'Breaking Bad' Deconstruction, Ep. 11: 'Confessions'
Yes, of course, something big and dark and awful is coming. But can't we just appreciate all the wonderful small scenes we're getting before that? Oh, and can't I just take my own advice?
The trouble with waiting for an explosion that you know is coming is that it’s too easy to miss everything before the big bang.
In Breaking Bad we know the bang is coming. We knew it would be in these final eight episodes. Having Hank find out about Walt was lighting the fuse. And here we are, waiting for it all to blow up. And so, in episode 11, “Confessions,” every look seems to have a meaning while at the same time every look -- and that could mean a quick facial expression or one or two short, superb little scenes -- gets overlooked because we’re all waiting for that damned explosion.
Since there was so much to love in “Confessions” – from the actual faux confession (aka the Hank stem-winder) to the world’s most uncomfortable dinner to Jesse finally putting it all together about Walt poisoning Brock -- I wanted to talk about not rushing past some of the finer, ultimately more subtle moments as we all steel ourselves about the explosive ending and how it will happen and who will get hurt.
Well, that was my intent, anyway.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the flash forward scenes in the first episode and the ninth episode of this season. Those scenes combine for such a great visual tease from series creator Vince Gilligan. He’s laying out a tantalizing end game for us, with so many possibilities. But it really all comes back to that machine gun in the trunk. Seeing Walt with hair, seeing his house devastated and ransacked, not knowing who else has lived or died and what Walt’s up to -- it’s such a compelling and maddening tease. I didn’t want to fall for it. I didn’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of possibilities. But seeing a glimpse of the future really does shape the viewing experience in the present.
So as I’m readying my reminders about patience for the small, nonexplosive details, which would be a shame to overlook, the truth is I’m not taking my own advice. That gun that Walt has in the trunk is an M60 machine gun, weighs 24 pounds not counting ammo and usually takes a team of three to work it effectively, unless you’re a Navy Seal, which Walt is not.
I’m obsessed with the machine gun because in all likelihood it’s going to be integral to the end game (unless it’s not, which would be more annoying than I can properly express at this point). The machine gun and the ricin are central end game elements. And while I could (and probably will, at some point) run down the seemingly endless possibilities of the ricin -- Walt dosing himself is my current bet, a sentiment that gained more credence in my mind with Marie’s fantastic “Why don’t you just kill yourself” line at dinner -- it’s that damned machine gun that’s haunting me. Because a man in Walt’s shape when he obtains it -- haggard, possibly at the end of a 30-hour car ride with bathroom stops only, advanced-stage lung cancer -- certainly hints at a last-stand. Who’s going to work the gun with him? Skyler? Todd? Something that big and badass probably wouldn’t be needed to wipe out Todd’s ragtag crew of neo-Nazi desert rats. So who is it for?
I’ve been thinking of global payback -- of a very serious group of Czech Republic killers who make the twins from Mexico look like babies.
I’ve been spending too long on the gun and how it will go off.
I haven’t been taking my own advice.
But I’m going to blame Gilligan for purposefully putting that in my head. It didn’t distract from my worries in “Confessions,” but it colored them.
For example, the scene with Walt and Jesse (and Saul) in the desert, had any number of moments, which we were led to by the camera work and by subtle details in the physicality of the acting, where it looked like Walt would kill Jesse right there. Normally I would have added “and vice-versa” to that sentiment, but the machine gun means Walt is going to be alive (and perhaps stay alive) until the 15th or 16th episode. But killing Jesse early in the game would have been one hell of a shocker -- and Breaking Bad has made an art form out of the unexpected.
The machine gun also shifted my take on Walt’s brilliant little screw-you confession to Hank. (As an aside, I would like the season five boxed set to include at least an hour of Dean Norris close-ups of rage and contempt and shock; his facial expressions are like a work of art at this point. The faux confessional made me think, in a twisted way (don’t ask me why on this one -- it’s just a thing that popped into my head), that Walt could possibly end up using the machine gun to get Hank out of a jam. See? I told you. It’s messing with me.
And Jesse doing the math on his cigarettes certainly changed the equation on how dangerous Jesse may be; the catatonic state is over. Jesse may end up going from checked out to utterly motivated in bringing down Walt (with a Hank assist?) and an M60 game changer may be essential for Walt’s last stand.
(Part of me really wanted Jesse to go to Alaska, by the way. Aaron Paul’s performance in that scene -- the faintest blip of hope in Jesse’s previously flat-lined brain was precisely why he should win another Emmy or two. The idea of Alaska is as funny as the “Really? Hello Kitty?” phone bit.)
Of course, the machine-gun obsession didn’t completely distract me from all the aforementioned scenes of often subtle greatness, but it still colors my mind. I’m not sure I want to have these thoughts in my head as the second half of the season plays out, but it’s too late now.
However, I continue to appreciate the way the Breaking Bad writers construct small scenes. We open with Todd and his meth-head family and crew -- a scene that could be read any number of ways (one of them being that Todd’s big mouth will spread Walt’s secret faster than anyone else can). And later we see Todd calling Walt with the news that, hey, we changed the nature of the business in a really violent way – no worries, though. Which plays into a larger arc, clearly, with Lydia and, I would think, at least one very dangerous emissary from the Czech Republic. But the point is, the Todd scenes were just laid at our feet, nothing more.
Then there’s the way they wrote and shot the scene where Walt comes to tell Skyler that he’s got chemo in 45 minutes, so can she take over the register at the car wash? Skyler is bathed in over-brightened light, Walt is completely in shadows. Whereas the writers effectively (and impressively) set up that Skyler is now in cahoots with Walt, for better or worse, that scene hinted at a possible change of mind. It was presented to us more elaborately and with more purpose than, say, Todd’s call to Walt. But it was still a very small scene as compared to Jesse rushing back to Saul’s office and flipping out.
Lastly, my favorite under-the-radar moment was when Walt told Walter Jr. about the cancer. He played the harp of Walter Jr.’s heart yet again -- less to share knowledge than to keep him from going over to Marie’s. So, he’s manipulating his own loving son. The success of that deed was reflected in a very brief shot of Walt’s face: he pulled it off. And there was satisfaction. By manipulating his son, Walt averts a scene with Marie while also “sharing” knowledge with Walter Jr. under the guise of not keeping secrets. Man, the karma from this scene alone could be horrific (and further cemented, for me, the notion that Walter Jr. will die).
So, ahem, in summation, we should all not worry so much about the end game and appreciate the getting there. We shouldn’t be in a rush to see the fuse touch the powder. That’s the message I want to send, even when I’m not taking my own advice -- because I’m thinking about how in the world Walt uses that M60 without any help. Or the big-ass message he’s hoping to send with it.
As Saul said, and I will now apply it to myself: “Some people are immune to good advice.”
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