By Todd VanDerWerff
8:30 AM CDT, August 26, 2013
There are two obvious chinks in Walter White’s armor, two people who know everything he’s done, more or less, and could bring him to his knees by confessing what they know to Hank. The first is Skyler, whom the show dealt with in last week’s episode. In “Confessions,” the show turns its focus to Jesse to see if he will be the one to give Hank the ammunition he needs to begin building a case. Along the way, however, the episode reveals Walt’s unlikely plan B and shows Hank just how thoroughly he’s going to be hurt by Walt’s crimes becoming public knowledge.
It’s the first episode of the season to feel slightly scattered in places because it needs to service so many different story lines, and its cliffhanger is largely pointless, since we know Jesse won’t burn down the White home. (It’s still standing in the flash-forwards.) But “Confessions” unquestionably works and that’s because of the two characters and the actors portraying them who have always sat at the show’s center.
“Confessions” studies Walt and Jesse – as well as Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul – as studies in contrasts. Walt, increasingly, has dropped any pretense that he’s not a meth kingpin around his brother-in-law. Sure, he never says the words, “I’m a meth kingpin,” but both he and Skyler tiptoe up to the edge of admitting to everything during a tense meal with Hank and Marie at a local Mexican restaurant before dropping Walt’s ultimate backup plan: a taped confession that sets up Hank as the one called Heisenberg and Walt as a lowly chemist who was ensnared in his brother-in-law’s schemes.
It’s a brilliant piece of insurance because it plays so perfectly off Hank’s public image as someone prone to fits of seemingly random rage and a friend to both Gus Fring and Walt himself. Add in the fact that Hank’s treatment for his shooting was paid for by money made in the meth trade (something Hank is unaware of until this episode), and Walt has perfect material to frame his brother-in-law. As one would expect, Cranston plays this perfectly, showing just how much Walt has learned about acting in his time as Heisenberg.
Where Walter is words, words, words and implicit action, Jesse uses as few words as possible but often takes explicit, even over-the-top action. He’s someone defined by how quickly he can be capsized by the terrible things that happen around him. And if Drew Sharp was the straw that broke Jesse’s back and pushed him out of the meth trade entirely, then realizing that his father figure and mentor, the man who made him rich beyond his wildest dreams, was the one to poison Brock a few seasons ago is the thing that finally drives all of that potential, stymied action and self-loathing outward. Jesse finally realizes that there’s a great evil in his life and that he can’t begin any sort of new life until he wipes that cancer out. As he spills the gasoline all over the home of the man he still calls Mr. White, Jesse finally takes the fight to the man who’s pushed him to this breaking point.
Once again, “Breaking Bad” operates via clever dualities and moments when characters have sudden bolts of knowledge. Take, for instance, the scene where Walt tries to talk Jesse into leaving town, never thinking to simply ask the boy to change his identity and escape with the guy Saul knows who makes a living of disappearing those who wish to be disappeared. “Breaking Bad” has built up a rough mirroring effect with Walt and Jesse for several seasons now – particularly since the death of Gale Boetticher – and it seems highly likely this scene is the last time the two will meet with any degree of affection for each other, particularly now that Jesse’s realized his mentor poisoned a child to maintain Jesse’s allegiance and now that Jesse’s attempted to burn down Walt’s house.
That hug between the two, though, that hug is devastating. For so long, Jesse was the shiftless heart of the show, a guy who had a conscience but also needed someone who would direct him and believe in him. He thought he found that in Walt, but that relationship was poisoned, as all relationships with Walter inevitably are. He actually did find it in Mike, but now that Mike’s dead, he’ll never see him again. So he’s alone yet again, pulled back in close by the man he wants less to do with than ever. He acquiesces to Walt’s demands.
He prepares to leave Albuquerque forever, but an ill-timed lighting of a joint seals his fate. Saul, not wanting to endanger Jesse’s chances to leave town, has Huell lift the marijuana. And when Jesse can’t find the joints while waiting for his ride to a new life but can find his cigarettes, puzzle pieces that have been trying to fit together in his head for months finally lock in, and he explodes into action, beating a confession out of Saul, and instead of turning to Hank (who gets nowhere with Jesse at the episode’s start), he decides to take Walter on himself. It’s perhaps not the wisest course of action, but it reflects just how thoroughly ground down into a stub Jesse is by everything that’s happened since Walt re-entered his life in the pilot.
The sudden realization Jesse has is, I’d argue, another example of the show’s use of that moral force behind the scenes I talked about last week. Jesse finally agrees to do one last thing for Walt, and whatever is pulling the strings puts him in the position to understand just how horribly Walter has actually been to him – beyond even what he suspects. (Remember: Jesse almost killed Walter over the poisoning of Brock before Walt convinced Jesse that Gus was the one behind the poisoning, thanks to Huell lifting the ricin cigarette.) It’s not like when things fall into Hank’s lap, not quite. Jesse’s not quite as incorrupt as Hank in the grand scheme of things. But if he wants to make the connection, it’s there, and once it’s made, everything changes.
Look at all of the ways Jesse and Walt are subtly linked throughout this episode. The events at the end seem almost inevitable after that point. Think, for instance, of how Walt’s fake confession meant to frame Hank is way up there on the list of terrible things he’s done. (I thought my wife, watching the episode with me, was going to put her foot through the television.) And yet just when it seems as if he’s going to get away with it, his judgment arrives from another corner entirely.
Or think, if you will, of the two states the two men escape to or wish to escape to. Whatever happens to Walt between now and the flash-forwards, he’s going to end up with a New Hampshire drivers license, reflecting one of our nation’s very first states, a place as marked by the past and undying traditions as anywhere else in this country – to the degree that its state motto dates to a man who fought in the Revolutionary War. Jesse, however, longs to go to Alaska, the second-youngest state and a place marked by the idea of being able to escape the past. But before that can happen, before the past can ever be escaped, it needs to be burned to the ground. And that’s just what Jesse has to do.
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