TV Recap: Breaking Bad -- "Confessions"


Note: This article was previously published at Patheos.

One of the reasons Breaking Bad is such a great series is that it somehow manages to feel surprising while also entirely inevitable. Most narratives implicitly follow the law of cause-and-effect, but few showrunners actually hold to it as tightly as Vince Gilligan has with his tale of Walter White’s fall from grace. This is why it’s emerged as one of the most profoundly moral shows on television: it’s a show in which actions always have consequences.

Author and playwright Anton Chekhov famously said that you should never show a loaded rifle on stage if you’re not going to fire it; Breaking Bad isn’t about Chekhov’s gun, it’s about Chekhov’s arsenal. These weapons can take the form of seemingly innocent objects that suddenly become instrumental to the plot—a box cutter, a cigarette, a tap bell—but they more often show up as bits of knowledge, or secrets waiting to be exposed. A typical episode juggles several of these elements, and a great deal of the show’s tension derives from the careful balancing act Gilligan and the writers have maintained when crafting each season, figuring out which rifle to fire at particular points and which to leave until later. Breaking Bad is a structural symphony, and Chekhov’s gun is the notes.

“Confessions,” the eleventh episode of the fifth season—or the third episode of the sixth season if you’re thinking of this last batch of episodes that way—would have made Chekhov proud. It’s an episode in which several figurative guns were finally fired and others (including one actual gun) were set on stage. The slow burn of Season 4 is a thing of the past. We’re in free fall now, and the show is hurtling towards a definitive conclusion.

It all feels so methodical and obvious in retrospect. Of course Jesse wouldn’t tell Hank anything, given their history. Of course Walt would find a way potentially turn Hank into the fall guy. Of course he wouldn’t kill Jesse, his pseudo-son—he tends to only resort to murder out of a last grasp for self-preservation. Of course Jesse can’t dig himself out of his spiritual hellhole until he’s discovered the truth about Brock’s poisoning (though the circumstances of Jane’s death, Walt’s final secret, remain unspoken). And of course once he realizes the extent of Walt’s deception, his immediate reaction will be a wild dash for revenge.

The scene where Walt confronts Jesse in the desert takes their relationship to its only logical conclusion given the elements in play. There is no explosive act of violence, no sudden reversal or unexpected twist. The only thing that changes is Jesse’s willingness to say what’s on his mind. He’s done paying lip service to Walt’s lies, and he lays it all out on the table, from his certainty that Mike died at Walt’s hands to his understanding that Walt only really cares about himself. But just as he did two episodes ago, Walt doesn’t break character. He’s become such a master manipulator that he himself can’t separate truth from falsehoods, so he takes the lie to its breaking point, embracing Jesse like a prodigal son. I think there’s a part of Walt that really does love Jesse, and it’s that side of him that ironically allows him to take Jesse further down the rabbit hole. As much as he’s willing to kill and cheat his way to the top, he also wants to deny that he’s that kind of person. This is one of life’s great paradoxes: No matter how evil we become, we all still want to believe that we’re good.

Walt’s lies have now so affected everyone around him that there appears to be no hope to take him down. The confession tape he gives Hank reveals the full extent of his moral bankruptcy—he’s so determined to get away with it, to die without facing a jury, that he’s willing to frame it all on his arch nemesis, the show’s moral core. He has subverted the very essence of a confession; he hasn’t atoned for his sins, he’s only transferred them to someone else. Because his medical bills were inadvertently paid for with drug money, there’s likely no way for Hank to come out of this unscathed. Like the ricin, the DVD is Walt’s last resort, the simpler version of Saul’s escape plan—if he can’t become someone else, he’ll turn someone else into Heisenberg.

With Hank out of the way, the only apparent wild card is his former protegé. But even if he takes care of Jesse (one way or another), there’s still another party that could ruin Walt’s plans: Todd. This episode opens with Lydia’s new cook recounting their train robbery to his uncle like he’s speaking about a folk hero—Heisenberg has once again become the stuff of legend. He views Heisenberg as a role model rather than a cautionary moral tale, and he’s so captivated that he can barely leave a voicemail message informing Walt of the “change in management.” This subplot involving Madrigal and the continuation of Walt’s meth enterprise continues to play out largely in the background, only taking up a scene or two each episode, but I suspect it will soon play a major role in how Breaking Bad ultimately ends.

After all, once you’ve shown us the rifle, you can’t just let it sit there.