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Ozymandias, Breaking Bad

Years ago, around the time the Watchmen movie came out, I was speaking with a friend of mine. He said he didn’t like how obviously the film framed Ozymandias as a villain; in my friend’s opinion, the graphic novel left that much open for interpretation.

Yes, the character was indeed responsible for the loss of many lives. But ultimately, my friend argued, it was worth it. He did it for the right reasons, and there was a substantial net benefit to the carnage. There was, at least arguably, a justifiable ends to the means.

And throughout season five of Breaking Bad — both halves — I’ve seen people defending Walter for the same reason. Of course we can criticize his methods…but isn’t he doing these things for the right reason?

After “Ozymandias,” I think somebody would have to work pretty hard to defend any aspect of Walter White’s character. This was comic book Ozymandias sliding into silver screen Ozymandias*, right before our eyes.

We might have been able to make those arguments before. It was ultimately for his family. He was loyal to Jesse. If there was any way to minimize the violence, he would.

…but not anymore. Walter is a villain. There is no debating it. And perhaps you’ll be disappointed for the same reason my friend was disappointed. I can sympathize, if that’s the case; it’s always more satisfying to be able to explore shades of grey for ourselves than it is to have the world broken into blacks and whites.

Oh well. These aren’t our rules. We’re not entitled to anything. We crave things that we can’t have.

“To’hajiilee” ended where it did because if it had continued even one second further, we would have known. We would have known there was no hope. Like Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory deciding not to tell Charlie that the final golden ticket has been found, the show needed to let us have just one more dream.

The cold open of “Ozymandias” makes the distinction as clear, cold, and inarguable as it needs to be. We get a flashback to the afternoon of Walt and Jesse’s very first cook. Back to when we could sympathize with Breaking Bad‘s main character. Back to when Jesse was not broken and could still function as comic relief. Back to when there was a future to look forward to…whether that was financial stability for the Whites, or something as simple as a pizza with the family after a long day.

But it fades. As it must. And it’s replaced by the direct and fatal result of those seeds planted with the best of intentions: Steve Gomez dead on the ground. Hank about to be shot through the head. And Walt brainlessly bargaining his money away for nothing.

All of the bodies. All of the blood. All of the carnage and the treachery and the deceit. The innocent and not so innocent lives caught in the crossfire. Gale. Mike. Gus. Drew Sharp. Jane. They were all inside of those barrels. And Walt traded them away. For nothing. Hank is dead. As it had to be.

And just as I was able to feel sorry for Walter toward the end of the last episode, for the first time in what feels like ages, I was able to feel for him again here…bargaining with the only thing he has left, and losing it all. When Walter fell to the ground my heart fell with him. Hank could not be spared. Of course he couldn’t. We hoped anyway. And then he was gone.

And as solid as the contrast between the cold open and the action of the episode, we saw how Walter handled his next problem: he turned in Jesse Pinkman, consented to his torture, and then plunged and twisted an unnecessary blade into the boy’s heart.

No more excuses, folks.

This isn’t Heisenberg. This is Walter White.

I think everybody has their own idea of when Walt finally became irredeemable. Fittingly enough, a very common one is the moment he let Jane die. Bryan Cranston himself seems to think it happened in the very first episode, simply because he allowed himself to become something he wasn’t. For me, I’d say it’s when he killed Mike. Not because Mike was a saint or a hero, but simply because of the context of the killing: Mike was no kind of threat. Mike was on his way to a new life, to ride out the rest of his days as a quiet old man in a place where nobody could hurt him. Any other time Walt killed, there was some justification…sturdy or not…that it was that, or be killed himself. But in the case of Mike, he was just being a dick.

And, of course, there are those who continued to feel that Walt was redeemable. That there was no moment that permanently shifted him into the realm of being hopelessly lost.

I wonder if any of those remain after seeing what he did to Jesse. I wonder how any of those could remain after seeing what he did to Jesse.

He knew — exactly as we knew — what would happen when he nodded to Uncle Jack. He knew — exactly as we knew — where Jesse was going, and what was going to happen. He knew — exactly as we knew — what finally confessing about Jane would do to the boy. And he doesn’t just let it happen…he makes it happen. The scarred and disfigured Jesse Pinkman, manacled and terrified in an underground cell…Walt did that. And he did it deliberately.

