And just like that, Breaking Bad’s fourth season has flipped itself into what could potentially be as superior as Season Three. Last week’s episode, “Cornered,” picked up the pace quite nicely, shifting the focus more onto Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) internal conflicts and drug lord Gus’ (Giancarlo Esposito) suddenly flimsy empire. Gus continued his efforts to turn Jesse against Walt (Bryan Cranston), telling the young, disturbed meth cook that he “sees something” in him.
In last night’s equally strong episode, “Problem Dog,” Gus’ righthand hit-man Mike (Jonathan Banks) filled Jesse in on what that “something” could possibly be, and it’s quite possibly Gus’ best Jedi Mind Trick move on Jesse’s fragile psyche thus far. In addition to that “something,” Season Four’s seventh episode offered several developments that reminded us why AMC’s best show (that’s right, Mad Men) is arguably tops against any network’s No. 1 Contender, and, at the same time, quelled any earlier suspicions that Breaking Bad’s 2011 stretch could ultimately lower Breaking Bad’s creative stock—after Marie’s (Betsy Brandt) pointless kleptomaniac spree in episode three, “Open House,” can you blame us for having felt a bit concerned?
Well, good riddance, worries. “Problem Dog” hit on all fronts and magically altered Season Four’s demeanor from entertainingly sluggish to full-steam-ahead riveting. Here’s why, exactly:
Jesse’s Mental Tug-Of-War Has Reached A Possible Breaking Point
Like the best Breaking Bad episodes, “Problem Dog” opens with a brief yet powerful pre-credits “cold open.” Alone in his graffiti-coated living room, Jesse is entranced by a first-person shooter, what appears to be Rage (which, much to jealous Breaking Bad-watching gamers’ frustration, doesn’t even hit stores until October); with the video-game-compatible toy pistol in his hand, he’s standing in the same position that he did when he shot Gus’ favorite nice guy cook, and Walt’s top competition, Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) in the face at the end of last season. The cold-blooded execution of an innocent man that has haunted Jesse all season, and that visibly fucks with his mind as he blows away the game’s antagonists. As Jesse pumps fake lead into the monsters’ heads, he sees flashes of Gale’s own mug catching a slug, a real gun replacing the toy one with each glimpse of Gale’s replayed homicide.
Jesse, clearly in need of a Game Genie, dies, which prompts a “Mission Failed” announcement and the choice to either “Restart” or “Quit”; after intense deliberation, he chooses the former, indicating that he’s ready to kill again if need be. And who might he need to shoot? If he listens to Walt (who slickly reminds Jesse about how Gus’ actions killed his girlfriend’s little brother last season), it’s time to assassinate Gus, but if Gus and Mike’s plan to manipulate Jesse into rebelling against Walt reaches its complete fruition, then who knows…maybe it’s time to kill Walt. Or, if Jesse continues to sink deeper into his own personal, hellish abyss (which he will by episode’s end), will he point the gun inward? There’s no “Restart” option after that.
He’s not ready to use a gun, but, after Walt beats Gus’ devilish tactics into Jesse’s head, the tormented Mr. Pinkman vocally opts to administer Gus’ comeuppance himself; no doubt relieved, Walt cooks up a special batch of poison (in Gus’ own lab, mind you) and gives it to Jesse as a much smarter murder weapon. Jesse packs the lethal powder into a “lucky cigarette.” But, later on, Jesse hesitates during two prime opportunities to offer the deadly zig-zag to Gus, both of which come as Gus meets with a representative for the rival cartel in Gus’ secluded trailer; the meeting doesn’t go well, though we don’t know what the cartel wants from Gus just yet. On the way home, Jesse asks Mike what that “something” is that Gus sees in him, and, per Mike’s view, it’s loyalty, “Although maybe you got it for the wrong guy.”
Hank’s No Longer A Bed-Ridden Vegetable
Finally able to leave his house, crippled Hank (Dean Norris) is officially back on the job, so to speak. He’s still bothered by his discovery of a Los Pollos Hermanos flyer in Gale’s “Lab Notes” evidence package, since Gale was a hardcore vegan. So Hank decides to take Walter Jr. to get some fried chicken at, where else, Gus’ fast food joint. Gus—in smiley, charming mode, the opposite of his meth-running self—personally greets Hank and Junior, even offering Junior a part-time job at Los Pollos Hermanos, a maneuver that’s delivered so pleasantly that it’s easy to overlook how tactical it is in terms of Gus’ control over Walt; if Gus becomes Junior’s boss, imagine the leverage he’d have over his disgruntled, wants-to-kill-Gus meth cook?
Gus’ friendly disposition is so unexpectedly disarming that it also distracts the viewer from what’s really going down: The whole trip to eat what Junior calls “great chicken” is an investigative strategy on Hank’s part. After Gus asks if he needs anything else, Hank requests a Diet Coke; Gus personally gets the drink, which leaves his fingerprints on the cup, giving Hank a devastating piece of evidence against the Chicken Man. As “Problem Dog” closes, Hank sits down with two of his DEA counterparts in their office, lays out his case against Gus as Gale’s drug bankroller, and defies their skepticism with said prints. Meaning, frankly, Gus’ enterprise is fucked, not to mention that, now, Walt and Jesse are also closer to getting caught, by Walt’s brother-in-law, no less.
Aaron Paul Lobbies For Another Emmy Statue
Breaking Bad fans rejoiced when Aaron Paul won his first-ever Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series last year; in “Problem Dog,” he showed that his victory was no fluke. So far this season, Jesse’s been an internalized character, given less showy scenes than Breaking Bad’s other primary players, yet Paul has maintained his excellence, but one scene in particular last night blew everything else he’s done this season out of the water worse than that bitch Irene.
Looking to feel something, and break out of his detached mental state, Jesse stumbles back into his old 12-step meeting group, where he opens up about killing a “problem dog.” Gale, whoops, the dog, didn’t do anything, Jesse admits, but he still had to put it down, anyway; one of other group members calls him out for shooting an innocent animal, an attack with which Jesse agrees. But then lashes out against his counselor (“You backed your truck over your own kid”), calls everyone in the room his “bitch,” and divulges the truth that he only went to the meetings to sell meth to his fellow junkies. “You’re nothing to me but customers!”
The demoralizing and forceful monologue allowed Jesse to unleash the bottled-up fury, confusion, fear, and guilt he’s been harboring all season in one epic freakout, and Paul absolutely nailed it. At this rate, it’s looking like the actor will have a few more opportunities to impressively emote, whether it’s taking Gus out or fatally betraying Walt in one way or another. Thanks to the splendid “Problem Dog,” how the season’s four remaining episodes play out for Jesse/Paul is “something” we’re itching to witness.