Breaking Bad Review: "Confessions" (Episode 5.11)
Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Breaking Bad each week in a series of letters. Want to join the conversation and see your name on the digital pages of Paste? We’ll be running a Breaking Bad Mailbag on Fridays to whet our appetites for the new episodes. Mailbags require actual mail, so send your Breaking Bad questions, theories, and rants to BreakingPaste@gmail.com before Friday, and Josh or Shane—possibly both!—will answer the best ones.)
I don’t want to jump the gun here, but I think I might know who burns Walt’s house down!
Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.
I realize I should probably wait a few minutes after the episode ends to avoid write the text equivalent of my jaw hitting the floor, but…
I really don’t know where to begin. When I watch these shows, the fact that I’ll be doing an email recap with you afterward is always on my mind, so my brain is multitasking between enjoying the show and picking out little nuggets to write about. And all I can say about this spectacular episode, which immediately goes into my all-time top five, is that with every new scene, I thought, “that’s my lead.” And it kept changing! If last week was the slow-burn episode, a set-up of sorts, this week was the explosive payoff, topping itself again and again. I have no choice—I need to use my sports announcer voice: THIS WAS STRONG TELEVISION, JOSH!
Okay. I’m going to organize my scrambled brain and give you four quick thoughts.
1. Aaron Paul is the best damn actor on this show
Better than Cranston, better than Dean Norris, and even better than our favorite actor of all time…ANNA GUNN! Seriously, this was a tour de force for Jesse, the best of his many great episodes. I mean, the range this guy showed was possibly Derek Jeter-like (baseball reference designed solely to infuriate Josh). He was defiant in the interrogation room with Hank, panicked as he prepared to assume a new life in Saul’s office, violent upon his return, and wrathful as he prepared to torch Walt’s house. He even nailed the “moment of realization” scene at the roadside, when he figured out that Saul had stolen the ricin cigarette for Walt via Huell. Moments of realization can be tricky for an actor, and let’s be honest; this one was a classic Breaking Bad stretch. Missing weed plus convenient cigarettes equals Huell stole the ricin for Saul who then gave it to Walt? Okay, sure. But on the Chazz Palminteri scale, Paul scored a perfect 10. And I’ve left out one scene on purpose, because…
2. Jesse’s Confrontation with Walt in the desert is the high point of the series
I’m one of those people who loves watching Breaking Bad but is rarely emotionally affected by it, but man, this one hit me. For our purposes, I’ll call it the “stop playing me” monologue. To me, this was the greatest minute of acting in the entire series. No exaggeration. It cut to the heart of the Walt/Jesse relationship, which was built on a foundation of antagonism-with-a-heart-of-gold, and has since descended into a total emotional void. Jesse knows Walt has brought him into the desert to convince him to flee town or die on the spot, and when he finally makes the choice to break from his standard reaction—the disaffected “whatever, Mr. White”—the torrent of emotion overwhelmed me. It mattered to him, and the way he broke down showed that it mattered all along. He lost his own parents because of his bad choices and their abandonment, and against his will Walt had become a surrogate father. To be betrayed by this second-chance parent is too much to bear. He tried and tried to believe that Walt was good, or at least cared about him on some level, but the levee broke in the desert, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the ricin revelation came hot on its heels.
3. There is no Walter White anymore
I’ll mostly leave this one to you, Josh—when is the last time you can remember Walt having a genuine emotional reaction? Something without ambiguity, where you could say, “yes, he really feels something?” I can’t remember. In this episode, he used his cancer to keep his son from going to Hank and Marie’s, made an insane videotape in an attempt to implicate Hank (or at least halt his investigation because of the threat), and hugged Jesse to—what?—assuage his fears? I no longer understand this man, and I found myself agreeing with Marie’s proposal in La Taqueria that maybe he should just end things as they stand. He’s become so nihilistic that I’m not even sure the writers know what he wants, and if there’s a weakness in the narrative thread of Season Five, I think this is it. I don’t know if I care what happens to Walt anymore. When you’re looking at a guy who you honestly believe might kill his own wife to keep the illusion afloat, it’s hard to identify. He’s less like a human and more like a subway rat, ears perked to the next train heading down the track, frantic to survive and maintain a miserable life.
