“Breaking Bad”: Fasten Your Seatbelt

Jesse

If last night’s Breaking Bad episode “Rabid Dog,” written and directed by Sam Catlin, accomplished nothing else, it successfully demonstrated the show’s commitment to driver safety laws. (Needless to say, this is about to get spoiler-y!)

When Hank fastened Jesse’s seatbelt just minutes after extricating the beleaguered “Bitch!”-master from Walter White’s unusually smelly home (at least he won’t die from inhaling gas fumes!), we witnessed the changing of a guard. No longer is Jesse beholden to the paternal charms of his old master Mr. White, because Mr. Schrader is in town, and he’s recruiting. This is the moment we were expecting at the end of “Blood Money” when Hank walked into the interrogation room. Breaking Bad: giving us what we want when we least expect it.

(Upon seeing that seatbelt moment, my friend Matt remarked that small moments like that one separate this show from its lesser antecedents, and I’m inclined to agree. Dean Norris himself alluded to this facet of the legendary show in a revealing recent interview with Vulture. A network show would have cut immediately from Hank convincing Jesse to that excruciatingly awkward scene in Hank’s house. Breaking Bad understands like few shows ever that beauty and power often lie in the moments sandwiched between the big action setpieces.)

Ironically, though, Walt would have been perfectly happy to bring Jesse into the fold, now that his young padawan has clearly descended into an unconscionable rage that could end in the death of crucial members of the White household. But Jesse’s justifiably paranoid about the man who managed to convince him for months that the near-death of his beloved Brock had been the act of a ruthless drug lord hellbent on wanton destruction. It turns out Jesse was pretty much right on that score, but he had the wrong guy. And by the end of this episode, it looks like his worst suspicions have ironically come true: Walt’s frantic call to Todd seems to spell the permanent end of the Walt-Jesse relationship. Or, as Jesse might say, “Mr. White’s not gay for me anymore.”

Was this a great episode of Breaking Bad? I’m not sure. If it hadn’t come after last week’s titanic blast of awesome and a side order of tableside guac, maybe I’d be more willing to anoint “Rabid Dog.” But I think this is probably the least explosive episode of the season so far, probably by design. The episode spends an awful lot of time ramping up to the reveal of Walter’s boldfaced lie about the gasoline snafu, time well spent in retrospect – that scene is funnier if we’ve seen the work that goes into constructing that lie. (There goes Breaking Bad again, taking its time to knock us off our feet.) I also came to appreciate that the show leaves Jesse’s fate in the dark just long enough for us to wonder what’s up with him before dropping that bombshell.

Walt

The one aspect of the episode that’s sticking in my craw is the moment that derails Jesse’s subordinate role with the DEA – the burly man who appears to be a hired assassin turns out to be a burly man who likes to take his daughter to a beautiful Albuquerque location on a sunny afternoon. Is this coincidence too much, even for a show that traffics in coincidences that add up to fascinating moral dilemmas for the characters? I’m still not sure. I believed that Jesse would make that assumption given the circumstances, but I’m not sure the writers earned the cuteness of that accidental bit of assassin profiling.

Even if it’s a misstep, Breaking Bad is entitled to those once in a while. They seem more noticeable because they’re few and far between, but it’s important to keep things in perspective. Breaking Bad is one of the greatest television shows ever produced, and this final season is delivering every bit of breathless tension, riveting character development and searing black comedy that we could have asked for. Only four episodes left. Time is running out, and I’m running with it.

Other Notes:
*Whether I believed the writers’ choice in the episode’s final scene, Sam Catlin’s direction in that scene went a long way. The abrupt pans, the fast cutting between Jesse’s increasingly disturbed face and the innocuous Plaza-goers, the quickening music. Breaking Bad has always been a marvel of the technical aspects of television production, and this episode was no exception.

*One of the most laudable aspects of a show as intense as Breaking Bad is its deft ability to leaven the tension with humor – nay, explosive hilarity. Saul Goodman’s hypothetical proposal that “the kid might not be open to a nuanced discussion of the virtues of child poison” and his subsequent deployment of the Old Yeller metaphor cracked me up grandly in a season chock full of great Saul moments. Walt’s concocted story of a simple gas fill-up gone awry was filled with wonderfully Walt-y touches, including his admittance that he might have gotten a little “swimmy.”

*Broken record time: Aaron Paul. Aaron Paul. Aaron Paul. I simply can’t praise him enough for his work in every single episode this season, even the one in which he didn’t say a single word. He conveys more with a simple glare than most actors could do with pages worth of dialogue. I hope he has a long and illustrious career after this show ends. He’s certainly got the chops (and the Emmy credibility, and the fan appreciation) to go all the way.

*Marie’s one scene in “Rabid Dog” struck me as thematically important even though it was pretty disconnected from the overarching story. It’s just another notch on the people who have been corrupted by Walt’s refusal to see the errors of his ways, and it demonstrates that anyone who believes they are perfectly decent human beings will have to reconsider after faced with true evil. (Plus, that scene was hilarious. “Parking rules”? Awesome!)

*I’ve never seen Old Yeller. Or Babylon 5. Badger (Beaver?) and Skinny Pete would be disappointed.

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