Cornered & Problem Dog
Photo: Still from Breaking Bad Locations
Of all the characters on Breaking Bad, none is more maligned and misunderstood than Skyler.
She has been onto Walt from the very beginning, always dubious about the cascading lies that comprehensively seized control of her entire life and sense of self. Skyler’s detractors call her a bore, a nag, an annoyance, a pointless drain on a steam-engine of a plot. It’s a shame, really. Anna Gunn’s performance has always been the most underrated and sneakily complex. She isn’t filling some mammoth void of inferiority with danger. She isn’t trying to prove to her worth to her family or to her friends through money or career achievement. She doesn’t have a need to chase down the bad guys to give herself a purpose. She merely loved her children and her husband and valued them above all else. She used to be very normal person, living a very normal life, completely fulfilled by the very mundanity that apparently sapped Walt.
Now, she’s just trying to keep her family alive.
Skyler has intuited hints about just how dangerous the world that Walt lives in actually is. Unschooled in the dark arts of meth manufacturing, massive drug distribution, and their attending duties and obligations, she has been forced to piece together tidbits about Walt’s daily transactions and use her imagination about the terrible things she sees on the local news to fill in the blanks. That quivering, frantic message that Walt left on her phone sounds different to her upon repeated listens. She now realizes that Walt was trying to say goodbye to her and furthermore, that Gale’s death is somehow directly resultant from the things Walt has done.
In “Cornered”, we’re reminded that it isn’t just Walt who feels his world caving in all around. For as intimate as Walt is with danger, his association with great peril is a volitional one. Skyler’s original fear about Walt’s proximity to death and destruction looks almost quaint in consideration of the harsh truth: that Walt himself is the source of the all of the awful things that she once feared for him. This is only partially true.
As much as Walt fancies himself a drug lord, he sits somewhere below the very top echelon of the pyramid. Despite the designs Walt had for himself and Jesse to go into the meth business for themselves, they have very much become hired hands of Gus Fring. Walt might enjoy the feeling derived from buying his son a new Dodge Challenger or 86ing Bogdan from the carwash where he once toiled during weeknights and weekends to make ends meet, but Walt is still convincing himself of his gangster bona fides as much as he is anyone else.
From the beginning, Walt has tried to exert as much control over the circumstances he has chosen for himself and that control is ever-fleeting. That proprietary blend of chemicals and processes that produces the purest meth the southwestern United States has ever seen is complex to be sure, but his bosses and Jesse alike know that it is not impossible to learn. Even the wizard in the Wizard of Oz is replaceable eventually. The “Mike Meetings” that Jesse now finds himself routinely apart of take place conspicuously absent of Walt and he knows the reasoning Jesse’s heightened involvement.
“It’s all about me,” Walt grumbles. It’s a predictably narcissistic conclusion, and only partially accurate. The fate of Jesse and Walt has always been inextricably linked. Their fates in the drug world have never existed independently.
After one of these meetings (see drug/money pickups) gone awry results in a particularly brave performance by Jesse, Gus lauds him for his courage in the line of fire. It’s clear now that the chess game between Walt and Gus has affixed its purpose on the fate of Jesse, always the pawn.
Like Skyler, Jesse’s life has been forever altered because of his relationship with Walt. However, unlike Skyler, Jesse still believes he can operate in the meth underworld with free will. He knows that Gus and Walt are fighting to control him, but he somehow believes in the end he pulls the strings, that he will be picking his own puppet master.
In Breaking Bad, these characters pick their own delusion. For Walt, it’s that nerdy ogre construct in the funny hat named Heisenberg. For Jesse, it’s the notion that Walt is not the monster he suspects him to be and the hope that he can someday have a relatively normal life with family that actually loves him. Hank loves playing the cowboy in the white hat at the expense of having a real family that would require the commitment he would rather spend chasing bad guys.
Only Skyler has properly assessed the cold calculus of her situation. She knows that any control she might now possess over her life is but a mere illusion. She has only three people to worry about, herself and her two children and that each decision she makes that furthers Walt’s cause, she makes not to keep him out of jail, but to spare herself and her children the shame and the danger of what might happen if Walt really does screw this whole meth empire thing up.