“Ozymandias” was difficult to watch. I started working my way back through Breaking Bad when this half season began, and it’s amazing how much the show changes as it goes on, without ever actually losing (or even substantially altering) its identity. The worst of Walt was present from the start…it was just easier to overlook in the face of his more realistic goals, his identifiable concern for his family, and the basic comedy inherent in his situation. After all, he’s a chemistry teacher who teams up with a former student to cook meth. That’s a can’t-miss premise…and sure enough, it didn’t miss. Hank’s body, buried in To’hajiilee, will attest to that. This is where it all had to go.

And that’s okay. “Ozymandias” was supposed to be difficult to watch. That’s the point. There was something there to make everybody wince. The death of Gomez. The death of Hank. Walt turning Jesse in. Jesse’s face. The photograph of Andrea. Marie’s assurance that Walt had been captured. Marie learning that Hank was dead. Skyler learning that Hank was dead. Walt Jr. learning that his father was a drug dealer. The abduction of Holly. The knife.

And all of this — all of it — follows on directly from the previous episode. Marie visiting the carwash? Yep, that’s the same shift that just featured the Saul and Junior double act. Hank’s brains being blown all over the desert sand? Yep, that’s the same plan that followed on from the comical interrogation of Huell. That’s why “To’hajiilee” broke where it did. This is another chapter…tightly related to what came before, but completely, totally, brutally distinct.

As my uncle used to say…it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.

I’m also genuinely in awe of just how callously the episode handled the death of a major character like Hank. That is to say…it just kept going.

No beautiful shot of the violence, no slow motion collapse…no gentle pop song to give us pause. Just a bullet, and then it’s time to dig up the money. It was made more painful simply because we didn’t have time to dwell. We wanted to go back…

…but there is no going back.

Just further into the future.

I hope you got your laughs in last week. I hope you enjoyed that brief flash of happier times that opened the episode. And I hope Jesse Pinkman got a good, long last look at those birds.

Horsefellow, Breaking Bad

—–
* Yes, I’m aware that the Watchmen Ozymandias isn’t what’s being referenced here. I just thought it was an interesting parallel. And I’m still kinda reeling SO SUE ME


Almost a year ago I did one of these posts, identifying the references in Conan O’Brien’s brief (but beautiful) Star Wars by Wes Anderson sketch. And now, since I’ll only ever write things about Breaking Bad again, I thought I’d do the same thing for this long, not-quite-as-good (but-still-pretty-darned-good) parody of Jimmy Fallon’s.

As before, watch the above first, because I’m going to make it my business to take all the surprise out of this, write about the jokes until they’re not funny anymore, and basically turn an act of comedy into a text that must be studied until you hate it. Also, as before, I’m sure I missed things…so point them out in the comments below and I’ll add them to the list, give you a credit, and send you a Noiseless Chatter gift basket for playing.

Are you ready? Here we go…

Jimmy Fallon, Joking Bad

The sketch opens with a nice parody of a scene in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. (It’s called “Pilot” officially, but the DVDs list it as “Breaking Bad.”) Jimmy, just as Walter White before him, sits numb to the bad news he’s being given. For Walter it was the diagnosis of advanced lung cancer…for Jimmy it’s that he’ll no longer be hosting Late Night. The swell of the sound in Jimmy’s head here is perfect.

I actually do want to point out that I kind of don’t like Jimmy Fallon…except when he’s doing things like this. He was terrible on Saturday Night Live and he’s horribly awkward when interacting with guests…but for whatever reason, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon has managed way more great pre-filmed material than I ever would have thought it capable of producing.

ADDITIONAL: Ace commenter Jory Griffis has better eyes than me, and noticed a mustard stain on the man delivering the bad news. Great detail, and great spot Jory!

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

I’m only going to be talking about specific references here, not general nods, which is why I won’t say things like “Jimmy Fallon with a bald cap and glasses and a little beard looks like Walter White.” But, if you must know, Jimmy Fallon with a bald cap and glasses and a little beard looks like Walter White.

The above shot, though, is obviously based on a very iconic shot from the pilot episode, in which Walter, in underpants and a dress shirt, stands waiting for the police to arrive with a gun in his hand. It’s pulling double duty here, though, as that shot is almost as immediately familiar as the show’s logo thanks to its regular usage on DVD packaging and promotional materials.

