Note: Do not read if you have not yet seen Season 5, Episode 12 of AMC's "Breaking Bad," "Rabid Dog."
This week's episode of "Breaking Bad" may not have had the spectacular pyrotechnics of last week's extraordinary outing, but any good story is like a piece of music: There have to be peaks and valleys, verses and choruses, lyrical passages and exciting stretches.
Yet for all "Rabid Dog's" quietude, it contained an intensely chilling moment that is hard to forget.
This being "Breaking Bad," the moment was foreshadowed with typical thoroughness and subtlety. Even before the events of "Rabid Dog," Hank had thought of Jesse as an object, some hopped-up idiot with not much going on in his head. Jesse was a tool to be used, and so it's not that surprising that, once he had Jesse in his clutches, Hank became Walter White.
He put Jesse's seat belt on for him, as a father would. He gave him a bed and a place to stay. But Jesse still wasn't really a human being to him; he was something that Hank could slot into his plan to destroy Walt. As he and Gomez were setting up for the video session, he barely looked at Jesse. The only thing on his mind was getting material to take down his enemy. Jesse was just one cog in his Vengeance Delivery System.
How does Walt do this? What about him brings out everyone else's inner Walt -- the unstoppable, amoral, narcissistic devil that lives inside every human being? Well, everyone except the Dalai Lama, but don't you think if His Holiness spent a few months around Walt, he might turn to the dark side? I'm joking, but in a way, I'm not.
"Breaking Bad" has done a brilliant job of making us wonder if Walt's awful qualities had always been lying in wait, just biding their time and looking for a chance to come out. Would Heisenberg have emerged if Walt had never been diagnosed with cancer? Under the right circumstances, would we all have walked down Walt's path -- and once on that path, can anyone get off it?
Those have been the questions that have vibrated at the heart of the show, and now they've been transferred to Skyler, Marie and Hank. Skyler, with dead eyes and a tumbler full of vodka, advocates killing Jesse: "What's one more?" Marie -- who looks as though she's truly alive for the first time in her life, despite her pain and rage (or perhaps because of it) -- contemplates which poison she'd like to use on Walt.
The evolution of these women has been fascinating (and welcome), but somehow Hank's flat, logical explanation of why it'd be okay for Walt to kill Jesse in a public place was even more transfixing. It was more jarring, more frightening than anything Skyler or Marie has said or done. Hank's supposed to represent the rule of law -- he embodies and personifies the aspect of our culture that punishes transgressors.
But Hank isn't a symbol or an idea, he's a human being; and like Skyler, Marie and even Jesse, he's okay with other people dying as long as he gets what he wants. I didn't think I'd see the day when Hank would cross the line and resort to illegal acts and simply inhuman logic, but Walt's cancerous nature -- the unthinking worship of the unbound ego -- has spread all around him and infected these otherwise law-abiding people.
The conundrum at this point is that Walt is the only one who doesn't want Jesse dead. Allegedly. But I think he was sincere when he spoke to Saul about the "Old Yeller" option. Walt doesn't want Jesse to have to die, but is that because having to kill Jesse would represent a failure on Walt's part, or because he really does care about Jesse and can't face taking him out?
It's probably some mixture of both, but I have to think ego plays a large part in Walt's desire to keep Jesse alive. "He was my teacher," Jesse said in a voice that would break your heart, and Walt doesn't want to admit that the lessons he taught his student were toxic and evil on every level. Walt wants to be the good guy, still. He's the guy who thinks that a gasoline-soaked living room can be put back exactly the way it was before. He's the guy who always has a story, an explanation, a justification.
Despite it all, he still needs Jesse to buy at least some of what he's selling. At this late stage, Walt tells his disbelieving wife that the Jesse situation is "no big deal." She sees through his bullshit, as does pretty much everyone but poor Walt Jr.
For once, Walt is more deluded than Jesse. Jesse has realized -- far too late -- that Mr. White is the devil, while Walt can't quite accept that Jesse will never be interested in the reasoning for poisoning Brock.
"He can't keep getting away with this!" Jesse cried, speaking for the audience and for himself. There's ego in that statement, too; nothing incites jealousy more than someone else getting away with breaking the rules. It's not fair! Most of us can all too easily revert to 8-year-olds obsessed with who got away with more than we did, with who got a bigger cookie or an extra slice of cake.
If only Jesse could let go of the need to punish Walter White. But he can't, nor can Skyler or Hank or Marie. Everything they're pursuing or allowing, however, will most likely end up destroying their own lives, but they're too blinded by rage and sadness to see that.
Walt sits in the middle of it all, not even knowing he's already damned -- if not for everything he's already done, then certainly for calling in Todd's family and going with the Old Yeller solution after all.
A few final notes:
- Director Sam Catlin, who also wrote the episode, did an especially fine job of ramping up the tension in the scenes in which Walt searched the house for Jesse. That sequence supplied yet another chilling instance of one of "Breaking Bad's" signature images: A dark, looming Walter White silhouetted in the hallway of his house.
- Walt's tighty-whities are getting a fair bit of screen time this season, no doubt a callback to Season 1's memorable underwear moments.
- "For three hours, all he talked about was something called 'Babylon 5.'" Only three hours? Oh, "Breaking Bad," your nerd shoutouts this season are killing me. I love them very much.
- The shrink scene gave us a chilling window into Marie's current mindset, but also gave us a bit of relief from the intensity of the rest of the episode. "You were pretty upset about the new parking rules..."
- Oh, Jesse. You've gone from one controlling, manipulative father figure to another. This kid just does not have good luck with mentors.
- So often we see Walter near sources of water: the river where Mike died, Walt's pool, the pool at the hotel, etc. To my recollection, though, he's never or rarely in the water. Water can be a symbol of cleansing, of baptism or a new start, but Walt never dives in to these bodies of water. He either doesn't think he needs that kind of cleansing, or it doesn't occur to him that that's an option.
- When Jesse made the tape for Hank, I think that was one of the few times (if any) he's uttered Mr. White's first name.
- "Mr. White, he's the devil!" If only Jesse had figured that out years ago. Then again, if he had, there wouldn't be a show.
- In case you haven't seen these posts: My essay on "Breaking Bad's" women, and my colleague Mike Hogan recently talked to "Breaking Bad" cinematographer Michael Slovis.
"Breaking Bad" airs 9 p.m. ET Sundays on AMC.