This post discusses plot points from the September 1 episode of Breaking Bad.
“Rabid Dog,” which marks the halfway point in this final, shortened season of Breaking Bad, does a lot of work to set up the plot that will lead to Walter White’s ultimate fate, which seems, at this point, like it’ll be the result of some sort of showdown between Walt and Jesse. But I’m less interested in that impending standoff between the man in the black hat and the guy in the hoodie than I am in another theme running through this episode: the treatment of addicts, and the extent to which Walt’s attachment to his own genius makes him a kind of junkie.
For all the time Breaking Bad has spent on the locations, means, and techniques of Walt’s actual meth cooking, it’s spent comparatively little time on the people who actually consume the product that he produces: the damage we tend to see Walt inflict is within the bureaucracy of the drug trade itself, rather than on the people who buy his methamphetamine. There’s the junkie couple trying to break into the ATM, with awful, comedic consequences, of course. There’s the death of Jesse’s girlfriend Jane, who chokes to death on her own vomit while Walt observes her with an almost academic curiosity. Jane’s drug of choice was heroin, though, rather than methamphetamine, making her death orthogonal to, rather than directly related, to Walt’s meth dealing. And then there’s Jesse himself, whose stay in rehab is invoked in this episode by Hank as proof that Walt has some sort of actual investment in Jesse’s wellbeing. But Breaking Bad has, at times, become as entranced with the aesthetic perfection of Walt’s blue meth as Walt himself has, and excited by the prospect of its flirtations with genre conventions in Gus and Lydia’s arcs on the show. So it’s interesting, as the show nears the end of its tenure to see Breaking Bad address addiction both in an indirect manner and in a straightforward one, much in the same way the show did with the intervention in “Grey Matter,” about Walt’s resistance to treatment.
“I can’t have any odor, any stain, any sign that anything happened here. I know, short notice,” Walt tells the repairmen who have come to clean the gasoline out of his house towards the beginning of the episode, eager to shove money at them to make the problem go away. But as it turns out, he can’t get clean that easily. “Until you pull this up, get new carpet, new padding, this is as good as this gets,” the man leading the crew inside the house tells him.
And much like an addict who can’t stay away from substances or poker chips, Walt’s actions don’t only affect him. He may have convinced himself that he has the extent to which he’s broken bad under control, but Walt’s actions have forced the people around him to contemplate terrible things. Over hotel mini-bar vodkas, Walt acts as if he’s shocked by Skyler’s reaction to their predicament, and maybe he is. “We all just need to take a deep breath and calm down. Because Jesse isn’t just some rabid dog. Jesse is a person,” Walt insists. “Who is a threat to us,” Skyler tells him, despairing. “We’ve come this far. For us. What’s one more?” Walt interprets this as a serious suggestion, which at this point, it maybe. But Skyler’s suggestion that Walt have Jesse killed is, in a perverse way, the closest she’s going to get to an intervention with him now. Walt is convinced that their sins are safely contained in the past. Skyler’s reminding him that the consequences are still unspooling, and that their fiction of purity is a myth.
Marie is tainted by the revelation, too, musing about the shock of what it’s like “To be this wrong about someone, this off,” in her therapist’s office. “We all have secrets,” he tells her. “Not like this,” Marie rebukes him, while refusing to provide any details. “He screwed us and he won.” Again, in the absence of anything useful she can do, any recourse to justice or chance for reason, Marie’s musing desperate measures. “Derived from shellfish. Produces a flaccid paralysis that leaves the victim conscious for other symptoms,” she muses of one poison she’s been meditating on. “It just feels good to think about it.” Unlike Skyler, though, who lives directly in the path of Walt’s addiction to himself, Marie is at least physically out of harm’s way, and on Jesse Pinkman’s arrival in her house, finds productive things to do to burn off her anger at Walt, even if it’s only heating up lasagna and dispensing coffee.
The parallels in this episode aren’t just between Skyler, who, forced to live in proximity to an addict, is in danger of being consumed by his addiction, and Marie, who watches from a comparatively safe remove. At a moment when we’re supposed to see Hank as a potential hero, giving us the relief of saving us from Walt’s villainy, Breaking Bad reverses course on our perceptions yet again. And one of the significant ways it draws a distinction between Walt and Hank is by emphasizing that Hank, for all his DEA work, is disgusted by people who use drugs, where Walt, at least, is able to demonstrate sympathy for one person who suffers from addiction.
