Tuesdays with Walt: “Problem Dog”

There are loads of great critics writing Breaking Bad reviews every Sunday night/Monday morning. Because of skill and scheduling, I’m not going to be able to stand alongside those reviews. Instead, I hope to write something about Breaking Bad each Tuesday when I have more time and perhaps you are ready for a new day’s worth of material on the best series on television. These pieces won’t necessarily follow my traditional review format, but I’ll obviously be discussing relevant plot details and the like.

Last week, I expressed some slight frustration with how this season was (or was not, I guess) moving. With that came a comparison to season three and how at its mid-point, all sorts of intense, thrilling things were happening on a regular basis. Well, it turns out I probably should have just shut my mouth and realized that episode seven is where Vince Gilligan likes to blow things open for good each season. Everyone remembers the insanity of “One Minute” and although “Problem Dog” doesn’t reach the same heights, it jump-starts the narrative in a similar fashion. Moreover, while last season was more overtly intense from the beginning and that intensity sort of peaked with “One Minute,” it appears that the slow build of this season could very easily lead to a much more insane back-half.*

*This is of course takes nothing away from the second half of season three, which is exciting in its own right. But “One Minute” did feel like a pivot point to a different type of storytelling in the second half. 

And after a few episodes in the dark, presumably plotting all sorts of malicious, pointed moves, Gus Fring is back in the spotlight with a load of problems on his hands. Last week, he convinced Mike that the best thing to do with the cartel threats was organize a meeting of the minds. Unfortunately, Gus’ desire to talk things out didn’t go as planned in “Problem Dog,” leaving him and his whole operation with a big, black cloud hanging overhead. The cartel brass have no use for negotiations whatsoever and now it seems like Gus, Mike and Jesse are directly in the cross-hairs of a bunch of bad mothers who clearly want nothing more than revenge. Well, and all the money and power that comes with full control of a massive drug empire.

What is really interesting to me about the way Gus’ power is seemingly being ripped away from him is that it’s not entirely dissimilar to how Walt has fared in recent weeks. Despite all his hubris to Skyler (which is not entirely misdirected, he has killed people after all), Walt is a man who prides himself on logical responses to insane events and the value of discourse. Walt is typically unafraid to make the ballsy call, but he’d also be fine with talking whomever it is that is about to kill him out of said killing. If we go back to “Box Cutter,” Walt was frantically and embarrassingly trying to talk Gus out of doing anything rash and in the following episodes, he kept calling to be put in a room with Gus. Obviously at that point he wanted to do more than just talk to Gus, but the point is just the same. Ultimately, Gus shut Walt out of his decision-making and thought process, turning Walt into an even more frustrated and dangerous individual. And now, Gus is feeling the sting of that feeling from the cartel and I have to imagine that he’ll go on the defensive in a similar fashion. I’m not sure how he’ll pull it off, but it will certainly involve bloodshed, right?

Nevertheless, Gus’ struggles with the cartel allow the series to emphasize the internal tensions between humanity and logic and viciousness that so many of these characters embody. Like Walt, Gus appears to prefer doing business in rational, simple ways. But he’s also willing to kill as many people as necessary to survive. This is part of the reason the two of them got along in the beginning and it’s probably the reason they drive one another nuts now. In these ways, Gus and Walt are kind of the same person.

Speaking of Walt, there has been much discussion about this season’s exploration of more stories that do not directly involve Walt but are implicitly caused by one or more of this actions. As I said last week, I’m somewhat disappointed that the series’ world has gotten a bit smaller this season, but that narrowed, purposefully suffocating scope has made it easier for the series to display how deep Walt’s actions have permeated into the lives of everyone in the main cast. Even when he personally feels stuck, trapped and disenfranchised by a high-paying, but frustrating job, Walt finds a way to screw things up for someone, just as he did last week when he caved and bought Junior the new car.

We know that with Walt on the sidelines a bit more this season, other characters and other plotlines have gotten more quality time in the spotlight. But I am very intrigued by how little Walt is involved with the cartel business and what the hell is going to happen when he finds out and subsequently decides to get involved. Although he’s working with Jesse to try to take Gus out, Walt is unaware of what Jesse witnessed in the trailer with Gus and Mike and he’s certainly unaware of the stressful missions Mike has been going on lately. As usual, Walt thinks everything that is happening is about him and for once, he’s actually wrong. There are horrible things coming to those above and near him in the office power structure, but it is only a matter of time before Walt finds out. So here’s my question: How does Walt react to this information once he discovers it?

Walt is certainly ready to get rid of Gus, we know that. But he also has to be in some hot water with the cartel dating back to what he had to do with Tuco’s death and his quasi-involvement in what happened to the Cousins. It is possible that the cartel brass still wants Walt around because he knows the cook of it all, but it is just as possible that they want to cut ties with any and all employees directly working with Mr. Fring. In any event, I am very worried about what is going to happen once Walt learns of the power struggle happening above him. Not only will he be upset that he’s not involved and that he hasn’t been told, but his long-running frustrations with the Gale situation make him even more dangerous. I have this sinking feeling that Walt is finally going to make his big move at the exact worst time and it’s going to end up very badly for someone, likely Gus, but also maybe Mike, Jesse or even Hank. Despite my frustrations, I know that there is a reason why Walt’s been stuck in neutral all season and I feel like this might be the time he gets to throw it into gear and run all over the delicate going-ons above him.

One final thing, inspired by a discussion I had with some folks on Twitter after last week’s episode. Vince Gilligan talks a lot about transforming Walt from Mr. Chips into Scarface by the end of the series and I’ve been wondering a lot about what sort of final steps Walt would have to take to go “Full Scarface” if you will. He’s already killed people in self-defense and self-preservation, let Jane die so that Jesse could get clean and done all sorts of other terrible things to those closest to him. In short, he’s shown flashes of Scarface and if we again return to that great speech last week, it’s clear that he wants to present himself as a Scarface-like figure. His intermittent humanity is what keeps Walt from going all the way, but eventually that probably has to go by the way side. Walt is definitely a miserable asshole and probably a terrible person in the most general of ways, but I think he has to be more consistently Scarface before all is said and done.

With that being said, how does he get there? I’m guessing he has to play a major role in the death of a character the audience really cares about (directly or somewhat indirectly). I don’t think Gilligan is demented enough to let Walt cause the death of Skyler, Junior or the baby. Maybe I’m wrong, but going that route would shock the hell out of me. Everyone has their own opinions, but I’d say that basically leaves two characters: Jesse and Hank. Mike is getting there, but I’m not sure the audience has spent enough time with him to be totally broken if and when he dies. Additionally, I’d like to think that Jesse is just as important to this series as Walt is so the only way he’s getting the axe is at the very end of the series. That would certainly put the proverbial final nail in Walt’s journey to Scarface, but even if it does happen, it’s coming later.

So Hank. “Problem Dog” was Hank’s big comeback episode and the scene where he lays out all the evidence pointing to Gus’ role in the drug ring is one of my favorites in the series’ entire run. But that kind of success is fleeting in the world of Breaking Bad and now that Hank is hot on the trail of the chicken man, I don’t think he’s long for this world. I don’t see the real value in having Gus or Mike wipe Hank away, but I could see a situation where Gus is removed from the equation by the cartel and Hank realizes that Heisenberg is still out there, forcing Walt’s hand. Perhaps Walt doesn’t come back from something like that and the series would be just too miserable in the final stretch of episodes, but I still think it probably has to happen. Only time will tell, I guess.

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