Before we talk about the cigarettes, or the lies, or the gasoline — hell, before we decide on drinks or order up some of that scrumptious-sounding tableside guacamole — let’s take a few moments to talk about a chemical reaction rarely mentioned in relation to Breaking Bad: pleasure. As we zoom toward the finale, nearly every discussion regarding the show focuses on its extremity: of tension and terror, of planning and execution. Yes, Breaking Bad is and always has been a thready adrenaline rush, but the reason it has reached an audience that extends beyond jittery thrill-seekers is because the show has always paid equal attention to our endorphins.
Look, I’ll be the first to say it: Much of “Confessions” was excruciating. Some of it was terrifying. But weren’t there a few parts that were just delicious? I’m thinking of the opening scene, the Route 66 Diner, Todd pacing in front of it, trapped like all our pawns, under the dome of that familiar and yawning cerulean sky. The episode was directed by Michael Slovis, the man given much of the credit for Breaking Bad’s relentlessly inventive visual style. I may be partial to the work of Michelle MacLaren, who shoots a cup of coffee like a heart attack, but Slovis is remarkable in his own way. He is to dusty desert vistas what Dalí is to clocks, always able to find the surreal lurking in plain view.
And he had some fun last night. There was the immaculate way in which Todd’s murderous uncle wiped the blood from his boot as if he were cleaning a child’s mouth at an ice cream parlor. Walt stumbling and fumbling for his frozen handgun amid the antiseptic chilliness of the car wash. And, best of all, that brilliantly absurd dinner at the Day-Glo taquería in which Hank’s furious bluster and Walt’s steely resolve are constantly interrupted by the minimum-wage cheeriness of Trent, a pitch-perfect character who’s a few pieces of flair away from being forcibly returned to the Mike Judge movie from whence he came. These are the bizarro grace notes that have you laughing so hard you struggle for breath — a welcome respite before you have to start holding it again out of anxiety. I’ve never known quite how to respond to those who trumpet Breaking Bad’s realism as one of its core virtues. The show is precise, as tightly designed and wound as an expensive timepiece. But realistic? Come on. That timepiece is forever bending and melting in the hot weirdness of the New Mexico sun. What I’ll miss most about Breaking Bad is the way it was never afraid to make you laugh, even while it was scaring you to death.
But let’s start at the beginning. Todd leaves a voice mail for Walt that is hilarious in its mundanity (“I know you’re probably real busy with retirement … ”) and then, under the attentive eyes of his closest Neo-Nazi relatives, Todd launches into something that should be familiar to anyone reading this: He recaps the train robbery episode from earlier this season. How great! Who recaps the recappers? I can’t say at any point I feared for my job — Todd may shoot kids, but I murder adverbs on the regular — but I still found the whole thing awfully sly. First, it was a clever bit of stalling: Why were we looking backward when Hank was sitting across from a catatonic Jesse Pinkman just one story line away? And why was the camera lurking in the sugar? Was the entire place about to be shot up like in the first scene of Pulp Fiction? But it was also a timely nod to previous teasers: the narcocorrido hailing Heisenberg a few seasons back, the scrawled graffiti in the remains of the White house in the season premiere. “It was perfect,” Todd tells his uncle, dreamily, reminding us of two important details. One, business continues, even while Walt’s family life threatens to sink him completely. And, two, legends have a way of taking on lives of their own.
The doubling wasn’t limited to Todd’s anecdotes, either. Hank and Jesse did have their second face-to-face — well, their first was more of a fist-to-face, but still. “He really did a number on you, didn’t he?” Hank purred, probing for the sore spot like he was digging for a rare and precious mineral. The thing is, both brothers-in-law have had their way with Jesse Pinkman, although only now is he beginning to wake up to the fact that the scars left by Walt are far deeper and far less likely to heal.
But the better replay was also by far the most nefarious. It’s sometimes hard to remember, considering all the secrecy that followed, but Breaking Bad actually began with a confession. “My name is Walter Hartwell White,” a certain mustachioed nobody sputtered into a camera in the pilot. “I live at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, Albuquerque, New Mexico … ” He did it again last night, but this time it wasn’t for the cops or his family. This time it was for Walter White’s Oscar reel. “If you’re watching this tape, I’m probably dead,” he declared, voice even, eyes extinct. “Murdered by my brother-in-law, Hank Schrader.” Trapping Hank like this was so cruel it bordered on obscene, so darkly funny it was practically opaque. A true villain doesn’t just win, he makes you defeat yourself. Only Walt could feast on Hank’s admirable lone-wolf tendencies as if they were a limping caribou. Last week we saw Hank stepping gingerly around the office because of the secret he was dying to spill. Now, all of a sudden, we see it from another angle: He’s been acting guilty as hell. It’s not fair but it’s not wrong.
And as galling as the video was, it was only the appetizer to the main course of devastation still to come: Hank learning, for the first time, just how all that state-of-the-art rehabilitation was paid for. It was Heisenberg who got Hank back on his feet, and, in so doing, buried him. “You killed me here, Marie,” Hank said. “That’s the last nail, the last nail in the coffin.” He’s speaking metaphorically, of course, but one of the hallmarks of Breaking Bad — from the plane crash to Drew Sharp’s tarantula in the bottle (a creepy crawler that made a return appearance last night, just before Walt and Jesse had their brodown in the dunes) — is that metaphors, even the most elegant ones, are often fatal.
