I have a confession.
When the Supreme Being asked me to fill in for him on his regular Breaking Bad Recap column, I wasn’t enthused. I mean: he’s been doing such a great job so far! He’s rewatched the whole scintillating series this summer and written about all of it. He has managed to keep his brain full of Walt and Skyler and Badger and Saul and 8-Ball in a way my wandering memory has not.
But last night’s episode, “Confessions,” brings it all back in a way that makes my innards rumble. And I mean ‘rumble’ like West Side Story.
This is the episode that we’ve been dreading. It’s an hour full of Walt’s lies finally overflowing his control. They begin to slop over like, well, splashed gasoline. It’s also a head on collision between Walt and Hank; not in a physical throw down sense, but in an internal character way. Throughout the run of Breaking Bad, these two men have gradually swapped places in terms of machismo.
Do you even remember how brash and imposing Hank used to be, pushing poor Walt around like a wonky supermarket cart? And Walt, barely able to muster enough self-respect and cojones to tell Bogdan he was quitting the car wash? Over the course of the series, those roles have devoured each other, with Walt transforming—and it is a transformation—into Heisenberg. And Hank retreating far into his head to face panic attacks and an inability to act.
Here, in “Confessions,” they both face the consequences of who they’ve become. They struggle like a pair of foxes each with a limb caught in a trap. Will they gnaw it off to get free? Based on this episode, I’d say the only other option is getting skinned.
We start with our friend Todd on the phone. At first—following the flashforward structure of this half-series—I thought 52-year old Walt with his M-60 and ricin was ringing him up, but no. Todd’s just being a sweetheart and calling his old pal Walt to let him know that (last episode) he and his clan slaughtered Declan and all of his guys. As he puts it, there’s been a change of management.
Sound familiar, Walt? You created a new Gus and now—hooray!—now you’ve created a new Jesse, too. Todd is like the son you never had (…the ability to be truthful with). Todd goes on to tell his Uncle and colleague all about the brilliantly planned train robbery he was part of last season. Excruciatingly, he freely and unthinkingly divulges Walt’s real name and Jesse’s.
Yes, Todd, that plan was brilliant because, deeply twisted or not, Walt actually is a mastermind. One look at Uncle Jack and it’s pretty clear he’s no Heisenberg. Are you sure you want to step into Jesse’s shoes? As if to underscore the folly of this idea, we follow Uncle Jack into the restroom where he wipes Declan’s blood off his black boots.
It’s a pretty great cold open, full of cans of worms, all newly cracked open. Which way will they wriggle?
We wriggle to Jesse of course, who we left at the end of last episode chilling catatonic in an interview room with Hank. Last time he faced the cops, he was sure he’d accidentally poisoned Brock with Ricin. Now, he’s been grabbed tossing millions in cash out his car window. Hank tries to flip him by revealing that he knows Walt is Heisenberg. He guesses that Walt hasn’t been so good to Jesse, but in the process sells his interrogation subject short. Once again Jesse is reminded that no one respects him.
No one but Mike. And what happened to Mike?
Jesse tells Hank “eat me” and reminds the DEA agent how they know each other; it’s because Hank beat Jesse to within an inch of his life. Gold star, Jesse: this is just the first reminder Hank gets this episode of his own errors in judgement. While he may think he’s got the white hat of justice square on his head, Hank’s hands are far from clean. Pretty much no one’s are.
Saul rides to the rescue, but this is a new side of Saul. We’ve seen Saul in the middle of the desert being told to dig his own grave before, but we’ve never seen him this far under the bus. The man looks like he’s about to unzip his skin and run screaming out into the night. I love it. Bob Odenkirk’s performance pushes the character farther than I had thought possible. Let’s remember: Odenkirk is primarily a comic and Saul mostly serves as some well-needed stress relief. Now, like Hank and Walt have flipped onto their heads, so too does Saul.
And his troubles are just warming up.
Back at the White residence, Walt has to confess his cancer’s return to Walt. Jr in order to stop his son from being lured over to Hank and Marie’s. How twisted is this? Perfectly twisted. Cancer becomes the saving agent. Truth becomes the corrupting lie. Deadly illness is used to diffuse a dangerous situation. “Stay positive,” says that bastard Walt. This scene is a mirror image of one to come later in the episode: wait to see how this sort of father and son heart-to-heart plays out with surrogate son, Jesse.
And don’t forget how the episode started, with baby-faced Todd stepping naively into Jesse’s shoes.
Over at Hank and Marie’s, Hank is dragging his feet and tossing back some alcoholic brown. He’s emasculated by the situation, unable to convert his rage into action. Walt stole his identity in a way that goes beyond social security numbers. It’s left to Marie—a woman so insecure she dodges confrontation with kleptomania and assumed identities—to press Hank to do something.
Walt, on the other hand, is not sitting idly by. He gets Skyler to help him record a video confession. And what does the recording reveal? Why, his middle name is Hartwell! Did we know this? If so, I’d forgotten. What an apt moniker for such a diseased soul.