Walt, Jesse and Hank like to play the role of guardian when it suits them. But when Skyler says that “someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family,” she shows she’s the one who actually means it. Robert Downs Schultz
Photo: Ben Leuner/AMC
S4E7 Problem Dog
He should be dead. He wasn’t meant to last beyond “A No-Rough-Stuff Type Deal” but he was just too good to let go. Any lingering doubt that retaining Jesse beyond the First Season was the right idea was comprehensively ground up and scattered in the desert by his appearance at the group therapy session in “Problem Dog”. Still tormented by his killing of Gale, Jesse is desperate to be punished; to be denied the acceptance that the softly spoken counselor insists is possible. He pushes the soft-spoken counselor and his fellow addicts, transposing Gale onto the titular dog and unloading his guilt. He fails. He killed Gale but the sky didn’t fall in. He hasn’t been dragged to Hell. He killed him and ... nothing.
“If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s the point?” he asks, his eyes floating in tears, “What’s it all mean?’
What indeed. Aaron Paul is firing on all cylinders, giving a pained performance that is shot through with the nihilism that has punctuated the Breaking Bad since Walter’s diagnosis. The whole thing began with the postponed finality of cancer and doom has hung over the show ever since. Thousands of words have been written on the topic of Walter’s malign epiphany as a release of decades of frustration, but much of it is connected to his belief that he would have left the party by the time of the next Olympics. The recklessness of his pursuit was enabled by his belief that nothing really mattered—for him personally at least—because he was, like an Albuquerquean Samurai, already dead. But then, of course, he did get better. Life, that accursed thing, came back. The nihilism remained. And now, with Gus gunning for him, death has returned to haunt his horizon. So what’s the point?
The first victim is the Challenger. As a symbol of youth, life and exuberance (the 16-year-old Hank would have “given his left nut for 15 minutes with it”) it doesn’t fit the narrative. Skyler, correctly, points out that it’s a liability. It has to go back, even if it’ll cost them eight hundred bucks. What’s the point? Might as well tear it up and blow the thing sky high. All that money and his only indulgence is to destroy something. In for a penny, in for a pound. Or, in for $800, in for $52,000. Who’s counting? Certainly not Walter. In “Seven Thirty-Seven” he was able to mentally calculate the precise sum he’d need to make for his family before he would be free to die. Now, he doesn’t even bother counting the money he’s actually making. It’s only money after all, and what’s the point?
$52,000 really isn’t a great deal of money, not when you’re bringing in $7.5 million a year, and especially not when accounting for it is so much trouble. Skyler, now at least partly on board with the nature of their activities balks at the scale of it. No carwash in the world makes that kind of money. It would be easier for them to make less money (and certainly to bring it in in smaller denominations) but on they go at Walter’s express insistence. And the point? The point escapes him.
But there is a point to something. Hank, who has started to emerge from his post traumatic stress chrysalis, and as such, is further along the road than Jesse, has really got his mojo back. His tracing of the Gale/Gus connection is an outstanding piece of detective work…
It reveals that Hank has a natural mistrust of people that allows him to see through a façade. Gus’ public persona of hardworking businessman, philanthropist and DEA booster fools everyone except for Hank (and Walter, who took his time working it out). Joining the dots that connected Gale with Gus and Los Pollos Hermanos with Madrigal Elektromotive GMBh (making their first solid appearance) took determination and the feeling that there was a point. Hank, unlike Walter, has an endgame in sight. He wants Heisenberg in cuffs, and he wants blue sky off the streets. There is a point to this work. He has a destination that he wants to work towards. Walter and Jesse have nothing. They do what they do through reflex. There is no point.
“Problem Dog” is a key episode for one of Breaking Bad‘s specific themes, that of response to trauma. Hank, Jesse, Gus and above all, Walter, have all been brought to the edge by some kind of terrible event, and have to earn their way back. Gus has his revenge mission on Don Eladio, Walter, his cancer diagnosis, Jesse, the killing of Gale, and Hank, his shooting by the Cousins. Walter is the only one of the quartet whose epiphany came from something other than the drug trade, which is ironic, given all the trouble that he has caused others in the pursuit of it.
They respond at their own pace. Jesse may be hitting bottom but Hank is swimming rapidly towards the surface. His investigation of the Gus angle is masterful. Smart, intelligent detective work. What’s more, he demonstrates the determinism that seems set to dominate the final eight. And the rocks, sorry, minerals? Who cares about them anymore, he’s doing real work now and as for anything else, well, what’s the point? Michael Noble