Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Breaking Bad" - "Problem Dog"

Spoilers for the latest "Breaking Bad" after the jump:

I know some have viewed the early sections of this season as a bit of a disappointment after last season’s stunningly intense ride. And it’s true that “Breaking Bad” probably won’t take top honors on my best TV of the season list next June, after two straight years as the best show on television. The show’s definitely had a few dull moments this year (not many, but a few), and has been moving at a fairly deliberate pace as far as big developments are concerned.

“Problem Dog” mostly continues this trend, but it’s hard to be too bothered when the acting and slow-burn storytelling are as good as they are here. Last week we took a look at the various elements of the show as they relate to Walter White. This week’s installment is spent mostly on Jesse Pinkman, who continues to be barely holding it together.

 It should be obvious to all watching this show that Aaron Paul is doing incredible work right now. He’s always been good, but that scene at the meeting was something else. Jesse is just a complete mess right now. He’s caught between Walt and Gus, and at the same time he’s still grappling with the murder of Gale. So it makes complete sense that he’d seek some sort of solace in a meeting. Only it’s not the kind of solace he’s looking for. The calm, non-judgmental reactions of everyone at the meeting only serve to infuriate him. After what he’s done, doesn’t he deserve to be judged?

 Of course, the fact that he feels this way also suggests that he’s not beyond help: something that can’t really be said about any of the other principal characters (with the exception of Hank, but then Hank’s pretty much of an outsider in this show’s moral universe). As I said last week, this is a show about choices. Jesse’s made some bad ones, but at least he seems to realize it. He doesn’t rationalize the way Walt does, and perhaps that’s part of what’s driving the split between the two partners. Or perhaps (as I also theorized last week) it’s just Walt’s own ego. Either way, it’s resulted in some subtly terrific television despite the lack of “wow” moments.

Others may not feel that way, of course. And perhaps conscious of that fact, Vince Gilligan and company decided to give viewers one of those moments this week: namely, Walt blowing up the car. But the key to “Breaking Bad’s” success over these past few seasons is that it hasn't forced things, and to me this was forced. It felt like a little too much, and in truth bordered on campy. Sure, I get that Walt’s frustrated in many aspects of his life right now, but I don’t really see this as something he’d do at that particular moment. Give me carefully developed tension (even if it’s only for a brief second like Jesse considering whether to poison the coffee) over this kind of stuff any day.

Fortunately, there was plenty of that on display elsewhere in the episode, starting with Gus’s meeting with a man from the cartel: in which he was offered a simple yes or no response to an unknown question. Referring one more time to last week’s review… I still don’t think the cartel has forgotten about Walt. I think the question is whether or not Gus will let Walt get taken out (or else do it himself), and for now it appears the answer is no. Again, I’m not sure, but this makes complete sense to me. I welcome alternative explanations, and I’d expect the show to clarify matters at some point. This isn’t “The Wire”, where puzzling out what’s precisely going on is occasionally part of the viewing experience. “Breaking Bad” is a model for narrative simplicity and directness, even as it’s one of the more thematically complex shows on TV.

 Take Hank’s investigation in this episode. It’s nothing particularly original or noteworthy, but it’s a solid piece of detective work that serves an important function in that it continues to tighten the noose around Gus: and by association Walt. Our protagonist now has the law closing in on him as well as a homicidal boss to deal with. In many ways it’s a simple situation, but that simplicity is precisely what makes it so riveting. It’s why I continue to love this show, even as I become more and more certain that it’s ceded the crown of “best show on TV” to “Louie”. Everything is simple, but there’s no way out.

Other Thoughts

 - One other thing I really didn’t care for was the way Skyler’s decision to continue down her path as a money launderer was portrayed as a big deal. To me, she made her choice last week. So we really didn’t need another scene like that.

 - I continue to love the constant nods to the show’s history: such as Walt turning to the poison he and Jesse tried to use on Tuco as a possible way to kill Gus. 

 - Hank’s ignorance when it comes to Walt is still pretty preposterous. It’s always been kind of hard to believe, but it’s even worse when he uses the phrase “chemistry genius” when talking about Gale. Come on, Hank, it’s staring you right in the face!       

 Grade: A-

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