Jimmy Fallon, Joking Bad

…and speaking of the show’s logo, here’s the requisite reconstruction. The rest of the periodic table seems to be filled with other features of Fallon’s show. I haven’t seen enough of his stuff to know for sure, but I know “Hashtags” fits that context, and obviously “Monologue” does as well. If any huge Fallon fans want to explain them in the comments, be my guest. But then you also have to leave.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Walt walking down the street with his jacket open like this looks very familiar to me. I get the feeling it’s happened a lot of times, often with a cell phone pressed to his ear, but just in case it’s something anyone else can pinpoint…have at it.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Fallon meets his “Jesse.” I can’t quite make out what he calls him. “Haymarks” maybe? I have no idea who that is, but I’ve read that it’s Steve Higgins, Fallon’s announcer. The scene doesn’t play out much at all like it does in “Pilot,” but the plot point is absolutely the same: Jimmy has the knowledge behind making jokes, Steve has the connections to sell them. They team up, and Jesse never dies on Breaking Bad PLEASE DON’T LET JESSE DIE ON BREAKING BAD

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

This montage (unlike a later one) contains a soundalike I can’t quite identify. For that reason I’m not sure if it’s a reference to any specific “cooking” sequence in the show, though Steve spinning around in his chair is absolutely Jesse from “Pilot.” There’s also a scene of Jesse fooling around with a chair in “I See You,” but that’s a lot less likely to be referenced here.

The jokes are, of course, written on blue cards with the name of Fallon’s show written on them, which would make them conveniently easy to trace should anyone wish to investigate the illicit activities on display here…

ADDITIONAL: Commenter Ryan identifies the song in the montage as a soundalike for “Dead Fingers Talking,” from Walt and Jesse’s first cook in “Pilot.” Nice ears and ass, Ryan!

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

A janitor enters the room to let them know they need to fumigate, but the writing continues…mirroring Walter’s new scheme as of “Hazard Pay.” It’s also an excuse to get them into the yellow hazmat suits, which I’m fine with.

A soundalike of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” plays now, referencing the cooking / distribution montage from “Gliding Over All.”

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

The pencil’s-eye-view is a great little touch…but now I’m hard pressed to remember when such angles were utilized in Breaking Bad. I know there are lots of examples but nothing’s coming to me so HELP.

ADDITIONAL: Jory Griffis to the rescue again, identifying the angle as a reference to one in “Fly,” when Jesse is scrubbing the machinery in the lab.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

We’ve seen stacks of blue product on the show many times (especially during the Gus regime) but I think the first time we saw it in the show was “4 Days Out,” where it was also part of a montage.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

The two clink their beverages and kick back after a job well done, as in “Hazard Pay.” Now that I’m thinking about it, that was one of the last times Walt and Jesse were truly happy in each other’s company. Knowing this show, I’m shocked that it didn’t last forever!!!

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Colin Quinn sampling the blue stuff mirrors Tuco doing the same in “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” and they both, if I’m interpreting their comments correctly, believe the product to be “tight.”

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Like Hank in “Gliding Over All,” A.D. Miles has an epiphany on the toilet while watching Colin Quinn’s set. Yes, I know the way I wrote that sentence makes it also sound like Hank’s epiphany occurred during a Colin Quinn set, but that’s hilarious to me so I’m leaving it.

I’m not sure what Miles does on Fallon’s show; I’ve seen him in other things, but this sketch makes it seem like he’s a writer for the show or something. Is he? Or did they just bring him in because he can channel Dean Norris pretty incredibly for a guy who looks nothing like him? (And if that’s the case…I’m happy.)

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

On Breaking Bad we’ve seen Skyler write out Walter’s age in bacon twice, on his birthday. But here Fallon is writing something out himself…as Walter did in “Live Free or Die.” Which has led to some speculation that Skyler is dead by that point. I guess we’ll never know. :(

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Miles asks Jimmy about the initials…just as Hank does Walt in “Bullet Points.” The wardrobe department deserves some recognition for matching the shirts that the investigator wears as well…that’s a great, unnecessary detail.

The “ya got me” moment from that episode is recreated, with a pretty great punchline tacked on. And I really can’t say enough about how great Miles’ “impression” of Norris is. The speech pattern is spot on.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

The first of a few great cameos. Saul reprises his advice to sell in bulk from “Mandala,” as well as his “I know a guy who knows a guy…” bit, and I can’t tell if it’s genuinely good writing or just an expectedly stellar Odenkirk reading, but this ends up being the biggest laugh of the sketch for me.

