This review contains spoilers.
Another week, another grimly ironic title for another suffocatingly intense episode of Breaking Bad. After the final moments of Buried, where Hank and Jesse – two men with lives that have almost certainly been permanently ruined by Walt – finally met in an interrogation room, it looked for all the world as if Jesse might take Hank up on a much-needed opportunity for absolution, which in the process would give Team Schrader an unquestionable advantage in the war against Heisenberg.
However, in a move that’s proving to be typical of the furious pace of this half-season, a scene that may have provided the basis for an entire episode in previous seasons (this is the show that spent a whole hour with Walt and Jesse hunting for a fly, remember), was over before it even really began. Jesse casually dismissed Hank’s come-on with a sarcastic reminder of their previous, brutal interview/one–way beatdown, then the pair were interrupted by the timely arrival of Saul, who moved quickly to disperse any potential rebellion from Jesse in typically rambunctious fashion. Chalk up another failed attempt by Hank at coercing a confession or getting any information whatsoever from within the Heisenberg empire.
It’s ironic that the one – apparently – genuine confession in Confessions comes towards the end from Saul, on the surface the most scruple-free character on the entire show (then again, he does have a gun to his head). But at this stage of Breaking Bad, Jesse, the Whites and the Schraders are dealing with day-to-day horrors on such an unimaginable scale that, purely out of necessity, they have had to become equally adept at compartmentalising and managing the impossible to accept truths in their lives.
A relative outsider, Todd, gets the mendacious, slippery atmosphere of the episode underway in the opening scene, recanting the story of the infamous meth-train robbery to his neo-Nazi cohorts in a way that manages to reframe it as a Butch and Sundance-esque caper, mainly by omitting the crucial detail that the heist ended with Todd murdering a child and then (almost certainly) dissolving his tiny body in a barrel of acid. That particular element didn’t fit Todd’s swashbuckling, outlaw narrative, so naturally it got dropped.
This kind of lying – or, if we’re being generous, selective truth-telling – is Walter White’s finishing move, a strain of deception he has perfected that is so pure, so unyielding that it borders on being his superpower. His lies are characterised by being built around grains of genuine truth, which means that not only does the plausibility of the lie naturally increase if there are elements his subject knows to be true, but crucially it also means that he can anchor himself to the ‘truth’ both mentally and emotionally and use it to fuel his well-honed, powerhouse performances.
It’s key to Walt’s most audacious lie in this episode (and a candidate for his most outrageous porky ever): his taped ‘confession’ to the authorities. Breaking Bad began its first episode with a confession to the authorities, of course, and I always wondered if the show would be bookended by two (very different) confessions, with the finale featuring a broken-down Walt relaying all of the terrible acts he’s been responsible for (a very similar ending to the finale to another popular cable series, that I won’t name for obvious reasons). This could still happen in the finale, but I like this here as a nice counterpoint to the original confession instead. Whereas before he was borderline hysterical but utterly genuine, in this confession he’s cool, pragmatic, comfortable and utterly convincing while lying through his teeth. It’s a Heisenberg confession, not a Walter White one.
And of course, it’s not really a confession at all. Walt made the tape solely to set-up and establish a bizarro-world scenario where Hank is Heisenberg and Walt was his unwilling minion; one that Walt could use against Hank as leverage should he choose to continue his crusade against his meth empire. Filmed as an insurance policy in case Hank couldn’t be dissuaded – something that is confirmed in the hilariously tense scene in a Mexican equivalent of TGI Fridays, complete with a cheerfully oblivious waiter – it’s arguable whether Walt’s story here would stand up to much scrutiny after even a small amount of investigation, but it doesn’t matter: as Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
And this particular lie is a masterpiece: the Bayeux Tapestry of fibs. Founded on lots of true details that happen to look very incriminating indeed for Hank when removed from their original context (the ride-along, the cancer, the hit by the twins, the three months with the kids and the ace in the hole – the $170,000 in medical bills), this allowed Walt to weave them into a narrative that is heinously warped from reality yet just about plausible to the uninitiated, before being delivered to camera with the panache and gusto of a young Brando. Here, Hank realises what Walt meant when he advised him to “tread lightly”: he’s perhaps not going to “send him to Belize”, as Saul suggested, but he will sure as hell engage in the most perverse kind of mental warfare you can imagine.
There are two more examples of Walt’s tried-and-tested lying technique in this episode, and they’re almost identical; firstly, Walt tells the strangely absent Walt Jr that his cancer is back (true) which led to him passing out (true) which led to the marks on his face (nope). It’s the largely truthful foundation of this story that allows Walt to sell it to his son for the purpose of his ultimate aim: subtly manipulating him into avoiding Hank and Marie.
