This review contains spoilers.
5.12 Rabid Dog
I didn’t expect to start thinking about notorious BBC nuclear war drama Threads during this week’s Breaking Bad, although, like anyone else who has ever watched Threads will tell you, once you’ve watched it once it’s pretty hard not to think about it daily for the rest of your life. While Rabid Dog thankfully doesn’t feature a scene where a young mother prostitutes herself for a bag of rats in irradiated Sheffield (not even in the top five most disturbing moments in Threads, fact fans), it still explores surprisingly similar thematic territory – namely, that all it takes is one cataclysmic event to unravel all of the moral and societal safeguards that keep us from devolving back into destructive, primal selfishness.
If you’ll allow me to torture this analogy for a little longer, I’d argue that Breaking Bad’s own nuclear warhead was Walt’s decision to start cooking meth, and as Rabid Dog demonstrates, that decision has had far, far-reaching psychological consequences beyond some of the more visceral and violent schemes we’ve seen him personally execute in previous episodes.
While the more immediate, traditional danger to Walt and his family has subsided – he’s technically out of the game now, after all – the revelation of his true nature to those closest around him in this latter half of the final series hasn’t just upset them, it’s poisoned them. Walt’s reflexive, bristling selfishness is so toxic and contagious that it may have eroded the moral compasses of his allies and enemies alike: Hank, Marie, Skyler, and especially Jesse, are all wounded by Walt’s various betrayals, and appropriately enough their response now is to lash out wildly and instinctively.
Take Hank, who has comfortably occupied the moral high ground since at least the third series, when Walt really started messing with his whole world. However, since his Heisenberg discovery at the end of last season, he is slowly demonstrating the flaws and foibles that we’ve become more accustomed to seeing from Walt.
After Jesse broke into the Walter White home, we discover that Hank – who had begun following Jesse after being forced to take his DEA men off his tail – accosted him, talked him out of burning the place to the ground and into helping him with the case against Heisenberg. When he reaches over to strap Jesse into his seat, in the process giving him an awkward bear-hug, it looks for a second like Hank might finally be an unlikely source of genuine compassion for Jesse.
That’s far from the case, though. Once it becomes clear that it may be possible to engineer a sting operation where Jesse can wear a wire and incriminate Walt, Hank immediately wants to put Jesse in danger, willing to risk his life in exchange for the smoking gun he needs to crack the case. Admittedly, as a career cop who’s spent his life to taking down perps exactly like Jesse, there’s no reason why he would suddenly want to fight Jesse’s corner, especially after he’s just confessed to his role in a number of violent crimes. However, it does make an important point regarding Hank’s reasons for taking down Walt; above everything else he is motivated by revenge and self-interest, powered by his battered ego. Any potential casualties that stand in the way are irrelevant.
Sound like anyone you know? Walt’s win-at-all costs attitude has filtered down to everyone in his life. Skyler is now at the stage where she will demand Walt murder someone – a person that she’s shared an (admittedly awkward) dinner with, remember – if it’s a threat to her current existence. (As an aside, I enjoyed the scene’s plush hotel surroundings, an altogether more appropriate setting for planning a hit than the beige homeliness of the White residence. The Scarface transition is complete). Even Marie, possibly the character least tainted by Walt’s crimes, is in a bloodlust, researching poisons on the internet and letting a criminal stay in her home for the sole reason that it’s “bad for Walt”.
Jesse’s no angel either, despite being kicked around by everybody in the show for what seems like forever (although as a commenter pointed out last week, it’s only been just over a year), he’s so unfocused in his need for rage and revenge that he was willing to destroy a family home and in the process possibly endanger the lives of children, which we can safely say ranks high on his list of pet peeves. It reminds us that while Jesse is undoubtedly a tragic figure, his recklessness means he is still responsible for an awful lot of misery and destruction in his own right. That’s why it still didn’t feel right, despite everything, that he was so quick to implicate Walt to Hank while claiming that his former teacher is ‘the devil’.
It felt wrong because the central irony of Rabid Dog is that the only person who is looking out for Jesse – albeit in his own perverse, awful way – and not just pursuing the wants and needs of their own ego is Walt. Walt and Jesse as surrogate father and son is a well-established theme in Breaking Bad at this point, and this series in particular has taken the time to point out the similarities in Walt’s behaviour towards Walt Jr and Jesse. The scene from season four’s Salud, where Walt mistakenly calls Walt Jr ‘Jesse’, hangs heavily over proceedings in this episode, and it’s Walt’s tender scene with his son that results in his impassioned call to Jesse for reconciliation.
The pair’s impossible relationship has to come to an end, and it’s sad to watch: while the two don’t have the biological bind of actual family, for the majority of the whole ordeal of the past year all they’ve had to rely on has been each other. It’s casually shattering to hear Hank run down the reasons Walt cares about Jesse and realise that he really has been looking out for him, risking his life and livelihood over and over again in order to help Jesse out of a bind.
But unfortunately for Walt, his unforgivable actions towards Jesse have turned the surrogate son into just another Big Bad for him; another Gustavo Fring or Tuco or Scary Bald Twins that need to be dealt with via a “colourful metaphor”, as Saul memorably puts it. Everybody wants Jesse dead except Walt, and for the first time in a while, he seems genuinely backed into a corner. His crimes are now so much bigger than him that, despite holding all of the power, he has very little say in their consequences, which is a terrifying prospect for a control freak like Walt. His conversation with Saul was telling; echoing the chat the pair had about Hank, Walt once again poured scorn on the suggestion that the problem be solved by murder, but by the end of the episode, Jesse’s clear demonstration that he is not willing to back down meant that he has been forced to backtrack. Could this be foreshadowing the possibility that Walt is re-adressing his ‘no family’ rule? You would have to think that’s bad news for Hank, if so. The inevitable re-appearance of Todd’s neo-Nazi family is undoubtedly bad news for all concerned, as their prison antics have previously demonstrated that they are capable of a brand of sadism that is eye-opening even on this show.
It’s a show where violence has now seeped into everybody’s DNA. Marie’s therapist tells her that there is no problem that can be solved by violence without exacerbating it further, to which her response is to argue that at least it’s fun to think about. Meanwhile, pragmatic Saul argues that, like Old Yeller, putting down Jesse would be an act of kindness. Hank thinks he’s expendable in as part of the greater fight. “What’s one more?” says Skyler. Everybody has developed a defense for the indefensible, which is exactly the kind of mental process that has led to Walt ending up where he is today. After all the terrible things Walt has done in the name of protecting his inner circle from the external, alien threats of violent men in the drug-trade, it could be that the biggest threat he faces will be from the monsters he created: a group of ordinary people left with no choice but to break bad thanks to their intimacy with one manipulative, corrosive personality. And when you put like that… then I guess Walt does kind of sound like the devil.
Read Paul’s review of the previous episode, Confessions, here.
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