Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"Breaking Bad" - "Confessions" (or "Why You Can't Go Home Again After Building a Meth Empire")

Spoilers for this week's Breaking Bad after the jump:

Could Walter White actually go back to being the family man he was in Breaking Bad's pilot? Sure, he'd already started down the road to cooking meth in that episode, but watch his face on that recording he makes when he thinks he's reached the end of the road. There's no ego, no real trace of who he'd become. Just sincere love and regret. But he continued cooking, and found himself in one perilous scrape after another, and transformed into the figure we now frequently refer to as "Heisenberg". And once his empire was built, he got out: millions of dollars richer and his ego satiated. His aim at that point was to live out the rest of his days with his family, in peace and tranquility. Who says a ruthless drug lord can't have it all?

Except he can't. One of the great things about this final run of episodes has been making the initial question posed above a moot point. Could Walt have gone to his grave happy, without cooking one more ounce of meth? Maybe. Maybe not. But it doesn't work that way. Reverse transformation is certainly possible in many instances, but generally not when you've done the things Walter White has done. Because as he's learning, the world doesn't just stop when you've decided you've done enough drug dealing and murdering. Your brother-in-law figures out what you've done. Your former partner starts falling apart and throwing money out of car windows, and has to be coerced into starting a new life. And then, that same partner finds out—as just about all of us knew he would at some point—what you did to his ex-girlfriend's child: a boy he thinks of as a son. Then he starts pouring gasoline all over your house.

And so as much as Breaking Bad's protagonist may want to go back to being a family man, we're instead given yet another chilling look at just what a cold-hearted, evil, and twisted human being he's become. His blackmail videotape in "Confessions" is far from the worst thing he's ever done, but it expertly foregrounds the notion of his transformation from the tentative meth-cooking novice of that earlier recording to someone capable of lying through his teeth (about a family member whose only crime is trying to ensure that justice is served, no less) and making it look completely sincere. It's a thrilling piece of storytelling: completely unexpected, and yet the most logical move available to Walt, and one he has no qualms about making. (Skyler's more conflicted, but she goes along with it, at least for now.) He's trapped, entirely thanks to his own actions. And his only way out is to keep lying.

Lying may save him for the time being in regards to Marie and Hank. But elsewhere, another of his sins is about to come crashing down on him, in the form of Jesse. In addition to demonstrating that Walt's life can't just go back to the way it once was, "Confessions" is an hour that features multiple characters in his orbit coming to terms with just who they're dealing with (which is what much of the season has been about as well). Hank saw a glimpse of that in "Blood Money", of course, but his and Marie's reactions to the video are astonishing in the amount of horror Brandt and Norris—Brandt especially has just been killing it as of late, and it will be a shame when she gets no awards recognition for her work this season—convey through their silent expressions. Sure, they've known Walt was a bad guy ever since they found out about him (again, this is nothing compared to murdering ten people), but such a direct and pure display of evil is still startling for them to behold. After all, Hank's only had a few days to process this, and Marie's only had around 24 hours.

Jesse, on the other hand, has been doing virtually nothing but processing since . . . well, basically ever since hearing his partner's whistling in "Buyout". And in one staggering scene (well, two, but let's take it one scene at a time), all of that finally came to a head, as he—with anger and bitterness but also anguish in his voice, all of which are intensely and beautifully portrayed by Aaron Paul—tells Walt to stop faking concern and just say what he's really thinking, which is that he needs Jesse gone. The various artifices of Breaking Bad's characters have been crumbling this year, and none bigger than this. And yet even after Jesse verbally tears into him for all his manipulations, Walt still sees himself as a worthy mentor and father figure to the younger man, and proceeds to hug him. Now who's the deluded one? Hint: it's not Jesse.

But maybe things can—even after all this—still go back to something approximating the way they once were for Walter White. Jesse's leaving, for Florida or Alaska or some other state, and his brother-in-law problem is seemingly taken care of for the time being. Have the additional acts of lying and coercion actually managed to wipe away the previous ones? Of course not. Probably the biggest lie Walter White has ever told was convincing Jesse that Brock was poisoned by Gus. And considering Breaking Bad's decidedly classical approach to storytelling—it doesn't believe in leaving too many loose ends—it hasn't really been a question of if that lie would come out but when. Fittingly, it's when Walt seems to have regained some semblance of control (though that's a relative term when it comes to this show, of course). And this lie will not be contained by simply adding more on top of it, or through intimidation. Jesse knows. He knows. And it's all happening before the frakking midway point of the season.

Who knows what that may ultimately mean for both characters, and for the rest of Breaking Bad's universe? (It's already had serious consequences for Saul, but will people not involved in the poisoning of Brock—or even innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever—be dragged into it? Almost certainly.) Given the title of next week's installment, my guess is nothing good for Jesse, assuming the title is referring to him (which is my current assumption). But one thing's for sure: Walter White is not going to be permitted to spend the rest of his life being the man he was a little over a year ago, whether he wants to or not. The actions of the man he's turned into over that time period—combined with this show's approach to storytelling—have made sure of that.

Other Thoughts 

- So many great, important scenes in this one that I think the restaurant conversation between our two warring couples runs the risk of getting a bit overlooked. But it's every bit as phenomenal as anything else in the episode: brilliantly acted by all involved, phenomenally tense, and just gorgeously edited. (Seriously, look at the way that perfectly balanced master shot breaks down into a series of beautifully timed shot/reverse shot exchanges between the various characters.)

- Saul asking for "money-sized bags" . . . priceless.

- So, does it make sense that Jesse would figure things out so quickly? I think it does, given his general trajectory towards doubting and distrusting Walt. And you also have to remember that while that was a long time ago for us, it hasn't been nearly as long for Jesse, so his memory of it is still quite fresh. In any case, it's plausible enough that it didn't bother me.

- "It's always a desert." Lots of tremendous nods to the show's history here (among them Jesse looking at that spider crawling on the ground), but that weary line from Saul may have been the best. Bob Odenkirk's work on this show has never been better than it was in this episode: combining his character's usual delightful sleaziness with a palpable sense of exhaustion.

- Good lord, Aaron Paul. That is all. Both the desert scene and the confrontation with Saul. Can't imagine he'll have a better Emmy submission for next year than this.

- The shovel cam in season four's "Cornered" (also directed by Michael Slovis): awful. A similar shot using a gasoline can in this episode: outstanding. Visual and narrative context makes all the difference, as here the shot both fits and adds to the intensity of the scene in question, rather than taking us out of the moment.

Grade: A

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