Breaking Bad breaks all the rules of TV storytelling. Normally, if the big reveal you’ve been building toward the whole series — say, that the brother-in-law of a meth kingpin discovers that he has a meth kingpin for a brother-in-law — happens, you delay the resulting conflict for as long as possible. Not on Breaking Bad. One episode after Hank’s (Dean Norris) toilet revelation about Walt (Bryan Cranston) being Heisenberg, we got…a confrontation between Walt and Hank. Likewise, when a flash-forward has been teased at length, you expect that to be a tease of events in the far distant future. Well, the destruction of Casa White (Casa Blanca?) actually seems to be nigh.
Jesse (Aaron Paul) has officially lost it. And instead of getting blazed with his seemingly bottomless stash of weed, he’s going to set a blaze: a fire that could leave Walt’s house in the state we’ve seen it in those post-52nd birthday teases. Who wants to bet that he’s also going to spraypaint “Heisenberg” on the wall before striking that match?
“Confessions” continued to tighten the noose around Walt’s neck. Jesse’s on a pyromaniac spree, Hank’s going to be out for blood more than ever — even if he’s been momentarily stalled — and Todd, the scariest character on the show, has done something that could have major repercussions. We saw him follow up the massacre of Declan and his men by spilling all to his companions about the train heist. He even revealed Walt’s name. His companions seemed impressed, especially since that jump off a moving train was like the Burt Reynolds movie Hooper. (First, Star Trek. Then, Scrooge McDuck. Now Burt Reynolds movies!) Now, I’m not saying that his companions will come gunning for Walt, or that they’re secretly undercover Feds or whatever, but they will reveal what Todd told them, mark my words. Anyone who laments the continued presence of ashtrays in airplane armrests, since smoking itself is no longer allowed, is going to talk.
As far as Hank’s interrogation of Jesse went, that wasn’t nearly the explosive showdown we were expecting — another subtly subversive twist. Hank immediately leveled that he knew Jesse had been working with Heisenberg, his brother-in-law. Jesse didn’t deny it, but he said Hank would have to beat a full confession out of him. He may not have much love for Walt, but he’s still not a rat. He may be looking for redemption but the spiritual cleanse he seeks won’t necessarily come from the Law. Saul then showed up, raised hell, and got Jesse out of there in a heartbeat. I mean, giving money away is hardly a crime.
Marie continued her bid to kidnap Walt & Skyler’s kids. This time, Walt Jr. was her target. Notice how she exclusively calls him "Flynn now." Before he could go to his aunt’s to help her with “some computer thing,” his dad told him the cancer was back. Yep, that was the way to keep him nearby. Instead, he would have Skyler tape his “confession,” then the two of them would meet Hank & Marie at a Mexican restaurant for lunch: Gardunia’s Taqueria. Oh, the awkwardness that is interacting with a relentlessly sunny waiter when you are anything but. “Hi, I’m Trent, I can take your drink order. And how about some tableside guacamole?” They make the guac right there at the table! As bad of a mood as Walt and Skyler were in, Hank and Marie were far worse off. Marie is so uncertain about the truth of anything her sister has said that she even wonders if her affair took place — something I’m not certain Skyler herself revealed to Hank and Marie, but Walt may have. (Funny that would be the one thing her sister would rattle off, as if she’s almost jealous of Skyler if indeed the affair took place.) Basically, Marie took over the whole lunch, just as she did her conversation with Skyler last week. She even suggested that Walt should just kill himself, since he’s going to die anyway, and then all their problems would be solved. Skyler did not go for that. Nor did Hank, who thought that would allow Walt to get off too easy. He also suggested that he would see to it that Skyler pays too, if she sticks with her husband. So Walt slid a DVD over to him and quietly left. It seemed he’d decided to turn over a full confession and, his family’s financial future secure, accept the consequences of his crimes.
