You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Tuesday, 27 August 2013



Having signed off last week with the old adage, "Be sure your sin will find you out"; the newest episode of Breaking Bad seems determined to push that saying to its limits. The confessions of the episode's title apply to every member of the cast in one form or another, except the most important: Jesse, who - as you know if you've seen "Confessions" - is set to make a discovery of his own.

We open on Todd smoking outside a diner on Route 66. After placing a courtesy call to Walt, whom he calls Mr. White, to let him know of a change in management with his former operation, he heads inside for a chat with his new partners. Despite appearing in more than half the episodes of Season 5 thus far, Todd remains a cipher, an unfailingly polite, nonchalantly ruthless cipher. There are elements of both Walter to him - he regales his would-be accomplices with the story of the train heist from "Dead Freight", minus his murder of the kid - and of Gus' manner. There's a definite sense that Todd is already beginning to build his own legend. Might this scrawny, unassuming twenty-something, perhaps the show's only out-and-out sociopath, be the future of the New Mexico meth trade? 

However, given that one of the shit-kickers he was hanging with seems to have tracked in blood all the way from the massacre back in "Buried", there seems to be a distinct lack of professionalism among the new contingent. They might be satisfied with Todd's comparatively paltry 74% yield as a cook, but it's hard to believe that this is ever gonna be a sustainable operation. Case and point: them apparently leaving a tanker full of methylamine out in the parking lot while they went inside for coffee (and leering at the waitress). Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Down at the Twist and Shout" plays as they haul ass over the New Mexico state line, and - while it's difficult to predict exactly how this plot line will tie in with Walter's current preoccupation - it seems that last episode's mass execution is unlikely to be a one-time thing.1

Meanwhile, Jesse is laboring in custody. As the interrogating officer's buzz around him in time-lapse, accompanied by sinister whispering, Jesse seems utterly unaffected by their presence. Still bleary-eyed and miserable, he's clearly out of it. Jesse's reticence is borne not of attitude or self-preservation, as in previous encounters, but apathy, a lack of self-preservation: he doesn't care if he lives or dies. Even when Hank enters and attempts to reach Jesse off the record - laying it all on the line ("Your partner... I know he's my brother-in-law, Walt"), offering to help him out ("He really did a number on you, didn't he?"), making a plea for solidarity ("Help me put him away"), all Jesse can muster is a withering "Bite me", his first line of dialogue in almost two episodes. It's comforting to see that Jesse is still the same fundamental person, that there's still that spark of defiance on him, as he suggests that, on previous form, Hank beat the information out of him.

Hank seems almost genuinely sympathetic to Jesse's plight, however, recognizing Jesse's unhappiness, that he too has been used. He presents the confession that he's trying to solicit from Jesse as an opportunity for reprisal against Walt, an opportunity that Jesse turns down simply because collaboration with the police goes against his nature. Saul Goodman's barnstorming entry with reminders of Hank and Jesse's acrimonious past and threats of a civil right's lawsuit is, as such, superfluous, but nevertheless highly amusing. Saul, as usual, is on damage control; his "complete lack of chill", though, that's new. With Walt playing the high-power, asshole boss on the other end of the line - "Stop talking, I don't care. Just get it done" - and Jesse tossing around unlaundered money lik it's a Macy's Day ticker-tape parade, it's easy to feel that, however much Walt is paying him, Saul doesn't get paid enough for this shit.2

Meanwhile, Walt may be out of the empire-building business, but he still has his peons and is still used to be obeyed. However, Walt is still tiptoeing around the truth with his son: putting on Skyler's concealer (comically the wrong skin tone) in order to conceal his new bruises from Walt Jr., despite his never having drawn any conclusions from Walt's previous ones. Home is, ironically, now the place where Walt is most vulnerable,3 from Marie's attempt to snatch Holly (and now to "lure" Walt Jr. over to the Schrader household with the promises of dinner) to Hank's vendetta to Skyler's newfound sense of malaise. Working on the fly, Walt decides to tell Walt Jr. about the return of his cancer, but downplay it, of course (no need to create a crisis).4 With the exact progression, of his cancer still uncertain when Walt tells his son that he'll beat it as he did before, it's impossible to know to what extent Walt himself believes this. He's certainly not beyond lying to keep Jr. in his domain.

