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TV Review: Breaking Bad – “Problem Dog”

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The title of this week’s Breaking Bad is “Problem Dog.” This refers to Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) pretending that Gale (David Costabile) is a dog when telling the story of how Jesse kills him, which he does to get issues off of his chest at his Narcotics Anonymous group.

Jesse is torn, because Walt (Bryan Cranston) asks him to kill their boss, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), which he agrees to do. But later, he passes up two opportunities to carry out the plot. It might be wise for Jesse to hurry up and complete the assignment, considering that Hank (Dean Norris) now seems to suspect Gus of heading a drug organization. If Hank catches Gus, it could expose Walt and Jesse.

Breaking Bad is a slow burn show that features long, powerful scenes, rather than lots of action. It gives the viewers a chance to really dwell on the characters, and what they are going through. It’s a brave concept for television, and not one seen a lot. For it to work, the actors must be top notch. Luckily for Breaking Bad, it features Emmy winners Cranston and Paul. Not to mention, Norris deserves an Emmy, and has been robbed of nomination multiple times. The same might be said for Esposito. So there are a lot of very clear voices making Breaking Bad an absolute must-see show.

“Problem Dog” gives Jesse many chances to shine. Dealing with grief and guilt for killing Gale, Jesse spends much of his time with drugs and at parties, trying to forget that he’s a murderer. Then Gus sends Mike (Jonathan Banks) to pull Jesse out of his downward spiral by making him look like a hero in a staged robbery. This works, giving Jesse purpose as muscle for Gus. However. Although that emotional journey is apparent in prior episodes, “Problem Dog” really lets Paul breathe life into Jesse’s whole mental state, and it works brilliantly.

The aforementioned support group meeting is a powerful scene, but it’s the culmination a journey, not its starting point. First, we see Jesse playing a violent video game, with Gale’s visage flashing into it. This is not social commentary on how video games can cause bad actions, but rather, more like a PTSD flashback situation. Then Jesse feels accepted when protecting Gus, so he doesn’t poison him like Jesse promises Walt he will do. The meeting is Jesse’s explosion of his pent up thoughts and feelings, as the earlier scenes allude to, and really explores the character in a very moving way. Killing someone is not as easy as it seems on television. But Jesse might be able to live with himself for it. The question is, is he willing to do it again?

Will Jesse kill Gus? This is a thought ripe for fan debate. Gus is playing a naive Jesse, pure and simple, but Jesse doesn’t know that. Jesse now has self-worth and purpose, which pulls him out of the dark place he is in. Yet, Jesse does seem convinced by Walt’s sales pitch that whatever Gus does now doesn’t make up for the horrible things that he had done before.

But then Jesse hesitates to take out Gus. Jesse is not being weak willed and easily manipulated, as much as he might appear to be during some points of “Problem Dog.” Instead, he is taking in all the information before he makes a decision. At this point, while the structure of the series points to Jesse eventually trying to murder Gus, likely after lies are exposed, or Jesse’s life is in jeopardy, it could still possibly go the other way. Viewers will just have to wait and see.

As Jesse moves towards stability, pulling himself away from reckless action, and working on a major decision, Walt goes in the opposite direction, his behavior getting more and more reckless, perfectly exemplified by the way he torches a car in “Problem Dog.” Walt doesn’t even try to be discrete, causing the vehicle to explode, and calling a taxi to come and get him from the scene. Sure, Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is able to negotiate down to only a fine, and keep Walt’s record clean, but what is Walt thinking? And, feeling indestructible, he doesn’t even care that he got in trouble. That’s dangerous. It seems, as Skyler (Anna Gunn) earlier accuses him, he wants to get caught. Why else commit such a blatant act of destruction? The money lost may not be much of an issue, but the attention surely is a big risk.

On a semi-related note, why is Skyler asked to launder a bunch of fifty dollar bills? Saul did encourage other investments than the car wash, but as someone experienced in illicit activity, wouldn’t Saul realize that the large bills would be difficult to do something with? Wouldn’t he be helping with a solution, rather than leaving it in Skyler’s lap? Saul doesn’t want to get caught, and while Skyler does take over this part of the operation, it would be in the lawyer’s best interest to help out as much as he possibly can in the illegal scheme.

Hank is a brilliant character, who isn’t very interesting when sulking in bed, collecting minerals. Thankfully, the super detective is not only on his feet again in “Problem Dog,” rapidly improving his walking ability, but also already hot on Gus’s trail as a meth kingpin. This is a fascinating development for Breaking Bad, and it’s now only a matter of time until Hank blows the whistle.

Hank’s extended spiel to his former co-workers in “Problem Dog” is exhilarating and suspenseful. Norris gets a chance to deliver amazing lines once more, as the character almost instantly recovers from being a drag on the series to once more mattering in a very big way.

How much does Gus continue to be important? From his meeting this week, it’s obvious that Gus is not the biggest fish in the pond. With some very, very bad men wanting to knock him out of business, will it even matter if Hank catches him? Will Hank catch him in time to save his life, perhaps? Or will Jesse kill Gus first, opening up the opportunity for these new villains to take over the operation, or for Hank to reach another dead end? It doesn’t appear that Jesse hesitates in killing Gus because he is afraid of someone else taking over, so a reckless action by the addict could end up blowing up in everyone’s faces.

