Friday, November 15, 2013

Breaking Bad 5-11: The Confession

If Community is, as I argued earlier, an attempt to address the difficulties of making a sitcom in the age of postmodern irony, Breaking Bad is at least partially trying to solve the problem of making a serious drama in a world which is so predominantly absurd. Walter White wants to be Scarface, but he is always hamstrung by the ridiculous accouterments of late capitalism – purple coffee machines, Roombas, cars that bounce, etc. Nowhere is this more in focus than the scene in “The Confession” where Walt and Skyler meet Hank and Marie in a cheesy Mexican family diner. The conversation is the stuff of high drama, with terse insults, implicit threats, questions of morality, and the hefty weight of a shattered family. And then there's the hapless waiter who keeps poking his head in asking if the mortal enemies would like some guacamole (they make it at tableside, you know). And there's the general atmosphere of the restaurant, as silly as the conversation is serious. Breaking Bad creates humour through these juxtapositions, but it also highlights both the everyday inanity of the world around us and the over-the-top seriousness of Walter's personal drama. Walter is a man who could never honestly laugh at himself, but for as much as Breaking Bad draws us into the drama of his situation, it also makes him laughable.

This is highlighted in not just the Mexican restaurant scene but through the show's visual style. Breaking Bad is constantly shot at weird, almost distracting angles, as if to jar us and remove us from the action. Towards the start of this episode, we get a birds-eye view of the Whites' bathroom. This angle reduces the everyday beauty and grooming products to abstract geometric shapes, thus turning an ordinary bathroom into something absurd. The preponderance of these circles highlights the ridiculousness of our consumption-oriented lives – who really needs all of those kinds of face cream, much less Walter and Skyler White? Walter is the central spoke of Breaking Bad's critique of capitalism, showing how the desire to be an entrepreneur and a self-made man leads inevitably to monstrousness, but shots like this add a more subtle layer of criticism.

In the scene above, Walter is desperately looking for some way to disguise the cut he received collapsing in the bathroom. “The Confession” as a whole is about this type of illusion, most notably the ever-increasing web of fictions that Walter conjures up in order to hide and excuse his actions. Even when he isn't actively lying and trying to cover up his criminal activities, Walter is always playing a role, always trying to game someone, whether it be convincing his son that he's an affable family man or convincing his array of partners that he is a respectable businessman. At this point there's very little of Walter's life that isn't some kind of lie

So it's no surprise that, when threatened by Hank, Walter conjures up another elaborate story. This is the titular confession (or one of them), a videotape that implicates Hank as the mastermind of the whole meth operation. This is perhaps the apex of Walter's performances: he seems more honest sniveling about how he hates being under Hank's thumb than he does when portraying something close to the truth. Perhaps recording this tape allows Walter to take on his favourite role, that of the victim buoyed along at the whims of circumstance. Or maybe he's getting out some real, repressed guilt and sadness over what he's done. Or maybe he's just become a consummate liar.

The Confession” also shows us Walter at his worst. In one scene he comes into the car wash, looking for a gun hidden in the ice tray of a pop machine. He mumbles something about having to check the latch on the machine, and makes a lame excuse to leave. Walter is not convincing to anyone here, and he seems at his wits' end, his storytelling prowess completely exhausted. What's striking is how these lies are just unnecessary. Walter owns the car wash – he can poke around there wherever he wants, without needing permission, and it isn't as though he needs to lie to Skyler any longer about his criminal activity. But Walter is almost addicted to spinning stories, needing to come up with a benign reason for everything he does. He keeps things from people just out of habit, or just to revel in his power over others.

This is something Breaking Bad takes from The Shield: the endless web of lies and schemes that eventually build up a momentum all their own. Walter White, like Vic Mackey before him, believes that he is in control of the violence and deceit that surrounds him, but in reality he is simply being carried along by the tide of events. In “The Confession” we get to see Walter cool and in control, but we also get to see him in a panicked rage, traumatized by the ability of other humans to act in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. If the fifth season has revealed anything, it's that Walter is ultimately a pawn to much larger forces than him, which refuse to let him stop what he has started. The Madgrigal conglomerate is one of these forces, and you can maybe count the neo-Nazis among them too, but there also seems to be a kind of entropic force that is propelling all of these individuals to a violent collision.

Setting is crucial to Breaking Bad. The city of Albequerque, already rendered a little ridiculous by its name (or maybe just the associated Weird Al song), is depicted as the epitome of late capitalist grandeur and absurdity. It is a plastic city of suburbs and tenements built in the desert, a futile attempt to impose civilization on the natural forces of chaos represented by the desert[1]. The desert haunts every street of Albequerque, and this is reflected in the show's cinematography. In several interior scenes it seems as though the desert is right outside, about to burst through the windows of the complacent civilians.

The desert is also the setting for a crucial scene in this episode, in which Jesse finally confronts Walt and begs him to “Stop playing me for once”. Over the course of the series there have been many rendezvous in the middle of the desert, and they're generally the site of business dealings between Walter and the various gangs he is involved with. The desert is where all of Walter's stories dissipate and raw power reveals itself. It is, so to speak, the desert of the real.

