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Breaking Bad Recap: Pump Malfunction

Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 12 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

"The moral of the story is, I chose a half-measure when I should have gone all the way," Mike told Walt in season three's "Half-Measures." "I'll never make that mistake again."

As Breaking Bad draws to a close, it seems that Walt, long a full-measures kind of guy, is reverting to half-measures, deciding to spare the lives of the two people who could do him and his empire the most damage: Hank and Jesse. He could have had them killed, and was under great pressure to do so, but he didn't, and now arguably things are just as bad or maybe worse than they would have been if he'd let Heisenberg make the decisions. Why?

That might be the key question to ask about Walt as we savor this final stretch of episodes. It's certainly the key to explaining why I assumed — in last week's heavily commented-upon and argued-about recap — that Jesse was never really bound for Alaska, that it was just a setup to rub him out. As I wrote in an update to last week's recap, "The minute this recap went up, readers began insisting that Walter wouldn't put the hit on Jesse, for one reason or another. I could be wrong in believing he would, but in thinking back over the run of the show, I asked myself how many times I thought Walt would not be capable of a certain kind of treachery, only to see him cleverly and decisively carry it out." ("If there's a first chance with my guy, there's no second," Saul said this week, confirming that it wasn't a hit.) The scene between Jesse, Walt, and Saul in the desert in "Confessions" had a feeling of awful finality, and as I've said elsewhere, I wouldn't have been surprised if that closeup of Jesse's agonized face as he hugged his bad false daddy Walt was the last we saw of him

But that's not how things shook out — and in retrospect I should've realized that the lifted weed was the tipoff of where this plot was headed, so duh, derp — but in half-assed defense of my instincts last week, I'll say that I still believe I called it right, but I made the call a week early.

The final shot of this episode shows Walt on the phone calling up his "good" (i.e. loyally evil) surrogate son Todd and setting up what sounds like a hit on Jesse, who was supposed to meet with Walt for a talk in a crowded plaza, but got paranoid and fled (because of a bald guy lurking near Walt who turned out to be some random dad). Between last week, when he wanted to spare Jesse’s life, and this week, when he appeared to realize he couldn't, Walt went on what screenwriters like to call "a journey." Or maybe it was just a couple of steps. But whatever the moral distance he traversed, the facts are clear: Jesse is threatening the increasingly precarious order that Walt worked so hard to establish. He has to go — and not to Alaska.

"What then?" Saul pressed Walt in the car. "Jesse is just upset about the boy," Walt said, referring to his poisoning of Andrea's son Brock. "I just need to explain to him why that had to happen." "Okay, but say, just for the sake of argument, that the kid's not in the mood for a nuanced discussion of the virtues of child poisoning, and his plans are running more towards stabbing you to death with a pointed stick. In that scenario, then what?" "You have a suggestion?" Walt asked, his face indicating that he already knew what that suggestion would be. "We were wondering if this maybe wasn't an Old Yeller-type situation," Saul said. "You're full of colorful metaphors, aren't you, Saul?" Walt said. "Belize. Old Yeller. You're just brimming with advice. Do not float that idea again."

Saul didn't have to, of course. In the end of "Rabid Dog" — named, of course, for poor Old Yeller, put down by little Timmy — Walt made the phone call to Todd himself.

What's fascinating, though — in this episode as well as the previous three — is Walt's waffling. We're seeing Walter White in most of these scenes, not Heisenberg. Heisenberg wouldn't spare Hank or Jesse, or perhaps even think about it, unless there were good strategic reason. But Walt wants to. During most of season four and the first half of season five, Walt seemed to shed most of his illusions about himself as a snake sheds scales. But now bits and pieces of Walt are back, and they're dictating how he reacts to threats. It's fascinating. Walt  either still thinks that deep down he's more Walt than Heisenberg, or the combination of his empire falling apart and the cancer's return have suddenly made him revert to his pre-Heisenberg state, or want to revert.

And he can't. Everyone knows he can't, except Walt. Walt's explanation of where that gasoline stench in the house came from was one of his most unconvincing arias of deceit. It was especially pathetic following last week's "confession" that Hank was Heisenberg: an extended monologue that was, as I noted last week, the performance of a lifetime. Skyler just stood there with a deadpan-incredulous expression, like Bugs Bunny humoring Daffy Duck, then called him on his b.s. in the hotel. Walt Jr., sensed that it was bull, too, and even though he deduced the wrong "true" story — that his cancer-weakened dad passed out from the fumes — he wasn't having any of it, either. "Can you just please tell the truth?" he said.