Do not miss Breaking Bad, Sunday nights at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome is the creator and writer of It's All Been Done Radio Hour, a modern scripted live comedy show and podcast in the style of old-timey radio serials, and the founder of the Columbus-based entertainment network, IABDPresents. He is also the Chief Television Critic for Seat42F.com and a long-time contributor for Blogcritics. Plus, he works fiction into his space time. Visit http://iabdpresents.com for more of his work.
  • terese macomber

    Is it me or does Jesse look and awful lot like Lucky Spencer on General Hospital. Are they related?

  • G. Drug

    What a thorough and well-written review. I liked everything in it minus this one part:

    “Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is able to negotiate down to only a fine, and keep Walt’s record clean, but what is Walt thinking? And, feeling indestructible, he doesn’t even care that he got in trouble. That’s dangerous. It seems, as Skyler (Anna Gunn) earlier accuses him, he wants to get caught. Why else commit such a blatant act of destruction? The money lost may not be much of an issue, but the attention surely is a big risk.”

    I don’t feel the reckless behavior of the frazzled Walt is mostly due to his subconscious cry for help, even though, to a degree, it may be. What I think is the culprit is Walt’s ego. Quite a while ago, Walt stopped seeing the securing of his family as the sole reason for doing what he does. In his undertaking, he’s also started to see a way to stop, for the first time in his life, to be a rabbit, and become a wolf. The whole thing’s become about his feeling of self-worth as much as about his family’s security. Or even more about the first, now that he’s already secured his family with millions of dollars. After having taken care of his basic human need, of his survival (through securing the sound future of his family), Walt would now on top of that like to be a happy man. Which he cannot be if he doesn’t feel good about himself. And, like the huge majority of people, he can’t feel good about himself if others see him e.g. as being meek, a nice guy who obeys and abides, a person with no control caught in a maelstrom of events, a victim, an underdog. Which is exactly how his wife saw him—that is until in the prior episode he “set her straight with some facts” in that one powerful scene: “I am not in danger, Skyler, I AM the danger!”, meaning, “I’m not controlled, I control.” Yeah, whatever. Skyler ends up totally controlling him when she order the new car be returned. Damnit, she still doesn’t get it. I AM IN CONTROL! I’m the dude! Just watch me blow this stupid car! Ka-boom! Who’s in control now? Who’s a mouse now! Torching that car made Walt feel very, very good about himself. He doesn’t really want to get caught; he’s on a quest of becoming a “big guy” for the first time in his nerdy life. Yeah, he’s acting like a teenager. That’s what egos sometimes do to people.

  • G. Drug

    The same explanation holds for Walt’s making Hank hang on to his murder case. Yes, the screenwriters made Skyler throw in a speculation about a subconscious desire to get caught. That may mean that even the screenwriters mean to paint Walt’s actions in such hues (In which case, they’d be simply wrong, to my opinion). But I think they’re smarter than that.

  • G. Drug – Thanks for the insightful comments! You are definitely right that ego plays a big part of it. Walt has gone through a personality transformation, and has become addicted to the feeling of power. I still think the old Walt is somewhere inside and may want to get caught, but he definitely has some new feelings that are much more noticeable. Anyway it shakes down, it’s a fascinating character study!

  • G. Drug

    Yes, very fascinating and enthralling. Little wonder people got so deeply attached to the series. As far as the riding the control train vs. cry for help goes, I’d say there were noticeable manifestations of both Walt’s feelings; it just depended on how the viewer interpreted it. Both interpretations are valid, and no less so the variant that encompasses both feelings.

    The episode #8, though, seems intent on going the control way. Walt all but loses it when Hank closes in on Gus, plus the episode features a scene (the one in the hospital waiting room) that literally spells out control. Here’s its transcript:

    Patient: So for me, that’s been the biggest wake-up call – letting go, giving up control. It’s like they say – you know, man plans, and God laughs.

    Walt: That is such bullshit.

    P: Excuse me?

    W: Never give up control. Live life on your own terms.

    P: Yeah. No. I get what you’re saying. But… But, uh, cancer’s cancer, so…

    W: Oh, to hell with your cancer. I’ve been living with cancer for the better part of a year. Right from the start, it’s a death sentence. It’s what they keep telling me. Well, guess what. Every life comes
    with a death sentence. So every few months, I come in here for my regular scan, knowing full well that one of these times – hell, maybe even today – I’m going to hear some bad news. But until then, who’s in charge? Me.

    It’s almost as if the screenwriters read your review and the comments and made their decision, haha…

    Albeit, they didn’t address the control issue quite in terms of getting high on ego. No, they imbued Walt’s control speech with elated themes of defiant life-affirmation in the face of death, seizing the day (revisited as “Carpe diem.” line later in the episode) and also with (a controversial, but certainly not immature like a mere ego trip would be) idea of ethical subjectivism. So, they didn’t outright reproach Walt like I sort of did in my first comment, but left it to the viewers to make their own judgements of Walt’s way of thinking.