Hank and Marie, meanwhile, are working through their own crisis. Marie's gambit to get Walt Jr. over has failed - just the fact she refers to him as Flynn shows how much she honestly cares about him - while Hank's refusal to tell his colleagues what he's uncovered has estranged him from them, particularly his former partner, Gomie.5 The idea that Hank might be roped into the blame is implied even here; as always, the way Breaking Bad brings back and capitalizes on what it's already set up is one of its chief delights with things you thought were immaterial coming back into play episodes, seasons even, down the line.

For instance, the next scene - in which Walt makes his "confession" to camera - calls back perfectly to his "not a confession" in the pilot with the recitation of his full name and address. My how our "hero" has changed since then: Walter Hartwell White striding in a dark room, Skyler watching from the doorway: the two Whites bound in deception, bound in sin. Even as Jesse refuses to make a confession, even if it might save him, Walt is setting up a possible end game should Hank force his hand, twisting the confession to his own purposes. It's a surprisingly simple narrative structure, but one full of thematic synchronicity. And unlike his desperate, desert-bound talking-head all the way back in the pilot, Walt is now utterly in control of himself, if never quite his own destiny.

Their meeting with Hank and Marie over tacos has all the elements of mordant comedy: hostility, the potential for tragedy, that damn interrupting waiter. With Walt in his cardigan and Skyler in her turtleneck, the very picture of suburban normalcy, we can feel something brewing.6 When Hank limps over to the table, glaring balefully, in his blue shirt, Marie in her usual purple, it's clear that, like Walt and Skyler, they are a (color) coordinated front. Life goes on around them as Walt makes his non-confession. His response to Marie's concern for the children is cool, officious, like he's helming a PTA meeting: "While we respect your opinion...". It's easy to forget that this is the first time Marie's seen this side of Walt - everything she knows she knows from Hank. It must be terrifying, watching a man you know and love using his kids' innocence as a shield.

Out of any show I've seen, Breaking Bad remains the best at these sort of table scenes, dialogue heavy, full of raw emotions. Just having people talk is a deceptively tricky proposition: it's all about the subtext, the history between the characters, their interaction. Skyler, apparently against Walt's wishes, for instance, tells Hank and Marie determinedly that Walt's criminal enterprises are all in the past: "There's nothing to go after, nothing to accomplish". Walt, full of self-righteousness, tries to paint Hank as reckless, destructive. Hank, meanwhile, is simmering with fury of Walt's hypocrisy - his gall in throwing around the word "right" - reverting to macho form with telling Walt to be a man, confess. It's Marie's quiet devastation, her suggestion that Walt kill himself, solve all their problems, that is the most affecting. She wants to seal off the damage, to have it all be over, but, given the cross purposes they're all at, it's clear no one's walking away from this untouched.

It's now that Walt's "confession" comes into play in the form of a burner disc. Later, as Marie and Hank stand by in their living room, we watch as Walt counters each of Hank's accusations with his own retelling of the truth: Hank the drug lord, Hank the blackmailer, Hank the murderer. In a measured narrative, Walt portrays Hank as a corrupt DEA agent, a man who threatened Walt's family; the ride-along Walt requested all the way back in the pilot becomes a form of coercion on the part of Hank, forcing Walt to acknowledge the fiduciary incentive of criminal enterprise. Vince Gilligan, the show runner, has had this up his sleeve for five years now and the reveal, the turnaround, is stunning. Alongside Walt, doesn't Hank look so much more the drug kingpin.

