Five Essay Prompts for Breaking Bad 5×11: ‘Confessions’

They make the guac' right at the table! (AMC)

They make the guac’ right at the table! (AMC)

These questions regard last night’s episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Please answer the prompts with specific examples from LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE, though supplementary material will be accepted as a secondary source. Please write legibly. No. 2 pencils only. You have an hour to finish this test. See below for questions and sample responses.

1. Just when you think Breaking Bad is getting cliched … well … so much for Walt’s heartfelt, Sergeant Brody-esque “confession” tape. Marie’s right to call it a “threat,” since it places the blame directly on his brother-in-law. The message is clear: I go down, you’re going down harder. But doesn’t it almost seem like just that–a threat, and nothing more? It’s hard to conceive of Walt going through with that story, one in which he’s been played for the patsy, for no other reason than his own ego. (And whatever happened to family first?)

Walt has a terrifyingly formidable ego, but that ego has never been that tied up in the world at large giving him credit for things. (If it were, he obviously picked the wrong profession.) He has always wanted to be respected or feared by a specific subset of people, a group that has now been extended fairly successfully to his brother- and sister-in-law. More importantly, though, Walt’s sense of pride is inextricably tied to the things he can do better than anyone else in the world. It’s why, for example, his execution methods of choice (ricin in a cigarette, pipe bomb in a wheelchair) are so obscure. There are faster poisons out there than ricin, but it is something he can cleverly make himself–and in Gus’s own lab. In the same way, it is useful to think of Walt’s confession tape as another extremely pure batch of blue meth. The tape may not paint him in the best light, but his ability to make this “confession” in the first place, this absolute tour de force of mendacity, is yet more evidence of his genius. He puts together these ingredients in a way nobody else possibly could, to make something as beautiful as it is horrible.

2. In Acts 9:18, St. Paul, or “Saul” is touched by Ananias, whereupon “there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized.” There are two moments in this episode when the scales fall from the eyes of characters: Hank realizing Walt paid for his medical bills (and how bad that looks for his case) and Jesse figuring out about the Ricin. There’s even a biblical ending, with the implication of Jesse’s baptism by fire. But nothing about these revelations is purifying; if anything, they seem to bring Hank and Jesse into darker and darker places. In the world of Breaking Bad, is it true that ignorance–and ignorance alone–brings bliss? Was Walter right to leave everyone in the dark about his cancer, about the meth … about everything?

There is something about Breaking Bad that makes us immediately jump to the bleakest possible interpretation of everything. Our general inability to stop identifying with Walt–wanting him, still, in some way to get away with it all–renders the world topsy-turvy, a moral black hole. Until we turn off the TV, think about it for a few seconds, and realize that we have also been duped. There is nothing to be blissful about in this imagined ignorance–these characters have been manipulated, tricked and lied to. Had they remained “happily” unaware, Walt would still be actively working them, bending their lives to his own ends. Wanting revelation to be instantly redemptive is just lazy. (This sort of moral laziness, incidentally, is the core of Walt’s own philosophy, in which his intention to help his family is a spell that magically turns all evil acts into good ones.) Self-purification is not a sudden conversion; it is labor-intensive work that can only start once the scales fall. Wasn’t it sort of a relief finally to see Jesse actively, passionately doing something, even if it was dousing the Whites’ living room in gasoline? That can at least give us hope the process has started for him (in contrast to Hank just sitting on his couch in disbelief).

3. By now, we’re all wondering how Walt is going to trip up and end up on the lam. We’ve already seen his hubris (keeping a memento) lead to a tight spot, but Saul using the ole bump-n-switch with the weed is what finally convinces Jesse that Mr. White isn’t to be trusted. The characters really do have some issues with falling back on the same stunts when in a jam: the ricin, burying shit in the desert, the wiretaps, hell, even their continuous use of Saul to mediate every problem. If you, unlike Walt, were a betting man, what would you place the odds at for Heisenberg’s downfall being caused not by his momentum, but his inertia? (BOOM!)

A betting man knows not to take bets he can’t win, and one thing we know for sure about Breaking Bad is that trying to predict its direction is a mug’s game. But to recklessly speculate anyway: there are still lines that Walt won’t cross, like killing Hank, and, we have to presume for now, killing Jesse. If Walt really were willing to do “whatever it takes,” then he wouldn’t be carrying a ridiculously big gun around in his trunk and returning to his abandoned home to retrieve the ricin. Odds: 3:1.

4. I’ve always wondered why characters on Breaking Bad like to conduct their dirty business in public restaurants: Los Pollos Hermanos, the diner where Walt almost poisons Lydia, the greasy spoon where Hank tries to elicit a confession from Skyler, Todd’s confab with the Aryan brotherhood, etc. Even the tense (and, you’d think, highly sensitive) meeting between “the families” this week was held in a Mexican restaurant with an overeager server. Sure, it’s good to meet in public if you are afraid of getting killed, but at this point its hard to see the logic in trying to hash things out in such an invasive locale. Where will Hank and Walt and Jesse have their final showdown, Applebees? Epcot Center?

One of the things that distinguishes Breaking Bad as a show is the fact that, though he momentarily ran a huge criminal empire, Walt has always been on some level a boring, middle-aged, middle-class suburban dude. Until recently he was even driving that horrendous Aztek. On this show you never get the obligatory “meeting in a strip club” scene; it wouldn’t make any sense at all. With their options thus limited, where would you suggest the families have their meeting? Where else is neutral territory? Marie certainly isn’t going to come to a meeting in the desert.

Setting the meeting scene in the restaurant also affords the show-makers certain advantages. The ease of the shot-reverse shot setup, without requiring the blocking of characters walking around like Jesse, Walt and Saul in the desert. The ability to lighten what could have been an awfully grim and tense scene with the constant intrusions of the waiter. The idea that consumption, in one form or another, underlies everything that has brought the characters to this point (although, notably, nobody actually eats anything). And the metaphorical resonance of the restaurant itself–as in “Mexican standoff.”

5. The tarantula is back! For Jesse (and the audience) the spider is obviously an harbinger of the grim reaper … after all, we first saw it when Todd shot the little boy Drew in cold blood, also out in the desert. But spiders eat flies, which also represent death, or a preoccupation with death. Considering all the mythology around the arachnoids and their webs, could the return of the fuzzy desert spider be seen as another kind of sign?

This is one of those rare moments when the symbolism in Breaking Bad is a bit too heavy-handed. We get it: Jesse is thinking about the things that brought him there, including Drew Sharp, whose death was signaled by the tarantula, etc. Not just death, it represents slow, creeping death, and by extension the creeping guilt associated with the deaths Jesse feels responsible for.

But there is something interesting in the fact that it isn’t just any spider, but specifically a tarantula. Spiders are predators, and by this point Jesse, who pretty much believes he has come there to die, is thinking of Walt as a predator. But if Walt pictured himself as a spider, it wouldn’t be as a tarantula. Walt thinks of himself as an operator, sitting in the center of his web, marshaling every resource to achieve total control. Tarantulas don’t spin webs, though–for Jesse, things are much more straightforward. He’s not thinking of systems, of multiple events conspiring against him. He’s thinking in stark terms of right and wrong, of guilt and damnation. Walt, thinking of webs, totally misunderstands Jesse’s desperation as paranoia, and offers him an escape from the system. But all Jesse wants is absolution. And it is a very small step from there to wanting revenge.