more tragically, he sees him in the same way Walter White always has: as just another move in a larger game. Jesse is a pawn wherever he turns, but by episode’s end, he’s looking to assert himself as he never has before. Jesse might not be able to change the fact that he’s a pawn, but he can damn sure knock over the board.
Everyone around Walt seems to think Jesse needs to die. Even Walter Jr., if he could look up from his pancakes for long enough to see the world around him falling apart, would probably tell his dad to “Bust a cap” or whatever cool slang the kids are using these days. There are only two people who don’t want Jesse to have to die, possibly even including Jesse at this point, who seems to have lost the will to live: Walt, and the viewer. We’ve seen everything Walt has. Our relationship with Jesse is built on similar foundations, except our love for him is stronger, because while Walt has betrayed Jesse again and again, we have seen Jesse weather these betrayals, we have seen him get chipped away at again and again, and yet we have watched him retain his basic humanity, his desire to do good even as he recognizes himself as the bad guy. Walt is an abuser, and like many, he loves the one he abuses most and doesn’t see the contradiction. Walt believes his own lies a lot more than he should. This has always been one of his larger flaws. And he believes few things more than that he has Jesse’s best interest at heart. Walt thinks Jane was a bad influence he eliminated (except, maybe, in that heartbreaking moment in “Fly,” when he seems to understand all he’s done and comes close to confessing to Jesse). He thinks forcing Jesse to kill Gale saved his life. He has even seemingly deluded himself that poisoning an 8-year-old helped get Jesse out from under Gus’ thumb and arguably saved his life. Walt’s love of Jesse is twisted by the man he’s forced himself to become and by the rationalizations that hold that man together. It is a small, hard, desperate love. It is unhealthy for both of them. This is a love that should die, but like any bad relationship, it is hard for the parties to extricate themselves. There’s too much history here.
What is so interesting about the methodical structure of the last few episodes is the way they are slowly chipping away everything Walt has left. He did it for his family, you see. Except that now he has compromised his wife, distanced his brother-in-law and sister-in-law, and endangered his children. He did it all to protect Jesse, of course. Except it is his actions that have put Jesse in as much danger as he is in currently. Even as we turn to his darker motivations, the show is starting to take them away from him. Assume Walt did it all for control, that he got off on the feeling that he was the master of the world, that he was powerful and several steps ahead of his enemies. Tonight, we see both Skyler and Hank get steps ahead of Walt, one outplaying him entirely and one failing only because he is so focused on capturing his White whale, he has blinders on and can’t approach Jesse the way Jesse needs.
What Walt really is, more than anything else, is a brilliant improviser. His plans almost never go off exactly as he has structured them, and its only through quick thinking and a willingness to contemplate desperate, despicable actions that he manages to survive. Walt was improvising last week when he tinged his lies with some truth to get Jesse to leave Albuquerque. And he was improvising again tonight when he shifted his story to fit Walter Jr.’s own, more emotionally sympathetic narrative. You see Walt cling to his story for a moment. “No, it was the pump.” He says. But the wheels in his head are always spinning, and he quickly discovers there is an advantage to be gained by playing the cancer card once again. All of a sudden he is saying “Maybe I did get a little swimmy…” These two scenes underline the great tragedy that is occurring entirely off-screen in “Rabid Dog.” They underline the shift in Walt’s soul over the course of the hour. Because in last week’s, Walter discovered that Jesse was beyond his reach. The kid he really thought of as a surrogate son was no longer buying his lies. The kid he had convinced he was the good guy throughout various struggles before knew that he was the villain. Both Jesse and Walt Jr. demand that Walt tell them the truth in these scenes. Neither gets what they want, but only one is satisfied by what they get. And in that scene by the hotel pool, shining bright blue, Walt realizes he has a son that believes him to be a good man. He doesn’t need Jesse quite as much as he might have thought.
We always knew Walt’s selection of Heisenberg for his alter ego was incredibly appropriate, but I think it is increasingly so. The idea behind the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is that there is a fundamental limit to the precision with which pairs of complementary variables (such as position and momentum) can be known simultaneously. This is pretty much always how Walter has worked. He cannot possibly account for every variable, but his genius lies in the fact that he knows that and knows how to manipulate whatever variable is in front of him at any given moment to his advantage. Again and again, Walt has danced at the edge of the precipice, and through a combination of inventiveness and luck, he has managed to not go over the edge. But there is chaos on the margins of this lifestyle, and the more risks Walt takes, the more likely he is to see a wrench thrown in the works. The danger of living as Walt has for the last year or so of his life is that the introduction of even a little bit of chaos can cause everything to fall apart. The real heartbreak at this episode’s core is the way it seems to represent a final break for Walt and Jesse. Walt wanted to let Jesse live. He wanted to salvage their partnership as he has time and again. He wanted to convince his surrogate son, the one who knows him as he truly is, to come back into the fold. But over the course of the episode, everything is telling Walt he has to go the other way, and eventually even Jesse makes that clear to him. We’ve seen a vision of the future where Walter White walks this world alone. What terrifies me is what we’ll see him do to get there.
-I still don’t like to speculate about where things are going here, but the fewer episodes we have remaining, the more our options for endings narrow. That I hope Jesse finds a way out of all of this alive probably makes it more likely that he doesn’t. But this is a show that always finds ways to surprise me, and I’m remaining optimistic that some of its best reveals are still to come.
-“Jesus. Jesse did that?” “Yeah, but you’ve gotta understand, deep down, he loves me.” This is a funny line from Saul, but it’s also incredibly resonant in an episode about Walt’s love for Jesse, and its terrible consequences for them both.
-“I just need to explain to him why that had to happen.” Walter White, King of justification and rationalization. This definitely made me think again of “Fly,” the one time Walt seems to admit that nothing he’d done had to happen, that everything was the result of his own terrible choices and horrible deeds.
-“Walt. You. Need. To. Deal. With. This.” “How much have you had to drink?” “Not nearly enough.”
-“He can’t keep getting away with this! He can’t keep getting away with it!” Maybe Aaron Paul’s most powerful delivery in a performance full of them.
-“How’s work? Last week you were upset about the new parking rules.”
-“Come on. You think I’ve come all this way to let something as silly as lung cancer take me down? Not a chance.”
-“So your plan is to do his plan?”
-“You two guys? You’re just guys. Mr. White? He’s the devil. He’s smarter than you. He’s luckier than you.”