For a good chunk of “Confessions,” I had to wonder if Breaking Bad was entering its Death Note phase.
For those unfamiliar with the comparison, Death Note is a 12-volume Japanese comic series (manga), later adapted into a television anime and pair of live-action films, which depicts an intense battle of wits between its two central characters – brilliant teenager Light Yagami, making use of a supernatural power to kill criminals around the world, and L, the genius detective tasked with finding him – as they strategize and maneuver to discover the other’s identity. The series bears little to no similarities to Breaking Bad, but when Walter White sat down in front of the camera in tonight’s episode to give his ‘confession’ (and clearly intending to set an elaborate, crazy plan in motion in the process) I could not help but think of Death Note, and how the remote mental struggle between Light and L escalated to a point at which Light’s best option was to execute the most complicated, multi-faceted gambit possible – which, like Walter White recording a confession, involved manipulating the truth and risking his image and safety all for a greater, more nefarious purpose.
Death Note is iconic for those sorts of mental gymnastics routines performed by its characters, and Walt’s big move here – to record a confession in which he displaces the blame for his actions on Hank, made credible precisely because of how many actual events from the life of the series it utilizes – would feel right at home in that story. Walter White has planned or executed crazy, wildly complex plots before, of course, but for a myriad of reasons – many having to do with the sheer ruthlessness of the mind-game Walt chose to play with Hank in that video – this maneuver felt different. Bigger. More audacious. More mythical, the kind of insane gambit one would only take after executing many increasingly insane gambits before (like the train heist, recounted as full-on mythmaking by Todd in the episode’s opening scene). It felt, in short, like something out of the heightened reality of a series like Death Note, and to see such an impossibly grand display of psychological warfare go down on Breaking Bad was nothing short of exhilarating.
And once those floodgates opened, and Walt’s spectacularly performed gauntlet-throw played out before our (and Hank’s and Marie’s) eyes, I found myself wondering if this scheme was intended only to make Hank back down, or if, in the fashion of Death Note, this was merely Step 1 of a 40-odd-part plan, ending in Walt gaining absolute dominance and freedom. I even found myself questioning my perception of the two future scenes, where a seemingly defeated Walt returns to Albuquerque for one last showdown. Was that actually an extension of Walt’s exposure, or a part of this bold, drastic plan gone horribly wrong? Certainly, either outcome appeared likely – if this season was to be a battle of wits and will between Walt and Hank, each man unwilling to back down and with that recording representing the first major offensive step, anything seemed possible.
But then a certain long-neglected character re-entered center stage in a big way, and I realized – like Walt will soon come to learn, if he hasn’t already – that a plot as elaborate as the one I had started envisioning could never come to pass, because Breaking Bad is not, much as it has appeared to be these last two episodes, the story of Walt vs. Hank. That is certainly an element of the series, and a crucial one at this late stage, but if the arc Breaking Bad could be boiled down into one confrontational relationship, Hank would not be the one on the other side of the ‘versus.’
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That character would, of course, be Jesse, and the greatest pleasure of “Confessions” – another episode that improves upon its predecessor, and is simply bursting at the seams with master-class material – lies in seeing Jesse realize just how completely at odds he and Mr. White have been for so long, and how utterly damaged and manipulated he has been along the way. And just as Jesse comes to understand that everything boils down to him against Walt, the audience starts to see that in the grand scheme of things, the struggle between Walt and Hank is comparably insignificant. Whatever mind-games Walt may have had in store beyond that DVD – and whatever retaliation Hank, in turn, could have planned himself – matter little, because Jesse is the most important catalyst in all of this, and Jesse isn’t going to go into battle with calm, collected strategy. Breaking Bad is not Death Note, and if Walt thought protecting himself was as simple as mentally outmaneuvering his DEA brother, he was gravely mistaken. In Jesse, he has created and then neglected his most unstoppable foe, someone dangerous not for wielding literal power, but because Jesse is a force of pure emotion, a challenge that, once set into motion, cannot be reasoned, threatened, or psychologically bullied out of the picture.
