This review contains spoilers.
4.7. Problem Dog
“No more heroes any more,” sang the Stranglers several decades ago, and while I doubt they were prescient enough to have written this in reference to the 21st century TV shows we’re all obsessed by, they may as bloody well have done.
Any of the big shows you care to name – 24, Lost, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield – feature protagonists who aren’t so much flawed as they are huge, walking, talking flaws with faces, that career around destroying lives and moulting their flaws all over the, er, floor. In this group of rough diamonds, however, Walter is managing to stand out. He may be the least likeable anti-hero of them all.
As I mentioned last week, Breaking Bad is revealing itself to be a true antihero story – Walt’s ego means he’s certainly no Robin Hood. He is several echelons short of Tony Montana in the glamour stakes. He once looked to be carving out a niche for himself as a cold, calculating intellectual mastermind – but now he’s acting downright stupid. In Problem Dog, we saw him writing a car off by doing a donut off the embankment of a parking lot. It’s pretty hard to imagine Michael Corleone doing that, isn’t it?
Hell, he doesn’t even seem to care much about his family any more – he’s openly putting all of them in danger, and he’s helpless to stop it. At this point, Walt seems beyond redemption, and while there’s a perverse pleasure in watching the havoc he wreaks on those around him, we, as an audience, need someone to root for. Someone to be invested in.
We all know Walt’s going to die at the end of the series, whether it’s by the hand of one of the many, many people whose lives he has ruined, or because the cancer will come back for him. So who’s going to provide us with our moments of heroism? Who are we supposed to get behind? Well, there are two characters in Breaking Bad who are genuinely heroic.
As I’ve alluded to before, one of the greatest pleasures of Breaking Bad has been watching the gradual evolution of Hank. The Breaking Bad pilot is pretty much inarguably one of the best, tightest pilots ever made, and a lot of what makes the show so great can be found right in that first episode.
But in the pilot, Hank’s a pretty one-dimensional character – an amalgam of every bulshitting, take-no-prisoners wise-ass cop we’ve ever seen in TV cop shows and crime films of the past. He’s an ostentatious jock, casually putting Walt down and dismissing him in his own house; in other words, the perfect foil for the mild-mannered yet simmering Walt.
Throw in his occupation – DEA agent – and you’ve got yourself a pretty strong looking nemesis. It seemed that things were being set up thusly: we cheer on our nerdy anti-hero as he outwits Hank and his similarly incompetent band of lawmen as they blunder at every turn.
But things haven’t played out like that. For one thing, Hank genuinely is a family man, unlike Walt. He seems to enjoy the time spent with Walt Jnr even more than Walt, perhaps because he’s not completely wrapped up in his own head. He’s also managed to overcome a future consigned to a wheelchair in record time (maybe a little too quickly, truth be told, but if any show’s earned a little dramatic license, it’s this one), and the sight of Hank walking in to the police station with just the aid of a walking stick was one of the most uplifting moments of the whole series – genuinely heroic. And let’s not forget the time Hank managed to execute twin Mexican assassins in the most badass way possible.
Most of all, Hank is no fool. His good-old-boy boisterousness is, if not a total front, an effective tool for getting information out of people. It’s the classic Columbo trick – make people think you’re a bumbling idiot, and they’ll drop their guard. It’s this Schrader charm that gives Hank the big moment we’ve been waiting for from him all season – he’s been quietly putting the pieces together on Heisenberg for the past few episodes, and when he’s invited in by his superiors (you get the impression they’re probably humouring him more than anything) he seizes the day in style, revealing that’s he’s got Gustavo Fring (correctly) made as the guy behind the guy.
Of course, there’s still a huge part of the puzzle that he’s not privy to – Walt – but it’s still exhilarating to see him make such a huge breakthrough in the case and in the narrative of the show.
Breaking Bad has made its name on the asphyxiating tension it induces from its impossible situations, and this one’s a doozy. It would suggest that things are over for Gus – he’s also engaged in a tense, cool to lukewarm war with the cartel – but then we’ve been here before. Whatever seems like the obvious progression for the show is almost certainly not what’s actually going to happen. But what implications does this have for Walt?
The other character in the show capable of genuine moments of heroism is Jesse, or poor Jesse, to give him his full title. In fact, he has probably the most heroic moment of the whole show to date – his “no” when standing up to Gus in Half Measures. But he’s also the person who killed Gale in cold blood, one of the show’s most loveable characters. He’s troubled, to say the least.
But while Walt’s soul appears to have been permanently sold to Satan, Jesse’s is still in the balance. In fact, the war for Jesse’s soul could now become an even more integral part of the show. Mike correctly identifies loyalty as being a defining quality of Jesse, and at the moment he’s still loyal to Walt. But it’s painful to watch Walt attempt to manipulate Jesse – Jesse knows he’s doing it, but Walt’s not entertaining the notion that he has a mind of his own and is anything other than a puppet to be used for his own advantage. But Jesse owes Walt his life. Betraying him, in his mind, would be the wrong thing to do.
Jesse’s still tormented by the death of Gale – the worst thing he’s ever done, performed in the name of loyalty of Walt and to save his own skin. Detached and distant from everyone for the majority of the season, his frustration came to a head at a narcotics anonymous meeting, his first for several weeks. Jesse’s ire is raised when his story about his putting down of a ‘problem dog’ – a thin allegory for the murder of Gale – is met largely with understanding by the group, rather than horror (with one exception).
Finally he snaps, and taunts the group leader until he admits they are repulsed by him. (Incidentally, this scene proves beyond any doubt that Aaron Paul is a gobsmackingly good actor. Genuinely incredible.) Unlike Walt, he’s sick of the self-justification, and the compartmentalising. In this scene he’s saying: why is nobody as disgusted with me as I am with myself?
But for all his inner torment, Jesse may once again be the key player at the end of the season. He’s the least compromised, with the least to lose. His loyalty and surprising amount of intelligence will make him a formidable ally in the carnage that is about to unfold. And if that isn’t enough…well, there’s always the killer cigarette.
Read our review of the last episode, Cornered, here.