Review: “Confessions,” Breaking Bad season 5, episode 11

Confessions, Breaking Bad
A man speeds through a red light in order to save somebody’s life. Another stops at a red light on his way to ruin someone else’s.

One is doing the right thing. The other is doing a just thing.

The distinction between “right” and “just” isn’t all that hazy; it’s the distinction of intention that matters. Or, at least, it should.

But I’m speaking from a very unique perspective here: my own. In my world. With my experiences. My expectations. My hopes for everyone around me.

In the world of Breaking Bad, the simple distinction between “right” and “just” seems to be driving the course of these final episodes. We know which is which; that’s not the issue. In a just outcome, Walter would go to prison. In a right outcome, his family would be spared from harm. They’re not even mutually exclusive. It sounds easy. But I’m glad it’s not, because it’s making for stellar television.

On the side of the just we have Hank, obviously. He’s not worried about how Walt’s children will respond to their father being locked away, and he’s not content to know either that his crimes are behind him or that he will be dead shortly anyway. In Hank’s eyes, Walt needs to be punished. And he needs to be punished in a very specific way: by this country’s legal system.

On the side of the right, we have Walt. Don’t we? …not really, no. So let’s shelve him for a moment.

No, on the side of the right we have both Skylar and Marie. They’re working at odds, but they’re working at odds for the same reason. Neither Marie’s intended abductions of the White children nor Skyler’s perjury and her ongoing complicity are just, but they are — if you were to ask those characters to explain their motives — right. Marie is willing to break the law to protect the children. Skyler is also willing to break it, and tarnish the name of an innocent man, in order to protect the children. They’re each doing despicable things*, but their intentions are the same.

So where does that leave Walt?

I want to say “in the middle,” but I’m not sure I can. Off to the side, maybe. Without a doubt what he’s done is illegal, and our criminal justice system wouldn’t be (and shouldn’t be) satisfied by the fact that, hey dude, he’s like totally done cooking meth forever and he’s super sorry. On top of that, it’s hard to argue that he’s trying to do the “right” thing after a full episode of his selfish manipulations.

And that’s Walt’s situation right now. In my hypothetical example that opened this review, you could defend the actions of either motorist: one is selflessly putting himself in danger in order to help somebody else (right), but the other is following the traffic laws that have been put in place to protect us (just). Conversely, you could condemn either of them: one is endangering the lives of others by not obeying the rules (unjust), and the other is on his way to deliberately do harm to another human being (wrong).

Walt is both unjust and wrong. We’re beyond the point that we can defend him at all. It’s not a matter of finding a place on the just / right continuum; it’s a matter of acknowledging that his data point is on a different chart altogether.

Hank rightly calls Walt on this during a (brilliantly) tense dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Who is Walt to talk about right and wrong? The cosmic editors who structured the world of “Confessions” must be on Hank’s side, because every time we see Walt turning on the charm in this episode, it’s in order to bend somebody else to his own ends.

Whether it’s using his own son’s devastation against him, delivering a heartfelt “confession” to the camera that frames Hank as the criminal mastermind, or finally returning Jesse’s affection in the desert so that he can get the boy out of his life, Walt is neither doing the just thing nor the right thing. He’s doing the selfish thing. This is his world now, and you’re going to do what he says. We’ve seen him use anger and brute force to further his ends in the past…now we’re seeing him work the emotional angles as well.

“Confessions” is a great episode. A great. Great. Great episode, and while it pivots in some unexpected directions, it always does so on sturdy ground.

For starters, the episode’s centerpiece — Walt’s “confession” video — was an absolutely brilliant way to reinforce the Walt / Hank stalemate. Earlier in the episode Marie was upset because Hank waited and didn’t rat Walt out to his DEA colleagues. She then intimates that it may already be too late…and she’s right.

First Hank tried to get Skyler to fill in the blanks that would connect Walt to Heisenberg. Then he tried to get Jesse to fill in those blanks. Neither would, so good ol’ Walter steps up to fill them in himself.

And, yes, it certainly would be ridiculous for anyone to believe that Hank was the drug lord…but no more ridiculous than it would be for them to believe that it was a dying chemistry teacher with no criminal history. In fact, Walt’s story would have the edge over Hank’s, simply because he knows more of what actually happened. He’d be able to connect dots that Hank didn’t even know existed. That’s leverage, and it’s significant.

But the truly crowning moment took place in the desert, in what’s probably the single most emotional scene the show has ever done. After allowing Walter yet another long manipulation, Jesse calls him on it. “Would you just, for once, stop working me?” Jesse asks, short of breath and overcome with conflicting emotions. “For like ten seconds straight?”

Jesse’s not on the verge of a breakdown…he’s at the lowest point of an ongoing one. We’ve seen Walter manipulate him in the past (many, many times), but this is the only time we’ve seen Jesse seriously stand up to him. It was a well-earned moment, one five seasons in the making, and Aaron Paul’s hesitating, breathy delivery gives us a Jesse dizzy with internal conflict. He knows he should tell Walter to go fuck himself…and yet he doesn’t want to. He wants to be wrong about all of this.