Also interesting is that this was shot on the actual set for Saul’s office. (Prove me wrong, internet!) Since the show’s finished shooting the set is probably destroyed, meaning they must have shot Odenkirk’s scene a while back. Or maybe it still exists for the Better Call Saul spinoff. Who knows.

Either way, this shows obvious buy-in from the Breaking Bad folks themselves, which is lovely.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy heads into the Roots’ vehicle (yes…the R.V.) which is billowing with smoke…just as Walt and Jesse’s R.V. was during cooks. Jimmy then meets Gus, who is exactly what you might expect so I won’t talk about that…

…but I will mention the pink teddy bear behind him. It’s the same teddy bear we saw in the black and white intro sequences to “Seven Thirty-Seven,” “Down,” “Over” and “ABQ.” And I’ve only just recently realized that those episode titles can be read together to explain what happened. Gilligan, you sly shit.

Oddly the teddy bear appears later behind Gus as well, in a different place, so either the Fallon crew just stuck it in the background again to make sure we saw it, or they’ve drawn some kind of connection between it and Gus Fring…which seems incorrect unless I’ve misread something.

The bucket of chicken reads Los Pollos Humanos…the chicken humans? I might be missing something. And the chickens in the picture are people in costumes, holding musical instruments. But they’re white guys so they’re not The Roots. Why am I thinking about this chicken bucket.

ADDITIONAL: Commenter Shawambam not only stole the name I was going to give my first-born son, he pointed me toward a youtube clip of the “chicken band” we see here. Evidently Fallon has these guys in chicken outfits come out and perform songs in the style of guys in chicken outfits. So NOW WE ALL KNOW.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are both in Jimmy’s very disappointed audience. I know this isn’t a direct reference and is just a cameo, but I’m interested by the fact that they aren’t sitting together…presumably because their lines were shot at different times.

I also want to say that Aaron Paul is the only man alive who can pull off a “Boo, bitch.”

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

An irate Cranston throws a pizza at Fallon so perfectly that it’s the second biggest laugh of the entire sketch to me. This is of course a reference to Walter angrily hurling a pizza in “Caballo Sin Nombre.”

And do pizza places actually sell unsliced pizza?

I kind of want one. I’d sit on the couch holding a massive unsliced pizza, just eating it and weeping.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

You can’t tell from a screen shot (so I bet you’re glad I took a screen shot) but the time-lapse sequence here mirrors similar scene transitions on the show.

This was a shitty part of the article. Ignore it.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Gus’ office is 737ABQ, referencing the episodes “Seven Thirty-Seven” and “ABQ,” as well as Albuquerque in general, which is where Breaking Bad is both shot and set.

Jimmy and Gus engage in a vaudeville version of Walt’s “I am the one who knocks” speech from “Cornered,” and there is a note on the board that reads “Better Call Saul,” which is the title of another Breaking Bad episode, as well as Saul Goodman’s slogan.

What else is on the whiteboard? I’m glad you asked…there’s a drawing of a fly. This is a reference to another episode title, “A Drawing of a Fly.”

I have a feeling that the shot of Jimmy walking toward the office with his back to the camera is a reference to a specific scene in the show, but I can’t place it. So do that for me.

ADDITIONAL: The walk is framed identically to one toward the start of “Full Measure,” with the camera following Walt from the same angle as he approaches Gus, Mike and Victor after running over the drug dealers. I figured that out. I did that. I did that without any of you!

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Gus reads a joke so funny he’ll laugh his ass off, and we cut to the hallway and hear an explosion. As in “Face Off,” Gus steps through the door, adjusts his tie, and the camera circles around to reveal…

…that he’s fine. His face is okay. His ass, however, as he walks away, is indeed missing. And while I wouldn’t say it’s brilliant or anything, I do really like the way they dropped hints to this happening throughout the sketch. It feels like they at least tried to capture the layered narrative approach of Breaking Bad, even for this dumb little comedy whatsit about an exploding butt.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

Miles interrogates a Hector Salamanca-like figure, in what is a reference to a similar interrogation of the invalid in either “Bit By a Dead Bee” or “Face Off.” Behind Miles is a Lilly of the Valley, and since somebody stole some pot from me this morning I am now positive that Walter White used that type of plant to poison a kid.