The religious imagery I mentioned in my recap of the season opener and in my preview of the finale suggest that Walt does, in fact, feel guilt for what he's done, and unrealistically believes he can still redeem himself, and that deep down he's still a good person. All around him, advisors are pushing full measures, particularly Saul — who has now suggested killing Hank and Jesse — and Skyler, who turned Lady Macbeth on him in the hotel, not because she's worse than Walt, but because she's more pragmatic. And Walt, who has traditionally been willing to travel deeper into Hell than almost anyone, has become uncomfortable with himself, with what he's become.

"Are you telling me he was trying to burn our house down?" Skyler asked Walt. "I am saying that was probably, for a brief moment, his intention, but obviously he changed his mind," Walt replied — a description that doesn't jibe with the rage we saw on Jesse's face as he spread the gas around, or with Walt's own common sense, probably. This, too, is fascinating: Walt is not only denying his own darkest impulses — impulses he'd become increasingly comfortable with — he's denying Jesse's. Why? Because if Walt can convince himself that Jesse doesn't really hate him enough to destroy his house, or worse, then it means that Walt is not really a bad guy, and Jesse's not so mad at Walt that he wants to kill him — that Jesse just lost his mind for a moment, and maybe it's possible to talk him back to reason and get him to realize that Walt's still good at heart.

The pump malfunction monologue, the resistance to the idea of killing Hank (because he's family) or Jesse (because he's practically family), the moral pretzels Walt twists himself into to justify poisoning Brock, the determination to put the best possible face on Jesse's desire to burn down Walter's home, all point to a man whose guilt has returned along with his cancer. These are all signs of remorse and deep self-loathing. And they're not fake. They're very real. In fact they might be the most authentically human impulses Walt has shown us in a while. A reader pointed out recently that every time Walter crosses a line you hope he won't cross, there's always an aspect of compulsion, as if he's in the grip of demons, or an illness: not every time, but when he does something that he knows can't be excused as "simply business," such as letting Jane choke on her own vomit or shooting Mike in the weeds. The conflict between Walter White and Heisenberg is never more vividly expressed than in those moments. I am starting to think that this season is in fact an extended version of one of those moments — and that in the end he'll go full Heisenberg, or revert to Walter White, only to realize that Walter White is as impotent as he ever was, and that it's just too late.

"What, exactly, are you saying?" Walt asks Skyler in the hotel, already know what she's telling him to do: kill Jesse.

"We've come this far," she says. "For us. What's one more?"

As the title suggests, "Rabid Dog" is Jesse's episode — or at the very least, it's about the relationship between Walt and Jesse, and their feelings about each other, and Jesse's emotional implosion as he comes to terms with how deeply his association with Walter White has corrupted him. Saul describes Jesse as a rabid dog who has to be put down for his own good, but Jesse surely feels the same way about Walt — and the rabies metaphor actually fits Walt better than it does Jesse.  If anybody is little Timmy in this scenario, it's Jesse. If anyone's figuratively rabid, it's Walt.

Rabies is Latin for "madness", which is of a piece with the MacBeth parallels in this episode: a queen urging a waffling king to embrace his inner darkness; the gas smell lingering in the house like the bloodstains on Macbeth hands; the protagonist's mounting despair at the realization that he can't go back to a state of relative innocence. ("Will all the water in the ocean wash this blood from my hands? No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red." — Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2.) Maybe Jesse will turn out to be this drama's version of Macduff, a good man restoring moral balance. We'll see.

In the meantime, we have to watch Jesse suffer. And he is suffering. There's no end to his suffering. Every time he turns around, things get worse for him. Hooking up with Walter White was the worst mistake he's ever made, and he's been rejecting outward signs of his association with Walter, including the cash he amassed by working for him, which he tossed from a car window a la Robin Hood.  

Written and directed by Sam Caitlin — who wrote, cowrote, and/or directed some of the show's most memorable episodes — "Rabid Dog" has one of the most audacious structures in the show's history. Although it picks up from one of Breaking Bad's most intense cliffhangers, "Confessions" — which cut to black on a shot of Jesse pouring gasoline on Walt's rug and screaming in agony — it doesn't resolve that moment right away. In fact it waits an agonizingly long time to reveal whether Jesse is even in the house, and even longer to explain why he's not, and what happened to him (Hank burst in with a gun, talked him down, and took him away — the wide shot of Hank's car pulling away a split-second before Walter's comes around the corner is masterful). So last week's cliffhanger doesn't resolve until halfway through the episode — and once it does, the focus is squarely on Jesse and his need to make amends, to confess, to do something to stop Walter. (Jesse's most agonizing line in the episode, for me, was the last line we heard of his confession: "He was my teacher.")