Walt and Skyler bring Hank and Marie to the world’s most annoying restaurant for a sit-down. You’ve got to give credit to the writers for this show for this one. How could you possibly add a note of levity to what’s a death-spiral of tension and despair? How about some guacamole? We make it right at the table!
It’s at this TGI Friday’s-style place that the confessions come out. They are, however, all internalized. Here our characters confess things to themselves. Marie tears into Walt for his lies and Betsy Brandt does a perfect job of bluffing the hand. What makes Walt a monster is what she recognizes as her own tragic flaw—denial of reality. She tells him to kill himself, but is she expressing her own suicidal tendencies? Perhaps. Perhaps she’s trying to purge her own devils by vilifying Walt.
Granted, Walt may actually be too corrupted to claim any innocence by now. He offers up his son as his saving grace, but Hank won’t have it. Good work, Walt! Once again you’ve sacrificed a son and it didn’t even help you out. I wonder if all that will ever come back to haunt you? Like say in half an hour?
For his part, Hank channels Clint Eastwood over his unopened menu. It is only face to face with the man who unmanned him that Hank can show any grit. He rolls over for Gomez and Marie, but Walt won’t see a micrometer of give. If it’s the last thing Hank does, he’ll bring Walt down and reclaim his mojo. Hank’s inability to budge is his own confession. This is his last chance for salvation. If he doesn’t triumph over Walt, then he’ll never respect himself again. Hank is without a doubt all-in.
And that leads to Walt’s confession, on disc, which is exactly the sort of mea culpa one expects from Walt. It’s the kind of confession that makes everything worse. Appropriately out of focus, Walt lays all of his crimes at Hank’s feet. This is who Walter Hartwell White is. He’s the guy who will send his family up the river to save his skin. Yes, I sold sickness and killed and corrupted—but it’s your fault. I did it for you.
Walt’s confession is all bullshit, of course, but it’s brilliantly played. He has never been more honest. This—the lying, despicable man you see in fuzzy digital blocks before you—is who he truly is. He confesses through lies. And then Hank must confront what he’s been dodging for weeks, his own culpability and guilt.
For even though Walt’s screed is a fabrication, it touches enough tender and true spots to draw a believable picture. Hank is in Walt’s pocket for $177,000.00. It is in some sense right that Walt committed his crimes on behalf of family such as Hank. The pressure he felt to continue on cooking, some of it was Hank’s thumb in his eye, challenging his manhood. If it’s Walt’s fault that Hank is unmanned, the corollary is also worth giving credence to.
We can see the wind leave Hank’s sails. While Marie can fritter on, he knows that he’s gone all-in on a losing hand. If he’s going to bust down Walt’s door, it’s going to be without the support of the DEA. Luckily for Hank, the question is moot. We’re only fifteen minutes from Walt’s door being kicked in and Hank doesn’t even have to leave the couch.
As always, Walt’s most dangerous enemy is himself.
Our old friend the desert comes to visit in the next scene. We get Saul and Jesse parked in the desolate waste. Who else is there? Why a tarantula, of course! Last time we saw one of those it was in a jar. A jar Todd brought home secretly from a brilliantly executed train heist. After he shot the kid who was holding it.
Jesse remembers. Jesse remembers everything.
This is one of the best scenes in the history of Breaking Bad. It is, in many ways, the climax of the show thus far. While ostensibly we’ve seen Walt come into conflict with a range of antagonists over the course of the series, the central relationship has largely been between Walt and Jesse. As much as I love Skyler White (and Anna Gunn, and to hell with all the online idiots who are too moronic to recognize her brilliance), and Gus Fring, and Hank, I love Jesse Pinkman more. What Walt has done to Jesse is the worst of all. He has systematically destroyed everything he loves in the name of protecting him.
Here, in the desert, Jesse finally calls Walt out. Walt feeds him a line of self-serving sympathy, trying to cajole him into leaving Albuquerque. Jesse responds with a look as complex as any I’ve seen on any actor’s face. Aaron Paul near explodes in suppressed rage and despair and disbelief. As Walt vomits up his latest manipulation, Jesse confesses. He finally accepts what he’s been denying for four and a half seasons: Walt doesn’t care about him in the slightest. Just as Walt tells Saul to take a walk as this scene starts, he now tells Jesse the same thing, equally as cavalierly.
It suits my purpose that you no longer exist, so please cease to exist. It’s for your own good.
“Stop working me,” Jesse responds. It’s not about me and what I want, but it’s about you. It’s always been about you. He confesses to himself that Mike really is dead and that Walt killed him. This is a fact he’s known for a while but which he hasn’t been able to face because of how much it means. It means that what Walt is saying is not, “It would be best for you if you got a fresh start,” but “Leave or I’ll kill you, because you’re as disposable as Mike.”