Walt is not the only one who has neglected Jesse’s significance – so has Breaking Bad as a whole since the start of Season 5 last year, and here, in Aaron Paul’s most significant showcase since season 4’s End Times, the purpose for Jesse’s long marginalization is made clear. Jesse was moved to the sidelines precisely so that Walt might underestimate him, allowing characters like Hank and Skyler to more clearly enter the forefront, and for the arc of the series, as a result, to adjust around these other supporting players. I doubt Vince Gilligan and company ever intended for the audience to forget Jesse’s significance – Aaron Paul was practically on even footing with Bryan Cranston in terms of screen-time and dramatic attention by Season 4, after all, and his precipitous drop in prominence last year did not go unnoticed – but the point had to be made that Walt did, at a certain point, start to forget just how much Jesse knows, just how emotionally motivated he can be, and just how much anger he stands to unearth if certain truths ever came out. The show did that by moving Jesse to the sidelines for a good stretch of time, so that when we get to this episode, and Walt has not yet done something about his biggest loose end, and responds to Jesse’s mental collapse and arrest by taking a clear ‘half-measure’ (as the late Mike Ehrmantraut would have put it), such negligence seems germane to the arcs of both characters. If things are going to blow up in Walt’s face just as he seems to have regained control, with Jesse serving as both gunpowder and spark, Walt has to be distracted, and he has to be caught off guard by Jesse’s sudden-onset wrath.
Jesse’s re-ascension to the top of the supporting cast starts at the very beginning of the episode, in that spectacular interrogation room stand-off between him and Hank. While Hank approaches this potential gold-mine of information much better than he did Skyler last week – he is calm and collected, and has a clear, thoughtful strategy for how to get Pinkman talking – Jesse is a dead-end, and that serves as a nice bit of foreshadowing for what will happen later in the episode. It is clear, observing his words and expressions throughout the scene, that Jesse holds on to grudges deeply, and while the all-consuming vengeful fury he felt against Hank in Season 3’s “One Minute” has dissipated into a less passionate, more sardonic hatred – “Why don’t you try to beat it out of me. That’s your thing, right?” – Jesse bears far too much ill-will towards Hank to ever give him information, even if that may, at this point, be in his best interest (I don’t know if Jesse would be eligible for immunity given that he murdered Gale point blank, but short of skipping town, cooperating with Hank and serving as key witness in the take-down of a major international drug empire certainly couldn’t hurt).
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Aaron Paul plays that scene beautifully, just as he has every other small, quiet moment he has been given over the last two episodes. But when Saul takes Jesse out to the desert for a meeting with Walt, and Jesse finally calls Walt on all his bullshit (that Jesse knows about, at least) over the lifespan of their relationship, Paul’s work is finally allowed to kick into the higher gear we all know he is capable of, and the result is one of the greatest scenes in the history of the series. Not only is yet another one of those moments viewers have been waiting years to see – Jesse truly being able to understand when Walt is lying to him, and unafraid to finally ask “can you stop working me?” – but it cuts straight to the heart of how Walt and Jesse’s dysfunctional relationship is built on fundamental insecurities and emotional manipulations. In attempting to get Jesse to willingly disappear, Walt tries to play on his former partner’s need for parental affection and guidance, but by invoking phrases like “clean slate,” or reminding Jesse that he has “a whole lifetime ahead of” him, Walt instead triggers Jesse’s deep-seated guilt, which outweighs any desire for emotional coddling.