But he’s not. As much as we’ve seen Jesse look up to Walter as a surrogate father in the past, we never got anywhere near an equal balance of Walter seeing Jesse as a surrogate son. Flashes, yes…glimpses…but he was always quick to tear his partner down rather than support him. Walter was only a father to him in the sense that he was able to emotionally manipulate and strongarm him as a son.

And Jesse calls him out on it. Jesse, heartbroken, does tell him to go fuck himself.

At which point Walter, seeing exactly what the audience sees, hugs him. Now is the time, he knows, to finally support the boy.

And it works. Because the one time Walter supports him, it’s so that Walter can get what he wants.

Of course it doesn’t end there. (Though the hug would have made for a perfect EXECUTIVE PRODUCER VINCE GILLIGAN moment.) Nope. Because Jesse is being manipulated even as he rails against being manipulated, and once he realizes** that, the betrayal is felt a thousand times more sharply.

We end with Jesse attempting to burn down the White residence, and Walter rushing after him with a loaded gun. And yet that’s still probably the least thrilling moment of the episode; I was held much more rapt by Bryan Cranston speaking slowly and carefully to the people whose lives he’s destroyed.

Such is the power of Walt’s manipulations.

* Honest question: can the case be made that what Marie did (or wanted to do) was just as bad as what Skyler did? To me, Marie is pretty clearly ahead of her sister, morally-speaking, despite the fact that they both have criminal solutions to the problem. Is that just me? I’d love to hear somebody equate the two…either by tearing down Marie’s or building up Skyler’s.

** Jesse also “realizes” that Walt poisoned Brock. That felt to me like a bit of a jump, as finding out that Huell lifted the ricin cigarette is still three or four logical leaps, at best, from concluding that Walter poisoned his girlfriend’s son. I’m not complaining, but I think it was jarring because one scene ends with Jesse looking at a packet of cigarettes, and the next begins with him instantly aware of what happened. I’m willing to believe that’s down to the quickness of the edit, though…it works a lot better if we believe that Jesse had a long walk back to Saul’s office, during which he angrily worked his way through every detail. Personally…I think I would have preferred to see that.

15 thoughts on “Review: “Confessions,” Breaking Bad season 5, episode 11”

  1. > Jesse also “realizes” that Walt poisoned Brock. That felt to me like a bit of a jump, as finding out that Huell lifted the ricin cigarette is still three or four logical leaps, at best, from concluding that Walter poisoned his girlfriend’s son.

    Jesse had already pieced together the poisoning back when it happened and confronted Walt (at gunpoint) about it. Back then Walt’s excuse was “I would never hurt a child”. I guess getting pickpocketed again prompted Jesse to reexamine that incident under the newfound knowledge that Walt’s a manipulative bastard who doesn’t really care about children either.

    A few choice flashback from the relevant episodes would have gone a long way to explain Jesse’s train of toughts but maybe also diminished the emotional impact.

    Still, I buy it, I don’t think it’s contrived.

    1. Oh I didn’t mean to suggest that I thought it was contrived. Apologies if it came off that way. I just felt like we skipped a step somewhere.

      You’re correct, though…I didn’t consider the fact that Jesse doesn’t need reassemble all of this in his head. All he has to know is that he already came to this conclusion once before. He doesn’t need to re-think the entire thing…he just sees it a second time, in a different light.

      Good catch.

  2. I don’t have a huge problem with Jesse figuring it out by relating it to his previous suspicion. The (tiny) problem I have with it is that Brock wasn’t poisoned by ricin – so there’s still nothing particularly concrete to pin on Walt. I guess this will be Walt’s defence but I don’t really want him to have one. I’m tired* of Walt placating Jesse with bullshit.

    *tired = incredibly entertained, just irritated on behalf of Jesse.

    1. I love how strongly aligned I feel with Jesse at this point. First I was absolutely in Walt’s corner…then I was mainly pulling for Hank. Now I’m absolutely with Jesse.

      Well, I’d go with Jesse.

      But I’d be thinking of Lydia…

  3. Interesting that i feel Jesse’s impractical emotional melodrama is wearing out my batteries. He’s getting on my nerves and I feel its time he went to Belize.

    btw .. Jesse obviously does not burn the place … the flash-forward in E9 showed the place was ransacked but not burned out.

    1. I think I’m enjoying Jesse’s emotional torment so much because Paul, imo, is absolutely KILLING it. I don’t want to get too personal here, but that breathless, tormented, almost self-defeating way he stood up to Walt just felt so real to me.

      And yeah, the house doesn’t get burned. But I think it’s still fair to say that’s what he’s attempting to do?

      I’ll be curious as to why it doesn’t get burned. You might get to wish him to Belize after all.

