Any mention of Old Yeller casts an immediate shadow of grief. It’s American short-hand for coming-of-age tragedy, for undeniable, inescapable sadness. And this week’s Breaking Bad doubled down on that sadness by naming the episode “Rabid Dog,” conjuring the devastating season four episode “Problem Dog,” in which a dazed Jesse confesses to a support group that he killed Gale, only he tells them it was a “problem dog” that he killed. It’s a wrenching scene that reminds the audience yet again that Jesse has a conscience. It’s a conscience that doesn’t prevent him from committing horrible crimes, but it does make him feel awful about them. Saul’s line a few weeks ago about Mike’s “trip to Belize” was a silly little euphemism, but this week’s metaphor is far more telling. “Old Yeller was the best, most loyal dog that ever was,” Saul tells Walt, trying to convince him to have Jesse killed. “I mean, everybody loved that mutt. But one day he showed up rabid, and little Timmy, for Old Yeller’s own sake, had to, uh, well, I mean, you saw the movie.”
Walt had seen the movie.
But an Old Yeller analogy clearly and almost ostentatiously does not apply here. And the ways in which it does not apply illuminate how the characters see themselves and each other.
First, Jesse hasn’t changed. Not rabies-level changed, anyway: Yes, since he teamed up with Mr. White, his sense of self-worth has cycled through some highs and lows, but there hasn’t been an event in which Jesse was notably, permanently different afterwards. He’s had huge moments, certainly, and has had several breakdowns and meltdowns, screaming and crying fights. He’s gone on benders and has gotten clean and gone around and around through relapse and recovery. He has worn many hooded sweatshirts. Maybe Saul does think Jesse has made some kind of binary, never-be-the-same-again shift. But Saul doesn’t know Jesse as well as Walt does, and he certainly doesn’t know Jesse as well as we in the audience do. Jesse is how Jesse has always been. He’s a little lost, a little scared, a little too hungry for warmth, and totally unsure when to trust his own instincts and when to trust those of others. He blew off the vacuum repairman just like he never followed through on his dream to go to New Zealand. Jesse cooperating with Hank is not so different than him working under Mike or even cooking alongside Walt: Are you older and wiser? Are you in a position of authority? Is there a sense that you can protect me? Great — I’m yours.
Second, Old Yeller is sad because Travis (not Timmy, as Saul says), you know, really loves his dog. And it’s still not clear if Walt really loves Jesse, if he’s even capable of still really loving anyone or anything. What makes Old Yeller tragic isn’t just that a dog dies (though, Christ, is that ever sad); it’s the agony that Travis experiences, knowing what he has to do. If Walt kills Jesse, you better believe I’ll be sobbing. But those won’t be tears for Walt.
Saul suggests that Walt kill Jesse “for Old Yeller’s own sake,” but Skyler uses a different tactic. “What’s one more?” she asks, demonstrating a scary ability to make peace with Walt’s sins. So would he be killing Jesse for Jesse’s sake? Or for his own sake? That’s been one of the fundamental tensions of Breaking Bad since the pilot: Is Walt doing this — all of this — for his family? Or is he doing it for himself? He claims to be making meth just to make enough money to leave his family with a nest egg when he dies. But we’ve seen Walt, over and over, recommit to the drug world. We’ve seen him climb the equivalent of the corporate ladder. We’ve seen him revel in the opportunities to out-smart his foes. Walt tells Skyler, pleads with her, that he’s done all these things with her and the kids in mind. Somehow, though, that doesn’t feel like being taken care of.
Old Yeller is, in part, a movie about how strenuous adulthood is, how devastating it can be to do the right thing. Travis is showing his crazed dog compassion, since the animal is clearly suffering. The boy is conscious of the public safety concern about rabid animals, since Old Yeller has already lashed out at Travis’s brother. And Travis really grasps the importance of what he’s doing; he knows putting the dog down is the right thing to do and that he ought to be the one to do it. Let’s see … compassionate, concerned for public safety, and able to comprehend personal responsibility. Those are not Walter White attributes. Saul can’t possibly think they are; Skyler knows they aren’t; Jesse knows they aren’t; Hank and Marie sure know they aren’t. The only person left who might think of Walt in those terms is Walt Jr.
This brings us to the most important part of the Old Yeller contrast: That’s a story that relies on a tremendous amount of tenderness. And Breaking Bad is one of the least tender shows of all time. We almost never see any tenderness whatsoever. No one has a pet on Breaking Bad. We don’t see Walt scritchy-scritch a cat’s ears to demonstrate his softer side. We don’t see the goofy fun of his early relationship with Skyler; by the time we meet them, they seem trapped in the benign lovelessness of middle-aged, middle-class woes. The way Jesse shows his little brother he loves him is by vowing never to come home again. Baby Holly is either a minor nuisance or a helpful plot point, and even when we see Walt take care of her, there he is showing her his stacks of money. That’s not tenderness, that’s bragging. To a baby. Walt Jr. serves mostly as a reflection of how Walt Sr. feels about himself: When he’s sick and sad, there he is helping Walt Jr. into and out of a pair of jeans at a store, while cruel jerks stand outside the dressing room and mock them. When Walt Sr.’s feeling pretty good about being a murdering drug lord, he buys himself and his son matching muscle cars. Sure, Hank and Marie love each other, but theirs is a brash love, a bickering love. Jesse and Jane’s ostensible sweetness was just a cover for the fact that they were enabling and exacerbating each other’s addictions. Maybe the only real, genuine sweetness the show has ever portrayed is between Mike and his granddaughter.
And “Rabid Dog” emphasized just how foreign gentleness is to the BB world. As Jesse slumped in the front seat of Hank’s car, it looked for a moment like Hank was about to embrace him, to comfort him. Instead, he reached over and buckled Jesse’s seatbelt — a gesture that was so paternal and protective it took my breath away. But then, at the end of the episode, Hank made it clear that he doesn’t really care what happens to Jesse. “What kid?” he asks his partner. “You mean the junkie murderer who’s dribbling all over my bathroom floor? If he gets killed, we get it all on tape.” He wasn’t buckling Jesse in to protect Jesse. He was buckling Jesse in to protect himself in building his case against Walt.
Maybe Walt really is going to kill Jesse. Maybe that call at the end to Todd’s uncle is to put a hit out on the weepy Mr. Pinkman. Maybe Walt will kill a whole bunch more people, too, with that vial of ricin that’s still burning a hole in his outlet. But when he does, it won’t be Old Yeller style, purposeful but tragic. It’ll be Walter White style, self-serving and cold.