A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I tell you about the table-side guacamole…
“Would you just, for once, stop working me?” -Jesse
We all know that Bryan Cranston is one of the best actors alive. The acting skills of Walter White have been trickier to measure. There are times when he could not seem more sincere when we know he’s lying, and others where it’s hard to imagine him fooling anybody.
Until “Confessions,” the most convincing lie Walt ever told was about the poisoning of Brock, but as Cranston has explained, he hadn’t read the next episode’s script when he filmed that scene, so he was playing it as if Walt genuinely was innocent. “Confessions” is different. “Confessions” is an hour in which Walt is lying so spectacularly, and so frequently, that you don’t even need an entire hand to count the moments where he’s completely honest. By the end of it, I was wondering if he even really wanted any of his car wash customers to have an A1 day.
Before this batch of episodes began, I asked Cranston and Vince Gilligan about Walt’s acting skills at this point in the series. Gilligan said that an upcoming episode would make “explicit that Walt is a better actor than he used to be,” and we have clearly arrived at that episode. He performs for Walter Jr. to keep him from going over to Hank and Marie’s house. He performs for Jesse in the desert to talk him into leaving town with a new identity. He performs for Skyler (not well, admittedly, but she’s too distracted to notice) when he goes to fetch his gun out of the soda machine.
And in the spellbinding monologue that gives the episode its title, he performs for the camera, for Hank and Marie, and for anyone else who might need to see the video, as he spins a manufactured tale of Hank Schrader as Heisenberg and Walter Hartwell White as his victimized chemist.
What’s brilliant about that speech, and about all the lies and performances Walt delivers throughout the episode, is that they have some element of truth within them. Walt’s cancer is back, even though we don’t know how aggressive his condition is, but he’s only playing the cancer card to keep his poor son(*) from being wooed to the Schrader side of things. Walt knows Jesse well enough to believe that a fresh start would be better for him, even though the relocation is mainly to protect himself. And the fake confession is peppered with real details – that Hank took Walt on a ridealong right after his cancer diagnosis, that Walt built the wheelchair bomb, that Walt and Skyler paid for Hank’s rehab, that Hank gave him that scar next to his eye – that create the illusion of truth to the rest of it.
(*) Every now and then, RJ Mitte is given more to do than eat breakfast – his reaction to seeing his battered, guilt-stricken father in season 4’s “Salud,” for instance – and he delivers, including here. He’s grown up on this series, and spending so much time with Cranston, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt has to feel like one hell of an acting school. (And speaking of “Salud,” a line from my review, specifically discussing the sincerity of Walt’s speech to Walter Jr.: “ Bryan Cranston is a great actor. Walter White is not.” The times, they have changed.)
The fake confession begins the same way as the video Walt made in he opening moments of the pilot, with him listing his full name and address. But the man who made that original tape no longer exists. He was genuine and hapless and vulnerable in a way that Heisenberg has no need to be. The Walter White in the video sure seems sincere – anyone who didn’t know the truth would be near tears hearing the despair in his voice as he talks about contemplating suicide – but it is a fiction. This isn’t real, any more than the image of him is: the deeper we get into this particular lie, the closer that director Michael Slovis zooms in on the TV screen, to make us aware of every pixel so we’re reminded how little of this is authentic. Hank in extreme close-up in that scene is a proud man being destroyed by a smarter and more ruthless opponent; Walt in extreme close-up is a collection of dots and lines that approximate a human being, but which has now let go of its humanity entirely.
It’s a brilliant gambit, and one I was as thunderstruck by as Hank. It calls to mind a confession from near the end of “The Shield,” but (five-year-old spoilers ho for the rest of this paragraph) everything Vic Mackey told ICE was the truth. It was the most candid we’d ever heard him, because the immunity agreement encouraged him to be as completely honest, and it solved all of his legal problems in one fell swoop. Walt, meanwhile, is sprinkling a bit of truth with a lot of fiction, and in a gambit that he thinks will fix everything, but that we suspect (from both the Mr. Lambert flash-forwards and Hank’s abrupt departure from the DEA office later in the episode) will only delay his public outing.
