“Rabid Dog” is a transitional episode, and not a particularly elegant one at that. Like Walt’s old Pontiac Aztek, it’s simply a vehicle that’ll transport us to where we need to go, style and good taste be damned. Thus we have Walt and Jesse plotting each other’s demise (Walt’s being more violent, of course), Skyler urging Walt to take “full measures” (in another sacrifice of character over story), and Jesse and Hank’s inevitable team-up to bring down Walt.
The theme of transitions was telegraphed by the episode’s two hallway scenes. The first occurs at the beginning of the episode, when Walt, with his pocket pistol in hand, crouches along the main corridor of his gasoline-soaked house. The buzzy, clangy, twitchy soundtrack makes clear its homage to another empty, dread-filled, imminently bloody hallway – that of The Shining trailer.
The second takes place at Hank and Marie’s house, when Jesse, after passing out cold, wakes up to find Marie down the hall. Worlds collide. She asks him if he wants any coffee. A new world is born from the wreckage of the old.
At the risk of driving this metaphor into the ground (in that hideous Pontiac Aztek, of course), what bothered me about “Rabid Dog” was that the action all took place in a hallway of mirrors. The episode was so busy drawing parallels between the characters that it never felt like much more than watching some lines shift on a chart.
Granted, a lot of those new lines were interesting. Hank replaces Walt as Little Orphan Jesse’s father figure despite Hank’s utter indifference as to whether Jesse lives or dies. The contrast between Walt’s three sons — Junior, Jesse, and Todd — perfectly illustrate his various faces. Walt finds an unlikely foil in Marie, who’s doing her own research on hard-to-trace poisons. “It just feels good to think about it,” she admits to her therapist. Most fascinating are the disparities between the White and Schrader marriages; Walt and Skyler’s rotting union has a more equitable dynamic, if only because Skyler is so determined to play catch-up to her husband’s ever-proliferating lies, while Hank and Marie have the more hierarchical relationship — Marie is quick to leave the house to run errands when Hank announces he has man work to do at home — but theirs is a bond built (mostly) on trust.
Pretty much all the episode’s plot structure hinges on these character pivots: Jesse’s need for justice leading him to fall for Hank’s good-cop routine, Skyler’s bedside performance of Lady Macbeth, Walt arranging for Jesse’s murder as his last act as Heisenberg. (By the way, how does Walt know that Brock’s poisoning is what set Jesse off this time?) It’s not that these transitions aren’t convincing; they just feel programmatic, and the preponderance of character parallels doesn’t help.
Thankfully, there’s one question mark still remaining: who’s in the black sedan that pulled on to Walt’s block after Hank leaves with Jesse?
That Breaking Bad will likely end with a showdown between Walt and Jesse — or in Hank’s words, “the nut-job meth-head versus Mr. Rogers with lung cancer” — is awesomely portentous. (Speaking of parallels, note that they’re each packing a sidekick, too; Walt owns Saul, while Albuquerque’s own Robin has all grown up and enlisted Hank in his revenge plan.) “Rabid Dog” reminds us how Walt and Jesse met — “I first met Mr. White junior year chemistry. He was my teacher,” Jesse spits out — and poignantly recalls that, despite Walt’s phone call to Todd at the end of the episode, he really is fond of his former student: “Yeah, Mr. White’s gay for me. Everybody knows that!” Everybody really does, Jesse!
Whether Walt can go through with his plan to off Jesse will reflect how much of his much-diminished soul he’s further willing to sacrifice for the sake of his family. And with that, Walt has somehow become the good guy, or at least a familiar, sympathetic figure, again. How long will he be able to keep that up?