The article below contains spoilers for “Rabid Dog,” the September 1, 2013 episode of “Breaking Bad.”
Of the leaps in understanding “Breaking Bad” has asked us to buy so far in season 5.5 — Walt (Bryan Cranston) seeing that “Leaves of Grass” is missing and figuring out from it that Hank (Dean Norris) is on to him, Jesse (Aaron Paul) getting his weed stolen and because of it realizing that Walt poisoned Brock — the one in “Rabid Dog” may be the toughest to contend with. Having intercepted Jesse in the process of setting Walt’s house on fire, Hank brings him home and listened to his whole story, accompanied by Steven Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada), who’s finally been brought in on the Heisenberg revelation. And Hank apparently quickly spots something that Jesse doesn’t really understand and that Walt would be hard pressed to articulate himself, which is that Walt has always needed Jesse and has gone out of his way to keep Jesse by his side. To call up some Whites from the music world for comparison (ones who’ve yet to try to destroy each other), Jesse has been the Meg White to Walt’s Jack, Walt’s anchor and his chosen and sometimes reluctant limitation. Jesse has provided a throughline to Walt’s past as a regular chemistry teacher, while also being his primary indulgence.
As Hank points out, Walt has gone awfully far to keep Jesse close to him over the course of their partnership, even when offered a more professional, more lab experienced alternative in Gale. He’s killed for Jesse, both to protect him when running over rival drug dealers in his car, and, though neither Jesse nor Hank know this part, to prevent him from going inconveniently astray, as he did when letting Jane choke on her own vomit. Jesse has served as a crutch for Walt as much as he’s been a partner, and their increasingly dysfunctional relationship over the months they’ve worked together has slowly become something like an abusive one as Walt has manipulated the younger man in more and more outrageous ways, finally poisoning his girlfriend’s son, as Jesse perfectly puts it, “just as a move.” It’s a demonstration of how warped Walt’s thinking has become that he’s been able to do these things while looking at Jesse with the affection one might give… maybe not a child, but certainly a wayward pet. Saul (Bob Odenkirk) was onto something when he tried to suggest Walt off the kid by making comparisons to “Old Yeller.”
Would Walt actually kill Jesse? The end of “Rabid Dog,” which was written and directed by Sam Catlin, suggests we have an answer to this question, but the episode’s most surprising reveals are actually about how sincerely Walt believes he can and wants to patch things up with his former partner, even showing up alone and unarmed, as promised, to that meeting in Civic Plaza. It’d be touching if it weren’t so fucked up — that Walt, in his arrogance or his deluded rationalization, thinks he can actually justify what he did to Brock to Jesse, can explain it so that it all makes sense in how it worked for the greater good. “Jesse isn’t just some rabid dog — this is a person,” he snaps to Skyler (Anna Gunn) when she, like Saul, suggests the wisest path here is one that leads to Jesse’s death. It’s a darkly entertaining statement for Walt to make — when has he ever thought twice about the effects his actions have had on the many people out there he’s had killed or assisted in maintaining their addictions?
Walt’s resistance to the idea of killing Jesse in this episode also further speaks to how he’s come to look at his career as a drug manufacturer. He’s fine with ordering the deaths of “real” criminals like Mike’s men, even able to let go of needlessly killing Mike, but he’s drawn a line around certain people in his life who are obviously (to him) to be protected. How arbitrary this designation actually is is apparent in Walt’s scandalized reactions to Saul’s suggestions about Belize and “Old Yeller” and Skyler’s less euphemistic one that “We’ve come this far — for us, what’s one more?” Jesse’s death to protect Walt’s life is an unreasonable action only to Walt. Jesse has more of a conscience than his old colleague, even after accepting that he is a “bad guy” back in rehab. Walt’s initial refusal to consider murdering Hank or Jesse speaks to how he still thinks of himself as good, the man who’s done brutal things, but only on behalf of his family — who has limits.
Hank, on the other hand, chillingly announced himself as willing to let Jesse get killed if it means bringing Walt down, making Jesse’s last-minute refusal to talk to Walt feel like a triumph, even though Jesse probably could have brought Walt down right there by just having a conversation with him — the threatening-looking figure in the plaza wasn’t a Walt accomplice, he was just a stranger waiting for his kid. Jesse isn’t the smartest party in the world of “Breaking Bad,” but he’s a legit threat to Walt in his nothing-left-to-live-for desperation, played terrifically by Paul, who looks like a man in need of a primal scream session in every scene, even when he’s getting belted into a passenger seat by Hank like a recalcitrant kid.
Jesse’s impulsive desire to burn down Walt’s house (and how excruciating was the scene in which Walt tried to lie to his utterly unconvinced wife and son about the gasoline smell?) might have been a “rabid,” unthinking act of rage, but his threat on the phone to Walt was a declaration of awareness and war, and it’s the thought of being up against someone on his level rather than someone he’s always felt he could control that leads Walt to make the call to Todd’s uncle. Meanwhile, while Hank’s instant understanding of Walt’s fondness for Jesse can be explained away by the fact that Hank doesn’t really care what happens to the younger man, his dismissal of Lydia and the ongoing meth business he’s been told about doesn’t make much sense — going after active business associates with more to lose seems a much better bet than latching on to a former one. Her story seems like one that merits more time in this endgame.
“Rabid Dog” was particularly nicely directed by Catlin, especially in the cold open, with the throbbing synth score as Walt squished his way down the hallway with the gun, checking room after room until the one at the end, and stepping in as the camera retreats back down the hall and he discovers no one is around. Suburban house hallways have become a sort of “Breaking Bad” answer to empty main streets of towns during showdowns in Westerns, and Walt’s attempted confrontations with Jesse in the gas-soaked White house was echoed later with Marie’s (Betsy Brandt) discovery of Jesse in the Schader home, the camera posed behind the guest bedroom door, Jesse later emerging from sleep to encounter Marie at the end of her own long stretch of hall.
The episode also made use of another of the show’s favorite atmospheric settings, the lit pool at night, when Walt goes down to sit beside the one in the hotel to think, “going over some options” and reassuring Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) that he’s not going to let “something as silly as lung cancer” bring him down — after all, when here are so many other things poised to do it, why bet on the illness? Hell, even Marie is fantasizing about taking him out, and in her hours of internet research on untraceable poisons, she has more in common with her brother-in-law than she’d ever know.