The scenes in the Schrader's home were suspenseful for the obvious reasons: He was taken there so that he could tell his story on video for Hank and his partner Steven Gomez, and we couldn't be sure that Jesse would agree to be interviewed until he started talking; then he agreed to wear a wire and go meet Walt in the plaza. But beyond these scenes' value as plot points, I found them heartbreaking, because they showed Hank and Marie behaving tenderly towards him without making a big deal of it. (Self-serving though their actions were.) This isn't the first time they've given safe haven to endangered children. Their house is a safe house, and their hospitality might have had an effect on Jesse, pushing him to confess by showing him a different way of behaving. Thinking back on the full run of Breaking Bad, we're reminded of how badly Jesse has been abused and manipulated by Walter, the false father who filled in for the real father (and mother) that Jesse drove away through his drug activities. In a sense nearly everything Jesse has done since then could be seen as an attempt to find unconditional love again, and a home.

That's why he responds so naturally and affably to children: because he is in many ways a child himself, an idea teased out many times over the seasons, most recently in that overhead shot of him sprawled out on a playground merry-go-round in the prologue to "Buried." Hank and Marie treated him like an honored guest, and there was something parental in their ease with him. Hank gave him a pill to help him sleep. Marie offered him coffee.  He is, for all the violence he's committed or been a party to, a gentle soul, a young man who, as they say, wouldn't hurt a fly. How many times has he spared the life of an insignificant insect? The killing of Gale in season three, a horrible break from his instincts, was foreshadowed in "Fly." Breaking Bad has always put insect imagery to clever use, not just in its depiction of Jesse's gentleness, but in the Kafka-like portrayal of moral and physical metamorphosis, with Walt figuratively becoming a monstrous insect whom others no longer recognize as "himself," no matter how much he protests that he's still the same. Will this story end as "The Metamorphosis" did, with Walter sparing his family by crawling into his room and dying quietly? And what will become of Jesse? What will become of this motherless, fatherless child?

Odds and ends

* To paraphrase a line from Fargo, I'm not a hundred percent sold on Hank and Gomez's police work as they videotape Jesse. Beyond the fact that, as Jesse put it, the tape is "just my word against his word kinda stuff," they didn't read him his rights first, nor, I suspect, were they empowered to do so, since they hadn't arrested him. And can they put a wire on him and gather evidence without having gone through any official channels? If there are any lawyers reading this, school us.

*  My favorite exchange in the episode came after Marie learned that Jesse was in the house, and Hank tried to get her to leave. Marie: "Is this bad for Walt? Hank: "Yeah. Very." Marie: "Good. I'm staying. I'll heat up lasagna."

* Saul, re: the bruises Jesse gave him: "Deep down, he still loves me."

* The hotel pool conversation between Walt and Walt Jr., was poignant, and hinted at how important it was for the younger man to think his father was a good person. When they hugged all I could think about was how devastated Walt Jr., will be when he finally learns the truth about his old man. "I'm not going anywhere," Walt assured him, too optimistically. But this is one of those instances where it's better to be kind than honest.

* I love Saul's guy saying that when he bugged Badger, he heard him "talking about 'something called Babylon 5.'"

* The scene between Marie and her therapist was very Sopranos-like, particularly the way Marie danced around the details of the miseries she was there to discuss. "He screwed us, and he won," she said, adding, "Can we talk about something else, please? Yes?" "How's work," the therapist asked. "Last week you were upset about the new parking rules." Then Marie drifted into a reverie and described a poison "derived from shellfish" that causes "death due to respiratory failure." "There's no problem, no matter how difficult, or seemingly unsolvable, that violence won't make worse," the therapist cautioned. "Don't worry," she said. "I won't hurt anybody. But it just feels good to think about it."

* I'm still laughing about Bryan Cranston's pre-premiere joke, “I think everyone will be satisfied with the ending where we hug it out and all is forgiven." My friend Craig Simpson told me, "I'm partial to a Police Squad coda where Hank confesses that Walt is Heisenberg, and all the cops laugh, and then Walt escapes his cuffs while they play statue."

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC