The final season (okay, half-season) of Breaking Bad is officially underway. There have been two pretty solid episodes so far, “Blood Money” and then “Buried,” both of which gave us scenes (and moments of hand-to-face contact) that have been a long time coming. This was good TV.
And yet… and yet… it wasn’t flat-out, no-holds-barred excellent TV, like the very best episodes of Breaking Bad. Most shows don’t air a single episode that can be called “excellent” (by my standards) in their entire run, but Breaking Bad has had several. There is not a single bad one in the bunch. (Even The Sopranos had a weak hour or two. That Christopher Columbus episode? Yikes.) I hate to nitpick Breaking Bad, but the show is so good that those chinks in the armor stand out all the more. At the beginning of this week’s episode, “Confessions,” I was all ready to gripe about how there may be too many cards laid out on the table now, because we’ve had so many scenes with angry people talking. But Breaking Bad isn’t a show about people saying what they feel — it’s about people who hide it. And we usually know so much more than the characters do, which is part of the fun.
That dynamic has shifted, though, now that the cat’s out of the bag with Hank and Marie. The Schrader vs. White confrontations were good, but I was starting to miss the way Breaking Bad so nimbly danced around any actual confession of what Walt’s been up to. There’s a lot of lying on this show. In fact, before “Blood Money,” when was the last time two characters interacted in which both of them had all the facts regarding the subject they’re discussing? It’s been a long while, I’d bet. As “Confessions” began, it seemed we were in for another round of the Schrader vs. White standoff, and I couldn’t help but feel that everyone was being a little too direct.
And then I continued watching the episode and had to shut the fuck up about that.
“Confessions” is the name of this episode, but it could also be the name of this season (okay, half-season) so far. In “Blood Money,” Walt and Hank found each other out. In “Buried,” Skyler was added to Scharder’s Most Wanted list. After four and a half seasons of secrets, secrets, and more secrets, this last string of episodes is when everybody found out everything about everyone else. And “Confessions” continued that trend. (And how!)
The series’ biggest built-in suspense factor has always been Hank as DEA agent, Walt as drug lord. We knew these courses would collide eventually, and then they did. In early seasons this was much more calculated and TV-ish, with Hank sniffing around Walt’s trail without quite putting the pieces together; in later seasons, it got a shade more complicated, especially when a drunk Walt put Hank back on Heisenberg’s trail just when he was ready to assume Gale was the mastermind behind everything. Walt and Hank’s garage confrontation in “Blood Money” was satisfying on one level; same with Marie delivering a much-deserved slap to Skyler in “Buried.”
At the same time, it wasn’t fully, absolutely, 100% satisfying to me — not by Breaking Bad standards — because this show has blown my mind on multiple occasions with twists I never saw coming. So far, the confrontations this season have taken place in a reasonably predictable fashion — which isn’t to say they weren’t well-written and well-executed, with superb acting as always. I was surprised that Walt was so direct with Hank so soon, surprised that Skyler so readily sided with her husband rather than hopping onto the moral high road alongside Hank and Marie. Yet none of this was truly blind-siding — it was, more or less, the kind of stuff we saw coming.
Early in “Confessions,” Hank interrogates Jesse, hoping he’ll spill the beans on Heisenberg. What a misleading episode title! The “confession” here is not Jesse Pinkman’s at all — he’s seen too many people die at Heisenberg’s sly hand to believe he’d get away with snitching. (The man has made it clear he can kill in prison.) Jesse doesn’t say a word, so Hank is free to join Skyler, Marie, and Walt for the unhappiest would-be meal of all time at a local Mexican restaurant. Have you ever seen four more miserable, sorrier-looking faces than the four at this table? Even their waiter realizes all is not well in this quartet.
After two episodes in which various Schrader vs. White scenarios played out, both couples reunite for what is likely the last of many dinners together — this one unlike any we’ve seen previously. Everyone here has an agenda. Hank wants Walt to confess, Skyler wants everyone to move on, Walt wants to ensure that he gets away scot-free… and Marie wants Walt to die. Marie has so often played the happy-go-lucky “normal” one in the family, representing a certain oblivious middle class mediocrity. Here, she finally gets to spit some venom, suggesting that Walt kill himself to get this all over with. (Her sister also wished death upon Walter not so long ago, though she’s changed her tune.)
Of course, Hank thinks that’s too easy a sentence for Heisenberg’s crimes, and we agree. Plus we’ve seen Walt go to such great lengths to preserve himself — we know he wouldn’t do that. The Whites are again in neutral, beige-y colors, just like all the rich folks at Elliot’s party way back when — Skyler’s even wearing a turtleneck, covering up the maximum amount of skin (and lies). She doesn’t say much throughout this, as has been her trademark in recent episodes, but the look on her face is enough. This is a juicy scene, fraught with tension, as four characters who have constantly lied to each other finally show who they really are. No one’s truly hiding anything here, though Walt is again using his children as an excuse for why he shouldn’t be punished. Because it might hurt them. (As if getting into the drug trade in the first place didn’t cause enough suffering.)
I loved this scene — perhaps more than any other scene in the past two episodes — and yet, still, I was left wanting more. Breaking Bad has always flirted with near-discoveries, the entire show built on what people didn’t know. It made many otherwise ordinary scenes so very tense. And now that these characters all know so much, I wondered if Breaking Bad was losing its way a little. Would the rest of the series really just be people talking about how angry they are? Would it be so direct? Would there be so few surprises? When Hank interrogates Jesse, he comes out and says it: he knows Heisenberg is his brother-in-law. It felt like a missed opportunity for a cleverer way to reveal this — since it is a pretty big revelation. It seemed symptomatic of a difference this season compared to those prior — the writers being less coy and careful, as if the looming deadline of a series finale caused them to abandon what makes the show so brilliant in the first place.
It was only a minor, nagging thought in the back of my mind. Still, I needn’t have worried. In the very next scene, Walt’s previously-recorded “confession” did exactly what I needed it to — something I never anticipated. Something that never even entered my mind. That Walt could somehow find a way to pin all his crimes on Hank? Unthinkable! And yet, in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. Hank’s the one with the inside info. He’s an intimidating blow-hard, especially when compared to Walt, the meek and bumbling cancer-stricken chemistry teacher. Suddenly Hank’s obsession with bringing Heisenberg down doesn’t seem like a guy just doing his job, but becomes a bit… curious.
Vince Gilligan and his writers aren’t big pre-planners — they don’t always know where a given season ends even when they’re beginning it. (Even Season Five isn’t quite as pre-planned as you might think.) Yet Walt threatening to pin Hank as Heisenberg feels like something that’s been worked into the show from the very beginning — it was Hank who suggested that first ride-along in the pilot, and Hank has been so close (but so far) to catching him ever since. With Walt’s “confession,” could the DEA really buy that Walt was right under Hank’s nose the whole time, and Hank didn’t quite piece it together until recently?
No. Walt’s mad genius strikes again, and strikes big. How else could he really escape his inevitable fate behind bars? What plan could be more devious than this? No one dies. No one gets hurt. (Except, obviously, emotionally.) It’s so obvious now that Walt’s dreamed it up, yet blaming Hank never for a second crossed my mind before he suggested it. Because who but Walter White could even think of such a thing? I somewhat doubt this was on Vince Gilligan’s mind all along, but now it feels like the show has always been building up to this. Like the very best moments of Breaking Bad, it’s inevitable and yet wholly surprising.
It’s a flat-out brilliant twist, one that sinks Walt into an even further depth of shittiness and still is consistent with all that came before. Walt again plays the victim, a role he plays very well when need be. He’s twisted his own evil around and attributed it to his well-meaning brother-in-law, in such a way that it actually is more believable that way. The lie is more convincing than the truth. Walt has rewritten his life before — notably, in the “script” he prepared with Skyler to explain his sudden riches in “Bullet Points,” and also when he used Skyler’s affair with Ted to make her the villain in their marriage. Walt has a knack for pinning the blame on other people, and something about him lets him get away with it almost every time.
I say “almost” because, as dynamite as Walt’s videotape is, it occurs less than halfway through an episode that isn’t nearly finished dropping bombhells. Walt may have wormed his way out of Hank’s clutches (for now), but past guilt trips are catching up to him. Walt once blamed the poisoning of a young boy on Gus Fring — a vicious killer, no foul there — except Jesse believed him, and thus Walt further abused his trust. Jesse almost caught Walt, but slick as ever, Walt managed to use “logic” to explain why it was Gus’ devious mind, not his own, that was responsible for Brock’s poisoning. In “Confessions,” Jesse finally calls Walt on his bullshit (which he’s been increasingly hip to), knowing that Walt dispatched of Mike before he was able to take that nice little vacation to Belize — and believing that Walt will do the same to him if he doesn’t disappear.
Yet Jesse stills takes Walt’s suggestion that he use that mysterious contact of Saul’s — the one who can help you with your Hoover Max Extract Pressure Pro Model 60 dust filter, or build you a whole new life if need be. Jesse knows that Walt’s suggestion is in his own best interest rather than Jesse’s, but Mr. White is right that his protege has no reason to stick around Santa Fe anymore. In fact, it’s best that he clear out while he can.
It’s nice to imagine Jesse living a brand new life in Alaska — starting a family, as Walt suggests ironically, given that he’s the one who scared Jesse away from the family he was starting with Brock and Andrea — but of course, it’s hard to imagine a particularly happy ending for any of these characters. When rightly accused of his manipulation, Walt merely embraces Jesse in a rare display of outright affection — and it’s to the show’s credit that you’re not entirely sure he isn’t about to shoot him in the gut right then and there. But no. Walt’s hug is genuine (I think), and though it is intended as one kind of good-bye, it ends up being another kind. For they will see each other again, quite soon — but the teacher-pupil dynamic is officially over.