Joking Bad, Jimmy Fallon

The sketch ends with a reveal of our Hector surrogate, which doubles as the only funny thing Jay Leno’s done in approximately 45 years.

So! What did I miss?

To'hajiilee, Breaking Bad

One of the things I loved about the British version of The Office was its willingness to admit that however realistic it would have liked to appear — and however “actually real” it was within the show’s own universe — every episode was, necessarily, a fabrication. It’s all summed up in a great speech by Tim, in which he invites the camera crew to come back in a few years and check on him then. An ending isn’t an ending unless you choose to see it that way. The cameras stop rolling, the credits come up…but these people still go on with their lives.

That was Tim’s point. Maybe it looks tragic now, but come back later and things might look great. Sure enough, the cameras came back later and things looked great…but that wasn’t an ending either.

An “ending” is just a dividing line. A boundary. It’s a structural necessity because nothing can go on forever. We can drop it at a moment of triumph, or we can drop it at a moment of sadness. But whatever we do, wherever we put it, it’s a choice. And it’s a choice that informs our reading of everything that came before.

When we end on a downbeat, we feel as though everything we’ve just seen was the prelude to a fall. When we end on an upbeat, we know we’ve been building toward a crowning moment of glory.

The ending is important. Not to the characters, who will continue with their fictional lives long after we’ve stopped paying attention, but to us, as an audience. Because we want what we’ve experienced to have meaning. And, for better or for worse, we turn to the ending to help us find it. We also, unfortunately, end up oversimplifying the work as a whole. The ending matters…but it shouldn’t be all that matters.

I’ve always been fascinated by this. Hypothetically, if we had a story that followed, say 50 years of prosperity in a man’s life followed by a shorter time frame, a final two years or so, in which he was broke, unloved, and homeless…if he went from riding high to dying in the streets…we’d read that as a tragedy. On the other hand, if we had a story that followed 50 years of a man living as a bum, without a penny to his name, and he suddenly found himself flush with cash and living a life of luxury for the final couple of years of his life, we’d see that as triumph.

Why? Because of the ending.

In neither case does the bulk of the story matter*…it’s the ending. It doesn’t matter that 50 years were spent high on the hog and only two in the gutter…we focus on the gutter, because that’s where it ended. We view stories in terms of trajectory, rather than in terms of “time spent in any given situation.” We don’t measure…we follow. We want the characters we like to end high and the characters we dislike to fall low. How much time, energy or effort it takes to get them there is secondary; we want to know where they end up.

Endings have always been a strong point of Breaking Bad, with just about every one of them falling perfectly to serve as dividing lines on both sides: as an endcap to one chapter, and as an equally effective starting point for the next. When handled correctly — as this show almost unfailingly has handled them — they illustrate Tim’s point: you can break this off whenever you like, but things keep going. Things keep happening. Maybe you’ll tune in next week and maybe there won’t be a next week…but an ending isn’t really an ending.

At least twice during “To’hajiilee,” the idea of endings weighed heavily on my mind…and that’s not counting the episode’s actual ending, which is unquestionably seductive enough to attract all of our focus away from whatever machinations and manipulations it took to get us there. If I were to ask you right now to tell me the first thing that comes to mind about this episode, would you have any answer other than the gunfight?

I doubt it. Even though “Rabid Dog” left us smacking our lips for a week wondering what Jesse’s plan was, that’s not what we remember most when we finally see it fulfilled. Because suddenly that ending, which was so important to us, means a lot less when compared against a newer ending.

Jesse’s plan? Who gives a shit. This is where we are now.

Throughout “To’hajiilee” I kept expecting those credits to hit like a gunshot. Back of the head. No pain. But, as Uncle Jack knows, and Winston Smith before him, it doesn’t work if you’re expecting it. The time has to be right. And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt speeding away to save his money.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt cowering behind a boulder.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt in handcuffs.

And that’s why the episode didn’t end with Walt frantically trying to call off a hit.

That’s why the episode ended with a gunfight. A gunfight that at this very moment — this moment, frozen in time — can go either way. But the next episode’s in the can…it already has gone one way. It’s already happened. We’re behind. There’s an answer, but for another week we’re left only with a question.

