TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Rabid Dog” (05.12, 2013)

Written by Sam Catlin (Previous Episodes: “Down,” “4 Days Out,” “Green Light,” “Fly,” “Half Measures,” “Open House,” “Hermanos,” “Crawl Space,” and “Fifty-One”)

Directed by Sam Catlin (No Previous Episodes)

After last episode’s cliffhanger, I really wasn’t sure what to expect here. As I said last week, I was not sure whether the White home showed signs of burn damage, so I wasn’t sure that Jesse was going to be stopped, though I thought it was likely. And I thought it might well mean the end of Jesse Pinkman. In retrospect, what happened makes perfect sense and seems it should have been predictable. Jesse was indeed stopped, but not by Heisenberg. Instead, he was stopped by Hank, who had tailed Jesse from Saul’s office and saw this as an opportunity to get Jesse to flip.

The reveal of what happened was not immediate. Instead, we got a typically Breaking Bad tense, taut sequence as Heisenberg arrived in front of his house and saw Saul’s car then crept in, investigating what Jesse had done and where he was, finding his living room carpet soaked with gasoline but no sign of Jesse. And then, in usual Walt/Heisenberg fashion, his first reaction is apparently not to ensure his own or his family’s safety, but to call carpet cleaners and hide the entire episode from Skyler. Saul’s guys are out searching for Jesse, but he finally thinks to have Hule check on Junior at school only after the cleaners have apparently already long been at work.

Maybe our most long-term lesson from this episode is just how angry Hank and Marie really are. Hank is perfectly willing to cold-heartedly sacrifice Jesse (A coldheartedness that we saw in him back in season 2 resurfacing for the first time since a tortoise exploded around him.) in order to get some evidence against Heisenberg, which wouldn’t exactly be iron-clad evidence anyway since he would essentially be claiming that these criminal activities are the only possible motivation for Walt to murder Jesse without any evidence of the actual criminal activity beyond the Leaves of Grass book that has no chain of custody and Walt’s “confession.” Marie, meanwhile, responds to the news that a drug addict is sleeping in her house by saying that she’s okay with it as long as it’s bad for Walt and fantasizes to her therapist about poisoning Heisenberg, not knowing how ironic it is to talk about poisoning a man who has spent the last year looking for someone to poison with a vial of ricin and who poisoned a child in order to keep himself safe.

Heisenberg takes his family to a fancy hotel while the carpet gets replaced (And will it ever get replaced or just removed? The carpet is gone in the future.), a sequence which allows R.J. Mitte to show off some acting chops for the first time in the show’s history. He calls Walt on his bullshit just as he did back in season one when he said, “Why don’t you just die already then?” and even gets a beautifully-shot scene discussing Walt’s illness with him in front of the hotel pool. He’s brilliant in these scenes and it really makes me wonder if this show hasn’t squandered him a bit. The scene in front of the pool also highlights just how hubristic Heisenberg has become at this point, as he says, “You think I came all this way just to let something as silly as lung cancer take me down?” The man who didn’t even want treatment because he had already given up is now calling lung cancer “silly” and saying that it couldn’t bring someone of his stature down. It’s a pretty powerful callback to the way he reacted to that initial diagnosis that shows just how far this character has gone.

Visually, Sam Catlin’s directorial debut proves itself to be on par with Breaking Bad’s usual look. He even gets one of the most beautiful scenes in the show’s history with Heisenberg and Junior discussing his illness in front of the pool, a scene filled with dramatic shadows and strong colors. It’s the type of scene that no other television show attempts visually, and first-time director Sam Catlin pulls it off.

Overall this was another excellent episode, if something of a dropoff from what we’ve seen this season before.

 

Notes

  • I couldn’t help but think that Mike would have already found Jesse before the cleaners could even get there. The reason Saul’s guys can’t find him is that, oh yeah, Heisenberg killed the guy who would have!
  • Having Hule check on Junior might have been a direct response to the long-running internet hypothesis that Junior exists so that someone can use him to get to Walt near the end.
  • No Lydia. No Todd. No neo-Nazis. For the first time, it felt like Heisenberg was out of the business and was just seeing his chickens come home to roost.
  • Hank and Marie’s bookshelf behind Jesse is filled with books on horses (The Body Language of Horses, Horse Sense, Basic Horsemanship), a prominently-placed book on the 1929 stock market crash, and Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris, a very controversial fictionalized biography that is noted for its blending of reality and fiction. That book’s presence may be a reference to Walt’s confession, or it may even have some other meaning that eludes me. The others don’t strike me as particularly meaningful, but hey if you wondered what was on the shelf, that’s what I could see.
  • Marie’s purple rug made me laugh.
  • Hank is smart. That scene telling Jesse to meet with Heisenberg is a perfect example—he’s figured out from what Jesse told him that Heisenberg cares about him, even though Jesse has never figured that out himself.
  • Steve really went along with Hank’s plan even after that creepy, “We get it all on tape?” I know Hank is the boss, but Steve seems to be a smart, self-assured guy normally. It seems odd to me that he goes along for the ride on this.
  • “Next time I’m gonna get you where you really live.” What does that mean? My first thought was that it means the money, but could it mean something else? After all, he does talk to Hank afterward and say, “There’s another way. A better way.”
  • The neo-Nazis were obviously more than capable of their jobs before, but can they really get to Jesse while he’s hiding with Hank now that Hank has told Steve?
  • After some down time, it’s good to see Jesse get interesting again for a couple of episodes, if nothing else just for the sake of seeing Aaron Paul at work.
  • Betsy Brandt was brilliant talking to her therapist. Marie is a character who could easily be laughably unbelievable, but Brandt always keeps her real, and doesn’t get much attention for it.
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TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Confessions” (05.11, 2013)

Written by Gennifer Hutchison (Previous Episodes: “I See You,” “Cornered,” “Salud,” and “Buyout”)

Directed by Michael Slovis (Previous Episodes: “Kafkaesque,” “Cornered,” and “Live Free or Die”)

 Breaking Bad has typically been a show that has burned slowly, building up tension before explosive bursts of activity. This half-season has been positively teeming with activity compared to the show’s typical beginnings. Yet, this episode was still an explosion along the lines of “Half Measures” back in season three.

We’ve been watching Hank, who is clearly not Heisenberg’s final enemy, build up his case against Walter White and Walt/Heisenberg try to squirrel out of it and Jesse completely self-destruct under the weight of the guilt he feels about everything that’s happened. For the first two hours, that is essentially all that has been happening. We’re waiting for Hank to reveal his discoveries to his superiors, only to have Heisenberg turn the tables with a “confession” where he explains his criminal activities but claims that they were all at Hank’s behest. Then, the self-destructing Jesse still doesn’t flip on Heisenberg but realizes that Heisenberg poisoned Brock last season and heads to the White home seeking revenge. It may have been surprising to see the show have a Walt-Hank confrontation so quickly, but that is nothing compared to the surprise of seeing this much activity at once.

Also for the first time this season, I was completely caught by surprise by one plot turn. We all knew the Hank-Walt confrontation was coming—it was only the timing that was a surprise. We all knew that Lydia was going to do something about Declan’s operation and its falling standards and that somehow Todd was involved. However, Heisenberg’s “confession” was a shock. Equally shocking was how easily the pieces fit together from the outside: The DEA would have no reason to think that Heisenberg’s revelation was false and indeed would see plenty of evidence that it was honest and truthful, including Hank’s behavior in this episode as he pulls the detail off of Jesse rather than explain to Steve why he wants it there in the first place. The book that revealed everything to Hank being in his possession with no chain of evidence would be evidence of an illicit relationship between them just as easily as it is evidence of such a relationship between Walt and Gale. The meth money used to pay for Hank’s rehab is, as Hank says, the final nail in the coffin, but the coffin is pretty well nailed shut even without that bit of evidence. It’s an impressive plan on Heisenberg’s part, because it works so well.

But in spite of all of that and how it seems to put Hank on hold for now (His taking the detail off of Jesse seems to be a signal that, for now, he is backing off.), there are two more important bits of business for the show long-term. The first is, obviously, Jesse’s discovery that Walt poisoned Brock. The second is the less obvious continued development of Todd’s weirdness and ascension in the meth business.

Saul ends up calling the disappearer, as I’ve been expecting, but it’s for Jesse, not Heisenberg. Jesse then discovers that Hule, the seeming klutz bodyguard in Saul’s office, has adeptly lifted his marijuana from his pocket and so has the realization that Hule could have done the same with the mysteriously missing ricin cigarette a season ago. He understandably reacts with some real anger, stealing Saul’s car and heading to the White home with a can of gasoline, throwing it around the house and screaming.

I re-watched the flash-forward from “Blood Money” to see whether the house showed signs of burning, and I’m not sure whether it does or not. The scene is shot with such low-key lighting and so much grey coloring that I just can’t tell whether the living room is burned out or not. Clearly, the house is still standing and parts of it where burns would be more easily visible do not show any such evidence, but it is ambiguous enough that I cannot be sure that something is going to stop Jesse from lighting that gasoline. He may yet be stopped, but it’s possible, with only one can of gasoline and Heisenberg likely on the way to the house, that he is going to get it started and just not succeed in burning down the house.

