Monday, 29 August 2011

The Wrong Guy: Breaking Bad review


Breaking Bad: 'Problem Dog'

I've read a lot of people complaining about this season of Breaking Bad, saying that nothing is happening and the plot arc doesn't seem to be going anywhere. I wouldn't want to dismiss those concerns out of hand - on the latter score, there's a fair point to be made that the previous few episodes have mostly focused on showing Walt's frustration manifesting itself in various ways without anything particularly significant coming of it yet - but I wonder whether those claiming that nothing has been happening have seen the programme before, or are at least aware that one of its principal pleasures is the slow-build. It's even vaguely ironic, in a way, since when I was reviewing the first season a while back, my main fear was that the stories would be moving too fast and forgetting to stop for breath every now and then. Watching the pilot again recently, the difference in pace between then and now is remarkable.

For those who haven't been happy with how things has unfolded thus far, 'Problem Dog' roughly marks (no pun intended) the centre point of the season, when Bad has previously chosen to light the fuse carefully prepared by previous episodes. The programme shares more in common in that respect with Gustavo Frings than its anti-hero Walter White: Fring is methodical, calculating and exact, but when the time comes, he strikes out quickly and to phenomenal effect. Think the box cutter, or the coup against the cartel. The series is much the same: slowly moving the pieces to where they need to be, before setting them into sudden, violent conflict. The battle for supremacy between Gus and Walt has been the fuel keeping this season moving, and last night's episode might not have set it alight just yet, but the matches are most certainly out.
One of the reasons I suspect that many viewers have felt the season hasn't really been going anywhere so far is because the main characters have all been held in a position of stalemate, and the drama has come through their attempts to come to terms with what it means to be stuck in that rut and working out what it will take to break out of it. Circumstances prevent Walt and Gus from striking at each other, no matter how much they would like to. Skylar has become an accomplice in her husband's criminal work to protect her family, even though she knows it is turning her into the bad guy figure (in the eyes of the law and her son) that so appals her. Jesse is figuratively paralysed by guilt over his assassination of Gale, whilst Hank is literally paralysed by injuries sustained in the line of duty.

In their own way, each has been fighting for room to manoeuvre. Walt has consistently been making his own situation worse through ill-considered choices, while Gus has been gradually tweaking conditions in his favour by chipping away at Walt's sanity and defences, while trying to win Jesse for himself. But while those two were too busy watching each other, other players have been finding their place as well. Gus may be using Jesse to get to Walt, but has also been giving him the confidence and self-belief to start confronting his demons. He may be unlikely to win the game himself, in the sense of taking over the dominant position of power, but he could well prove the deciding factor for the winner and gain a new sense of purpose for himself by doing so. Hank, meanwhile, has been steadily recovering in the background, rejuvenated in body and spirit by a return to the work he loves and new leads in the Heisenberg case - spurred on by what may either be Walter White's biggest blunder or an accidental blessing.

Yet to continue the metaphor I start before the jump, slightly clunkily in order to fit the header image, each of them has an obstacle they need to overcome before the fuse can finally be lit for what promises to be an explosive confrontation. In the scene that gave the episode its title, Jesse verbalised this idea through his 'problem dog' story in therapy, none too subtly trying to confess his sins in the hope that the judgment of others would relieve him of responsibility. Each character has a 'problem dog' of their own, something which isn't biting them or doing anything in particular to make their lives any worse, but whose simple existence has to be extinguished just because it is there.

Jesse's dog is guilt, and his inability to overcome it. It hasn't caused him any direct physical damage, but has caught him in a place he doesn't want to be and can't find a way out. As was made clear by his story to the meth recovery group, he doesn't even know if he should be rid of it: after all, the one thing he's clinging onto is that his suffering proves that he's still human. He is facing his problem, whether in therapy or a video game form (a strikingly lit scene, but needlessly blunt in showing what was obvious from implication), even if he's not quite sure how to deal with it yet. Everyone around him, from the group to Walt, is in denial - what they call acceptance really amounts to them telling themselves that their being ready to talk about it somehow cancels out all immorality and shame - and though it may be painful, something inside him refuses to allow him to cross the line that Walter vanished over so long ago. 

