Monday, August 26, 2013
[The third in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad]
Written by: Pamela Wojcik (University of Notre Dame)
“Thank you for your honesty,” Sklyer (Anna Gunn) says to a customer who tells her she has given him a five dollar bill instead of a one dollar bill when making change for his car wash. This is the only moment of unforced, unfiltered honesty in the Breaking Bad episode titled “Confessions” (Season 5, Episode 11) which ran last night. Instead of truths freely offered, the episode more often makes characters and viewers ask, as Skyler’s sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) does, “where the lies begin and end” and to question the past: “That affair of yours,” Marie asks Skyler, “Did that even happen?” The episode title promises multiple confessions, but what we get are thwarted confessions, interrupted confessions, elisions, denials, revisions, reinterpretations of the facts, tall tales, and downright lies.
The play with truth begins in the show’s prologue when Todd (Jesse Plemons) embellishes his version of what happened on the night he, Walt (Bryan Cranston), and Jesse (Aaron Paul) robbed the train of methylamine in “the biggest train heist ever” (“Dead Freight” Season 5, Episode 5). Todd’s version has him barely jumping off the train “like a stunt man” -- “Like Hooper,” his Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) says, invoking Burt Reynolds’ role in the 1978 movie. Todd’s version ends with Jesse miraculously surviving when the train runs over him (a miraculous escape that foreshadows the end of the episode, as I will discuss below). Todd does not mention his killing of a child, a brutal unnecessary murder that most viewers will recall and that creates a rift between Walt, Jesse and Mike (Jonathan Ementraut) and sets in motion future action, including Mike’s murder and Jesse’s increasing feelings of guilt and despair. In Todd’s tall tale, such unflattering details are elided.
The confession we expect to occur, from Jesse to Hank (Dean Norris) -- based on the last episode’s confessional imagery with Hank and Jesse on opposite sides of what appears to be a confessional screen – is thwarted. Instead, just as Jesse discovers that Hank knows that Walt is Heisenberg and Hank tells Jesse that they have both been lied to by Walt, Jesse refuses to tell his story. “Not to you,” he mutters just as lawyer Saul (Bob Odenkirk) comes bursting in to the interrogation room, stopping the proceedings and turning away the camera that Hank already turned off.
The next “confession” occurs when Walt realizes that his son, Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte, looking much too old and gangly for the role) is heading over to his aunt and uncle’s house. Walt pulls out all the stops by telling Junior that his cancer is back and the family has to stay “positive.” The recurrence of Walt’s cancer is true, but the confession is not an admission of “something damaging or inconvenient to oneself,” as in the full meaning of confession. Rather it is a selfish act, intended to manipulate his son.
After Hank confesses to Marie that he has failed to tell his coworkers what he knows about Walt, the show teases another confession. Skyler’s off-screen voice asks “Walt, are you sure about this?” Telling Skyler that it is “the only way,” we cut to a shot of Walt in a video recording screen giving his name and address then saying “This is my confession.” Initially, it seems that this confession might be the one that began the show in the series pilot, the first lines of which were: “My name is Walter Hartwell White. I live at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 87104. To all law enforcement entities, this is not an admission of guilt. I am speaking to my family now.” However, this tape is not that one. This tape is for his family, namely Hank, but turns out to be a threat, not a confession.
Blood Money” (Season 5, Episode 9) in which he told Hank that pursuing him would not result in jail time because of his cancer. It predicts Walt’s effort later in the episode to persuade Jesse that the best thing for him would be to disappear into a new identity away from Albequerque to have a clean slate: “If I could, I’d trade places. A whole lifetime ahead of you with a chance to hit the reset button. In a few years this might all feel like nothing more than a bad dream.” Skyler and Walt’s joint fantasy of a “clean slate” motivates their mutual actions, their effort to erase the past rather than atone for it, and while holding on to the bounty gained from illicit acts in the past.