And what’s striking about “Confessions” is that even as it’s demonstrating what an incredible actor Walt has become, it’s giving him an audience conditioned to disbelieve him. Walter Jr. is roped in, but Hank and Marie know the truth of what happened – even as Marie concealing the truth of who paid for Hank’s rehab (even after he told her about Walt last week) seems to ruin any shot Hank has of turning Walt in while avoiding prosecution – and Jesse Pinkman has long since lost all faith in his former partner. Walter White is giving the performances of his life – somehow becoming more reprehensible with each one, when you wouldn’t imagine it getting worse than playing the cancer card to manipulate his teenage son – and they’re mostly wasted on their audiences.
Jesse was kept on the outskirts of the summer’s first two episodes, not even saying a word in “Buried” – which makes his outburst in the desert stand out even more. Jesse has been holding in all this resentment of Walt, afraid to speak it and suffer Mike’s fate, but when he stands in that arid country (having just seen a spider wander by, as a taunting reminder of Drew Sharp’s murder) and listens to Walt try to hustle him one last time, he can’t stand it anymore. He calls Walt out on all of his selfishness masquerading as generosity – and in a decision that makes the scene sting even more than it would based just on Paul’s performance, Walt won’t even grant his request for honesty. Instead, he hugs him – whether out of genuine concern, an insistence on sticking to his story, or a blend of the two – and Jesse lets the tears fly at the thought of all he’s lost in this partnership, and all that he’s about to lose once he skips town. (Based on what Jesse discovers later in the episode, this will almost certainly be the last hug these two men share.)
And then comes the moment we’ve all been waiting nearly two years for: Jesse figures out that Mr. White(**) poisoned Brock.
(**) Note that even after Jesse has realized Walt’s betrayal, he still refers to him as Mr. White, albeit while inserting “that asshole” as a modifier. Like Hank says, Walt really did a number on this kid; even now, he has to include a term of respect along with his utter contempt.
We knew at least one of Walt’s secrets about Jane and Brock would come out before the end – unlike, say, “The Sopranos,” this is a show that prides itself on a level of narrative tidiness that requires payoff for one, if not both – and the only question was when, and how. As with Hank and Walt’s confrontation at the end of “Blood Money,” this is a case of the “Breaking Bad” creative team (here represented by Gennifer Hutchison’s excellent script) working faster than our expectations. Once upon a time, this was a series that moved much slower than we thought it would, and was all the more powerful for it; now, it’s going far quicker than we might have thought, without losing the methodical structure that makes each emotional moment land as heavily as this one does.
The moment where Jesse figures it out relies on the viewers having a good amount of recall, especially since the writers haven’t explained all the steps of the poisoning plan within the show itself. (At Comic-Con, Gilligan outlined the broadest strokes of it, including Walt using his knowledge as a teacher to slip into Brock’s school and give him a tainted juice box.) We found out after the fact that the poison came from a plant in Walt’s backyard, but Huell’s role in lifting the ricin cigarette(***) has only been discussed briefly in the time since. Fortunately, when you have Aaron Paul playing the scene, his distress is so clear that it overrides any need for exposition (especially since Jesse explains it when he confronts Saul). Jesse Pinkman doesn’t often get angry, but when he does – when he first believed (correctly, it turned out) that Walt poisoned Brock, or when he fought Walt in “Bug” – it’s terrifying, because he’s such an open wound. Walt is usually calculated in his actions, and even when he acts on impulse, there’s a level of performance to it – “I am The One Who Knocks!” is designed to put Skyler in what he believes is her place – where Jesse doesn’t have a filter, or any real degree of guile. He says what he feels, without thinking of the consequences. He could take this discovery as an excuse to plot some elaborate revenge on Walt – whether going to Hank to make a confession of his own or finding a way to poison Walt – but Jesse can’t contain his rage that long. He has to take out his anger on Saul for his role in the kabuki theater of the ricin cigarette, and then he has to drive straight to 308 Negra Arroyo Lane to try to light that sucker on fire.
