Tuesday, 30 August 2011

BREAKING BAD, 4.7 - "Problem Dog"

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Time to pick a side, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Opening with a scene showing Jesse's still traumatized by killing Gale, who appears in his mind's eye while playing a violent first-person shooter, this episode was all about seeing where Jesse's loyalty lies. Does he side with partner-in-crime Walt (Bryan Cranston), the man who got him into all this mess and rarely treats him like an equal? Or does he ally himself with Gus (Giancarlo Esposita), who may be a ruthless drug baron, but has apparently offered him a position of respect as Mike's (Jonathan Banks) accomplice? There isn't really much of a choice, of course, which is perhaps this episode's biggest failing. After recent scenes that seemed to show Jesse edging away from Walt to embrace his role as Mike's protégé, he was surprisingly quick to agree to kill Gale for Walt...

It's notable how much of season 4 hasn't actually focused on Walt, which is probably by design. He's being kept at arm's length by Gus, and this is echoed in how much screentime has instead been given to Jesse, Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Hank (Dean Norris). Walt's being steered around by other influences in his life; here forced to return the Challenger he bought his son, and protesting by driving it maniacally in an empty parking lot before torching it and getting a taxi home. A moment of recklessness that under-appreciated Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is forced to clean-up for his troublesome client.

The crux of "Problem Dog" was Walt's plan to kill Gus via Jesse, whose secondary job occasionally gets him close to their furtive boss. After creating a vial of ricin in the Superlab (right under Gus's nose), Walt found it unexpectedly easy to convince Jesse to kill for him again—perhaps because he reminded Jesse of the terrible things Gus has gone (butchering Victor, lying about targeting children in the drug war), or Jesse's beginning to sense that he's being hoodwinked by Gus and Mike. As I said, I think Jesse's decision to help Walt was slightly too straightforward, as I thought the story was going to send Jesse over to the dark side more completely, but maybe this is a sign the writers have something better in store.

Breaking Bad's no stranger to tense scenes, and the moment Jesse found himself in a position to poison Gus's coffee with the ricin was expertly done. The whole mood of the scene brilliantly captured the fear and now-or-never thoughts swirling through Jesse's head, as he stood over the coffee-maker, fingers trembling for the vial of ricin hidden in some cigarettes. It was especially great how we never saw if Jesse had spiked the coffee, even when Gus took a sip during a meeting with the drug cartel—here represented by Gaff (Maurice Compte), the hijacker of the Los Pollos Hermandos truck last week. But Jesse had indeed missed a brilliant opportunity, either through fear of recrimination or simply because he can't bring himself to murder again. Probably both.

Speaking of the drug cartel meeting at Gus's factory farm, that threw up some tantalizing clues about the situation between Gus and his rivals. They were offered a cool $50 million to stop muscling in on his operation and stealing blue-meth, but this was flatly refused and Gus was instead asked if his non-negotiable answer to their demand is "yes" or "no". We never heard what their demand was, so it must be something important. Is it possible the cartel want meth-cook "Heisenberg" for themselves? If so, what would Gus's response be to that? We don't know yet, so theories are all we have.

Aaron Paul's been tremendous on this show, and was given another Emmy-baiting scene at his N.A meeting here. A moment where Jesse was able to bare his soul about murdering Gus, by talking about the event as if Gus was a "problem dog" he killed, and it was excellent. Jesse is like a grenade in these rather staid meetings; here accepting the ire of another group member who was disgusted by his animal cruelty (pretty much the only punishment he's received for his crime), and the inane policy of acceptance and forgiveness the group's leader Jere (Jere Burns) promotes. His meltdown in that circle was itself a form of self-punishment, perhaps burning his bridges with the only people who've genuinely wanted to help him. Walt doesn't want to see any harm come to Jesse, and in many ways does see him as a son, but he often only valued their partnership because (a) he needs an ally in this dangerous underworld, and (b) he sometimes needs someone to do his dirty work.

While the episode was mostly concerned with Jesse, we also had two great scenes with Hank this week—whose mobility is progressing as quickly as his one-man investigation into Gale's murder. All he needed was a reason to live, it seems. Here, Hank used a visit the city's Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant with Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to get Gus's fingerprints on a soda cup, while accepting Gus's typically effusive words about his status as a local hero. This all led to the brilliant final scene with Hank presenting his findings to DEA boss Meekert (Michael Shamus Wiles) and partner Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada), which included a link to the Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant and a German conglomerate who produce expensive industrial air-filtration systems that Gale was interested in. It was a particular delight seeing Hank's impressive presentation fail to totally convince his friends, until his trump card was laid on the table: indisputable fingerprint evidence that proves Gus has been in Gale's apartment.

So now Gus has three problems to deal with, and the least of them is Walt and Jesse with their homespun poisoning plot. The drug cartel are likely to make a grab for power, I'm guessing, given that even $50m isn't enough to halt hostilities, and the DEA now have some damning evidence that unassuming Gus Fring could be involved with the biggest meth-lab north of the Mexican border.

I suppose it's feasible Gus could explain why his fingerprints are in Gale's apartment (by claiming they were unlikely friends?), and that the connection between the German conglomerate and his restaurant is coincidence, but that's not going to keep the wolf from the door for long. The DEA now have every reason to investigate and keep tabs on Gus, perhaps even raiding some of the properties he owns. Will they find his secret underground Superlab? Can Walt keep his distance from these events and allow the DEA to investigate and perhaps arrest Gus, or would that lead to his own cover being blown? Maybe it's better to have Gus killed before the DEA collar him, and keep the Superlab safe for himself to use? Would Walt then have to deal with the cartel by himself, or would Mike lend a hand?

There are a lot of balls in the air right now, that's for sure, and this undoubtedly means the second half of season 4's going to make for gripping television. While I loved season 3, it was a year that delivered three huge highs with runs of comparatively routine hours in-between, but season 4's been on an upward curve since the impressive premiere. Hopefully that will keep going until the very end without disruption.


  • The scene where Skyler realized the car wash business is expected to launder $7 million per annum raised a problem I hadn't considered. Is the car wash going to be insufficient, meaning the Whites will need to expand their business interests at some point in the future? Or will Walt and Skyler be forced to keep large quantities of un-laundered money onsite? I wonder if Saul has any thoughts on how to launder $7m? Then again, his idea to buy a beauty parlour was surely even less capable of handling that level of income!
  • Do you think Walt Jr will take Gus up on his offer of work? Would Walt allow that? Would Hank? Is it possible Gus will start using Walt Jr as a way to control Walt, or is that too dangerous?
  • Did you catch the "white" (Walt) and "black" (Gus) symbolism of what Jesse was wearing in scenes?
written & directed by Peter Gould / 28 August 2011 / AMC