4. Hank is quite possibly the worst cop in the world
Is there a way he could have played this whole thing worse from the moment when he discovered the Walt White-Walt Whitman connection? The right move was to tell somebody—Ramey, Gomez, whoever—right away and hope that by coming totally clean he could save his skin and maybe his job. Instead, he’s taken the wrong turn at every moment, doing a horrible job of confronting Skyler and Jesse, allowing the criminal to know he’s under suspicion, and essentially backing himself into a corner. He started off in a position of power—at least somewhat—and is now completely screwed. It’s a checkers vs. chess situation, and Walt is the one playing chess. More and more, I get the feeling Hank is doomed, and that if he does manage to get Walt, he’ll pay the ultimate price.
Okay Josh, back to you!
I was introduced to a variation of Texas Hold ‘Em recently called “Throw One, Roll One.” Each player gets three cards instead of two—one to discard, one to show and one to keep in the pocket. The idea is that the card you choose to show can help throw people off of what you have in the hole. Vince Gilligan showed us a card when he revealed Future Walt, but despite all the Internet theories and predictions, nobody knows what he’s keeping in the pocket.
In other words, I DID NOT SEE THAT VIDEO CONFESSION COMING.
I hardly remember the meek science teacher who shows up in that video, but he’s still there for Walt to use to his advantage. When Hank realizes that the confession is really a way to implicate him as Walt’s boss in the meth empire, you can see the blood drain from his face. Hank thought he had a great hand, and he’s completely surprised by the ace in Walt’s pocket. Every lie on that tape is completely believable, because it’s deeply twisted up in the truth—Hank taking Walt on a ride-along, his friendship with Gus, getting targeted by a rival dealer, and (most damningly) the hospital bill paid with drug money. Even if Marie is slow to realize how completely Walt has beaten his brother-in-law, Hank knows right away. And Walt has done it so skillfully that all I can do is admire the cleverness. Sorry, Hank.
But you’re right, Shane, in that the video scene is only one of the great moments in “Confessions.” And it’s good to see that Jesse has woken up. I don’t share your immunity to the emotions of Breaking Bad, so imagine my own reaction to that scene in the desert. Every time Walt put his hands in his pockets, I got nervous. But Aaron Paul was indeed fantastic. I’m not sure I put him above Bryan Cranston when ranking all the actors, but the character of Jesse has been the real moral anchor to the show, providing the audience with a point of entry since Walt no longer does. Jesse has done bad things, but bad things are supposed to take their toll. They haven’t with Walt, and that’s what has made him a monster. Jesse has been haunted by all the innocents (and relative innocents like Gale) who’ve been hurt because of what he and Walt have done. And Paul has done a remarkable job portraying that remorse. Walt can pretend that nothing is wrong, and that’s what drives Jesse the maddest. In the desert, he snaps and just needs Walt to stop the charade. He knows he’s picked the wrong man to follow, and needs that to be out on the table. Walt just keeps manipulating him, and it almost works in the end.
If Walt was in control of the situation with Hank—and it was important for him to go mano-a-mano with his brother-in-law—he’s downright panicked when he finds out that Jesse is gunning for him, badly lying to Skyler, scrambling for a hidden gun and fully expecting the house of cards to come tumbling down.
Even though Walt was indeed trying to manipulate him with the “fresh start” talk, I wanted Jesse to take heed, to get in that car and start over in Alaska. I’m now afraid he’s now headed to “Belize” instead.
But we now we have at least one answer to the big questions posed by the flash-forwards: Who torched Walt’s house? There’s still plenty to be guessed at. But it seems that Gilligan still has plenty of cards up his sleeve.
So, did the Jesse/Hank confrontation live up to your expectations?
