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Breaking Bad Watch: You Gotta Keep the Devil Way Down in the Hole

As Jesse tries to turn on "Mr. White," Breaking Bad reveals itself as a horrifying, sustained depiction of the psychology of abuse.

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“I know you’re angry. … We will talk and we will fix this.” –Walter White

“You two guys are just guys, OK? Mr. White–he’s the Devil.” –Jesse Pinkman

Walter White has been Jesse’s teacher. He’s been Jesse’s mentor. He’s been Jesse’s partner. But above all, he’s been–and even after the previous relationships have ended, he still is–Jesse’s captor.

He’s built a prison inside Jesse’s own head. Jesse has lashed out and clashed with Walter before, but in the end–as with Brock’s poisoning and its aftermath–Walt has always managed to lie, to manipulate, to break Jesse down and convince him that his own intuitions are faulty, that he needs to trust “Mr. White.” In the classic pattern of an abuser, Walt has built a hermetic psychological cell for Jesse, an isolated cell soundproofed from the outside world’s logic and reason, where Walt’s word is supreme.

At the end of last week’s “Confessions,” the wall of that cell cracked–enough, maybe, for Jesse to squeeze himself out–as Jesse realized in a flash that his first instinct was right: Walt did poison Brock. But he isn’t free yet. As Hank tries to persuade Jesse to wear a wire, we get a glimpse inside the prison and see Walt the way Jesse sees him–and honest to God, this is one of the most horrifying things Breaking Bad has ever shown.

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In Jesse’s mind, Walt is not just ruthless or powerful. He’s magic. As Jesse spins out the ways Walt will subvert their plan–there will be a sniper, he’ll “have me sit on a poisoned needle or something”–it’s as if we’ve suddenly switched genres and are watching not a crime story but a ghost story, a horror movie in which physical laws don’t apply, evil spirits shift shapes, and mortal bullets simply pass through the bad guy. (The tense scene at the plaza brilliantly visualizes this–Walt-like figures vanish and appear before Jesse’s disoriented eyes, as if Walt himself were apparating like a demon.)

This is the world Jesse has been living in, and Aaron Paul’s delirious attempt to explain it makes us see it through his eyes. Jesse has seen, over and over, Walt face impossible situations and turn his enemies’ plans back against them. No matter what you plan against him, Mr. White just makes it part of his plan and “Mr. White”–Jesse can never, even under interrogation, stop using the honorific–always wins. Jesse can scream and thrash his little arms, but in the end, Mr. White will pull him in for a hug and get his way.

In this psycho-horror landscape, Jesse is a tiny, tiny boy, and Mr. White is God, Mr. White is the Devil, Mr. White is the universe itself. Other people may tell you they can save you from Mr. White, but they don’t know, they don’t know Mr. White, they don’t realize that he is everywhere and he knows everything. Jesse is a grown adult now, but in a way, Breaking Bad has been TV’s most sustained and horrifying depiction of long-term abuse.

This final run of episodes has been light on the sort of capers and narrow escapes–the magnets, the train heists, the bombings–that have helped give Walt his magical reputation in Jesse’s mind. Instead, they’ve revealed starkly that Walt’s most ingenious and demonic machinations have always been psychological. For Jesse, for Hank, for his wife and child, he has created tightly constructed fictions, girded with elements of truth, that keep them isolated and under his control.

The video he made for Hank and Marie in “Confessions,” in this light, looks as much like a flourish, like showing off, as it does a threat. Look at this marvelously constructed cage I have built for you–that you helped me build. Come at me, and I will trap you in it and add you to the collection; try to escape and you will snare yourself tighter. (These last few episodes been full of images of claustrophobia and imprisonment, of people framed in doorways and in close corridors.) This maybe, is why the visual of Hank and Marie watching the video was striking enough to become a new Internet meme: it lets us sees the essence of Walt’s coldness and genius, which we’ve watched develop over five seasons, dawn all at once on two characters with fresh eyes.

So Walt determines, once again, to “fix it.” But there are signs, in “Rabid Dog,” that his old tricks are losing their magic. The house stinking of gas, he switches into harried-dad mode and explains it on a gas-pumping accident, but no one believes him. (Albeit for different reasons; Walt Jr. thinks it’s the cancer, and once again, Walt is willing to use this fear to manipulate his own son.)

And though Walt has enough hold on Jesse to foil Hank’s plan, Jesse is now free enough to want to come at Walt in his own way (whatever that turns out to be). Leaving Walt, at the end, reconsidering his hopes to smooth things over with Jesse, instead leaning towards Saul’s advice to adopt an “Old Yeller” solution, Skyler’s advice to put Jesse down like a “rabid dog.”

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Those are two different descriptions of Jesse as Walter’s dog, and they imply two different views of their relationship. Saul’s echoes Hank’s argument to Jesse (whether Hank believes it or not) that Walt genuinely cares about Jesse, just like Timmy did Old Yeller. Skyler’s (though actually the “rabid dog” phrase comes from Walter’s mouth) is that Jesse is an uncontrollable threat Walt has brought too near their children; he dragged her and their family into this situation, and it’s absurd to suddenly scruple over killing one more junkie.

Which kind of dog does Walt think Jesse is? This episode–like “Confessions” with that ambiguous hug–makes arguments for seeing it both ways, that Walt has actual emotional motivation to protect and spare Jesse, or that he believes Jesse to be more useful alive. It’s an interesting question (and maybe elements of both arguments are true), but why the hell should Jesse care? One way or the other, he’s still the beaten cur, listening to his master’s voice on his voicemail.

The bad news for Jesse: by episode’s end, the Devil may be coming for him. The good news: The Devil may be running out of tricks, and his dog still has his teeth.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* “Say just for the sake of argument the kid’s not in the mood for a nuanced discussion of the virtues of child poisoning.” It says something for Breaking Bad that it has managed to make a sleazy drug lawyer and audience surrogate and voice of reason. Of course, if everyone listened to Saul’s advice, this would be a much more boring show.

* So Marie, we learn in her therapy session, has been online researching untraceable poisons, which, not to be judgmental here, is perhaps not the wisest move for someone whose husband has just been threatened in a frame-up job? I can’t imagine that poison, or the Internet search history, or both, will not figure in the last episodes of the series somehow.

* “He got upset over something he thinks I did. I did do it. But for very good reasons. It’s complicated.” That string of dialogue does a great job of showing Walt’s deceptive mind in real-time–especially the jump from “something he thinks I did” (as if he is still considering the possibility of lying that he’s innocent) to “I did do it” (as if, in a split-second, he decides to go with the rationalization instead).

* Also, Walt, understandably, is not going to go anywhere near detailing what it is Jesse “thinks I did” (in this case, poisoning a child). I suspect Skyler would rather not know. But I am very curious how she would react if she knew. Having thrown in with Walt to the point of considering murder–even reluctantly, out of some notion of protecting the family–is there still a moral line she will not cross with him?

* At this point, I am just going to assume that Bryan Cranston at all times has a gun in the waistband of his underwear, out of commitment to the character.

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