Marie and Hank each offer Walt an option. Marie suggests true erasure: death. “Why don’t you kill yourself, Walt? This whole thing dies with you, right?” If Walt kills himself, she suggests, then it ends. She is right, of course. But that is “not a solution,” Skyler says, though she herself wished for Walt’s death not so many episodes ago. Hank’s solution is the more conventional “step up and be a man. There is no other option.” Of course, the problem is that stepping up to be a man has been what has motivated Walt all along. Some have suggested that this show is about America’s failed healthcare system. More accurately, it is about a crisis in masculinity. Walt’s crimes are initiated by his misguided desire to be the family breadwinner, to secure a nest egg for his family before he dies, by his shame and envy of his former partner’s success with the company he helped found, “Gray Matter Technologies,” by his misguided desire to “step up and be a man.” In this, Walt engages all the frustrations of the recent past in which men are said to be losing their hold on their status within the family as women become breadwinners. “Man Up” Newsweek magazine urged in its cover story of 23 September 2010, two years into Breaking Bad’s run: “The traditional male is an endangered species. It’s time to rethink masculinity.” Noting that the recession hit male dominated fields harder than female jobs, Newsweek argued that “suggesting that men should stick to some musty script of masculinity only perpetuates the problem. For starters, it encourages them to confront new challenges the same way they dealt with earlier upheavals: by blaming women, retreating into the woods, or burying their anxieties beneath machismo. And it does nothing to help them succeed in school, secure sustainable jobs, or be better fathers in an economy that’s rapidly outgrowing Marlboro Manliness.” But Walt, who was already outside a stereotypical masculine field, teaching high school, albeit teaching masculine dominated science, reverted to traditional roles more strongly. He “steps up” by reverting to Marlboro manliness in cowboy desert settings, this western fantasy and ideal of masculinity explicitly endorsed in the garage remote control showdown between Hank and Walt in “Buried.”
But what of Skyler’s role in this fabrication? Much has been written about Skyler recently, and especially about fans’ hostile reaction to her in numerous Facebook pages devoted to hating Skyler. In an editorial in the New York Times Saturday (“I Have a Character Issue.” 24 August 2013. A 19), actress Anna Gunn writes that “most people’s hatred of Skyler had . . .a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives. Because Skyler didn’t conform to a comfortable ideal of the archetypal female, she had become a kind of Rorschach test for society, a measure of our attitudes toward gender.” In the Huffington Post, Maureen Ryan suggested that Gunn did not go far enough. In Ryan’s account, Gunn’s feminist narrative overlooks that Skyler was not very well written for most of the series run, that she was cast in fairly stereotypical ways as a naysayer and a nag. While Gunn questions whether fan hostility relates to what they perceive as silent “stand by your man” behavior, or to Sklyer’s resilience, or because she is “Walter’s equal,” Ryan points to the fact that those three characterizations are potentially at odds, marks of incoherent writing that does not invest Skyler with intelligence or character in any true sense. The show’s creator Vince Gilligan has admitted in the UK edition of GQ that the character of Skyler is “a bit inorganic,” that writing her has been like fitting square pegs into round holes because logically and organically her character would have long ago called the cops on Walt, but that would have ended the show (“Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan on colour theory, the hardest scene to write and the looming finale.”)
If, at first, Skyler was Walt’s suffering wife, imagining him having an affair, then thinking he got mixed up selling pot, and having an affair herself to cope with her loneliness and alienation; if she moved from living in denial to then dealing with her growing awareness and fear of the scale of Walt’s crimes; eventually she became complicit. But when and how exactly did this occur? Are we meant to think that Skyler sticks with Walt for the money? For her imagined ideal of family? Out of fear of Walt? All of these? In “Buried,” Hank misfires completely when he thinks he can rescue Skyler from Walt and bring her into the light of truth by casting her as a victim. Instead, Skyler tries to lawyer up. She tells Walt she will stick by him and will not give up the money, the symbol and cause of all he worked for.