But Walter is blind to the encircling forces of chaos. He sees the desert as just another tool to be used: a convenient space to cook meth undisturbed or to bury a couple barrels full of cash. Even this late in the series, with his double life unfolding all around him, Walter still believes he can put everything in order through his intellect alone. And so when Jesse offers him a possibility to speak honestly – downright pleads for him to do so – Walter just continues with the sales pitch, telling Jesse that assuming a new identity far away is what's best for him.

Walter adopts his fatherly aspect for the talk with Jesse, which is the same persona he takes on in his rare chats with Walt Junior. This is the good-natured “Mr. Chibs” family man Mr. White that we saw at the beginning of Breaking Bad. The scene is shot like a family drama, the adult and wayward child leaning against the bumper of the car, sun gleaming warmly off Walter's forehead.

This is just an illusion, a mask that Walter puts on when it is convenient, but the same could be said for the growly, threatening Heisenberg. At this point Walter White is an identity without an authentic self beneath it. We know that he does care for Jesse – he's done too much to save him over the course of the series for it to simply be a relationship of convenience – but Walter couldn't be honest towards Jesse if he tried. Bryan Cranston's acting is skillful enough that every side of Walt (the sitcom dad, the growling antihero) seems equally real and unreal, up to and including the patently false repentant Walter of the “confession” he makes to Hank.

Perhaps there is something genuine in Walter's speech to Jesse. Getting away from Albequerque and in particular away from Walter White might ultimately be best for Jesse, even if it would tear him away from what's left of his meaningful relationships (Andrea, Brock, maybe Badger and Skinny Pete). But what really comes through in the speech is Walter's own longing for the new life that he promises Jesse. When Walt says “Maybe it's time for a change”, it appears for just a moment to be the realization that has been eluding him for the entirety of the series. When he talks about “finding a job you're good at”, there are echoes of Walter's lost potential as a chemist, which has become the original tragedy in the way Walter narrates his life. Walter imagines adopting a new identity as the ultimate act of masculine industry that would prove his creative mastery more than any pure meth would.

But ultimately Walter fails to convince either Jesse or himself. To take the option of disappearance would mean destroying the suburban domestic life that Walter has tried so hard to maintain. Even if he took his children with him, there would be no way to maintain the lie of a normal family. Walter does assume a new identity later in the season, when there is no possibility of his domestic life surviving, but even then he finds it unsatisfying. He can never really begin a new life, whatever his documents say: his existing attachments and experiences stay with him.

Similarly, even if Jesse got in that nondescript car, his traumatic losses would still be with him, as would his lack of education or skill in anything but meth-cooking. But even when Jesse calls him out, Walter clings to his fantasy of self-reinvention. This is a reflection of his broader need to believe in his power to determine his own universe through hard work and masculine self-assertion. It's telling that Jesse describes Walter's speech as labour, specifically “working me”. If you want to go even broader, this reflects the American capitalist desire to refuse to believe in impossibility. There is always a frontier, always a new place to expand (Mexico! The Czech Republic!), and you can do anything if you put your mind to it [2]. In some ways Walter proves this last maxim right: he has achieved a great deal, apparently dragging himself away from death at the same time he becomes an improbable success in his chosen business. But he cannot reinvent the world, nor can he reinvent himself. Walter's speech to Jesse appears first as candid advice, then as a manipulative ploy, then as an inadvertent confession. But as a confession, it ultimately gives us only another lie – the one that Walter

It is perhaps this final inability to be genuine, more than Huell's sticky fingers, that ends Jesse's faith in Walter and allows him to finally realize how cruelly he has been manipulated over the course of the series. Jesse is perhaps most notable for his inability to lie or dissemble: he really is what he appears to be, and all of his vulnerabilities and doubts are immediately on the surface. This is what makes Walter and Jesse such a dynamic combination of characters, but also what makes their relationship so toxic: Jesse, in his strange naivete, cannot imagine the extent to which Walter is manipulating him, while Walter looks down on Jesse for precisely the vulnerabilities that make him so easy to use. And Jesse's openness colours his reaction to the sudden, bolt-from-the-blue revelation of Walter's betrayal. Jesse doesn't plot an elaborate revenge scheme, as Walter might. He doesn't get in the car and thank his lucky stars, as Saul Goodman undoubtedly would. Instead, he grabs a tank of gas and goes after the one thing that matters to Walt more than money: his idealized domestic life.

The scene in which Jesse comes to this decision is shot in a quite interesting manner. This scene needs to do something very difficult in conveying a character's internal thoughts visually. (A lesser show would resort to a voice-over or a contrived conversation to do the same work). The scene begins with a long shot, in which most of the frame is taken up by the setting. Jesse is an almost-insignificant blot on the larger, desolate plain. This surely mirrors his frame of mind: he is powerless in the grand scheme of things, controlled by forces larger than himself.

