The “Problem Dog” of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” episode title is a fictional creation, something Jesse uses to stand in for Gale Boetticher when he tries to explain to his addiction recovery group what it is that has him so adrift. But at the same time, the title could refer to any number of the characters, all of whom bite and fight against the restrictions placed on them by Gus (or bite and fight to get to Gus). Gus Fring, of course, has constructed such an elaborate life for himself that it would seem that nothing could bring it down. But sometimes the smallest of things can wreck the mightiest of empires.
“Problem Dog” is also a terrific example of the show doing what it does best: slowly increasing the tension until the characters all seem like they’re on the verge of destroying each other. Walter’s plotting to kill Gus via Jesse. Gus is plotting to separate Jesse and Walt, to drive a wedge between them that will bring the latter down (and pull the former in line). Hank is plotting to build a case against Gus, the man he’s sure is atop a massive drug empire, even though all he has to go on are conjecture and a few fingerprints. Skyler is plotting to keep the family afloat, trickling just enough money through the car wash to appear as though the family is doing well but not remarkably well. And the writers are plotting to bounce all of these characters off of each other without having any of them explode just yet.
This is one of the things I was talking about way back before we started discussing this season in earnest, when I’d seen the first three episodes and nothing else. Last season, the show expertly used the cousins – twin mercenaries from Mexico – to ramp up tension and increase the body count. It was never immediately certain where and when the cousins would show up, but it was always certain the only person they’d listen to was Gus. (He was the only one, ultimately, who could call them off of killing Walter when they were sitting in the former’s bedroom.) This season, however, the show has gone all in on the slow build, on increasing the amount of character complications (Gus all but offers Walt Jr., a job tonight) while also increasing the pressure on those characters to see if they finally snap.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at all of the “problem dogs” yapping at the edges of Gus’ peripheral vision.
Walt: Of course we’re going to lead with Walt, who’s actively plotting to get Jesse to kill Gus, using the same odorless, tasteless poison he developed to kill Tuco way back in Season 2. (This is obviously going to do someone in by the time this show is finished.) Walt goads Jesse into performing the awful deed by reminding him of all of the misery Gus has been responsible for in both of their lives, but by the time Jesse finally has a chance to slip Gus the poison (while preparing his coffee for a sitdown with the cartel), the kid is sufficiently intrigued enough in just what Gus is up to (and what he “sees” in Jesse) that he doesn’t dose the coffee and lies to Walt about having had the opportunity to kill Gus. Still, Walt is clearly chafing at the fact that he’s once again living under a death notice he can do very little about. He sets fire to cars, asks Saul to find him a hitman (all of the hitmen Saul knows also know Mike), and treats Skyler poorly when she asks just where they’re going to put all of this money before laundering it. Of all of the problem dogs in this show, Walt is perhaps the least predictable, other than the fact that it’s obvious he’s on the edge of an explosion.
Hank: Gus doesn’t even know it, but Hank has him dead to rights. Hank doesn’t even really know it yet. He’s just got a vague suspicion that a vegan like Gale wouldn’t be the type to eat fried chicken, and he follows that suspicion all the way to obtaining Gus’ fingerprint, then matching it to a fingerprint found in Gale’s apartment. (The scene where Hank does this is wonderfully fraught with tension, particularly in the faux-friendliness among Hank, Walt Jr. and Gus, and in the moment where Walt, Jr., tells Hank about the car Walt bought him, the one Skyler was intent on keeping secret.) It seems likely that Gus isn’t even aware he’s on Hank’s radar, let alone aware that Hank is incredibly close to knocking down the entire Fring empire. (In my one small quibble with this episode, Hank’s renewed vigor extends to his ability to walk. Suddenly, he can use walkers and canes to get around slowly but surely, where he was struggling to walk all of 20 steps a week or so ago.)
The cartel: A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how since we don’t know Gus’ ultimate plan, it was hard to judge his actions in a lot of ways. This goes double for the cartel. They’re obviously people Gus has some sort of deal with and people he’s dealt with in the past, but they’ve also obviously made an offer to Gus that he simply can’t accept. (I’d presume it has something to do with splitting the profits from the blue meth.) Gus perhaps can’t afford to waste too much time on Walter and can’t afford to keep an eye on the DEA because he’s so busy trying to keep the cartel from escalating the quiet war between the two groups. And while he’s got Mike on his side, it’s increasingly clear that his other soldiers are falling at a rapid pace. No wonder he’s trying to turn Jesse into another point in his favor.
“Problem Dog” is a fairly remarkable piece of television – indeed, it would be if only for the scene where Jesse breaks down at the meeting and finally pushes the counselor leading the meeting (good ol’ Jere Burns, returning after being slightly underused last season) too far and angrily cries out about how he has yet to be punished for Gale’s murder (all through coded language, no less) – but what’s best about it is how many different potential explosions it sets up. Last season at this point, Hank got into that desperate fight with the cousins, the one that landed him in a wheelchair for a good long while. But this season, it’s not immediately clear where any of this is going, which is fascinating. There have been complaints about this season moving too slowly, both far and wide, but I think after this episode, it’s abundantly clear that everybody – even Gus – is in over his or her heads, and they’re all just beginning to figure this out.
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-- Todd VanDerWerff
Photo: Hank (Dean Norris) follows his gut to find clues pointing the way toward Gus Fring. Credit: AMC