Jesse tries to atone for his sins, while Walt refuses to repent

By Melissa Maerz
August 29, 2011 at 06:00 AM EDT
Ben Leuner/AMC
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Bad guys are supposed to get their comeuppance. Criminals are supposed to make amends for what they’ve done, and when they don’t, karma’s supposed to kick in. So what happens when all bad deeds go unpunished? Where’s the incentive to act in a moral way?

That’s a question that Jesse’s asking himself in this week’s episode, “Problem Dog,” but it’s also one we might ask ourselves as fans. Over the past few seasons, Breaking Bad has become a satire on the idea that one’s actions have consequences. So often, Walter White decides to be bad, and he gets rewarded for it. When Skyler discovered that Walt was selling meth, he didn’t lose his wife—he gained a partner in crime. When the Mexican cartel wanted to kill Walt, they ended up shooting Hank, which only helped keep Walt safe from the cops’ watchful eye a little longer. Why should Walt feel bad about not feeling bad if everything’s so good?

By contrast, Jesse has become the show’s conscience. He believes that, despite what his motives are, he should remain accountable for his choices. “We can’t change the past, what’s done is done,” says the group leader at Jesse’s meeting, and that idea is supposed to keep people in recovery from feeling so ashamed of their actions that they start using again. But ironically, according to that no-fault logic, Jesse shouldn’t feel bad for selling them meth. Or for shooting an innocent man.

Part of Jesse wants to get judged for what he’s done. Confessing that he’s killed a “problem dog”—a funny way to refer to Gale, who followed Walt around like a puppy—Jesse pushes the group’s leader to condemn him for killing Gale. “So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I’m a great guy? It’s all good?” he demands. “No matter how many dogs I kill, I just do an inventory and accept?… What a load of crap!” But it’s not just the lack of blame that’s bothering him. It’s a problem-dog-eat-problem-dog world out there, and Jesse needs someone to give him one good reason not to kill Gus.

Interesting that the face on Jesse’s t-shirt looks a lot like Jesus (thanks to readers who pointed out that it’s actually Steve Aoki) because Jesse wants very much to atone for his sins. If he doesn’t, Gale will just keep rising from the dead and chasing him, like the zombies in that video game. No wonder playing Rage hits so close to home for Jesse: the graffiti-ridden walls in the game look much like the walls inside Jesse’s own house, which explains why he’s so eager to paint over the scrawl. What’s done is never really done, but a good paint job might help him pretend like he’s starting over.

Walt, on the other hand, would prefer that Jesse stick to the Old Testament’s way of thinking: an eye for an eye. (It’s fitting that the face on Jesse’s shirt has no eyes at all.) It’s vengeance that Walt uses to convince Jesse that he should kill Gus. After all, Gus was the one who got Jesse’s girlfriend’s little brother killed. But deep down, Walt’s not really so concerned with justice. He treats real life like Jesse’s video game: winning is his only goal. In Rage, the mutants aren’t necessarily “bad guys,” but gamers kill them in order to survive. That’s also why Jesse shot Gale, and why Walt believes he should kill Gus. There’s no right or wrong for Walt. There’s just dead and alive.

NEXT: What Walt’s joyride says about where he’s headed

In order to pay for your wrongdoing, you have to admit that you’re wrong, which might be why Walt’s reacting to the idea of penance so differently from Jesse. After Walt’s little escapade with the Dodge Charger (the great song in that scene is the Pretenders’ “Boots of Chinese Plastic”), Saul says of Walt, “There’s total contrition here. Mountains of contrition.” But there isn’t. Unlike Jesse, who’s looking for a reason to be good, Walt’s making a conscious decision to be bad. If he got into meth for all the right reasons—caring for his family, beating cancer—his moral relativism is quickly turning into nihilism. Lately, he’s treating his life like that car, spinning out of control, slamming into a ditch, and as soon as he gets the feeling that his joyride is over, setting everything on fire.

Walt knows that he’s hurtling toward a certain end, whether it’s Gus or the cops or even cancer that gets him. So why not go out with a bang? After blowing up his car, he tells the cab driver his real name and calls from his own cell phone. He’s bringing in too much money to launder it, and too many fifty-dollar bills for a car wash. If hubris is what has made Heisenberg so powerful, it’s also why Walt’s making so many mistakes, and forcing other people to fix them. After his slip up with the cleaning ladies, Tyrus had to send them “back to Honduras” (which may or may not be a euphemism.) And when he bought the car for Walt Jr., Skyler had to be the one to send it back before the IRS caught on.

Now, Walt’s plan to poison Gus seems so haphazard, Jesse will surely be left to clean up the mess. Walt makes the substance in Gus’s own lab, where cameras are everywhere? He doesn’t make enough of it to ensure that Gus will die? He hasn’t considered how he’ll handle Mike afterward? And he didn’t even think that Jesse might get searched? None of this seems plausible for the man who’s so scrupulous about particulars, he once saved his own life by noticing that a single sliver was missing from a broken plate.

“The order of the day is eyes open, mouths shut,” Mike tells Jesse. But Walt’s directly contradicting that logic, talking too much to Hank and ignoring some crucial information that could help others track him down (“I don’t need to hear the blow by blow,” he says when Saul tells him what’s on his record). The devil’s in the details, and those details are gonna help Hank capture his devil. (By the way, that was exciting detective work by Hank in tracking down Madrigal Electromotive. Chalk it up to clean living and vitamin pills.)

Could it be that Walt’s not ready to be the boss? This week, we noticed that he lacks many of the traits that have helped Team Gus and the Mexican cartel thrive: a keen sense of observation (the Mexican cartel’s envoy noticed every gun that Mike and his men were carrying, even though they were hidden), an even temper (Mike tells Jesse the gun is “emergency only”), and most important, loyalty to his men. Gus knows he needs to stand by Walt in order to stand up to the cartel. But Walt is just out for himself. As he told Jesse last week, “This is all about me!”

Maybe Mike’s right: Jesse’s loyal to the wrong guy. Walt’s becoming a problem dog. (Or as Jesse might say, Walt’s becoming a problem, dog.) Some day soon, someone might have to put him down.

NEXT: A few final questions for you readers

A few final questions for you readers:

What do you make of Gus’s offer to give Walt Jr a job? Do you think Gus will come after Walt’s family? In last week’s episode, “Cornered,” Baby Holly was dressed up in a fuzzy pink outfit like the pink stuffed toy that was found floating in the swimming pool. We hope that’s not a hint that her fate will be just as bleak.

Is anyone else questioning Gus’s decision to “promote” Jesse? Yes, it’s a good way to mess with Walt, and it’s possible that he’s grooming Jesse to take over for Walt, or worse: if Jesse’s close enough to Gus to kill him, the same is true for Walt. But why would Gus risk letting Walt’s right-hand man get so close?

How great was Marie telling Skyler that car wash customers were relieved that they no longer have to face Bogdan’s “eyebrows of doom”?

What are your predictions for how this season will end?

Episode Recaps

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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