Except that’s not what he did. Not by a long shot. What followed were three of the most harrowing, truly disturbing minutes I’ve ever seen on television. Hank and Marie popped in the DVD and watched Walt’s confession. A confession that he was indeed a meth cook and had made a fortune cooking the blue stuff…but that he really worked for Hank, who’d learned the know-how to build his own meth empire while working for the DEA. When Kingpin Hank crossed his partner Gus Fring, he was attacked by two hitmen. Hank plotted with Hector Salamanca — who, remember, came to the DEA shortly before blowing himself up — to kill Fring in retaliation. And Hank even demanded that Walt pay $177,000 for his medical treatment. The fact is, there’s just as much evidence on the table currently to “prove” that reading of events as there is what really happened. What’s amazing is how this revealed the complacency and utter stupidity of Marie: to accept that money and really believe that it was from gambling. I mean, who makes $177,000 from poker or blackjack? She’s one of Walt’s accomplices too, really. And Hank knew it. “You’ve killed me here,” he said to his wife. “That’s the last nail…that’s the last nail in the coffin.” He may hate his brother-in-law more than ever now, but he has no choice but to call off the investigation and even tell those men of his to stop tailing Jesse.
This “confession” may have just been about the worst thing we’ve ever seen Walt do: a relentless threat of such calculation that the family he’s tried to protect will now be sundered forever. I’ve never felt such abject loathing for him as I did watching his go-for-broke performance sobbing to the camera that Hank was the true villain. And that came just moments after hoping he actually would stick it to Hank and Marie following their display of banal moralism at the Mexican place. That kind of narrative calibration, that ability to snap our identification from one character to another that quickly, is a sign of master storytelling. The term “Hitchcockian” is bandied about so readily these days and rarely with any true justification. But this toggling of our loyalties, of being able to cause us to root for both Walt and Hank at the same time — as Hitchcock did in making us cheer on both Farley Granger and Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho — is truly Hitchcockian. It’s suspense so relentlessly, so tightly coiled we don’t even know how it can be relieved at this point.
And none of this has even involved Jesse! Walt finally did meet him out in the wilderness and told him to visit Jim Beaver, the guy who can create a new identity for him, a new life. Jesse just wanted Walt to level with him. “Can you stop playing me for just five minutes?” He knew Walt wanted him to get out of town or he’d be killed just like Mike. Walt’s only response was a hug.
Jesse went to Saul, who advised he should start over in Florida, get a tan, hang out with the “Swedish bikini team.” Nah, Jesse wanted to go to Alaska. The complete opposite of anything these people were suggesting for him. (Didn’t you love Huell’s “’Scuse me” when Jesse squeezed past him?) He indeed went to meet with Jim Beaver, except he couldn’t go through with it. He noticed that the ricin cigarette in the pack was gone. Walt must still be planning to use it. Other people might still get hurt. This isn’t over. After all the platitudes, all the reassurances, they were still stuck in the cycle of violence. And Jesse wouldn’t stop until it was truly broken. He may have broken into Saul’s office, beaten him silly, pointed a gun at Huell, and splattered gasoline around Walt’s home to torch the place, but all of this may actually have been the sign that he’s broken good. This violence would end with him.
How has Jesse broken good? Well, every other character on this show thinks that forgetting the past, by moving forward and trying to do better in the future, is a viable, defensible goal. They rationalize, justify, or outright forget or censor their terrible crimes: Lydia saying she doesn’t “want to see” the carnage she unleashed in having Todd’s crew kill Declan’s; Walt choosing to whistle away the pain of that young boy’s death. I mentioned a couple weeks ago Budd Boetticher’s idea in Ride Lonesome that forgetting the horrors we’ve unleashed is humanity’s default position: “A man can do that.” But if you do forget, how can you ensure the cycle is broken? You can’t. Jesse is asserting the morality of remembering, that carrying around guilt, and making sure others do the same, can prevent history from repeating itself, can end the violence. Moving to Florida and getting a tan isn’t going to do that. Remembering is the first step toward living a more just life. It’s the opposite of Walt trying to act like everything is copacetic with Skyler when he’s really going to retrieve his snub .38 from the vending machine to protect himself. Remembering is in itself a moral act. It’s why “admitting you have a problem” is the first step in 12-step programs. Walt is still in denial.
Maybe a cleansing inferno will help wake him up.
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