In many ways, Skyler mirrors many women whose husbands, men of power, betray them, but who stand by their man shamefacedly, making a deal with the devil to preserve something they believe is more important than the betrayal -- most recently Huma Abedin, whose appearance at Anthony Weiner’s confessionary press conference on 24 July was widely viewed as spousal abuse. Even so, to get from Skyler’s actions in the past to this episode requires a leap of faith. How could Skyler allow Walt to film this confession? How could she run the camera? In asking us to believe this scenario, the show asks us to imagine Huma Abedin not just suffering in silence as her husband Anthony Weiner confesses again and again to his virtual infidelities -- infidelities that extend past his resignation in 2011, past marriage counseling, and past incredulity – but to imagine Huma Abedin taking pictures of his package and hitting send on the phone to enable his sexting.
In part, in showing Skyler’s deep complicity with Walt, the show underscores the degree to which his crimes produce a form of criminal contagion that infects everyone around him. And much of the episode shows how much guilt pervades, and thus requires multiple confessions. After viewing Walt’s shameful selfish video, for example, Marie is forced to confess to Hank that she took money from Skyler and Walt to help pay for Hank’s medical treatment after he was shot pursuing Heisenberg, whom he now knows to be Walt. The infection spreads as Hank realizes that Marie’s actions lend credence to Walt’s tall tale: “That’s the last nail. That’s the last nail in the coffin.”
Walt’s revistionist history forces Hank to revisit and review the past, to understand and interpret events differently. And much of the episode is about such reinterpretation. In particular, Jesse will review and see anew events of the past and the show will invite us to review events in our minds.
Unlike Walt and Skyler, Jesse cannot forget or shake the past. Walt’s imagined “clean slate” frustrates Jesse’s desire for transparency. After Walt suggests that Jesse should disappear, for his own sake, Jesse points out the lie, the selfishness behind the suggestion. He knows he is being played: “Can you just stop working me?” He begs Walt to stop with the “concerned dad” routine and just be honest, to tell him he needs him to do this, as a favor, because he knows Hank will not let up. Jesse knows that if he does not disappear he will be killed in the desert. When Walt comes near, it is at first unclear if he will kill Jesse or give him the statement he wants. As with the zero-sum options at the taqueria, however, Walt swerves and comes up with a different solution. He hugs Jesse. This wordless one-sided hug – something akin to the kiss of death in Godfather II – thwarts Jesse’s desire for the truth but nonetheless drives Jesse to tears and leads him to do as Walt asks.
Madrigal” (Season Five, Epsiode 2) when Walt places a fake ricin cigarette in Jesse’s apartment to put his mind at ease. Back to the flashforward beginning of "Blood Money” when Walt retrieves the ricin from his abandoned house. And back to the opening shot of this episode, when Todd lights a cigarette and the cigarette lingers in the frame, a harbinger of Jesse’s epiphany just as Todd’s story predicts Jesse’s escape.
In interviews, Vince Gilligan has described Breaking Bad as “hyperserialized.” “Once I had the ability to write a serialized story, my writers and I got immersed in it,” Gilligan recently told me. “And we intended it to be even more rewarding to an audience paying closer attention. So we put in the tiniest little details that repeat or that we hearken back to.” (Andrew Romano. “Breaking Bad: The 7 plot points you Need to Remember for the Final Season.” 8 August 2013. The Daily Beast.) The series demands that viewers at least mentally revisit episodes, and cycle back to recall events. It produces a feeling of repetition and circularity that resists Walt and Skyler’s fantasy of a clean slate or erasure of the past. But at the same time that the show’s hyperseriality works toward the show’s moral – its efforts to have Walt pay in some way for his crimes – the fetishistic quality of the “rewards” of hyperseriality works against it. As the moral contagion spreads and events becomes a game of who can remember which episode was the first to use the ricin, we all become complicit with Walt. We revel in the past, and want to see events pay forward in the future, to see what will happen with the ricin, to have it fulfill its narrative destiny and come full circle. We resist the only true option: the show’s death.