And it’s a question that informs everything that came before it. Will we re-watch “To’hajiilee” through the filter of Jesse’s plan, or through the filter of screaming gunfire? Will we hear Hank’s phone conversation with Marie as the relief that his investigation is over, or as the last thing he says to her before an undoubtedly fatal shootout?

There’s a kind of cheapness involved when you break an episode at the peak of its action. It feels unfair…but I’m not sure “To’hajiilee” is unfair. I’m sure it feels that way…but it does seem also like the best possible ending; it says a lot about what came before, and it gives us a hell of a starting point for the next chapter.

What does it say about the episode? Well, I’d love to hear what you think…but for me, the way the entire hour unfolded felt a lot like what Kurt Vonnegut described in Walter Jr.’s favorite book, Breakfast of Champions. There Vonnegut discusses what it’s like to control characters as you write for them…you don’t just force them to do things; you guide their movements. You can “control” them in the sense that you are pulling their strings…but they’re long strings, elastic, with a lot of slack, and while you can ultimately get them wherever they need to be, there’s a lot that they can do on their own along the way…and they might be things you don’t expect.

That’s what “To’hajiilee” was about. Both Walt and Hank are at odds, but they’re not at direct odds. They’re both acting through intermediaries. Jessie, Andrea, Brock, Gomez, Huell, Uncle Jack…to some extent Skyler and Marie. Saul. These are people trapped in a game much larger than them, being played by two opponents who don’t care how many pawns they lose if it can inch them closer to victory.

But it’s not quite that direct. They can only guide their pieces. They can only suggest courses of action, and hope that they follow. Because when Walt tugs on that string, something happens. And there might be too much slack to get it to stop. The same thing happened to poor Hank when he pulled his own string by having Gomez cuff Walter.

Uncle Jack to the rescue.

I think Breaking Bad earned this ending, as much as I’d actually like to say that it didn’t. I’d like to say that it was a cheap way to get us to tune in next week. I’d like to say that it was manipulative and artificial.

But in reality, it wasn’t. The ending is earned, because the story could actually end here.

It doesn’t, and we know that, but it could.

We wouldn’t have to know who wins. It wouldn’t matter. What would matter is how it informed the story that came before. And it would have to be a story of long-term manipulation and the impossibility of total control, of how innocent lives are used in the greater service of a reward that ends up unclaimed and under ground, of how the smallest decisions add up to the largest, most devastating consequence.

In short, it’d have to be the story that Breaking Bad has already been telling for five seasons.

It works. And we’re going to focus on the ending, as we should.

But we shouldn’t focus on it as the question of who wins…we should focus on it as the answer: it doesn’t actually matter.

—–
* At least, not unless the artist makes it matter. I’m discussing writing here in a very general sense, and certainly you (and I) would be able to provide countless counter-examples. But I think it’s still worth thinking about. When we reach the end of The Great Gatsby, do we think “Well, the guy at least got to have those awesome parties for so long”? When we reach the end of Of Mice and Men, do we think “At least for all those years, they had each other”? Or, in the context of this show…what do we remember about Old Yeller? Just about everything we read or watch or listen to gets filtered through its own ending. We award the final moments with a sense of paramount importance by default…and I’ve always found that interesting.

Rabid Dog, Breaking Bad

As much as I want to like “Rabid Dog,” there’s a structural problem I have with it, a serious one, and I’m finding it difficult to move past that. See, Breaking Bad has always, until this point at least, been written and edited to suit an hour-long time slot. With commercial breaks factored in that gives us around 45 minutes per episode, and by and large the show has worked very well to make the most of its time.

But, for whatever reason, Vince Gilligan and his team decided this late in the game that “Rabid Dog” would be only 11 minutes long. And that’s a problem. By short-changing us on a full episode this close to the end, Breaking Bad has cheated its audience. And while “Rabid Dog” does a lot of things right, it’s difficult to…

…hold on. Wait. I just checked and the episode was indeed about as long as any other.

My apologies. It only felt like it was 11 minutes long, and seemed so convincingly short that I actually said the word “No…!” when the credits faded in.

Yes, those first two paragraphs are just a hilarious joke. “Rabid Dog” continues the season 5 back-half tradition of every episode being significantly better than the already great episode that came before. I loved “Rabid Dog.” It managed, somehow, to be so packed with plot developments and artful narrative stalling, yet still felt incredibly short. That’s what happens when every second of your episode is used to its fullest potential; you get the whole chapter, but it’s still not enough.

