Episode Review: Breaking Bad – “Problem Dog”
(Disclaimer: Breaking Bad is such a richly developed show that there is much more to discuss than there is in your average television drama. As such, this review is going to be formatted a little differently than normal and will be a little longer than usual, but I feel that’s necessary for a show like this. It will also be a discussion of major plot points in the episode so here’s your giant SPOILER ALERT. Don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode. It also assumes that you are a viewer of the show and have a basic familiarity with characters and plots. Onto the review.)
Other than showcasing a fairly strong Hank storyline (which was completely missing from the last episode, “Cornered”) “Problem Dog” was, to me, the weakest episode yet this season. It didn’t seem terribly focused and didn’t carry the impact of the rest of the season’s episodes, but perhaps you disagree. Let’s take a closer look and try to put “Problem Dog” down.
As “Problem Dog” opens, Jesse is playing Rage, a first person shooter video game, in his pit of a house, tellingly using a handgun controller to play the game. He has no problems handling a gun here, likely in part because it’s not real and just maybe because it’s practice for his new gig in Gus’s operation. The lighting in the scene with reds and greens is very stylish and it’s not long before scenes of Jesse playing the game are intercut with flashes of Gale replacing that of the game. It’s great that the murder is still having an impact on Jesse, as it should, and even in a moment of what should be recreation, he’s still haunted. He then contemplates ending the game, but instead goes for another round as the title card hits.
“I’ll kill him. First chance I get.”
Following their argument at the end of “Cornered” about Walt’s impulsive purchase of a brand-new Dodge Challenger for Walt Jr., it appears that Skyler has won this battle as the Challenger is being detailed at the car wash before being returned to the dealership. Skyler makes a point to note to Walt that the dealership didn’t want the car back, despite Walt’s protestations that it only had 17 miles on it, and that she had to talk the dealer down to only charging them an $800 re-stocking fee. She then adds, “And please, don’t tangle with anyone,” no doubt hoping that Walt won’t do any “knocking” when returning the car. We then cut to Walt joyriding the car, doing donuts all over an empty parking lot. He eventually parks the car, surveys the damage he’s caused and decides to vent his frustration by completely destroying the car in a somewhat confusing move. I don’t entirely get the motivation for this type of action – is it supposed to be a giant “fuck you” to Skyler for denying him the ability to give his son a lavish gift, or is it supposed to be a weak demonstration of his perceived power? Maybe an ego thing because he doesn’t want to be emasculated in having to take the car back, yet again allowing his wife to dictate to him? It’s not entirely clear. While he watches the car explode, he calmly calls for a cab and when giving directions to his location he tells the dispatcher, “No, I’m sure he’ll see me,” in a sarcastic wink. As the fallout happens offscreen, we move to Saul’s office as he’s in the midst of striking a deal with the authorities to minimize the damage caused by Walt’s outburst, one that we soon learn cost a total of $52,000 in fines and damages. Oddly for Breaking Bad, this little storyline tangent isn’t entirely resonating like the plotting usually does. For instance, Saul stresses that by agreeing to the deal that he’s brokered, Walt is ensured that “the wife doesn’t find out.” Does this mean that he’s paying the costs out of the money that Skyler hasn’t yet seen? Again, things are left ambiguous and while ambiguity isn’t necessarily bad (and can often be an asset to storytelling) here it’s not really serving the story well. Meanwhile, Walt confides in Saul  that he’s convinced that Gus is coming after him and tries to enlist Saul’s help in securing a hitman’s services, to which Saul replies, “That’s what the kids call ‘epic fail.’” He stresses to Walt that it’s not the route to take, seeing as Mike knows all of the hitters that Saul does. Instead, he suggests using Jesse to get to Gus, taking the story next to Jesse’s house as Walt desperately tries to sell Jesse on the idea of taking Gus out. After Jesse mentions the quick meeting with Gus at the diner in “Cornered,” Walt’s interest  is piqued as he presses Jesse about Gus’s declaration that he “sees things” in Jesse, stressing that, “A month ago, Gus was trying to kill both of us. And now he pulls you out of the lab and employs you as what, an assistant gunman? A tough guy? Does that make any sense to you? He says he sees something in you. What kind of game is he playing? Does he think you’re that naïve?” Walt then hits below the belt, using mention of Teresa and her dead brother to play on Jesse’s guilt, only to find that Jesse doesn’t need much convincing.
Jesse: “I’ll do it.”
Walt: “You’ll do what.”
Jesse: “I’ll kill him. First chance I get.”
