Breaking Bad: Could Walter White Really Kill Jesse Pinkman?

And is the show moving too fast for its own good? Our roundtable discusses "Rabid Dog," the fourth episode in the AMC show's final half-season.
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Every week for the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, our roundtable of TheAtlantic.com's J.J. GouldChris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss the latest happenings on AMC's show.


Kornhaber: Breaking Bad has been called a tragedy of Greek or Shakespearean proportions, but it never quite felt that way to me. Yes, human suffering has long driven the action, and, yes, it has long been clear that Walter White may well end up dead. But the notion of Walter suffering has seemed abstract, far off—a fuzzy eventuality that, if anything, would be satisfying to watch. Given what Walt’s become, his ruin has seemed like it would be vindication and justice: grim and unpleasant, sure, but also comforting.

Tonight, though, that impression changed for me with the episode’s ending shot. “Todd, I think I might have another job for your uncle,” Walt says, his face squinted in anguish. As the credits cut in, I gasped and loosed an “oh no.” The plaza bells tolling seconds earlier, right after Walt and Jesse could have met up for a bloodless resolution to this entire mess, weren’t even necessary. In that phone call, Walt crossed a final line, consigning both himself and the viewer to a wrenching conclusion.

That’s because even as we’ve come to be horrified by Walter over four and a half seasons, we’ve also come to share his emotional attachments. Family’s off limits. Jesse’s off limits. Walter says these things, and intellectually, we know they’re silly—as Saul and Skyler and even Jesse himself put it, it just makes sense that Walter must kill Jesse. It made sense, too, that Walter would let Jesse be killed by Gustavo Fring in Seasons 3 and 4. It originally made sense for Vince Gilligan to write Jesse as dying at the end of Season 1. But in all cases (even Gilligan’s!), feelings intervened. Walt likes Jesse, as Hank deduces. So do we. And now we’re in the challenging situation of judging Walter as deluded and hypocritical when he stammers that Jesse is a person and not a dog—while also agreeing with Walter.

So this seemingly deadly falling-out between the two central characters hurts more than I expected it to. But for much of this episode, I found myself feeling somehow off balance—which at first I chalked up to flaws in the hour’s writing and direction, but now I think may have been the intended reaction. In ways large and small, the show tonight baited and switched its audience, thereby underlining how much misunderstandings and the illusion of free will drove the plot action.

The dumbest but most exemplary moment of what I’m talking about came in the Schrader residence, when Marie asks Hank whether Jesse’s presence is a bad thing for Walt. “Very,” Hank says, to which Marie, badassedly, says she’ll go heat up some lasagna. A lowrider-rap beat starts playing, and for a second I was about to laugh—were we going to get a hip-hop montage of Marie, Hank, and Jesse collaborating on revenge? But no: “Phone’s ringing,” Marie says, before Hank checks his pocket only to realize it’s Jesse’s burner playing the beat. A joke on the audience? It felt like one to me. But our disorientation came at the same time as the characters’, which is fun.

The more significant disorientation came from the fact that the episode was bisected into halves covering the same period of time but from different points of view. First, we pick up at the previous cliffhanger from Walt’s eyes. What happened to Jesse? It actually seemed like the show meant to answer this question at the end of the cold open, when Walt finds that compact disc on Saul’s dashboard. Was I the only one who assumed the disc was Walt’s “confession” tape, left by Hank as a fuck-you token after picking up Jesse? I can’t imagine the show’s meticulous writers didn’t expect some people would think that. Later, when the second half of the episode switches to Jesse’s POV, we learn that Hank did in fact intervene (aren’t you proud at me for not gloating about my insanely brilliant prediction last week?), but that the CD was just a cocaine-snorting surface. So the viewer’s left untangling a whole web of false impressions.

I could keep listing moments like that, but what’s important is how those moments echoed what the characters were going through. Marie’s therapy session—the event bisecting the episode—got at the shared emotions most plainly: the confusion, the feeling of betrayal, the futile sense that all could somehow still be set right. “We all lead double lives to some extent, right?” asks the analyst, echoing the theme that defined Breaking Bad’s early seasons. “Not like him,” Marie says, and later, “If I hadn't been such an idiotic stupid idiot, I could have, we could have …” She doesn’t finish, because there’s nothing—she couldn’t have done anything, because she didn’t understand what was happening.

The interplay among knowledge, choice, and inevitability has kicked off the show’s central rivalry now. Walt, unable to see the depths of Jesse’s anger, believes he can patch things up with a chat. Jesse, unable to see the depth of Walt’s affection for him (artificially constructed as it may be to foster Walt’s illusion of himself as still human), believes he’s in a kill-or-be-killed situation. Walt mistakes an abandoned gas can for a change of heart; Jesse mistakes a random bald guy (Breaking Bad’s go-to phenotype of menace) for a hit man. It’s this cosmically fated ignorance that has driven us toward tragedy as surely as it did in Romeo and Juliet or Oedipus Rex. That’s why, halfway through the final stretch of episodes, the ending promises to be bleaker than ever.

Um, cheer me up, guys?