Then, later, he meets with Jesse in the desert to discuss his recent run-in with the law and specifically Hank. He tells him that, for his own health and well-being, he needs to get out of Albuquerque and embark on a fresh start with the help of Saul’s resident vacuum repairman-cum-identity dealer. Jesse, broken by years of manipulation and Machiavellian methods of persuasion from Walt, pleads with Walt to stop lying with him for once in his damn life and just admit that he wants him out of the way for his own personal benefit.
I think it’s much less interesting if Jesse’s right and Walt genuinely just wants shot of him with no residual affection. To be honest I don’t believe it for a second. He wants Jesse to be happy and out of the way, and of course the two things just happen to not be mutually exclusive.
But there’s something else going on here. I’ve referred to this F. Scott Fitzgerald quote before, but it bears repeating: the sign of a superior intellect is someone who is able to hold two conflicting ideas in their mind at the same time. Walt takes this idea to its sociopathic extreme: I think his father-son affection for Jesse is totally genuine, but he would also be able to justify killing him in a heartbeat. Hence the intimidating desert location for their meeting.
It’s also why I think that in Walt’s head, his chat with Walt Jr was a much-needed air-clearing, even though in reality it was more layers of misdirection that can only prove to be damaging to their relationship in the long run.
Initially, however, Walt’s lies manage to placate their targets: Hank has been outmanoeuvred, and has a rapidly diminishing window of time in which to make a move against Walt. Walt Jr stands by his Dad. And Jesse, a man who is constantly in need of a hug, is willing to take Walt’s advice after their embrace, even though he’s wise to his methods.
But while Walt’s method of papering over the cracks in his empire with lie after lie has paid off so far, it only takes one to be discovered for the whole thing to come crashing down. Breaking Bad is not a show like The Sopranos or Mad Men that actively withholds dramatic pay-offs, or ignores them altogether. On the contrary, the reason it’s so satisfying is the way it has repeatedly managed to resolve plot-lines in ways that are exciting, unpredictable, yet utterly true to the characters and the world Vince Gilligan et al have created.
So it was always safe to assume at this late stage that Jesse would find out about at least one of the numerous terrible things Walt has either inadvertently or deliberately done to him. It turns out that it’s Walt’s poisoning of Brock that has laid the groundwork for the inevitable Walt vs. Jesse showdown, a revelation egregious enough to send Jesse into a murderous, unthinking rage, ending the episode by brutally beating Saul, breaking into the White residence, and dousing it in petrol.
The way Jesse finally twigged has been the source of some confusion – even I had to go back and check the timeline of a few things, and I spend way more time thinking/writing about Breaking Bad than your average viewer. If you’re unclear, here’s a very long story short – Jesse initially suspected Huell of lifting the Ricin cigarette from him on Walt’s orders (he nearly shoots Walt over this in the episode End Times), but Walt managed to talk him round, first by his convincing performance, then by his plant of another Ricin cigarette in Jesse’s Roomba early in the fifth season. Since then, Jesse has seen Walt lie about numerous other things – the most notable being Mike’s death – so when Huell demonstrates that he is a skilled pickpocket, confirming Jesse’s initial suspicion, he’s able to revisit the whole scenario again with fresh eyes. Ergo: the rampage.
It’s not the tidiest plotting in the world, but it’s the kind of thing that will play better when the series is binge-watched in one go, as opposed to watching it week by week over the course of a number of years. It just serves to demonstrate, however, that Breaking Bad has a hell of a lot to get through in these few remaining episodes, and if all of the plot strands are to be tied up there will inevitably be some moments where the plot’s machinery will begin to show – such as the incongruous moment where Jesse smokes a ‘doobie’ in Saul’s office this week, which existed entirely to set the final act in motion.
But this is a TV show – easy to forget, while you’re watching it, admittedly – and such moments are necessary evils if you want those sweet dramatic payoffs. And we are now undoubtedly entering the end game – Walt’s ‘confession’ has certainly irreparably damaged his relationship with Hank, and Skyler’s relationship with Marie, for that matter. And Walt and Jesse’s heartbreaking scene in the desert is probably the last time we’ll seen them not at each other’s throats. Now Walt will not only have to take on a determined, furious Hank, but also a totally unhinged and vengeance-fuelled Jesse. He’s in uncharted territory. And so are we.
Read Paul’s review of the previous episode, Buried, here.
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