Since watching the episode, I’ve been thinking a lot about Walter White, the “shadow” on his recent CAT scan, and the black cloud that has long since overtaken his heart. The closer we get to the end, the more Walt scrabbles around and lashes out like a rat when it’s surrounded, the less I’m buying Vince Gilligan’s whole “Mr. Chips to Scarface” quote as an analogy for Walt’s transformation. That’s the route the character has taken these five seasons, sure, in terms of his changing context. But I think the most horrifying part of Breaking Bad may be that Walt, at his core, didn’t really transform at all. It wasn’t greed or generosity or cancer or fear that fueled this reign of death and destruction. It was resentment. Seething, burning resentment, the kind that forms not due to poor treatment but due to an innate knowledge that you, the aggrieved, are better than said treatment, better than everyone who has somehow gotten the better of you over the years. We’ve had some good times with Walt and Jesse these past few seasons — in the camper, in the lab — but we should never lose sight of the fact that Walt (the teacher) loathed Jesse (the student). He hated his bratty insouciance, his wastefulness, his sloth. Every moment Walt spent in front of a classroom he was thinking about how beneath him it all was. He was a genius; he was meant to be a millionaire, not this castrated cross between stepping stone and doormat. When you got down to it, Walt desperately wanted to teach every one of those kids a lesson, and I don’t mean in the style of Mr. Chips.
And what about Walt’s relationship with his actual, flesh-and-blood son? The more I think about it, the more I notice how utterly devoid of empathy it is and always has been. Walt refuses to acknowledge Junior’s desire to be called “Flynn” — to be an individual, not a walking tribute to the man who named him. He buys the two of them matching sports cars to indulge macho fantasies, stuffs Junior with pancakes and empty bromides. Through it all, he pays no attention to the man Flynn is becoming. To Walt, his son is more or less a charity case, a needy bank account that will appreciate the millions of dollars left by a dead and deadbeat dad much more than the presence — and non-world-crushing humiliation — of a normal, present, non-meth-cooking father. Using the cancer diagnosis to keep Flynn from rushing into Marie’s trap was the right play last night, but god, was it awful to watch. It’s a true sociopath who only values other people in the moments when they have tangible value. Walt’s confessions were staged, but they were plenty revealing nonetheless.
So, Jesse. The only one to call Walt on his bullshit. The only one to see through it — and then, at the end, practically the last one to see the extent to which he, himself, was coated in it. Walt’s whole speech about Jesse being “so damn young” and starting a new life for himself was nothing we hadn’t seen a hundred times before. But it was greasier somehow, as if the master snake oil salesman had been sampling his own product. (And this was a master class by Bryan Cranston last night. A bravura performance wrapped in a bravura performance.) “It’s really about you,” Jesse spit. “Ask me for a favor … just tell me you need this.” And then … the hug. Aaron Paul has been saddled with a character that’s little more than human debris for more than a year now and yet he still finds smaller and smaller ways to shatter; it’s remarkable. It’s also worth noting: For all the grief that fans give Skyler, isn’t Jesse trapped in a similarly frustrating, equally abusive cycle? When she told Marie “It’s in the past, it’s over,” there was a desire in her voice stronger than anything I’ve heard this year, stronger than Lydia’s desire for a quality product, stronger than Jesse’s desire for a painless escape. Skyler doesn’t just want to believe Walt’s lies. She has to believe them for her own survival.
And the same goes for Jesse, off to a new life in Alaska, hunting salmon and dodging the Yiddish Policeman’s Union. At least that was the plan, until Saul got cuter than a Hello Kitty cell phone and had Huell pull the same trick with Jesse’s dope that he once pulled with the ricin cigarette. Look, if you didn’t hear the church bells of revelation ringing when Jesse discovered the crumpled pack on the side of the road — Walter poisoned Brock! Walter is the devil! — I don’t blame you. Michael Slovis did his best, but visually linking such a small moment to one of Breaking Bad’s signature (but no less subtle) swindles is the Triple Lindy of cinematic dot-connecting. But not only did I get it, I bought it. Jesse has been perched on a knife edge of doubt for weeks now. Like Hank on the toilet, all it took was one eureka moment to distract him from all the shit.
And now the Problem Dog is barking again. Worse: He’s found his bite. I assume everyone had a similar searing moment of panic when Jesse beat Saul to the pistol. All of a sudden it seemed that the spinoff talk may have been a long con to lull us into distraction before Jesse splashed red all over the whites and blues of the Southwest’s most patriotic law office. Thankfully, Saul’s silver tongue saved him when Huell could not, and Jesse marched off in search of the real enemy, one who appeared as rattled as we’ve seen him in quite some time as he grasped desperately for the hidden gunsicle at the car wash.
I must say, the only thing that took away from Jesse’s vengeful mania as he endeavored to burn down his former partner’s life was the memory that we’ve seen Walter’s house in the future and it appears to be condemned, not incinerated. But that’s a small ember of a complaint in what was an absolute bonfire of an episode. In the past I’ve expressed a small amount of concern over Breaking Bad’s reduced cast list in this final half-season. Would the result be focused? Or slight? Regardless, the fear seems foolish now. The few characters remaining all have so much to do, so much to learn, and so much to answer for. This final sprint of Breaking Bad is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s TV as a crescendo, as a magnet, as a wave. These episodes aren’t ending so much as they’re gasping for breath. I imagine the giddy look in Jesse’s eyes was visible at least once or twice in the writers’ room as those hardy souls glanced at the time remaining and then glanced at each other, secure in the knowledge that five seasons of pent-up mayhem and kinetic energy couldn’t be tamped out or dispersed: It would have to be unleashed, consequences be damned. It’s undeniably exhilarating. It’s just plain undeniable.
Five more to go.