The tale Walt weaves is more or less plausible, laying out the events of previous seasons firmly at Hank's door. Walt puts himself in the firing line, admitting to building the bomb that killed Gus Fring, but Hank himself, he says, was responsible. The whole thing is pieced together fairly haphazardly and doesn't quite fit - why, for instance, would Hank need Walt to pay his bills? - but it serves another purpose to the plot: lest we forget, Hank had no idea his treatment, his physiotherapy, wasn't covered by insurance. Marie's admittance that she took the White's "gambling money" sends Hank into a tailspin as he realizes the depth of predicament that Walt has placed him in. Hank cannot afford to bring him down yet... Walt's claim, "I have often contemplated suicide, but I'm a coward", rings true, as more that just another twist to the tale.7 Then again, Walt suggests that Hank might murder him. Given he has no way to turn Walt into the police without ruining his own life, Walt might just have put him in a position where Hank, the moral man, views that as his only option.8

Walt is pathetic in selling his story, pointing out the black eye Hank gave him, his voice cracking. As the scene ends, Hank and Marie are downcast, too. Jesse, however, is on the up and up. Watching a tarantula crawl across the sand (another callback to "Dead Freight"), Saul suggests he should be nervous; the setting, which recalls so many other bloody fates, not least of which occurred last week, is enough to make you feel that, perhaps, Jesse might not walk away from this. The question is open: he is, like Hank, "family"? Is he covered by Walt's limited blanket of conscience? In any case, Jesse's reproachful glare at Walt's car as it approaches speaks volumes. After checking Saul's car for a tracker - Walt is nothing if not adaptable - Walt pumps Jesse for information then pitches him on the idea of a new life, a plea to let Jesse help him. When Walt suggests that Jesse can get away, get a clean slate, get a job he likes, start a family - reminding him that he's "still so damn you" - we can almost believe he sees this as some kind of vicarious redemption; after all, Walt's right when he says there's nothing here for Jesse and if he's willing to pay for it...

Jesse, however, has seen too much of Mr. White's "whole concerned dad thing": he knows this is all about Walt getting him out of the way. He sees Walt as an unambiguous monster - who else could claim that, "In a few years, this might all feel like nothing more than a bad dream?" - that he had Mike killed, that they're meeting out there, perhaps, in case Jesse says no. Maybe we can't quite buy that Walt would have Jesse killed, though we know he did Mike - after all, Jesse hasn't seen all the things we've seen.9 Saul stands by, louche, but Jesse, Jesse just wants to feel useful; he wants some emotional reciprocation from Walter White, something honest. What he gets is a hug, a hug that, as revolted as he is by it, Jesse can't help but return. However they might feel about it, Walt and Jesse are locked together and spiraling down; however it might end, it'll end for both of them. We know that Jesse can't really leave, not forever, but it's good to see him back on his feet.10

Skyler, meanwhile, is making a mess of the change in the car wash. She's distracted, staring off into the middle distance. After all the pressure coming from Jesse and Hank and Todd, might it be Skyler who cracks, who brings Walt down? Maybe, especially given Jesse almost succeeds in torching their family home. In a sequence of almost genius simplicity, Jesse starts off in Saul's office, waiting for his travel arrangements to be made10 to standing on the roadside, discovering something is missing, to back at Saul's and pulling a gun on his (now presumably former) lawyer. And all it took was the disappearance of a baggie of weed and the placement of a packet of cigarettes. After Huell lifts Jesse's weed after he insists on lighting up in Saul's office - ignoring Saul's request, like an angry gym teacher, to hand it over - and Jesse finds it's gone, the sight of a pack of cigarettes is enough to trigger a mind-altering revelation: Huell lifted the ricin cigarette! Saul gave it to Walt!! Walt poisoned Brock!!! Jesse, jittery and nervous, still bottling up his rage and grief, is arguably just looking for a chance to break from the plan, to break bad, as it were, and this definitely qualifies.

Saul, for all his lovability, is, after all, a scumbag. While Jesse would be off seeking atonement in Alaska, Saul would be sunning himself on a beach in Florida surrounded by supermodels. When, in the previous scene, Jesse stands at the roadside in front of huge concrete slabs, resembling giant, square tombstones, it's enough to suggest that someone's about to die. The ominous industrial music, the thrum of power, Jesse storming into Saul's office, locking the door and beating the shit out of him: when the weapon comes out, it's enough to believe that Saul Goodman's card has been marked. He pleads innocent of Mr. White's purpose, bloody-nosed and desperate, and Jesse, for whatever reason, lets him live. As sorry as I would have been to see him go, Breaking Bad might well have benefited from the death of another lead cast member in its build up to the final few episodes.11

"Confessions" might have opened with Todd, but it ends with us firmly at Jesse's viewpoint. Jesse's attack on the (fortunately empty) White family home is a literal retaliation for Walt's assault on the family that Jesse was attempting to build with Andrea and Brock, a family that threatened to draw Jesse away and disrupt Walt's empire-building ambitions. Even as Jesse, red-faced and bursting with incoherent rage, is booting the door open and throwing petrol, Walt is recovering a long-concealed gun-and-grenade combo from the vending machine (the same vending machine into which he fed Bogdan's precious "first dollar" all that time ago, remember?). As a show, Breaking Bad veers between the mundane and the exciting, often burying them within each other in unexpected ways - the weaponry in the vending machine, the mundane routine of running a drug lab - while packing more compelling character development and plot twists into 47 minutes than most other shows manage, well... ever.

The end is coming - five episodes off. Todd is scheming, Hank and Marie are paralyzed, Jesse is raging, and, slowly, inexorably, Walt's Old Testament-style comeuppance is looming. After all, Walt has become Scarface, and how does that work out for Tony Montana again? Vengeance is mine, sayeth Jesse,  and it's hard to believe the buck stops with some light property damage.

1 Might Todd and Co. be the intended target of Walt's M60-related vengeance in this season's flash-forwards, Walt finally taking on the darker, meth-dealing angels of his nature? 
2 Might a literal one-way ticket to Belize be in Saul's future, getting out while the going's good, or are going to have contend with Breaking Bad's "light relief" meeting an untimely demise?
3 Saul, for the time being, remains more or less a get-out-of-jail free card. Those adverts may be cheesy as heck, but, when you get down to it, he is an excellent sleazebag. 
4 This scene might just be a series of two-shots and closeups, but Bryan Cranston and R.J. Mitte sell it brilliantly. The writing and direction are superlative, but nothing without the performances.
5 With the alternate version of events that Walt's moving to establish might Hank's errant behavior later come back to haunt him, being read as a guilty conscience?
6 Of course, it's easier to justify treating yourself to dinner when you have millions in meth money buried in the desert. I wonder how the Whites and the Schraders would've split the check... 
7 Returning to the ricin and the flash-forwards, what would take Walter to a place where he might take it himself, end his life? Let's just say, the absence of Skyler, Jr., et al is conspicuous.
8 Gennifer Hutchinson's script is the best of Season 5, Part 2, so far. Silence can be golden, but sometimes there's no substitute for words, glorious words.
9 In reminding us that Jesse isn't the perfect audience surrogate, is it also worth remembering that, three seasons on, he still doesn't know about Walt's involvement in Jane's OD?
10 At least this way, if Walt does decide to bump Jesse off, it won't be so easy to justify it to himself as a mercy killing, the sort of self-deception at which he's become an expert.
11 That whole dust filer cover story on the phone falls apart fairly quickly: “He's a little hot, just out on bail”. Because no Fed would ever be able to see through that.
12 Then again, I'm probably speaking too soon (vis-a-vis the aforementioned absence of the White family in Walt's flash-forwards). Saul definitely isn't getting paid enough, though.

No comments:

Post a Comment