Heller: Try to remember the happy times, Spencer.

You're right about Walt and Jesse's relationship. It's a classic tragedy, down to the ironic mix-up that sets both toward what's almost certain to be a doomed end. Despite its uncharacteristic chronology, "Rabid Dog" sticks to that goal through and through. The episode exists to sever, at long last, the ties between Jesse and Walt. I'm just wondering why it felt so clumsy to watch.

Before I gripe, I should explain that I'm bothered by the execution of the episode, not the ideas it presents. The conflicted messages about murder—how Walt refuses to kill Jesse, how Skyler realizes he has no choice, how Marie fantasizes about killing Walt, how Hank is willing to sacrifice Jesse to catch Walt—speak to one of the most difficult questions Breaking Bad asks: What kind of transformation do people need to go through before they can murder? It's a sly inversion to turn Walt, that goateed bastion of immorality, into the lone voice against killing here. He's still delusional, though. If anyone else tried to burn down his house, he'd send them on slow boat to Belize without a second thought. Everything Walt's built—the only reason he's still alive and not sitting in prison—comes down to his reliance on cold intellect. His feelings for Jesse short-circuit that logic. I think he really did believe that he could "talk" to Jesse and "fix" their relationship, not only because he's done so in the past, but also because he refuses to see that this relationship is over. That's what makes the last line of this episode so heartbreaking. Walt has condemned himself to what happens next.

Okay, now I'll grumble. The problem with "Rabid Dog" is the same problem that's been lingering all season. It all comes down to the plausibility of character decisions. Why won't Hank just take Jesse to the DEA? I understood why he didn't want to tell his bosses about Walt. With Jesse in his custody, though, he doesn't have a choice, right? Nope. Instead, we're expected to believe that Saul has sources inside "the system" that will know the minute Jesse gets booked—and more important, will somehow track down the DEA safehouse where he'd stay. Um, isn't safety the entire point of a safehouse? I don't resent Sam Catlin for concocting an excuse to keep Jesse on the streets, but I think this excuse needs to be rooted in what we already know about these characters. Hank didn't want to tell the DEA about Walt because Hank is an arrogant, emotionally fragile man who remembers what happened to his former boss George Merkert. Hank fears losing his job and the identity that comes with it. That makes sense to me. A compromised safehouse doesn't.

Of course, my complaint comes with the usual caveat: I trust these writers, and I still believe the end of this story will be as excellent as the rest has been. I just hope we don't see this sort of lazy writing again. What do you think, Gould? Did the DEA thing bother you, too?


Gould: Amen.
 
I think the writers may be deliberately fudging some of these plot issues at this point. In what terms, for example, did Hank recruit Steve Gomez into his plan to leverage Jesse against Walt? We don't really know. To an extent, this acceleration can work. It can convey a feeling that things are now moving so quickly in this story that we don't have time to see all the turns. But it also puts a burden on the writers to make these fast micro-twistsfeel plausible, even—or especially—when we can't see everything that's determined them.
 
The warp drive toward the end may be putting a comparable strain on our characters, too. On the one hand, I can't imagine any actor more convincingly numbing Skyler, and then more convincingly showing her insist like a demon that Walt should murder someone, than Anna Gunn did. (Which, to Chris's point about one of the most difficult questions Breaking Bad asks, is itself a kind of murder.) On the other hand, ... really?! Also: Would Hank truly commit the failures of cool he's committed in his management of his golden new informant? Would he truly be so cynical about the prospect of Jesse getting killed in the course of working for him—especially after the genuine remorse Hank went through after beating Jesse up back in Season 3? And what about Jesse himself? How much sense does his transformation make from a subtly evolving character into a zoned-out creature of guilt, and from there into a hyper-intuitive, Will Graham-like monster seer in a moment of epiphany? These people are all changing so quickly; it's a testament to the writers that Breaking Bad's characters still feel as credible as they do.
 
Walt, especially.
 
As the second half of this last season got underway, Spencer, Chris, and I began by asking whether this show was really about Walter White anymore. It seemed briefly as though it might not be. When Hank discovered that Walt is Heisenberg, Walt was the least disoriented of anyone—and reacted to the beginning of the end accordingly, with ruthless pragmatism. So as everyone around him freaked out, emoting while he calculated, Walt temporarily receded as a focal character.
 
But the arc of Season 5, Part II, now seems to be laying bare in a very full and meticulous way the inevitable logic of Walt's transformation as a person. Notice that there wasn't one scene in this week's episode when Walt was speaking with a member of his family—they for whom he has ostensibly been doing all of this from the start—and wasn't completely bullshitting them. Really, what is there left for non-Heisenberg Walt?Anything authentic in his relationship with his wife is dead. Anything authentic in his relationship with his son is dead. His daughter will never know him. Walt doesn't seem to know this yet, but his old self has simply not survived in the world Heisenberg has created.
 
In a pivotal scene this week, Walt stammers, as Spencer puts it, that "Jesse isn't just some rabid dog. This is a person." Walt would have believed that. But now he can only watch himself, in dying anguish, as Heisenberg ignores him and orders Jesse's death.
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