        1. I did think it was strange that Jesse didn’t check to see that Walt Jr. wasn’t home. It’s a pretty fair assumption that the baby wouldn’t be, but Flynn could have been.

          Of course there are a hundred thousand reasons that he’d overlook that so I’m not concerned. It just stood out to me that “No Kids” Jesse could himself be endangering a youth.

          Your comment makes me realize that Walt Jr. and Jesse have never interacted before. So not only would his appearance in a doorway give us a nice scene of the two of them together, but it’d be a pretty perfect opportunity for Jr. to hear, “Yo, your dad’s a scumbag…” from somebody at last.

          I now want this.

  4. I shared Pete’s confusion, REALLY struggling, since Brock had not been poisoned by ricin. I figured it out, as I do so many things, while taking a leak at 3am. Yes, Jesse knew Walt did not poison Brock with the ricin. But nonetheless, Walt had the ricin lifted from Jesse. Why? So Jesse would think–momentarily, at least–that Walt had poisoned the boy, which set the whole subsequent chain of events into motion. That is, it showed Jesse that this was just another time that he had been played by Walt… which led to the epiphany that huh, Walt poisoned Brock after all (and ergo Gustavo Fring did not. And his history of being played by Walt was playing heavily on Jesse’s mind.

    In a show of great actors, Aaron Paul has impressed me as the best one throughout. It’s freaking amazing. In real life, he’s just some unassuming dude. It’s bizarre, the different manifestations of talent…

    1. I’d be hard pressed to rank the quality of acting in this show.

      For some reason I’d put Christopher Cousins as Ted very high on the list, though.

      Couldn’t tell you why. There’s something about his performance in such a small role that just feels so perfect.

      See also Jane’s dad.

      1. Hell, even the bit players that only appear in a single scene are usually pretty stellar. The waitress from Denny’s on Walt’s 52nd birthday and the head of Madrigal Electromotive made an impression on me in their small screentime. This is an extremely well-cast show.

        This was clearly Aaron Paul’s episode, and right now I’m inclined to say he, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, and Anna Gunn are all at the top of their game. I’m sure Cranston will turn in his best work sooner or later, once the story comes back to center purely on Walt (the confession tape was a good start). But yeah, when you throw in Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad has an all-time great ensemble.

        1. Yes, Walt delivering the videotaped “confession” was stellar. However, as I said to my wife Erin just afterwards, “They expect us to believe Walt is as good an actor as Bryan Cranston!”
          And I too have been very impressed by the acting right down to the smallest roles.

          1. I’ve always thought that Bryan Cranston does a fantastic job of acting Walt’s acting. Walter acting emotional has always been a very different beast from Walter at his most emotional. I love that Walter is actually a pretty good actor but his performances are way more cloying than Bryan Cranston’s would ever be.

          2. This is a really interesting question (Jeff and Jory…I know this is my own site but I don’t know how replies to replies look so I MEAN TO SPEAK TO BOTH OF YOU), and honestly I’d love to read a long article about it.

            I’ve always thought that Walt was a really BAD liar. His bumbled, disordered explanation to Skyler about why what she heard wasn’t a second cell phone comes to mind, and that’s by no means the only time that he succeeded in hiding the truth, but failed to dispel suspicion.

            So I did actually wonder about this confession video too. Was it too good? The crocodile tears laid things on a bit thick, but otherwise, I thought it was pretty convincing.

            I think the difference is because Walt IS a bad liar…when he doesn’t have time to concoct a story. If he’s put on the spot, he’s awful. However if he has time to meditate on something, as he did here, or in his “fugue state,” and get his story straight, he can pull it off much better.

            This was probably done deliberately by “Confessions,” the more I think about it. His videotape was meant to come off as a very convincing lie, and was obviously planned out meticulously. Yet later on when he needs an excuse to get into the soda machine, he’s his normal, bumbling, rambling self.

            I think the “Walt’s as good an actor as Brian Cranston!” thing is worth bringing up. But I do think it’s accounted for within the reality of the show. If he has time to rehearse, fucker can play Lear. But ask him a question he doesn’t expect, without any time to react to it, and he’s useless.

        2. Just to throw a little love toward another minor character…the Pollos cashier we see a few times. I think she was assistant manager or something. I was impressed by her for some reason, even though her role was basically just to say to one character, “No, this other character isn’t here right now.” She brought more to it than that. I actually ended up feeling sorry for her…working in that place, thinking it could be a career…no idea what’s actually going on.

          I also watched “Over” again recently, and the scene with Walt buying the water heater has a great performance by the man who’s selling it to him. It’s a one scene thing but I love it…I used to work in an appliance store, and I could see in his face the moment that it dawned on him: this is a customer who knows what he’s talking about, wants the best available, and doesn’t care how much it costs.

          At that point you realize you don’t have to “work” for this…and you let your guard down…and you’re just two people talking shop. I loved that moment in that episode. Handled so well, and, again, it’s a character that could exist just to say a few lines and shuttle the more important characters along.

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