The more important question from this scene now is what is going to happen to Jesse. It seems likely, the way this season has gone at such a breakneck pace and just essentially disposed of one antagonist, that we could get a Heisenberg-Jesse confrontation already, and it may well be that Jesse Pinkman does not survive the next episode. For years, I had said that the show would progress to Heisenberg v. Gus, then Heisenberg v. Hank, then end with Heisenberg v. Jesse. I’ve decided that his final battle will not be with Jesse, because the Lydia/Todd group is clearly being built up on more of a slow burn. But that means Jesse is going to have to be out of the way soon, and I think this scene may have made it clear that he’s gone next episode, or maybe two episodes if they really want to draw it out. That of course also means that my prediction for the ending is completely shot, but that doesn’t bother me!

Meanwhile, in the continued adventures of Todd, Weird Boy . . .

Todd goes to a diner with a couple of his and Lydia’s hit men from last episode, one of whom I now notice (I’m not sure if it was visible last time.) has a swastika tattoo that reveals he is probably part of the neo-Nazi group Heisenberg used to get rid of Mike’s guys. He tells them the story of the train robbery, sounding like an excited movie fan more than a participant in a traumatic event that included a ridiculous amount of danger and ended with him killing a child (a part of the story that he does not even mention to his comrades). Then, while the two men ogle a pretty waitress (in a really obvious and somewhat laughable way), he not only does not join in but looks clearly uncomfortable at them doing it. We get another reminder about how cold and unfeeling these men are in a sequence that seems like it belongs in A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, USA/Germany 2005), and yet Todd still seems less human than they are. Just not joining in the ogling wouldn’t say much—he could be gay or asexual or maybe the waitress just wasn’t his type—but his clear discomfort made it appear that there is something else there, something deeper and more troubling.

It was clear from his first moment on screen that there was a long-term plan for Todd and he was not as he appeared—Saul introduced the rest of the pest control team easily but had to check on Todd’s name, and of course he is played by a recognizable TV actor in Jesse Plemons. Is he actually the reason Walter White will return to Albuquerque, needing a machine gun in the trunk?

Visually, this episode was a typically excellent Breaking Bad episode, which is good because Michael Slovis’s previous turns as a director have been a bit weak, not so much because of his direction as because the show misses him as cinematographer. The shot of Walt getting the gun from under the Coke machine and the beautiful low-angle shot of Jesse’s entrance to the White home are enough by themselves to establish this episode as ranking at Breaking Bad’s usual high level, and there’s nothing that really takes away from it.

Overall, this episode was the strongest yet in a brilliant opening to the best television show in history’s swan song, and it threw everything that it seemed like we knew from the first two episodes into doubt. I have a feeling we’re about to get another flash forward to confuse us even further before we see the results of Jesse’s attack on the home, but then things are most definitely happening.

Notes

  • I still wonder if somehow there is a Nazi component to what’s going to happen at the end. We have this neo-Nazi group now involved heavily in the business. Gus was from South America, where many Nazis fled after the Third Reich fell, and Don Eladio said, “I know who you are,” something that still has not been completely cleared up. Madrigal is a German company. That’s a lot of potential Nazi connections.
  • I feel sorry for Hank, paralyzed as he is by Heisenberg. He’s a good man—perhaps the only really good man we’ve seen on this show—and he’s good at his job, and his goodness has completely trapped him.
  • This episode is Aaron Paul’s Emmy submission, right? He’s always great, but that was as good as acting gets.
  • This is the first time Saul has ever gotten roughed up. He had been amazingly able to keep himself out of things physically.
  • So who is more dangerous, Lydia or Todd? Who is more mysterious? Do they have time to give us any definition of either character?
  • Is every meal scene on this show unbelievably tense? I don’t think this one was as bad as the Heisenberg-Jesse-Skyler scene we had before (or even the old Walt-Gretchen meal scene), but it definitely had more than its share of tension. And the overly enthusiastic waiter’s repeated arrivals were hilarious.
  • This show is always great, but seriously this episode was a wow episode—best we’ve seen since “Box Cutter?”

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”–“Fifty-One” (05.04, 2012)

“Fifty-One” (05.04, 2012)

Written by Sam Catlin (Previous Episodes: “Down,” “4 Days Out,” “Green Light,” “Fly,” “Half Measures,” “Open House,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space”)

Directed by Rian Johnson (Previous Episodes: “Fly”)

 

It’s not every TV show that can get the best film director working today to direct a few episodes. In fact, it’s exactly one TV show: Breaking Bad. My fandom of Rian Johnson is apparent just from the name of the blog, and then I’ve praised him with regularity as well.

