Only “Breaking Bad” could get major emotional mileage out of an exposition dump. This week’s episode ended with what was essentially a five-minute monologue from Hank about his work tying together the frayed threads of Gale’s life and learning just what he might have been up to. There were dozens of ways director Peter Gould could have set the scene and presented the information, but he kept it simple and let the flow of Hank’s emotions and the beats of his story do the work. There was even a wonderful moment when Hank got just a little too excited to finger Gus as the mastermind of the southwestern United States’ meth sales, and Gomez and Merkert visibly pulled back and tried to let Hank down easily, only to have Hank play them beautifully as he laid out his trump card and showed them Gus’ prints in Gale’s apartment. And it felt good to let Hank have his quiet moment back in the spotlight. For the most part, the crassness and immaturity have leeched out, leaving a strong but still passionate man determined to do the right thing. It was a fantastic scene, and Dean Norris absolutely carried it home.
We’re at the midpoint of the season — this week’s hour, “Problem Dog,” was the seventh of this year’s 13-episode run — and the story lines are starting to gather momentum and coming together. With everything that’s happened recently with Walt and Jesse, it can be easy to forget that Hank’s been chasing them almost since they got their start, hounding his fellow DEA agents to track the source of the blue crystal that’s become a plague on New Mexico and the surrounding area. He came nauseatingly close to catching Walt and Jesse in the RV last season, and even getting shot couldn’t shake him from his desire to see Heisenberg caught. I don’t know at all what turns the story would take, and only a fool would claim to guess with any certainty, but it would be fascinating to see what would happen if Hank learned of Walt’s involvement with plenty of time left for the show to play that story out. Hank’s worked so hard and fought through so much that it seems he’s likely to get rewarded with something this year, even if it’s just a confirmation that he’s been right to keep hunting Heisenberg long after his colleagues waved him off.
Jesse also found himself at a kind of crossroads. He’s been haunted by Gale for weeks now, and he’s been gradually turning to stone because of it. Think about how erratic and emotionally volatile Jesse was at the end of last season, willing to cross the Cartel out of a moral obligation to avenge his own and protest their use of children. Now look at how brittle and brutish he’s become. (Again, Aaron Paul does amazing work.) He knows he’s in danger and is even willing in one moment to try and kill Gus, but he’s also finding himself increasingly at ease with the life he’s created. Watching him come to grips with the cost of that acceptance in the group therapy session was riveting. It’s not necessarily that he doesn’t want forgiveness, or couldn’t handle it if it came; he just wants to talk about what happened, and what he’s done, and be honest (to a degree) about the life he’s made for himself.
That’s what the show keeps coming back to: This is a life that these people have brought on themselves, and no one made them do any different. The ramifications of Walt’s criminal ascension have been felt in everything he’s touched, and his attempts to make a better life for his family have actually made things a good deal worse. But once you’re in the game, you can’t plead innocence or ignorance. When Walt brought in his money to be laundered, Skylar got in a good shot when she told him that she never wanted any of this to happen, but Walt turned the tables right back on her and said, “If you want out, just say that you want out.” After the requisite beat, Skylar silently went back to shoveling the cash into the safe. There’s no way out for her now. She can protest all she wants, but she made her choice. Now she has to live with it. That’s the world.
• It feels weird to watch the show in weekly bursts. I’m not totally sold that it’s the best way to watch series with this much complexity and emotional heft. I’m not saying you should watch eight episodes at a time in day-long marathons, but I do think the breaks between episodes and seasons create a heightened sense of disruption that might not be totally intended by the creators.
• Peter Gould didn’t just direct the episode; he wrote it. He’s the only “Breaking Bad” team member to pull off double-duty besides creator Vince Gilligan, and he did great work here in his first time behind the camera all series.
• Nice promotion for id Software’s Rage in the opening scene, even though the game doesn’t come out until October. Either the “Breaking Bad” universe is slightly ahead of ours, or somebody saw a way to link Jesse’s mental state to some solid product placement. Now you know how the sausage gets made.
• Hank’s casual emptying of his soda cup and disposal of it into the evidence bag could be one of my favorite moments in the show’s history. Never count that man out.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.