For starters, before we even get into anything that happened here, I want to take a moment to appreciate the framework of “Rabid Dog.” The episode begins as a Walt story, which unfolds in a straight-forward manner, looking neither to the left nor the right, until suddenly we snap right back to where the episode began…and this time it’s a Jesse story*.

The paths converge toward the end of the episode, giving us a genuinely effective sense of impending clash. While the twin narratives do inform each other and fill in the gaps that we need in order to know exactly what happened, the point at which they come together is graceless by design, and dangerously so. The clean ending that we could have had is butchered by circumstance. A whole universe of “What if…” is born, and immediately dissolves before our eyes. First Walt and then Jesse are pulled along by the strings of fate, toward what could have been — whatever shape it would take — a full and complete resolution.

For better or for worse both Jesse and Walt are given more time to ponder the kind of ending they want this story to have.

Part of me — and I don’t mean this negatively — wondered if the structure of “Rabid Dog” wasn’t born in the edit, with someone getting the legitimately bright idea, in post-production, to split the two narratives and follow them both in isolation rather than cutting between them. I wondered this simply because Breaking Bad hasn’t really employed story-telling trickery like this before. It’s never needed to. I’d argue that it still doesn’t need to.

But the more I think about it, the more I feel that “Rabid Dog” does need this. Walt is in isolation, with Skyler his only source of potential guidance. And Jesse is also in isolation, with Hank his only source of potential guidance. Neither of them want to take advice from these people…but neither of them have anybody else anymore. Cutting between the two would have worked just fine, I think, but by separating them completely we become privy, at least to some extent, to how that isolation feels. And what it means. Both Walt and Jesse are sleeping in strange beds. They’re cut off from the worlds they knew, and still don’t know what world they’ll know next. They’re stuck.

Then there’s also the glorious reveal that Walt arrived with his handgun literally seconds too late to see Hank and Jesse pulling away from his house. That’s something that can’t have been born in the edit; that’s great planning. If only Walt had trimmed down his stammering bullshit about the Coke machine last week…another universe of “What If…”

I guess if I did have anything to complain about here, it would be a very minor gripe that, suddenly, Steve Gomez knows that Walt’s Heisenberg and that’s that. In one episode he doesn’t know anything, in this episode he knows everything. That’s a conversation that I would have really liked to hear, especially since we’ve spent three episodes dancing around the fact that Hank couldn’t tell anybody.

Now he can. And did. And we didn’t see it and oh well I guess.

Again, though, that’s nothing major…just a step that I really didn’t expect to see skipped.

Four episodes down in the final batch, and four to go. Skyler wants Walt to kill Jesse, and Hank is prepared to get Jesse killed in service of his own agenda. The scene, by the way, in which Hank reveals to Gomez that he couldn’t care less what happens to Jesse was perfect. I like that as easy as it would be right now to turn Hank into a paragon of virtue — and as much as we’d like to see him that way as an audience — the show is making sure that we still can’t root for him without reservation. There is no good guy left on the show…at least not truly good. Just different degrees of bad…and different kinds of bad…for different reasons. Shades within shades.

I wish I had more to say about “Rabid Dog,” but there’s almost nothing to do apart from list the things that I loved. Like Jesse unsure of whether Marie was Hank’s wife. Saul’s only, but absolutely classic, scene in the car. Skyler’s “What’s one more?” rationalization. The pump malfunction. The little girl hugging her daddy.

I would have loved to have heard that conversation between Walt and Jesse on the bench. The one we were promised, and the one we all wanted.

But Jesse stops before he gets there. He has another idea. Hank — and we — are frustrated. That’s what we needed to happen.

Don’t worry, Jesse assures Hank, speaking for the writing staff. He, and they, have something better in mind.

And I, for one, believe them.

I just hope the next episode is a full 45 minutes.

—–
* Is there any other show in the world, by the way, that achieves such tension even when nothing is happening? Walt combing the house with his gun is just a gigantic mislead, and not even a surprising one, but the entire sequence is tight as a fist. Thinking back, the show has had a lot of moments like this — the twins sitting on Walt’s bed come instantly to mind — and they’re all incredible. How many shows can successfully make nothing feel like a heart attack?

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