Johnson’s presence is apparent in this episode’s visuals. It is loaded with the kind of dark but warm-toned shots that characterized much of his latest film, Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012) (my review). He also provides much more noticeable contrast lighting, even in the scenes that would not normally be terribly interesting. Notice the scene between Hank and the DEA higher-up who promotes him: it’s all full of shafts of light broken by deep shadows from the blinds, and they are carefully placed throughout the scene—on the top of Hank’s head, between the two men, etc. And of course there is the haunting, exquisitely beautiful shot of Skyler underwater in her suicide attempt, a beautiful combination of lighting and filters that no other television show would come close to. He also gives us a respite from some of the conventions, most notably the always-brilliant montages, that Breaking Bad has fallen into, which is necessary if those conventions are to maintain any power.

We finally get a specific date marker this episode in Walt’s 51st birthday, including an excellent callback to that brilliant opening when Skyler serves breakfast and Walter Jr. insists that she has to put the bacon in the shape of the number 51 because “mom has to do it—it’s like a tradition!” It draws attention to the isolation Walt must have been feeling in that opening scene, breaking the bacon in half the same way Skyler always has to spell out his age. The time marker also emphasizes that we’ve still got a year to go before Heisenberg ends up as Walter White, at Denny’s, needing a machine gun in his trunk. Considering that the entire show to this point has happened in a year, that means we have a lot of time that’s going to be covered in the second half of the season. Heisenberg’s fall is going to be swift on-screen, but not too swift in real life, and there is plenty of time for almost anything to become the threat that leads to his need for the machine gun.

Meanwhile, we get some depth to the jittery Lydia character, as Mike explains that she is dangerous and insane and passing her off as nothing more than a an overly nervous but overall harmless person is “sexist.” It’s an interesting moment for a show whose characterization of women has drawn some criticism in the past. However, within the show, it provides an important hint that there is more to Lydia than meets the eye. After all, when consummate professional badass Mike is afraid of her, there simply has to be something to worry about. It turns out that while she is cautious and panicky, she is also conniving enough that Mike actually believes that she placed a GPS tracker on their methylamine barrel in order to scare them into working elsewhere and Mike is willing to say, “She deserves to die as much as any man I’ve ever met.”

Skyler also steps up a bit in this episode. She’s been fearful with little else until now, but she, using her children as the reason (whether it’s sincere or not), is finally able to stand up a bit to Heisenberg, setting the limits of what she will and will not accept. She says that she will accept his criminal life and launder his money but does not want the children there, in danger, even throwing Heisenberg’s own words back in his face. She gets the children away and admits to desperation and an inability to find a real way to get away from him, but says that she will do whatever she can, hoping for his cancer to return and take him away. It’s an important moment for Skyler, as it’s essentially this season’s first sign of the strength she normally offers, and even that show of strength is accompanied by desperation and fear. We see exactly how trapped Skyler has become at this point. The point is also brilliantly emphasized by the actors’ movements, as she backs away from Heisenberg to all corners of the bedroom and he chases her around menacingly, but there is no screaming or actual violence. It’s a truly Hitchockian moment that Rian Johnson, Bryan Cranston, and Anna Gunn should be extroardinarily proud of.

This episode is perhaps the best of this season so far. Not only is it simply beautiful, but it advances the plot via its characters, the way Breaking Bad has usually moved in the past. This season so far has mostly seen characters and plot advance rather separately, and the tighter connection in this episode is great.

 

Notes:

  • The Aztek got essentially a Viking funeral, which was a good way of sending us into the show’s final run. It was always rather a symbol of Walter White–a hideously ugly, run-down car that
  • Much as I always love Rian Johnson, that long sequence of Heisenberg and Junior with the new Chryslers was rather silly and overdone. Chrysler more than got its money’s worth, but I hope Chrysler paid well.
  • Walt gets a trophy for his ability to manipulate Jesse: the watch Jesse gives him for his birthday. He then points out that it is really a trophy by using it to tell Skyler that the man who gave it to him recently wanted him dead. “He changed his mind about me, Skyler, and so will you.”
  • Rian Johnson loves smoke as an image, so it’s great that he gets to work with Skyler for the first time now that she’s smoking regularly.
  • Betsy Brandt’s look just before she tells Hank about Skyler’s infidelity is brilliant. You can see the thoughts cross her mind: “Oh, you were ahead of me, Hank? Really? Want to bet? I promised Walt not to say anything. But, dammit, he looks so smug over there! I’m telling him!”
  • Anna Gunn is having a good season, even though Skyler White definitely is not. Hopefully, some of the hatred that has been aimed at Skyler online during the show’s run will be tamped down by her cowed, fearful existence this season, and Gunn’s performance has been heart-rending.