First off: there is a very good chance that “Problem Dog” contains a piece of television history. David Costabile, who has continued to leave an indelible impression as doomed chemist Gale Boetticher, earned himself a Guest Star credit this week for an appearance that must have totaled around a half-second. Someone with a greater knowledge of TV history will have to get back to me on if this peculiar feat has ever been bested.
We’re officially beyond the halfway mark this week, and Season Four’s pace has yet to quicken significantly – if anything, Gilligan and his writing squad have taken the slow-boil principle of the previous season and taken it a little bit further. Since Gus’s bloody flare-up in the premiere, Breaking Bad has mostly consisted of human chess pieces in slow motion, waiting for the next game-changing moment to urge them forward. Yes, for those watching week-to-week, the pace can be a difficult thing indeed.
What’s most impressive about this season, whatever its flaws may turn out to be (this is a very tricky series to spot narrative problems in immediately, thanks to its slowly unraveling nature), is its unpredictability. By design, Breaking Bad is a show that can only feature so many outcomes. Virtually no plausible ones feature Walt surviving. Hank is too sympathetic and hard-working to not eventually crack the Heisenberg case, one way or another. Jesse can either wrest himself from his chaotic life choices and associations, or he can succumb to them. Essentially, we’re left with a set of binaries – but at this point, Breaking Bad has gotten so good at staying three steps ahead of even the most intrepid viewer, that we are left with the sense that any one of these issues (among the others that have been percolating constantly throughout the show and season) could be resolved or uprooted at any given moment. In other words: it’s still got suspense in spades.
That was best showcased this week through Jesse, who was the real focal point this week for the first time in a while. In the frankly stunning opening, Jesse plays the appropriately titled Rage, taking out baddies with his toy gun – which gets one of the show’s patented fixed-camera shots, as with Jesse’s shovel last week – as near-subliminal flashes of Gale’s murder (hence the aforementioned credit) find their way in. It’s entirely fitting that we get a virtual recreation of Gale’s murder this week, as Jesse is once again entrusted with the task of murdering a key foe. In this case, it’s Gus, via a version of the same odorless, flavorless poison Walt had planned to use on Tuco. Wasn’t there a part of every viewer that wondered, as Jesse fumbled with the powder at Gus’s meeting, that he might well do it? Rationally speaking, of course, there were too many variables to make it a prime opportunity, but still: what if? It’s very much to the credit of Peter Gould, the show’s executive story editor, who takes his first crack at both writing and directing this week (he previously scripted key hours like “Half Measures” and “Better Call Saul”), that the possibility that Jesse might have the nerve to go through with it is at all present, and it’s that slim chance that makes the suspense possible.
As previously mentioned, it’s very much The Jesse Show this week, though we do get welcome appearances from Saul, who’s been tragically absent of late, and from Jere Burns, who reappears – likely for the last time – as Jesse’s drug counselor. In a showstopping scene that might as well be labelled “Aaron’s Emmy Clip.” Jesse publicly airs his regret, anger, and shame for killing Gale, who he refers to as a “problem dog.” No, he never bit anyone, and he wasn’t sick – he just had to go. As he lashes out against his counselor and his fellow addicts, effectively burning his remaining bridges to anywhere but the drug trade, it’s difficult to tell in which direction Jesse will splinter, but it is clear that there fewer good ways forward for Jesse than ever before.
With Hank swiftly making the connection between Gus and Gale this week, it seems increasingly unlikely that all of the major parties – Hank, Mike, Gus, the cartel heads, etc. – are going to make it through the season. But with no cryptic flashforwards or title puzzles to guide us along – even elliptically – the order and magnitude of upcoming events are harder than ever to predict. In other words, they’ve got us right where they want us.