Unless you’re Steven Spielberg dolly-zooming in on Roy Scheider on the beach in Jaws, it’s a dicey proposition to make your characters demonstrate the reaction you want your audience to have to your story. If something’s genuinely astonishing or inspiring or horrifying or hilarious, we’ll figure it out and react accordingly. We don’t need your performers to act out a laugh track for us – the story will either work, or it won’t. And when it doesn’t, when you make us watch horror-movie victims screaming at things that aren’t scary, or little kids in little-kid movies gazing in wide-eyed and slackjawed amazement at stuff that’s not actually all that amazing, it’s worse than doing nothing at all.
But sometimes the story works so well that if the characters didn’t react the way we’re reacting, it’d almost insult our intelligence. Which is why Hank and Marie’s response to the videotaped confession of Walter Hartwell White on tonight’s Breaking Bad was so wonderful. As they stood in stunned disbelief, staring first at the screen and then at each other as Walt’s meth-empire Emmy reel unfurled, destroying Hank’s life with each passing second, their reaction was my reaction in nearly every particular. In that moment, I felt like I was Hank and Marie. Ich bin ein Schrader.
Written by Gennifer Hutchison and directed by Michael Slovis, “Confessions” presented many variations on its titular theme. In nearly every case, however, the revelations on offer were notable for what they failed to reveal, for what they distorted or kept hidden in the name of self-mythologization or self-interest. The episode derived its tension from keeping us in the audience on both sides of the line simultaneously: We knew the truth, so we recognized the half-truths and the lies, and we could not help but empathize with the people being lied to.
The prime example of this technique, Walt’s videotaped confession-cum-frame job, was not just juxtaposed with the truth that Hank and Marie had just figured out, but with a different confession tape he’d shot six seasons ago. In the pilot episode, Walt’s confession was impromptu, panicked, passionate and sincere – a selfie with a handheld camera, full of love for his family yet reticent to give up details that would scar their appreciation for him. His current confession was a world apart, aesthetically and ethically.
Here he methodically lays out a made-up case against himself and Hank in painstaking detail, in front of a camera mounted on a tripod, operated by a co-conspirator. The more careful he is about presentation, the more careless he is with the truth. Indeed, much of the horror Marie and Hank feel when witnessing Walt’s whopper appears to stem from their realization that this isn’t just a desperate attempt to stay ahead of them – it was planned out, thought through, rehearsed and beautifully executed, with the help of Skyler, no less. Each carefully constructed crocodile tear rolled off an assembly line of deliberate duplicity.
Todd’s story of the Great Train Robbery came across as far less formal – it wasn’t a for-the-record statement designed to immunize himself from prosecution, after all. But it still bore the signs of a well-spun yarn, designed to impress his gang-lord uncle and associate with its blend of derring-do, narrowly averted disaster and aw-shucks “just glad to have been a part of it” wonder at it all. Somehow, the cold-blooded murder of a child with which Todd concluded that particular caper wound up on the cutting room floor. But if it hadn’t – if he’d felt behooved to reveal what happened – there’s little doubt he’d have come up with a euphemism like the one he used to tell Walt about the demise of Declan: “It got kind of . . . messy.”
Todd’s banal evil – which actor Jesse Plemons is alarmingly good at conveying – is more frightening than the supercriminal calculations of Gus Fring, the explosiveness of Tuco Salamanca or the mute murderousness of the Cousins, because he’s unable to appreciate murder’s seriousness. To Todd, if you phrase something politely enough, cover up someone’s eyes or leave out crucial details in a voicemail message or diner conversation, it’s like it didn’t happen at all. (Yet the evil still pervades that excruciatingly slow sequence: every moment the trio spends staring at their waitress, every second spent in close quarters with two urinating killers in that men’s room, was pregnant with menace.)
Contrast Todd with Mr. White’s other young partner, Jesse Pinkman. Completely gutted by his complicity in the death of the boy Todd shot, Jesse’s got nothing left in him (up to a point). His is the confession that wasn’t, a potential alliance with Hank against Walt short-circuited by Hank’s retrospectively ill-advised decision to try to extract the confession himself. Instead, he hears a confession of sorts from Hank, as the older man tries to convince him to turn against Walt by sharing the damage Walt’s done to him in turn. “Lying to me for over a year. Using me. Maybe you understand that feeling.” Sure seems like it: When Walt comes to him for help later in the episode, Jesse’s only request is that Walt acknowledge that he’s asking for help, rather than bullshitting him. As he hysterically demands “Stop working me . . . Just ask me for a favor. Just tell me you don’t give a shit about me, or it’s either this, it’s either this, or you’ll kill me the same way you killed Mike,” Hank’s empathetic assessment echoes: “He really did a number on you, didn’t he?”
He did a number on just about everyone. His bogus Hankenberg story, after all, was just one of his confessions in this episode – the other was revealing the return of his cancer to Walt Jr. in order to keep him from visiting Hank and Marie. The loathsome close-up of Walt’s self-satisfied face as Flynn hugs him after promising to stay by his side without Walt even having had to ask . . . jeez, that should have come with some kind of antibiotic. Similarly, the horrible hug he gave Jesse in the desert only reads as tender until you reflect that he’s doing it instead of saying “Yes, I need you to leave town as a favor to me, and if you don’t I’ll kill you like I killed the only person in this whole mess who actually cared about you.” Jesse can’t even raise his arms to hug him back. And the less said about Walt’s faux-politeness in the Mexican restaurant (“Thank you for coming”) the better – it’s so infuriating that Hank can hardly respond without growling.
The episode’s final confession, though, pierces Walt’s armor, possibly for good. In front of a striking field of stone edifices and backed by a chilling horror-industrial score (props to location manager Christian Diaz De Bedoya and composer Dave Porter, MVPs even in an episode where Aaron Paul reclaimed the TV crying crown from Claire Danes), Jesse discovers his weed has been pickpocketed by Huell – then comes across his usual pack of cigarettes and realizes that the hulking bodyguard was responsible for the disappearance of his ricin cigarette back in season four. Suddenly it all clicks into place: Walt ordered Saul to steal the cigarette, then framed Gus Fring for poisoning Jesse’s girlfriend’s kid Brock in order to drag Jesse back to his side. The confession Jesse beats out of Saul seems legit: Saul and Huell stole the cigarette for Walt, yeah, but they had no idea it was part of a plot to poison a child, or they’d never have agreed to it at all. Walt’s criminal genius lies not just in his skill as a cook, but in his ability to force people past their breaking points, often without even realizing they’ve passed them. Whether you stand there staring or grab a canister of gasoline and try to burn it all away, the break is irreparable.