(***) After Jesse realized the marijuana was gone, I went back and watched the earlier scene at Saul’s office. Saul steps into the reception area for a moment – ostensibly to get a bag for the money, but also to give Huell instructions – and if you’re paying attention, you can see Huell reach into Jesse’s pocket while Jesse is trying to get around him, just as you can see Huell stuff something into his pocket after frisking Jesse in “End Times.” UPDATE: And because there’s been so much confusion about how he figured it out, I added a timeline of events to the end of this review.
We know from the flashforward in “Blood Money” that the house doesn’t burn down – there’s no evidence of any fire damage at all, in fact – which weakens the cliffhanger a bit. But the fury on Jesse’s face as he flings gasoline all around the living room is so overwhelming that in the moment, I wasn’t thinking about the condition of the house a few months in the future; I was just feeling sympathy for Jesse, and feeling in awe of the work of Aaron Paul.
“Breaking Bad” features an amazing collection of actors, especially when you factor in the now-absent Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks. “Confessions” puts many of their skills on beautiful display – just watch how Dean Norris plays the barely-contained hatred of Hank at the meeting with Walt and Skyler – even as it’s spotlighting that its main character has developed Emmy-worthy talents of his own.
Some other thoughts:
* I spent a lot of last week’s review discussing the fan reaction to Skyler over the years. Turns out Anna Gunn had a few thoughts on the subject herself, which she presented in a New York Times op-ed. Skyler takes a backseat in this episode after being so prominent in “Buried,” and you can see that her decision to become Walt’s total co-conspirator isn’t sitting well with her, even as she stands by it. She speaks up briefly during the meeting with Hank and Marie, but spends most of the episode in a fog.
* Though Jesse makes it clear that Hank wasn’t going to succeed even before Saul stepped in, the interrogation scene featured a Hank much more on his game than in the diner with Skyler last week. Hank was clearly getting through to him, but their mutual history was just too much to overcome.
* I didn’t think Marie’s anger at this situation could be displayed any stronger than her confrontation with Skyler last week. Then she strongly and repeatedly suggested that Walt just kill himself to spare the rest of them the heartbreak that’s coming for all of them. I do not blame her for feeling that way, but hearing it stated that bluntly cut very, very deep.
* In the same episode where Jesse has the scales lifted from his eyes, we see that Todd is very much in the mode of wanting/needing Walt’s approval, based on the voicemail message he leaves him shortly after the massacre of Declan’s crew. The teaser has a real Tarantino movie feel to it (and Michael Bowen, who plays Uncle Jack, is a Tarantino regular), with Todd telling a mostly accurate – exaggerating his jump off the train, and omitting the rather large detail about Todd shooting Drew Sharp – account of the train heist, followed by Uncle Jack and Kenny bonding in the men’s room over their disgust at what’s happened to this great land of ours. They are a swell duo.
* Upon seeing that Walt has been keeping his revolver (which I last remember seeing when he dropped it on the Super Lab floor back in “Face Off”) in the car wash’s soda machine, I wondered if a gun and ammunition so cold they were frosted over would fire. Fortunately, there’s a lengthy YouTube video demonstrating that various types of ammo and at least one pistol (albeit a semi-automatic) would fire even in that state.
* The hill full of stones Jesse is standing in front of (at the corner of Juan Tabo & Osuna, a little under a mile down the road from Gale’s apartment at 6353 Juan Tabo) when he makes his discovery is the Bear Canyon Arroyo Spillway Dam, which looks very much like a row of tombstones. An appropriately eerie-looking setting for Jesse realizing just how badly he wants to hurt Mr. White.
* If “Better Call Saul” becomes a real thing – and based on the ratings so far this season, I suspect it will – can Saul and company enjoy frequent meals while being waited on by Trent? His interruptions to the tense White/Schrader family discussion were perfectly, hilariously timed.
* One other thing about the potential spin-off: as Jesse charged into Saul’s office and took the gun out of his desk, I began wondering if perhaps all this talk has been a massive feint by Gilligan and company, and that Saul’s not going to make it to the end. Then again, he could always pull a “Sledge Hammer” and make it a prequel…
* More comedy amid stress: we see Walt roar up to the car wash in a panic about Jesse, but by the time he comes through the door, he’s pretending to be calm for Skyler. Excellent framing of the shot for the most humorous effect.
* I understand Jesse not wanting to say goodbye to his parents, but not even a quick call to his kid brother?
What did everybody else think?
UPDATE: I’ve gotten so many emails, tweets and comments below expressing confusion about how Jesse figured out about the cigarette swap that I decided to simply lay out the chronology as follows:
1)In “End Times,” to get Jesse back on his side in the war against Gus, Walt arranges for Huell to steal the cigarette pack with the ricin cigarette out of Jesse’s pocket and replace it with a different pack. Saul calls Jesse to his office on shaky reasons, and Huell pats him down in a way that gets Jesse’s attention. Walt doesn’t use the ricin to poison Brock, but rather a lily of the valley plant that will have a similar but less dangerous effect on the boy.
2)When Jesse hears that Brock has been poisoned, he realizes that the ricin cigarette is missing, then (correctly) puts two and two together that Huell stole it, on Walt’s orders. He storms into Walt’s house and threatens to kill him for poisoning Brock; Walt convinces Jesse that it was Gus, not him, who wanted to hurt the boy – specifically so Jesse would come to this conclusion and murder Walt for him – and that Tyrus must have lifted the cigarettes from Jesse’s locker at the Super Lab. Jesse accepts that Mr. White would never hurt a child, whereas Gus has a history of hurting children, and lets go of the theory about Huell.
3)Doctors later figure out that Brock was poisoned by a lily of the valley, not ricin, making Jesse doubt Walt’s theory about Gus manipulating Jesse into shooting Walt, and leaving him to wonder what really happened to the ricin cigarette. Walt stages a phony search of Jesse’s house and plants a fake cigarette (containing salt, not ricin) inside Jesse’s Roomba. None of this sits well with Jesse, but he once again believes Mr. White.
4)Over the course of season 5, starting around the murder of Drew Sharp, Jesse has begun to realize that he shouldn’t believe anything Walt says. Walt claims to be broken up over Drew’s death, then whistles while he works. Walt claims that Mike left town alive, when Jesse knows that Walt would’ve never taken out Mike’s guys unless Mike was dead. Walt gives Jesse a whole song and dance about how leaving town will be good for Jesse, when Jesse knows that it will be even better for Walt.
5)Having been primed to disbelieve any word out of Walt’s mouth, Jesse goes to Saul’s office, lights up a joint and gets scolded by Saul, who knows his relocation expert won’t pick up anyone who’s high. Saul orders Huell to again pick Jesse’s pocket to get rid of the marijuana.
6)At the pick-up spot, a nervous Jesse reaches for his pot, and can’t find it. He frantically checks all his pockets, but all he finds is a cigarette pack. Staring at the cigarette pack, and realizing Huell dipped into his pocket without him noticing, Jesse realizes that his first suspicions about the ricin cigarette were correct, and that Mr. White was manipulating him into turning against Gus, endangering Brock’s life in the process.
That the ricin wasn’t actually used on Brock is beside the point. Jesse knew from the beginning that Huell had picked his pocket, and that he must have done it on Mr. White’s orders. He has been thinking about this often in the months since it happened – far more often and more intensely than those of us watching the show have, and in a more compressed time period. When he realizes Huell picked his pocket, and stares at another crumpled cigarette pack, everything clicks into place about the events of “End Times” – including how convenient it was that this terrible thing happened to Brock, which turned Jesse back into Walt’s ally, at the exact moment Walt needed an ally against Gus – and he goes on the warpath against Saul, Huell and that asshole Mr. White.
You may disagree with whether Jesse would have put all the pieces together like that, but that’s what happened.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org