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'Breaking Bad' recap: Lines in the sand

September 02, 2013|By Todd VanDerWerff
  • Marie (Betsy Brandt) meets Jesse for the first time.
Marie (Betsy Brandt) meets Jesse for the first time. (Ursula Coyote / AMC )

Why does Walter keep Jesse alive?

He insists to Skyler that Jesse is not some “rabid dog” to be taken out back and shot, playing off Saul’s earlier suggestion that Jesse may be in an “Old Yeller situation.” And yet Jesse has just threatened to burn down Walt’s house, once held a gun to Walter’s head and threatened to pull the trigger, and has generally turned on his former mentor and father figure, to the degree that he’s now working with Hank to bring Walt down (though Walter crucially doesn’t know this yet). But Walt refuses to listen to Skyler or Saul when it comes to killing Jesse, when he’s been perfectly fine killing so many others.

The reasons are complicated, of course, and almost certainly include the reason Walt refuses to listen to the idea of killing Hank: Family is sacred. We’ve long seen the ersatz father-son relationship that’s developed between these two men, and remnants of that bond exist, even though the bulk of it has long since unraveled. Back in season four, while ailing and lying in bed, Walter called his own biological son “Jesse,” and it’s clear that traces of those feelings will always be with him.

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But also, I think, not killing Jesse is a line in the sand Walter has drawn for himself, even when it’s evident that the young man’s death would benefit Walter substantially. This is the person Walter has struggled so much to keep alive, paying for his rehab and preventing Gus from killing him at the end of season three. Hank pitches this to Jesse as a kind of weird co-dependence — and he has the right of it, as the meeting Walter calls with Jesse is one where he doesn’t plan to kill his former partner — but I wonder if it isn’t deeper than that.

See, some part of Walt has to be continually conscious of just how far he’s fallen from the man he was when the series began. He’s done terrible, horrible things, things that will stand as black stains on his soul for as long as he lives. Yet if he keeps certain lines for himself, then he doesn’t go full Heisenberg, doesn’t fully become the monster he must surely know he is. Not killing Jesse is one of those lines, just as keeping Hank alive is another.

Forget about the practicality (or lack thereof) of the death of either character for a second. Just think about Walter’s constant need to construct lines in the sand that he won’t cross, then how quickly those lines often get obliterated when he starts to feel the slightest bit constricted. Not killing Jesse, not killing Hank — those decisions aren’t just ones he’s arrived at lately. They are, at least from his point of view, a personal Rubicon he will not cross, the one protecting his soul.

Now, we in the audience know that these distinctions are mostly illusory at this point. Walter is so far gone that keeping Jesse alive becomes another kind of stubbornness, and we all know how good he is at being stubborn. And yet when he finally calls Todd at the end of the episode to set up the hit on his former partner, it’s treated with an extreme weight and tragedy — not just because this could spell the end of Jesse but because Walter himself is the one doing it. All that he’s worked for is ultimately useless in the face of his need to protect all he’s worked for, a horrible catch-22 he’s never understood how to escape.

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Before we get to Jesse’s side of “Rabid Dog,” however, let’s talk a little bit about Skyler, because I’m finding her storyline this season slightly hard to grapple with. Vince Gilligan and his writers have evidently decided to have her go the full Lady Macbeth, and while that’s a logical extension of where her character has been heading for a while, I’m still somewhat disappointed in the choice.

One of the flaws of this fifth season — both halves — so far is that in just eight episodes, Gilligan and company occasionally have to compress their characters emotional arcs into far smaller numbers of episodes than typical. This means they’ve chosen to focus on particular arcs and evolutions, especially Jesse, Hank, and Walt’s. Therefore, when, say, Walt finally, agonizingly decides to call in a hit on Jesse, the moment feels completely earned. He’s exhausted his other options. But when Mike makes some stupid decisions that result in his death in the otherwise excellent “Say My Name,” it feels very much as if he made those decisions because the writers needed him to.

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