As disgusting as it is to hear Walt try to smooth-talk Jesse once again, as hubristic as it is for him to think he can solve his poisoning of Brock with words, Walt’s initial call to Jesse shows at least some recognition of where his former protege’s head might be at. “Just sleep it off and then call me. Be safe,” Walt says on the phone. And whether it’s his grotesquely inflated self-confidence, or genuine concern for Jesse, that sense of awareness that Walt is dealing with an addict who needs to be handled carefully–and deserves some consideration–shows up over and over again in the conversation. “We were wondering if this isn’t maybe an Old Yeller-type situation. Old Yeller was the best, most loyal dog there ever was. But one day he showed up rabid,” Saul suggests, using a metaphor that could apply to Jesse’s drug use as well as to his mental state. “You saw the movie.” “You’re full of colorful metaphors, aren’t you, Saul?” Walt tells Saul. “Do not float that idea again. Find him.” And when Skyler tells Walt that she wants Jesse killed, Walt defends his former partner by saying he deserves leeway. “With Jesse there are emotional issues, personal issues, some drug abuse,” Walt insists to Skyler. “But he has always been more of a danger to himself than anyone else. He has a tendency to fly off the handle, that’s all.” Walt “I’m going to talk to him. Make him see reason.”
For all that Walt’s contributed to damaging the health and mental health of meth users on a wide scale, and for all that he’s consistently put that out of his mind in order to keep cooking, when it comes to Jesse, Walt seems to understand–even if demonstrating that understanding is only a way to bolster his moral superiority–that addiction is a disease that takes a real toll on the people who suffer from it, and that addicts are best treated like humans in need of help and respect, rather than, well, like rabid dogs.
And that’s a conceptual leap that Hank, who wants to take Walt down badly enough to let Jesse Pinkman stay in his home, who supposedly has devoted his life to eradicating the scourge of drugs from his community, can’t make. Walt may be deluding himself that he’s just cooking meth to provide for his family. But it would be a similar delusion, at this point, for Hank to stand up and argue that his career with the DEA is based in some sort of real concern for the effects drugs have on both individuals and communities. In this episode, he demonstrates that it’s just an excuse for him to act like a cowboy, and a morally superior one at that.
“You want to burn him down?” Hank asks when he finds Jesse with the gas container in the Whites’ house. “Let’s do this together.” You’d think that Jesse would know better than to accept a partnership with anyone in the Schrader-White extended family at this point, but at least he tentatively agrees to collaborate with Hank at a point in his life when he’s more highly attuned to the chance he’s being used than he was when he met Walter White. When Jesse sees that Hank’s plan involves taking his testimony by video, he’s deeply–and justifiably–incredulous. “This can’t be what you mean by burning him to the ground, right? I’ve got stories that’ll make your toes curl, but it’s my word against his word-type stuff,” Jesse explains. “You know he’s retired, right? He’s out of the business. So you’re never going to catch him with a camcorder.” Gomez, who’s finally been brought into the loop, twice tells Hank that he agrees with Jesse, first that it’ll be impossible to catch Walt without physical evidence, and second that the meet Hank wants Jesse to attend could well be a trap: in other words, Gomez is able to see Jesse as a person with intelligence and value, even if it’s just instrumental value, even though he knows Jesse is an addict. Jesse’s drug use is just one factor Gomez weighs in judging him as a whole person.
But for Hank, Jesse is fundamentally and only an addict. When Gomez suggests “The kid’s right. What if it’s a trap?” Hank snaps back at him with one of the uglier sentiments we’ve seen him express: “What kid? You mean the junkie murderer who’s dribbling all over my bathroom floor? If he gets killed, we get it all on tape.” When Jesse refuses to play by Hank’s script and talk to Walt, instead threatening him from a pay phone, Hank’s disgust is expressed, once again, in terms of Jesse’s addiction. “Stupid high little–” he splutters at Jesse, not really needing an accusation other than “high,” even though Jesse’s obviously sober.
The fact that Hank has nothing but contempt for addicts, while Walt is able to understand addiction as a disease doesn’t actually make Walt a better person than his brother-in-law, and it doesn’t mean that his meth empire has done less damage than the Drug Enforcement Administration. But when the people who are supposed to eliminate drugs from our streets, not just because of the crime that attaches to the trade, but because of the damage drugs do to our social fabric, seem almost more disgusted by addicts than by the people who profit off their addictions, something’s rotten in Albuquerque, and it’s not just the smell of chemicals.