I'm not sure what part of Albequerque this is[3]. The large objects hanging above Jesse look like a mass of cement dividers, but they also resemble gravestones, which would seem much more natural to be sitting in a row on a hill. The deaths of those close to Jesse (Jane, Mike, almost Brock) literally hang above Jesse's head. Or maybe these are the deaths he has caused: Gale, but also the countless ones who have died because of the meth Jesse so expertly cooked, their only remains an unmarked grave.

The scene cuts between these long shots and media-length shots in which Jesse is more prominent, but still not completely free of his environment (as he would be in a close-up). Jesse is at first ruminative and uncertain, his expression matched by the slow and uneven drumbeats on the soundtrack. He begins searching for his cigarettes. This is both a symbolic motion and a literal one: he is searching for a solution to his problems, but his literal inability to find even his pot will cause a major revelation. Drugs have always been a coping mechanism for Jesse, albeit an unhealthy one, but here at his lowest point they have abandoned him.

What's striking here is that Jesse's first reaction to the missing cigarette is not anger or confusion but panic. Jesse desperately wants the cigarette to be there – not just to take the edge off, but to assure him that he understands the world around him, and that Walter wasn't actually behind Brock's poisoning. Despite his strong distrust of Walter, Jesse still wants at some level to believe in him. The camera plays in to Jesse's panic, swooping around him, examining every possible angle for hope that his suspicions aren't true.

But eventually Jesse's expression becomes resolute, and he walks away from the offer of asylum. Once again, the petty detritus of modern life stands in uncomfortable co-existence. “The guy”, for all he represents a new life and the impossible promise of reinvention, and carries a larger-than-life underworld aura, is ultimately a middle-aged man driving a boring red car that is nearly identical to the one that follows behind him. Jesse's momentous decision involves rolling a wheelie suitcase past a pile of concrete dividers. If there is drama to be had in the modern world, this is it, both tragic and ridiculous – a dynamic Breaking Bad embraces wholeheartedly. This scene is a credit to both Aaron Paul and episode director Michael Slovis, who convey wordlessly one of the series's most important moments, the final break between Walter and Jesse.

As I've said, many of the characters Walter meets in the drug underworld act as alternate versions of himself. Jesse is the complete opposite, a photo negative, but many characters function as ways of teasing out Walter's philosophy, the introduction of white-collar middle-class morality and work ethic to criminal enterprise. Characters like Gus, Mike, and Lydia, are alternate versions of Walter, and their failures suggest that making meth a respectable business requires more than a lab coat and pale skin. On the other hand, you have Todd and his Nazi clan.

The cold open concerning said group of neo-Nazis is perhaps the starkest contrast to Walt's constant deceit of himself and others. This is another scene that draws on the contrast between the rawness of the criminal world depicted in Breaking Bad and the fakeness of everyday life. Todd loudly recounts the story of the train heist (a moderately edited story, it should be noted) in a public area, not stopping when the waitress stops by to gawk at Uncle Jack's swastika tattoo. Walter, while prone to bragging in the right circumstances, would never do so in such a public environment. But Todd and Uncle Jack have no illusions about what they are, nor do they have any illusions that they present to the world. Their boisterous repartee is almost endearingly open – there's no sign of the layers of mind games that characterize Walt's relationship with Jesse, or the endless denial and estrangement between Walt and Walt Jr. Fitting with Breaking Bad's dark humour, the only example of a fully functional family we have on the show is a bunch of white supremacists.

In the bathroom of the diner, Jack makes a comment about how the inability to smoke on airplanes is a sign of how far downhill he country has gone. This foreshadows the moment later in the episode where Saul's own no-smoking rule indirectly causes Jesse to realize how Walter has betrayed him. There's a strange kind of logic in connecting Jesse to the neo-Nazis, as they're probably the two most honest forces left standing on Breaking Bad. They're also both forces that Walter White believes he can control with rhetoric, but whose raw and violent emotions prove to be ultimately beyond his harnessing.

The Confession” is a tricky title, as there are several long speeches which present themselves as confessions but are all in some way deceitful – Walter admitting he has cancer to Junior (truthful but not honest), Walter blackmailing Hank with a just-true-enough account of his misdeeds, and Walter's manipulative speech to Jesse which presents itself as a genuine longing for freedom. At this point, it would be hard to dub any of these confessions true or false, as that would suggest there is an “authentic” Walter White deep down somewhere. On the other hand, Todd's bragging tale, while withholding some crucial facts, is perhaps the most genuine confession of the lot. It is also, of course, totally sociopathic. And this is perhaps the most troubling, and the most brilliant, part of “The Confession”: it suggests that the truth may be even uglier than the lies.

[1] Albequerque is also located in New Mexico, near the border, and Breaking Bad problematically uses Mexico and Mexicans to represent this untameable chaos.

[2] It's become increasingly difficult over the show's run to view Breaking Bad as primarily a commentary on capitalism. Walter White seems like such a singular character that it is difficult to generalize his personality or see his actions as representative of a larger group. Maybe this makes him a comedic figure in the medieval sense: a larger-than-life figure that embodies the smaller vices and delusions within us all.

[3] Surely you don't expect me to do research for this thing. This is close reading, man.

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