Since the very first episode of "Breaking Bad," Walter White's relationship with his former-student-turned-criminal-partner Jesse Pinkman has been the heart of the show. Now, after years of role reversals, fights between the two, and more, Walt and Jesse are finally gunning to destroy each other, and it's unclear which of the two will ultimately win out.
While the “Rabid Dog” episode has plenty of excellent pieces of dialog, some of its best character-building moments come not from the script, but from the camera work and direction. In an interesting reversal, director Sam Catlin also directed the amazing “4 Days Out,” which worked hard to build up the bond between Walt and Jesse, while "Rabid Dog" does its best to destroy that bond completely. Both episodes, however, go to great pains to capture the emotional underpinning to Walt and Jesse's relationship through camera work.
The cinematography in both scenes of Jesse at Walt's house are the best examples of this interplay between cinematography and "Breaking Bad's" take on male bonding. Picking up from last week's cliffhanger, Jesse rushes to burn down the White household, while Walter tries to confront his former partner and stop him from destroying his private domicile. All of the shots of Walt entering the house are slow, tortured, and deliberately unsettling, queuing the audience in to his paranoia. The lingering, unsettlingly framed shots work to point the audience into Walt’s careful but fearful frame of mind.
By contrast, when we see Jesse burst in to the White home, it’s all quick, hurried shots. Jesse is murderously angry at this point in the episode, and the camera work and quick edits highlight his desperate rage. There’s nothing on Jesse’s mind but revenge and violence at this point, and the camera work shows it. Both are effective non-verbal ways of examining the deep distrust between Walt and Jesse at this point in the show.
And speaking of Jesse’s scenes in the White home, it’s also worth noting that they led to the most shocking revelation of the episode. While we thought that Jesse simply had changed his mind and decided not to burn down Walt’s house, it turns out that Hank showed up at the last moment to talk him out of his vengeance in an incredibly tense showdown.
Now, after hinting at the idea of a Hank/Jesse team-up for the past several weeks, all the pieces are finally in place for one of the most unlikely pairings in the show’s history. And yet, now that we’re here, the rapport between Hank and Jesse isn’t quite as friendly or triumphant as audiences hoped.
In a lot of ways, Hank can be just as bad as Walt. He’s on the right side of the law, but he’s also fully willing to let Jesse die in order to catch Walt. Speaking with Gomez toward the end of the episode, Hank says he doesn’t care whether Jesse lives or dies. In fact, he says it would be better if he could catch Walt murdering Jesse on tape. Just about the only thing Hank does better for Jesse is his refusal to manipulate or lie to him.
While Hank won’t manipulate Jesse, he shares very little of Walt’s concern for the man. In Hank’s eyes, Jesse is just a pawn that he can put into place. He calls him “partner” towards the end of “Rabid Dog,” but he doesn’t mean it at all. For all of Walt’s evils, it’s safe to say that he at least has some respect or love or loyalty to Jesse, but Hank has none, and that’s very unsettling to see. Ironically, for much of the episode, Walt might be the only one who sees Jesse as a real human being, not a pawn.
Last week, I wrote that Walt acts as a sort of moral cancer to all of the characters in the show. His presence and desperation has brought out the worst in nearly every character. But while “Rabid Dog” highlights that depravity in the other character (for instance, would season one Jesse burn down a house? Would Hank shrug off the death of a key witness?), it backs off on Walt’s own evil for much of the episode. Jesse may call Walt “the devil” in Sunday’s episode, but he displays some of the most surprising moral restraint out of the entire cast this episode.
For much of “Rabid Dog,” Walt is absolutely insistent that Jesse be allowed to live. Just as he believed earlier in the show, Walt is absolutely insistent that he can talk his way out of any scenario. In his mind, if he can only talk to Jesse, he can justify why poisoning a child was the right move. They could be friends again, he thinks, if only he could talk Jesse into understanding. Unfortunately for Walt, his lies have been getting sloppy lately, and he’s past the point where a heartfelt conversation (or enough manipulation) can wipe away his problems.
Of course, by the end of “Rabid Dog,” Walt comes to this realization himself and calls on Todd’s meth Nazi family to take Jesse out. Killing Jesse may be Walt’s last option to save himself, but it’s still clearly a possibility for him. For all his restraint throughout the episode, “Rabid Dog” proves that Walt’s morality is useful to him only as long as it’s convenient. When things get real, Walt is more than willing to turn his back on all the morals he claims to hold dear.
By the end of the episode, Walt and Jesse have both put plans to take the other down into effect. Walt has enlisted Todd’s meth Nazis to kill his former partner, while Jesse and the DEA are ready to hit Walt hard and bring him down legally. I’d like to speculate on where this will go in the next episode, but this isn’t where anyone could have guessed the characters would end up at the show’s outset, and it’s likely that the rest of the show will be just as unpredictable as the steps it took to get us here.