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With this episode Breaking Bad's fourth season is halfway over, and the series marked the occasion with a brilliant installment. The other characters didn't stand a chance of competing with Jesse's storyline, but Hank did give him a run for his money. “Problem Dog” not only had the incredible character development that has made up most of the season, but also pushed the plot along into the setup for what one of the characters themselves called, “a perfect storm.”
Showing Breaking Bad isn't above a little product placement, the cold open still did an excellent job of portraying Jesse's mindset. Gus's evil empire must extend to the gaming world, as that is the only way to explain Jesse getting his hands on Rage before it's been released. Well that or the production deciding they needed a little extra income(just as likely it was a move on AMC's part, who has been known to encourage their shows to include more product integration). Jesse's guilt naturally took the back burner when he began working with Mike, but it's still there, in fact, it has developed. Now his most pressing concern isn't the pain over what he did, but that he hasn't felt enough. Jesse wants the pain, he wants to be punished for what he's done. And since no one else will, he does it himself by reliving the moment of Gale's death with a video game. Not the most subtle message the series has sent out, but one that was necessary in setting up one of the most emotionally powerful scenes the series has given us this season.
However, before Jesse must come Walt – that's certainly how the self-centered chemist would see it anyway. It wouldn't be an overstatement to say the general reaction to last week's episode was something along the lines of, “Heisenberg is back!” And I'll admit, I still have chills a week later from, “I am the one who knocks!” But outside of that explosive piece of dialogue, I never felt like we saw our favorite porkpie hat wearer. In fact his name never came up; and it was much the same feeling with “Problem Dog.” This isn't Heisenberg. This is Heisenberg's petulant child having a tantrum because his chemistry set isn't working the way he wants it to. If the events of “Cornered” didn't convince anyone of that, than Walt's joyride had to. All it takes to send Walt off into his new alter ego -let's call him Heisenberg Jr.- is Skyler asking him not to “tangle with anyone” at the dealership. Well, Walt sure shows her; he doesn't need anyone else around to make a mess. The callback to his last car explosion in “Cancer Man” seemed appropriately twisted to fit this more reckless, but less resolved version of himself. No explosion over his shoulder as he walks away, no quiet cool either, just a cocky one-liner to the cab dispatch as he looks on to the result of his $50,000 hissy fit. All that being said, watching Walt pull donuts and requesting a cab while a sports car detonates is a fun way to spend a few minutes.
Even once he stopped joy riding and started becoming more proactive about his situation, Walt still couldn't shed Heisenberg Jr. It wouldn't be enough to kill Gus, Walt has to have the extra victory of knowing he cooked up the means of demise in Gus's own lab. Much worse was how he convinced Jesse to do it in the first place. Ensuring that Jesse hasn't forgotten all of Gus's crimes, while at the same time bringing all the pain back up, would be shockingly callous in anyone but Walter White. The first of two brilliant performances from Aaron Paul came in this scene. Jesse's silent fuming and watery eyes were expertly portrayed as he is practically bristling with anger over Walt thinking he is dumb enough to let himself be played that way.
Whether, as Mike said, it's for the wrong guy or not, Jesse is loyal; which is how he ends up carrying Walt's vial of ricin to Gus's meeting with the cartel. The irony of the coffee turning out to have been the perfect opportunity to poison Gus was overshadowed by the very reason it would have been Jesse's best chance. The cartel obviously wanted to send a message by only sending a single emissary, and though Gus hides it well, the message achieved the desired effect. The cartel wants their cut, not a payoff, and this man(who ripped off the shipment in the opening of last week's episode) is just here to see if Gus is going to give it to them, or if they have to take it. With outright war now looming, it seems Jesse questioning where his loyalties lie couldn't have come at a better time for Gus, or a worse time for Walt.
Jesse was too distracted with his own issues to decide what team he is playing for though. Telling his old NA group about Gale through a story about a dog may at first seem like Jesse wanting to unburden himself. But this isn't confession for Jesse, he isn't after forgiveness for his sins. He wants damnation, a punishment that fits the crime. He wants to be judged and found guilty, not “accepted.” The low angle shots were the perfect way to capture Jesse, as he breaks down demanding to know why his quilt can be obfuscated no matter how many “problem dogs” he kills. Paul's performance outshone any cinematic touches though, and with the scene he guaranteed he will once again be a top contender in the supporting actor category come awards time.
Though Hank only had a couple of scenes, they both went far in making “Problem Dog” an enjoyable episode. I couldn't help but wear a smile throughout Hank and Walt Jr.'s lunch at Los Pollos Hermanos. It has been too long since uncle and nephew have spent some time together, and with Breaking Bad ending next season, I can only assume their sitcom spinoff is already in the works(it better be). Even when cracking kindhearted jokes about Jr.'s condition, Hank has always really seen past it, treating the youngster like he was a rookie partner; with all the humor that should come from such a relationship. Gus appearing at their table did kill off the lighthearted atmosphere, but it also provided some plot advancement, which has taken a backseat this season in favor of focusing on the characters – not that the show has suffered any because of it. At first it seemed like Hank was making big leap in going after Gus's prints, but his reasoning was soon revealed. In fact, it was an excellent choice not to show much of Hank's investigation, but instead to have it all laid out at once in a single well-acted piece of exposition. Hank's detective skills are obviously impressive, they reach a whole new level though when you consider he may bring down one of the most lucrative and extensive drug empires in the country with only a napkin and a paper cup.
“Problem Dog” was an incredible blend of humor and hard-hitting drama. With the DEA possibly gearing up to hit Gus from one side, while the cartel does the same from the other, the slow burn of this season's plot sounds like it is about to hit a powder keg. But until that happens, Breaking Bad will still be giving its fans incredible episodes like this one.