 Not entirely the wisest move, given Saul’s questionable loyalties. Walt’s usually smarter than this, even with his blinding ego taken into consideration.
 Read: desperation.
“It’s my lucky cigarette.” “Whatever you do, don’t smoke it.”
Opening at the car wash, Marie is decrying the unappealing selection of air fresheners while pitching Skyler on the idea of a grand opening in order to let people know that they no longer have to “face the eyebrows of doom when they come in.” While letting Skyler know that Hank has been showing improvement in both his recovery as well as general demeanor, Walt enters carrying pallets of soda which leads to a perfectly awkward exchange between the two as they have to put on a nicey-nice show in front of Marie despite their spat over the car. The delivery, however, is merely a front for Walt to wheel his illicit earnings into the building. Skyler is shocked at the amount that he delivers, and is dumbfounded when she learns that he makes $274,000 every two weeks or, $7.5 million annually, “before expenses,” as Walt puts it. Again, showing that Skyler is in over her head, she begins worrying that the car wash won’t be able to realistically cover for that kind of cash, not to mention that customers don’t usually pay for their car to be washed with $50 bills, the denomination of choice of drug kingpins, I suppose. Walt is frustrated with her concerns saying, “This is a simple division of labor. I bring in the money and you launder it…. This is what you wanted,” to which Skyler responds coldly, “I didn’t want any of this.” Walt then returns to the lab, trying to find a spot away from the cameras when it’s revealed that he’s making the same compound he and Jesse used to dispose of Tuco back in season two, this time to eliminate Gus. While Tuco and Gus may both have been big players in the drug game, they operate (operated?) their businesses in a decidedly different manner. Walt assuming that he can eliminate them both via the same means? Not so smart. He then delivers the compound to Jesse  saying, “Why not? Making it in his own lab… seemed appropriate.” Walt’s assumption is that it’s the safest way to remove Gus from the equation, not to mention the most plausible as he believes that Gus’s workload and age will more than account for a sudden heart stoppage. After discussing when and if Jesse will see Gus again, they decide that it’s best for Jesse to keep the compound on his person at all times yet in keep it a way that won’t be easily found if he’s searched, so Jesse pulls out a pack of cigarettes, replaces the tobacco in one of them with the compound, repacks it , and places the cigarette back into the package. Of course Walt can’t help himself from pointing out that it’s in upside down, to which Jesse replies, “It’s my lucky cigarette.” Walt’s response? “Whatever you do, don’t smoke it.” We next see Hank for the first time since “Shotgun” as he and Walt Jr. are rolling into a Los Pollos Hermanos for a lunch. Surely this can’t be a coincidence and indeed, it isn’t as Gus soon appears at their table to welcome them . Gus is at his smarmy, calculating best as he mentions that Hank’s money is no good at the restaurant on account of his heroism while also offering Walt Jr. a part-time job. Hank takes him up on his offer of a refill for his soda, and, in a great quick cut scene the camera goes straight from focusing on Gus refilling the soda at the fountain machine to Hank dumping the drink out while sitting in his truck and then placing the cup (which now includes Gus’s fingerprints) into an evidence bag. Nice work, Mr. Schrader.
 Again enlisting Jesse to do his dirty work for him.
 This leads to a very cool shot of Jesse repacking the cigarette as seen through the bottom of a glass coffee table. Again, another innovative shot from the Breaking Bad creative team.
 It took me a minute to realize why he’d be personally appearing at their table but then I remembered his appearance at the hospital after Hank’s shooting under the guise of being a “friend of the police” and offering a reward leading to the capture of Hank’s shooters. The writers don’t miss a beat.
“This is not a negotiation.”