To be honest, the Jesse-Hank duel in the interview room (which, again, I believe Hank bungled out of desperation) led me to believe we might be in for another slow-burn episode, as did Hank’s decision not to tell Gomez about Walt. Obviously that notion got flipped on its (soft) head a few scenes down the line, but in the moment it felt like another delay tactic. It makes sense to me now, though, because an alliance between Jesse and Hank just doesn’t make sense. Anti-authoritarianism is so ingrained in the Pinkman DNA that even the horror of Walt’s ricin attack on young Brock couldn’t drive him into the arms of the law. He’ll have to settle it his own way, eschewing the Alaskan dream and arming himself with gasoline and rage.
(Quick, almost totally irrelevant aside: This is the best scene of all time involving an Alaskan escape fantasy: Five Easy Pieces)
I really like the “Throw One, Roll One” analogy, because you’re right, I still have no clue about the minor details (who spray-painted “Heisenberg” on the wall) or the major ones (what happens to…everyone?). More and more now, I think the one thing we can know with relative certainty is that the Jesse/Walt question is an either/or proposition. Both of them can’t survive, and unfortunately, I think Jesse’s going to die first. If we’re sticking with the poker metaphor, I think Vince Gilligan might have a “tell”—the very convincing “Walt takes on the characteristics of those he murders” theory that’s emerged on the Internet in the past couple weeks. If online sleuths have truly cracked the Breaking Bad code, I can’t really blame Vince Gilligan or the writers; I never would’ve noticed the patterns, and it will probably serve as a good lesson to future shows that if you telegraph your plot even in minor ways, some genius behind a computer will figure it out.
Then again, maybe Vince and co. are one step ahead of the fanboys, using their gumshoe abilities to subvert their expectations. That would be the ultimate “Throw One, Roll One” triumph.
A question for you as I throw it back—do you think Todd’s voicemail at the start of the episode is laying the groundwork for Walt’s return to the meth game? A last hurrah? As I understand it now, Todd plans to lead the operation as cook, but we know from before that he can’t make it at the same purity as Walt quite yet. Of all the remaining threads that haven’t been tied up, I think I’m the most curious to see how Lydia and Todd play into the endgame. It seems like Walt has quite enough trouble already without cooking, but if there’s one thing we know about Heisenberg, it’s that he likes to press his luck.
Oh, one more thing—how great was Saul in this episode? I loved that we finally saw him wounded a little in the office; it felt like at least for once, he dropped the fast-talking act and let real fear creep in. Amazingly, though, he showed some courage in that moment. And the pain of his line to Huell—“What am I paying you for?”—was another underrated moment. Do you think a spin-off with Saul as the lead character of his own show could work?
So glad you mentioned Todd’s voicemail because Jesse Plemons did a brilliant job delivering the news with all the casualness of a son trying to downplay a small fender-bender to his dad. There’s been a change in management, but it’s all good, nothing to see here. The only way I can imagine Walt cooking again is if those trash cans full of cash aren’t as safe as he thinks. At least part of his emergency fund went to Jesse already. But it’s clear that Todd and Racist Uncle and Lydia are somehow going to feature in the end.
But you’re right that this episode seemed like another slow-burn at first. The cold open with Todd recalling the glory of the train heist (omitting that one little hitch at the end where he had to shoot a kid) worked as a contrast to Jesse’s overriding guilt, but it didn’t really move the plot forward. And the promised Jesse/Hank encounter that we were all looking forward to ended up being more misdirection before the big reveals later on. You’re right that Hank’s desperation was a big part of his downfall. That’s one aspect of the show that hasn’t been talked about very much. Heisenberg has become Hank’s white whale, and discovering his identity has only made Hank’s obsession more personal. That has turned him into, as you put it, the worst cop ever. It’s not Walter White-level hubris that leads to his predicament, but when he shouts at Marie, “Don’t tell me how to do my job!” that’s pride that cometh before the video. And Hank and Marie’s barely controlled rage and unwillingness to see any humanity in Walt gives even Skyler the justification she needs to go along with Walt’s blackmail scheme “to protect the kids.”