He's beginning to assert himself, though, and perhaps more confidently than ever. He offhandedly agrees to Walt's ever-manipulative proposition, but does not go through with it despite two opportunities that a more foolhardy, emotionally-numb Jesse might have taken. He is starting to value himself, now ready to resist throwing everything away for two men who have caused him nothing but suffering. He's growing up and seeing longer term now - a fresh piece of ingenious Pinkman thinking comes in him disguising the ricin in a cigarette, then separating it from the rest of the pack in what Walt misunderstands as a mistake - which means that though still in the habit of taking orders and not yet resolved enough of his problem dog to understand the potential waiting in freedom, he is becoming ever more aware of the games that Walt and Gus are trying to play him in.

Walt's problem dog should be pretty obvious by now: himself. He has done nothing but dig himself deeper into his hole this season through a lack of foresight and overabundance of pride, and is still at it. Rather than take Walt Jr's car back to the dealership, he takes it for a spin (literally) around a parking lot and ends up destroying it, costing him fifty grand and avoiding arrest only thanks to the heroic return of the great Saul Goodman. His plan for dealing with Gus is similarly ill-conceived, assuming that everyone will let it slide rather than retaliate against a suspicious situation (is Mike really the type to just sit on his suspicions? Has Gus shown any signs of poor health that would justify a sudden heart attack?) and that Jesse will go through with it because he's Jesse, and Walt can't see him as anything other than a footsoldier to be sacrificed for his own gain. That's to say nothing of it being yet another plot involving ricin, which has failed Walt twice before - by my count - making a neat symbol for his inability to do anything other than keep repeating his old mistakes.

Previous episodes would suggest that Walt was Gus' problem dog too, but perhaps not. After all, Gus may not be happy at his cook's actions, but there has been little sign of any significant danger yet that has not been easily controlled and contained. The cartel is a more pressing candidate, a constant thorn in his side even though they haven't done anything yet but fire warning shots. Like Jesse's problem dog metaphor, they aren't biting or particularly getting in the way, but they are a nuisance, something out of place and out of control. Yet more specifically, Gus' dog may be the cartel's question, the exact nature of which we do not yet know. It's a question apparently worth over $50m and which has clearly been hanging in the air for some time, even if Gus doesn't know the answer and, while we know that it will come down to 'yes' or 'no', the question remains a mystery to us.

The one person well on their way to conquering their problem dog and thus making genuine progress is Hank. His mental and physical paralysis is almost fully conquered, with him graduating in the space of an episode from having a hunch about a vegan at a chicken restaurant to putting a compelling case to the DEA that may bring down the biggest meth operation north of the border, as well as from sitting down to a zimmerframe and then a walking stick. His visit to Los Pollos Hermanos was a thrilling piece of trickery that showed the extent to which he has the edge on Gus - what to make of the offer to Walt Jr though? Just a little joke, or foreshadowing for either Hank or Walt to to put the boy to good use at last? - and is moving in ways which the other major players are blind to. As for Skylar, who only got two scenes this episode, her dog seems to be her inability to see how little control of her situation she really has, with a recurring motif this season being her constantly falling short of her intended outcome despite extensive preparations.

Whilst the episodes preceding 'Problem Dog' haven't exactly been action-packed, they have shown Breaking Bad's usual knack for putting a number of small pieces in play, ready to collide for a spectacular end. Think of how many tiny details built up to crash that plane over Albuquerque, or lock Walt and Gus in their Cold War? This season has so far been about exposing the main players' strengths and weaknesses, their focus and their blind spots, ahead of a conflict that will from now only be getting closer and closer.

PS: You will notice that I have gone this entire article without doing a 'who let the dogs out', 'dog days', or 'let slip the dogs of war' joke. That's some Sirius restraint right there.


1 comment:

W. I. Boucher said...

Another well thought out analysis of an episode, Xander. I will even forgive your final pun Siriusly I will. Yes the problem dog was the star of this episode.

I see part of the problem some have is the game has changed. They are no longer street level criminals. They are now in the world of professionals playing a bigger game. One thing high stakes players hate is unforeseen problems which interfere with the smooth operation of the money making operation. If there is drama there someone is not doing their job and are up for termination. Their idea of Human Resource management might be more painful than at Walmart.