“Problem Dog’s” third section opens with the odd sight of Jesse holding what appears to be a deli tray in the passenger seat of Mike’s car. Of all of the images Breaking Bad could possibly supply, that of Jesse holding a platter of deli meats is not one that would have been high atop the list of ones I could have predicted, but here we are. They eventually arrive at a trailer in the desert  where they will be running security during Gus’s meeting with the Mexican cartel. Mike instructs Jesse that, “The order of the day is eyes open, mouth shut.” Gus soon emerges from the trailer’s entrance and Mike and Jesse join him inside. Given an opening to complete Walt’s bidding and eliminate Gus once and for all when Mike asks him to make coffee, Jesse either freezes, has second thoughts, or possibly both. While Mike and Gus are occupied going over preparation for the sit-down with the cartel, Jesse proves to be very shaky while reaching for his cigarettes and decides to pull back when Mike offers him a firearm and tells him, “You’re gonna be here today, you’re gonna have a gun.” It’s yet another example of the trust that Gus and Mike are placing in him and it could be a reason for his hesitation in poisoning Gus. The cartel guys  arrive and Gus actually looks rattled as the meeting begins. This is one of the first times we’ve seen any kind of trepidation or nerves from Gus. That has to be significant. Eventually, Gus offers the cartel $50 million in return for their agreement to leave him alone, only to have Cartel Guy contemplate and respond, “Yes or no. You know what the cartel wants. Anything else is a waste of time… This is not a negotiation.” While this is a very interesting turn, Gus actually being able to be bothered by something, it almost feels like there’s something else we’re supposed to know here and it lessens the impact a little. After the meeting, Mike and Jesse leave so Mike can teach Jesse how to properly use his new firearm, confusing Jesse. “What is this? You’re giving me a gun and now I’m part of the team or whatever?” When he asks Mike what exactly Gus sees in him Mike responds, “If I had to put it in a word, I’d guess ‘loyalty.’ Although maybe you got it for the wrong guy.” Rift deepened.
 Is this the same one that we saw in season three where Gus brokered the sit-down meeting between Walt & Jesse and the street dealers who killed Teresa’s brother? If I’m not mistaken, it is.
 The ones from the “Cornered” open.
“You’re nothing to me but customers!”
At the end of his harrowing day, Jesse is standing outside the NA meeting he attended/worked at in season three contemplating whether or not to go in. After some prompting from the group leader, he goes in and confirms that he has in fact been clean for four days. He then begins spinning a tale about having to kill a dog (read: Gale), only to have everyone in the meeting try to explain it away under the guise of his drug use when, in actuality, Jesse wants to be punished for it. He wants to be made to feel awful about his actions but when he experiences a push back from one of the group members, he begins attacking them back and admits that the only reason he began going to the meeting in the first place was to get its attendees to use his meth. “You’re nothing to me but customers!” he screams through tears. Although I’ve been praising Aaron Paul’s work all season, there’s just something about this scene that’s missing. Since Paul has been so spot-on this season, maybe it lies somewhere in the writing and direction of the episode. Peter Gould wrote and directed the episode so let’s just blame him . Later, in the lab, Walt holds a clandestine meeting with Jesse to press him on why nothing’s happened yet, only to be met with an evasive response. Maybe Jesse is beginning to question his loyalty after all. Meanwhile, Hank makes his return to the DEA office for, I believe, the first time since his shooting. After some typical bullshitting with his former partner, Gomez, Hank lays out what he believes to be Gus’s involvement in Gale’s murder to both Gomez and his former superior. We learn that Hank has officially moved away from the possibility of Gale himself being the elusive Heisenberg, but he used the Los Pollos Hermanos napkin to track down an air filtration system  made by a manufacturer that he can draw a straight line from to Los Pollos Hermanos and, thus, Gus himself. Gomez and his boss don’t look like they want to believe that Gus could be involved and they implicitly seem to be treating Hank like he’s a crackpot with Gomez cracking, “If your guy had his meeting at KFC, you wouldn’t assume that he’s sitting down with Col. Sanders.” After some conciliation, Hank drops the bomb: if Gus wasn’t involved, then why were his fingerprints  found in Gale’s apartment? Just a masterful plotting of this thread by Gould and the writers. Hank was set up to look like the type of crazy nut job ranting about conspiracies that we often see in television/film but instead backed up everything he said via some great detective work. Wonderful storytelling here, and one of “Problem Dog’s” best moments overall.
 I have no idea whether it’s really his fault but I’m running out of time so I’m comfortable with it being his fault if you are. He’s generally done good work as a writer, but this is his first directorial effort so maybe it’s just rookie jitters. Good? Good.
 The very one that Gale was unpacking in the flashback that opened “Box Cutter.”
 Obtained via the sly move with the soda cup at the restaurant.
Overall Thoughts: Again, I felt that this was Breaking Bad’s most disappointing effort thus far in the fourth season. That’s relative though as a weaker episode of Breaking Bad is still stronger than 80% of everything else on television. Once again, Hank was the bright spot of an episode and I’m very much enjoying his arc this season, particularly the way in which the writers set up his reveal at the episode’s end. Not a ton of Walt this week (particularly after the halfway mark) and what we did see of him was confusing at best. Even the emotional beat of Jesse at the NA meeting didn’t have the punch that it normally would have. Despite my criticism of “Problem Dog” if, in the long run, this ends up being the season’s “low point,” it will have been a wildly successful season. And I still believe that’s where things are headed.