Bob Odenkirk has been so great on this show, but mostly as comic relief. Last night, he showed a little more dramatic range and it was the first time I thought Vince Gilligan’s (half-joking?) spinoff idea could work. I’d assumed that the shift in tone would be too weird to work. But a dark comedy with Saul and Huell? I’d tune in just to see what that was like.
I’ll leave you with this: Last week, I asked who would be Walt’s downfall and you said it would have to be himself. In some ways that will be true regardless how it happens, but I’m happy that Jesse had a hand. Of all his betrayals, the way he’s constantly manipulated Jesse, turning him against Gus by poisoning a kid, was the absolute worst.
Come on man, it was just some mild lily-of-the-valley poison. So the kid spent a few days in the hospital…do we have to be so dramatic about it?
(Oh God…it’s…it’s WALT LOGIC! IT’S WORKING ON ME!)
I did laugh at Todd’s conversation with his racist pals about the train heist. I kept wondering if he was going to add in the unsavory minor detail at the end.
“Oh, and after it was over? Get this, a kid comes by on his bike.”
“What’d you do?”
“What’d I do? I shot him! What do you think I did?!”
I wonder if that would have given those bad men pause. By the way, one of the racists is played by Kevin Rankin, who also played the excellent character “Devil” in Justified, and who is an authentic Louisiana boy. I just checked his IMDB page, curious to see if he’s been typecast as a redneck, and here are the names of all the characters he’s played since 2009: Slick Rick, Herc, Jerry Rogan, Holt McCready, Talbot, Marvin, Tyler Briggs, Danny Ruskin, Kent Clark, Goldy, Verlan Walker, Devil, Roe Saunders, Brother Neil, Casey Tremblay, Killick, Randy, Kenny, T.J., and McVeigh. I would say that’s an emphatic YES on the redneck question.
As a final request to you, I’d be curious to see your top five list of Walt White’s most heinous acts. I thought of putting the list together myself, but I think I’m forgetting too many. Instead, here are my top five most heinous THEORETICAL acts that could happen between now and the end of the show.
5. Walt kills Skyler, then winks at the camera, a nod to the legions of Skyler-haters.
4. Walt kills Hank, then turns Marie into the police for being a kleptomaniac.
3. Walt kills Jesse by hugging him to death.
2. Walt kills Flynn for asking too many questions, and for being kinda pretentious about the name.
1. Walt goes back and finishes the job on Brock just because he’s bored.
You asked for it:
The Five Absolute Worst Things Walter White Has Done:
5. Convincing Jesse to kill Gale
Walt was convinced that Gus was going to kill him otherwise, but still…Gale was always friendly to Walt. And Jesse would never be the same.
4. Putting a hit on Gus’ nine men in prison
This was ruthless. None of the men had yet flipped and told the DEA anything, but Walt had all of them assassinated in prison just to be on the safe side. That’s Todd/Tuco/Gus-level coldness.
3. Killing Mike
Mike was already out of the picture. He had his money and he was heading to Belize. This was the least necessary murder Walt committed and the most petty. Mike was a criminal but consistently displayed more humanity than Walt.
2. Watching Jane die
Knocking Jane on to her back while he’s trying to revive Jesse, Walt watches Jane asphyxiate on her own vomit. Letting her die isn’t much different from murdering her, all because he sees her as a bad influence on Jesse and therefore a danger to his enterprise. This is the point at which Walt the Anti-Hero becomes Walt the Villain. His act has disastrous repercussions when Jane’s grieving father, an air-traffic controller, causes a plane crash in the air above Albuquerque.
1. Poisoning Brock
You could argue that this isn’t nearly as bad as any of the above since Brock recovers, but you’d be wrong. To manipulate Jesse into thinking Gus needs to die, Walt was willing to put Andrea’s innocent boy at risk. In case you were wondering, the cardiac glycosides contained in Lily of the Valley attack the gastrointestinal, circulatory and nervous systems. Walt is an absolute dick.
Remember, send your Breaking Bad questions to BreakingPaste@gmail.com and check back on Friday for more Breaking Bad goodness. Also, follow Shane Ryan at @ShaneRyanHere and Josh Jackson at @JoshJackson on Twitter.