Indeed, it is clear, observing Paul’s deeply felt performance, that those phrases cut Jesse like a knife. He says nothing while Walt monologues, but it is easy to tell just how much Jesse doesn’t want a clean slate – his pain is all he has, and he knows there is no moving past it at this point – and he is absolutely terrified of the prospect of living with these sins for the rest of his young (as Walt repeatedly emphasizes) life. And the way these words hurt Jesse, more than the fact that Walt is once again trying to manipulate him, is what sets Jesse off. We know, from this year’s premiere, that Jesse has gotten to a point where Walt’s lies no longer fool him, and I honestly think that if all Walt had done was lie and subtly provoke, rather than appealing to Jesse in ways that demonstrate just how fundamentally Walt misunderstands his former partner, Jesse would likely have stayed silent, let Walt’s words role over him, and leave without getting any more involved than he had to. We have seen how much he wants to be done with Mr. White, but after seeing how little the man comprehends his pain, Jesse cannot help but engage once more. His speech about Walt’s many manipulations, in which he pleads Walt to be honest with him just this once, is a cry to be heard as much as it is an expression of anger or betrayal – and Walt, in his infinite villainy, is able to recognize and pray upon that with a well-timed hug, embracing Jesse just as the young man has begged to be emotionally vindicated.
As tremendous as all this material is, however, it is only a prelude to the main event, a reminder that even at his most emotionally catatonic, Jesse is not stupid. He is perceptive, he holds grudges, and he has reached a state of raw, all-consuming guilt and grief. With those three character traits in mind, there is only one possible outcome once Jesse starts fishing in his pocket for the pot by the side of the road (and to be honest, I predicted this outcome the moment Huell first stepped into the frame with Jesse). On a day when the man who beat him within an inch of his life asked for information and his former mentor manipulated him into adopting a new identity, Jesse is obviously going to be thinking about the past, and all it takes to snap everything involving Brock into place is the realization that Huell is, indeed, a remarkably adroit pick-pocket.
The staging of Jesse’s revelation is absolutely marvelous, perfectly built up throughout the episode and stretched out just long enough for the viewer to constantly remain a step ahead of Jesse, so that when Dave Porter’s exquisite musical score comes in to kick the scene into gear, the viewer is forced to the edge of his or her seat in anticipation. Jesse finally sees it, and just as a flood of dramatic satisfaction and emotional heartache cascades over the viewer, Jesse is off like a bullet, no longer a step behind us, but several unpredictable steps ahead, a loose cannon intent on projecting every ounce of his inner pain outwards, be it on Saul or the White family’s living room. And Jesse, as we know from five-plus years of watching this show, has bottled up an awful lot of pain. Whatever his plan is – and I doubt Jesse has any concrete strategy in mind other than to destroy – I think it is clear, by the episode’s end, that Jesse, not Hank, represents the greatest threat to Walt’s personal life, and that even during their most functional periods, he always has. Unlike Hank, Jesse has no boundaries. Unlike Gus or Mike, he isn’t about to underestimate Walter White. He knows this monster better than anybody else on the series, and he has been scarred more deeply by Heisenberg’s actions; he has seen Mr. White’s true face, and knowing what he now knows about Brock, he can finally contextualize that face as the cause of so much of his ongoing pain and suffering.
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No matter what happens next, it is an undeniable treat to finally have Aaron Paul back at the forefront of things. The entire ensemble has done series-best work this season (minus, perhaps, Bryan Cranston, whom I sense is just warming up), and considering Paul has, in my opinion, done the most impressive and viscerally effective work in previous years, it is nothing short of awe-inspiring to see him finally dig in to the kind of climactic material Dean Norris, Anna Gunn, and Betsy Brandt have all been playing the past two weeks. My initial reaction, from the first two episodes, was that Dean Norris should take home the Best Supporting Actor Emmy Paul has won twice in the past – time to spread the Breaking Bad awards love – but if Paul continues to get these kinds of showcase episodes over the next five weeks? A final win would be absolutely deserved. He is a tremendous actor.
So much so that I do not regret giving the majority of this review over to his material, even though different analysis of “Confessions” could easily focus just as heavily on Walt’s terrifyingly effective, eponymous message to Hank, or on that incredible, darkly comic 4-way restaurant stand-off between Walt, Hank, Skyler, and Marie, or on all the great moments Bob Odenkirk gets to play as Saul confronts a challenge he cannot talk his way out of. All that, and in the end, “Confessions” ultimately feels like the Season 5B equivalent of a ‘transitional’ episode, in which many things are set in motion to pay off further down the line.