Jesse is about to ship off to Alaska when his missing baggie of weed reminds him of another time something disappeared from his pocket in Huell’s presence. And he finally. Puts it. Together. (Which is almost too bad, because I’m curious about that guy who makes people disappear. Maybe he’ll pop back up when Walt finds himself in need of escape… to New Hampshire.) I thought Breaking Bad might actually say goodbye to Jesse for the next few episodes, but instead he gets wise to just how destructive Walt has been in his life (though still unaware of the Jane incident) and marches off, bent on revenge. The episode ends with him dumping gasoline all over the White residence. (Which we know can’t be too badly burned, since it’s still standing in the flash-forward.)
“Confessions” continues this season’s trend of laying the cards on the table, with Jesse finally finding out Walt’s biggest manipulation of him. Though Hank and Marie’s discovery of Heisenberg was inevitable, there was no true guarantee that Jesse would learn just what a shit Walt has been to him, yet now he has. And he isn’t taking it lying down. Three episodes in, Breaking Bad has seriously upped the ante, making this the first truly excellent episode of this season. (Okay, half-season.)
“He really did a number on you, didn’t he?” Hank asks Jesse when he’s seeking a confession. Neither, at this point, has any idea just what a number Walt has done on poor Pinkman. Their farewell scene shows that there is still some love in this complicated relationship, and it mirrors an even earlier scene in which Walt manipulates his actual biological son. Walter Jr. has never wised up to Walt’s bullshit, and he’s easily toyed with here as his father “confesses” that his cancer’s back just to get him to blow Marie off. (Poor, good-hearted Walter Jr.! How can things possibly end well for this kid?)
It took Jesse a while to catch on, too, but he finally did, and there’s more genuine feeling in Walt’s interaction with Jesse than there is with young Flynn. Walt has betrayed everyone in his life time and time again, and now almost every single one of them knows it. Skyler’s by his side for now, but she thinks his meth-making days are over and is still in the dark on the nitty gritty details of Walt’s double life. Will she really stick with him? Following that guacamole-free dinner with Hank and Marie, she goes briefly back to her catatonic state from earlier this season. She knows she’s lost her sister and brother-in-law for good. But Skyler clearly has limits, and there are places she may not be willing to follow Walt. (Such as New Hampshire.) It’ll be interesting to see just how and when Skyler reaches a breaking point, since we know she isn’t with him nine months from now.
“Confessions” begins with a follow-up to Lydia’s murder rampage from last week, though Lydia herself makes no appearance. (Travesty!) Instead, it’s Todd and his thuggy relatives in a prolonged diner sequence that seems to have little purpose except to inform us that these guys are headed to New Mexico. Todd tells the story of the train heist, ending it before the part where he shoots an innocent child — and later, there’s another callback to “Dead Freight,” with a tarantula crawling through the desert. (Remember, Drew Sharp had one in a jar when he stumbled upon our antiheroes.)
Is “Confessions” reminding us of Todd’s cold-blooded actions in “Dead Freight” for a reason? Will the boy’s death finally be of consequence? Or was this just another random bug for Jesse to stare at, as he so often does? (Beetles, cockroaches, flies… you name it.) It’s becoming near-clear that Todd’s family will face off with Walt in the final episodes, yet this diner scene didn’t do much to build them up as antagonists, which seems like a missed opportunity given the amount of screen time we spend on this tertiary storyline. They’re still nowhere near as intimidating as Gus Fring. (Yet.)
But that’s my only gripe with an otherwise stellar episode, one that does nearly all of what Breaking Bad does at his best. (There aren’t really any quotable tidbits in this one, a la “Tread lightly” or “Am I under arrest?”) Walt has proven even slippier than we thought possible, Hank is stuck without the possibility of turning his brother-in-law in, and Jesse is royally pissed at his onetime mentor — in such a way that their fractured friendship may never be mended. The episode title itself is a clever wink, since Walt has never fully confessed to anything — he’s always spinning lies with just enough of a kernel of truth that they’ll be believed. Here, he may have outdone himself. In his breakdown for the camera, Walt sheds a tear and says he feels so bad for what he’s done to his family without admitting to actually being at fault, and it’s all so very disgusting. How can such an amoral man be so sanctimonious? He’s doomed every important person in his life and yet can still play the “family values” card and get away with it. Now, at least, we have Hank and Marie to shake their heads at his bullshit along with us.In an alternate universe, much of “Confessions” could have served as a series finale. Jesse and Walt say their goodbyes while Walt figures out a surefire way to silence Hank. These conflicts have reached their conclusions — or so we think. But the show’s not over yet.
The last two episodes had me thinking “But there are only six episodes left!” and now I think, “We’ve got five whole episodes to go!” Because where can Breaking Bad go from here? How can it sustain this? Will Walt and Jesse be mortal enemies from here on out? What will Hank do now that he’s been painted into a corner? It’s hard to imagine how these storylines will resolve, but if we could figure it out on our own, we wouldn’t love the show so much.
Breaking Bad is a series that rarely goes the route we’re expecting, preferring to torment its characters rather than let them find an easy out. “Confessions” tightened the screw just a little bit more, giving Walt one of his most masterful schemes yet and promising some epic Jesse vs. Walt action next week. This is Breaking Bad reaching that sky-high bar it set for itself, giving us every reason to believe that it’ll go out with a bang we haven’t seen coming.