If you’re looking for a more perfect Breaking Bad moment, good luck, pal. Here is your extra-thick slice of pathos. Here is our brilliant plan come to fruition. For what can Walt do? Hank can call him a monster, but Hank doesn’t really know. Walt can squirm out from in between Hank’s off-target attacks with layers of lies, but Jesse? No more. No longer.
Walt sees Jesse before him, out in the anonymous desert. Does he have a shovel in his trunk ready for use? I’ll take bets he does. And now his surrogate son is looking him in the eye and reciting scripture: you never cared about me at all. It was always, always, always about you. So why don’t you just kill me and get it over with.
Marie wants him to die, deservedly. Jesse expects him to kill him, deservedly. Instead Walt walks forward and takes Jesse in his arms for a hug.
That’s why we love Breaking Bad. What other show could craft a confrontation this raw, present us with a binary decision that we all recognize as undeniable, and then drop door number three on us instead. For while everything Jesse says is true, it’s also not true at all. Walt isn’t a monster. He’s just a monster. Deep in there, underneath Heisenberg’s hat, is the man who started who cook meth to keep his family from financial ruin.
That’s Walt’s confession. At the end of the day, when all the lies are pared back, there remains a kernel of humanity locked away. He isn’t hugging Jesse because it will get him what he wants. He’s hugging Jesse because he really does care. It is the calcified brutality and calculation of Heisenberg that is the lie, whether or not that lie has overtaken the truth or not.
Can Walt be redeemed? I don’t even know if I hope he can. I just know that Breaking Bad never fails to crush my head like a vise. You can keep your Sopranos and The Wire and even Twin Peaks. None of those shows ever made me feel like this, and on such a regular basis. I think the only television show that offers Breaking Bad a glimmer of competition for ‘best show ever’ is Sesame Street.
Nothing else comes close to affecting the world we live in this profound a fashion.
Our episode is almost over, but not quite. We have a slow release of tension, which has been consistently building all episode. At the DEA, Hank bends to Gomez’ authority, even though he’s the boss. He goes for a walk and cancels his meeting, once again fully unmanned by Walt.
At Saul’s office, Jesse gets all set to be spirited away to wherever he wants with a brand new identity, just as Walt desired. Jesse is practically hyperventilating with emotional overload. He tries to light a joint, but Saul stops him—any sign of drugs (i.e. ‘trouble’) and his mysterious contact will bail. Saul suggests Jesse head to Florida to hang with the Swedish Bikini Team, but Jesse opts for Alaska. Cold, emotionless, wild, and unplanned Alaska is what appeals to the tangled mess that is Jesse Pinkman. As he heads out the door, he brushes against Huell.
And that’s when the terror starts. Not for Jesse, but for us. If you don’t see the next scene coming, for shame.
Standing out alongside the road in front of an odd collection of concrete slabs that resemble headstones, Jesse reaches into his pocket for a smoke. He looks at the packet. He looks for his bag of weed, but it’s gone. He looks at the packet of cigarettes, just like the one that once contained a ricin cigarette until he bumped into Huell.
If Walt’s hug was undeniably true, so is this. Walt poisoned Brock and worked Jesse so he’d betray Mike and Gus—a course of action that led to both of their demises. Walt is not a monster and Walt is a monster.
Jesse walks away from his fresh start to beat the hell out of Saul. Looking at the business end of a gun, Saul also confesses: yes, Huell stole the ricin cigarette for Walt but we didn’t know what he had planned.
We didn’t know he’d poison a child.
Warned by Saul, Walt tosses off another pair of bad lies to poor Skyler so he can retrieve his old .38 from inside the soda machine. Does he tell his wife that she’s potentially in danger? That his monstrosity has come back around to collect? No. He never even told her that Todd called—another clear sign that he wasn’t as free and clear as he’s let on in an episode full of confessions. All Walt ever tells Skyler is that everything is fine. Have a nice day honey. Thanks for having my back against your sister and her husband.
Then, finally, Walt gets his door kicked in. Hank promised it would happen, but the law’s got nothing to do with it. Jesse storms in with a tank of gasoline and starts splashing it around the White residence.
Looks like it’s all going to go up in smoke, Walt.
Previous in this series:
- Season 1, Episodes 1-3
- Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5
- Season 1, Episodes 6 & 7
- Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2
- Season 2, Episodes 3-5
- Season 2, Episodes 6 & 7
- Season 2, Episodes 8-10
- Season 2, Episodes 11-13
- Season 3, Episodes 1-4
- Season 3, Episodes 5-7
- Season 3, Episodes 8-10
- Season 3, Episodes 11-13
- Season 4, Episodes 1-4
- Season 4, Episodes 5-7
- Season 4, Episodes 8-10
- Season 4, Episodes 11-13
- Season 5, Episodes 1-3
- Season 5, Episodes 4-6
- Season 5, Episodes 7 & 8
- Season 5, Episode 9
- Season 5, Episode 10