But that is exactly what has been so great about this final season of Breaking Bad – no matter what happens, every moment we have gotten so far feels like an immensely earned culmination of everything that has come before. Even the set-up for future action, which is what much of “Confessions” is devoted to, plays as pay-off to past material, and builds on our investment in this story and in these characters. I have said it the past two weeks, but the sentiment bears repeating: With so many of its narrative- and character-based cards out on the table, this show has become even richer and more rewarding than it was before. I am as invested now as I ever have been, and we still have five whole episodes to go. If this is the level of quality we get in episode three, one wonders what soaring heights those final hours will ascend to.
- This episode is the final one directed by Michael Slovis, the show’s Director of Photography and probably one of the four or five single most important people in establishing Breaking Bad’s TV legacy. He is the man responsible for the show’s sweeping, singularly cinematic look, and he is also an extremely talented director, as “Confessions” proves one last time. I already mentioned the staging of Jesse’s revelation, but look also at how he shoots Walt and Jesse’s exchange in the desert, or something less flashy (but equally tense and compelling) like Jesse in the interrogation room. Slovis has done great work for this series, and while he obviously contributed to the final episodes as the DP, this is a rather wonderful send-off to his directorial tenure.
- This week’s pre-credits sequence is a good one, even if it is mostly disconnected from the rest of the episode. It reminded me of a Coen Brothers film, with little to no actual plot momentum, but a whole lot of atmosphere and a strong sense of character. There are lots of little details worth picking apart here, like how Todd uses Walt and Jesse’s real names in recounting the train heist, rather than aliases (he could at least say Heisenberg, assuming that is the name his Neo-Nazi cousins know him by – I doubt Walt used his birth name in dealing with them last season), and how he conveniently omits the portion of the story in which he murders a little boy. Is Todd as unrepentantly violent as his family – and therefore assumes killing a kid is the same thing as pulling off the plan without a hitch – or does he feel guilty and wishes to shy away from it? Either way, this family is obviously dangerous, and they are headed back to Albuquerque just as Jesse is about to start his own war against Mr. White.
- Walt has a whole lot of despicable moments in this one, but to me, nothing tops him using his cancer diagnosis as a means to force Walter Jr. to stay away from Marie. What should have been a sad, heartfelt, meaningful moment between father and son was ultimately a hollow, cruel lie – and I cringe to think of how hard Walter Jr. is going to take all this when he inevitably finds out.
- Speaking of which, here’s a prediction: We know Jesse isn’t going to burn down the White family home, given that we have seen it in tact in the flash-forwards. Is it possible Walt Jr. gets there before his father, simultaneously stopping Jesse’s rampage – Jesse wouldn’t hurt a kid, even if that kid is related to the man he hates most in the world – and exposing himself to his father’s crimes?
- Notice how Walt’s confession video starts with the same lines as his confession from the first scene of the pilot, and how much Walt’s demeanor here – calm, cool, collected – contrasts his panicky state from that first episode.
- As expected, Hank never knew about the physical therapy money, and it is indeed the secret that ensnares him most. Walt’s smartest move in that video was to build every part of it around a different element of truth, and the money for Hank’s surgery could, in theory, serve as proof and evidence should Walt ever need to take this all the way to court. Hank is good and trapped for the time being.
- Hands up, whose mind immediately leapt to Voldemort awkwardly (and terrifyingly) hugging Draco Malfoy in the last Harry Potter movie when Walt went in to embrace Jesse?
- Some great dark humor throughout this episode, including the annoying waiter at the restaurant, and especially Walt’s thinly-veiled panic at the car wash as he scrambles to retrieve the gun from the soda machine as nonchalantly as possible.
- I briefly mentioned it before, but Dave Porter’s musical score – which is always great if understated – is stupendous throughout “Confessions,” and I very much hope we get a second soundtrack to include tracks from this episode and the rest of this final half-season (there has already been one excellent soundtrack, and it goes up to Episode 6 of last year’s episodes).
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.Previous