“Rabid Dog” explicitly broaches a question that Breaking Bad fans have probably been pondering for a while: How far will Jesse (Aaron Paul) have to push Walt (Bryan Cranston) before the latter tries to kill the former? In “Confessions,” Walt’s ability to corral Jesse back into his fold of influence appeared to have been definitively shattered by Jesse’s discovery of the truth behind Brock’s poisoning. Jesse was last seen dousing Walt’s living room with gasoline, and “Rabid Dog” picks up immediately where that sequence left off, with Walt stalking Jesse through the corridors of his own home. The plastic gas canister is sitting on the living room carpet, and Walt draws the gun he fished out of the carwash vending machine last week, clearly ready for his association with Jesse to reach the ultimate breaking point.
But Jesse’s gone, and we don’t see him again until the episode’s midpoint. What Walt must consider in the meantime is what exactly to do with Jesse. Saul (Bob Odenkirk) wants the guy dead, and proceeds to air this suggestion with a reliably long-winded metaphoric tale of passive-aggression that informs the episode’s title. Skylar (Anna Gunn), in a terrific scene in a luxury hotel room, wants Jesse dead too, appealing to Walt with a rationale that’s chillingly, well, Waltish: “We’ve come this far for us. What’s one more?”
Gunn doesn’t have much screen time this week, but she kills in this scene (this has been a wonderful season in general for the actress), particularly in her delivery of the words “for us,” which are obviously Skylar’s way of throwing Walt’s chief hypocrisy back in his face; we know Walt has never been content to see himself as a crime lord, as he only plays that role when it flatters his wounded masculinity. No, he must occasionally be a sensitive man and a victim, and it’s that pretense that’s kept him so loyal to Jesse for so long. Hank (Dean Norris) has already sussed Jesse out as the Rosetta Stone to decoding the hidden intricacies of the Heisenberg empire, as he correctly seizes on the intensity of the duo’s bond in the episode’s second half, setting Jesse up as a potentially necessary sacrifice for obtaining irrefutable proof of Walt’s crimes.
But the full importance of Hank’s manipulations haven’t revealed themselves yet. “Rabid Dog” is about Jesse’s full transformation into Walt’s chief nemesis. So why does it take so much to push Walt into finally ordering a hit on Jesse in the episode’s capper? As I’ve written before, murdering Jesse decisively threatens whatever pretense of normalcy that Walt still somehow manages to entertain about himself. There’s also an element of nostalgia, as Jesse is a former student and an anchor to a time when Walt was authentically a conventional family man, at least on the surface. And Walt, despite being a profoundly immoral person, is still human, and his attachment to Jesse is still probably somewhat legitimate. Remember that Walt once rescued Jesse from death on skid row in one of the most poignant scenes in Breaking Bad’s history. (Admittedly, Jesse’s situation was provoked by Walt allowing his girlfriend to choke on her own vomit, but nobody’s perfect.)
Much has been written of Walt’s delusions of moral grandeur, but what about Jesse’s? Viewers and critics seem to hold out their sympathies for Jesse, probably as a defensive compensation for how far Walt has drifted from the realm of a conventional hero. But Jesse, with a few exceptions, has been fully complicit with Walt’s schemes. He may be a victim of Walt’s manipulations, but he’s still a grown man capable of recognizing for himself the evil he’s helped to perpetrate. Jesse, like Walt, has a hard time letting go of the idea that he’s a hero as opposed to a drug pusher and a murderer, and it’s that off-putting self-righteousness that’s rendered him partially vulnerable to another possessive manipulative father figure: Hank. The extent of Jesse’s refusal to take responsibility for himself is embodied in the memorable line where Jesse likens Walt to the devil. And that would make Jesse what in this metaphor? A demon? Surely, Jesse isn’t so delusional he’d figure himself for a saint.
“Rabid Dog” is a masterfully orchestrated chess match that climaxes with an ironic turn right out of O. Henry. Jesse agrees to meet Walt at the Plaza so they can talk things out, not for Walt, but for Hank, who’s trying to get something on tape that can decisively implicate Walt for his crimes. Wired, Jesse approaches Walt at the Plaza and sees a burly bald man standing off to Walt’s right, presumably in an attempt to hide from detection. Enraged at the obviousness of Walt’s attempt to kill him, Jesse retreats and calls Walt to tell him that burning his house down was small potatoes, and now he’s coming after Walt where he really lives. The big burly bald man? Just a father visiting his daughter, nothing to do with Walt, who appears to have honored the terms of this meeting. Walt isn’t provoked into ordering a hit on Jesse until Jesse calls him to declare war.
So what’s Jesse’s game? A friend thinks that Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) might be his target, but that doesn’t work for a number of reasons. Such a bald act of exploiting the one character in the series who can be called an innocent would compromise Jesse’s idea of himself as a wronged avenger. And, perhaps more importantly, Walt appears to care about Walt Jr. as much as the show’s writer’s do, which is to say not at all. Walt Jr. was used as a device to exasperate Walt’s financial desperation in the first season, but he’s been shunted to the sidelines almost entirely since then, with just the occasional token appearance here and there as a pawn in Walt and Skylar’s private power plays. No, I think Jesse wants to destroy Walt’s reputation, which is where Walt really lives. (Keep in mind that Walt is an egomaniac who’s in the empire business after all.) Jesse wants to expose Walt/Heisenberg and strip them down to nothing, which will allow Jesse to more confidently tuck himself into his own delusions as a hero. This form of exposure, mind you, has already been alluded to in the flash-forwards that reveal to us that Walt is eventually publicly known for his crimes. War’s a brewin’, and there’s only four episodes left: How much longer can these terrific writers can keep these characters dangling at the edge before they topple over into oblivion?
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