February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
Zachary Thomas Settle:
Faithful to the End: Season 5, Episode 11
Lauren wrote last week on the idea of sin, as its represented in the last few episodes of Breaking Bad, as a sort of commitment, a commitment that one has to honor. I think Lauren is right. Walt, is a man of utter faithfulness; he sticks to his guns like he does his stories, and he follows through with that which he starts.
The most interesting thing to me about this proposal, though, lies in the examination of that which Walt is faithful to. I think the fifth season of Breaking Bad has been so tense largely because of the inevitability of the consequences of Walt’s own actions. As we have seen again and again, the breadth of Walt’s lie is ever expanding, and he has done and will continue to do anything to protect it, to act faithfully to it.
The end, though, the very telos towards which Walt is constantly progressing, is literally undoing his humanity. There is a way of being human in the wake of the resurrection that constitutes humanity at its most general core, and this mode of being necessitates a project of telling the truth. Walt’s end stands in stark contrast to this sort of ethic, and he has followed his reoriented ideals all the way down the rabbit hole. The further down he goes, the more we see his general humanity unravel before our eyes. Interestingly enough, there seems to be an obvious connection between Walt’s undoing of his own humanity and his physical decay, which is coming out all the more at this point in the season.
From the beginning of episode 11, we see Walt’s systemic deception become all the more thin and desperate. His body is looking haggard as ever, and there is not enough coverup in the house to adequately hide his weathered eyes, try as he may to protect his child from the harsh realities of his decay.
When Walt hears Walt Jr.’s plan to go to Hank and Marie’s for dinner, he has to improvise. He communicates with Walt Jr, spinning the truth in such a way as to convince Walt Jr. to stay at home and think it was his own idea. And Walt Jr. buys it.
Even in the confession there were moments of truth. Walt really was a chemist trapped in a box by a drug lord trying to expand his empire. Skyler was shocked when she found out, and Walt really had created hell for himself. But there is so much truth lacking from this, and the spin is just enough to manipulate Hank into silence. At least that’s what Walt hopes; that is what he is telling himself in the mean time.
Jesse, however, has caught on to Walt’s manipulative ways. At first Jesse resists, and then he gives in, breaks down and weeps. Being in the truth obviously comes with its emotional tolls. It takes bearing up under the weight of things and holding it all together, and there are some days where Jesse doesn’t think he has what it takes. He eventually gives in and calls Saul’s contact for relocation and a new identity. Its not until he discovers that his weed was lifted off of him at Saul’s that he is able to connect the dots involving his cigarettes and the ricin incident. And suddenly the veil is lifted; Jesse finds the light.
This seems to be Jesse’s provocative step out, a radical re-orienting of his own end. Zach Hoag, as you will read momentarily, rightfully argues that Jesse is on a radically different, virtually opposite trajectory from Walt at this point. Jesse seems to have broken the cycle of Walt’s lie’s—a pattern in which Walt essentially determines everyone’s destiny—and is taking matters into his own hands.
And I think that’s what Vince Gilligan is exploring through Breaking Bad. This is a show about consequences, about the inevitable outcomes of a force put in motion down a certain path, towards a certain end. Walt has acted according to his deepest desires, to what he wants absolutely most, and he has acted utterly faithfully. The episode ends with Jesse dousing Walt’s house in gasoline, and we are left anticipating the way it will burn when. Not just the house, though, but the whole thing when these characters reach their final destination. Maybe the most horrifying reality is the possibility of actually getting what we want.
Stop Working Me: Season 5, Episode 11
The Rolling Stones sang about sympathy for the devil.
And in the manic teaser for next week’s episode of Breaking Bad – episode 12 – we hear the gravelly, strained, almost animal voice of Jesse saying, “Mr. White…he’s the devil.”
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve primarily set my sights on the series’ protagonist (antagonist?), Walter White, and the question of his original sin. In what sense, really, did Walt break bad? Did he begin basically good and then simply stumble onto this sinister path of destruction, or was there an evil deep within him for years and years, waiting to manifest at the opportune time? Are his lies merely fruit of the deep-rooted Lie?
Is Walter White a sociopath?
The psychological definition is, for me, not as important as the theological one. And, apparently, Jesse agrees. Please allow Walt to introduce himself. He is the devil, and very few of us feel any sympathy at all anymore.
That’s Walter. But I have come to believe, especially in the wake of tonight’s heart-pounding, jaw-dropping sprint of an episode, that this show may really be all about Jesse Pinkman. It is no secret that series creator Vince Gilligan planned to kill Jesse off in the first season, but realized, as his sympathy for mustached Mr. White was already waning, that Jesse was going to be essential in redeeming something – an ounce, perhaps – of this devastating pile of crystal blue corruption. And this week, I think, we got a glimpse of just how true this is.
Jesse has been in a desperate, suffocating fog since episode 9, something far beyond depression and more like the last gasps of existence. We have already seen Walt manipulate him about the money – which led to Jesse’s mobile cash grab box in the Albuquerque ghetto – but the manipulation was turned up to Heisenberg tonight. Saul brings Jesse to a desolate desert meeting spot, and Walt soon arrives in a cloud of dust. The fatherly chat about how Saul knows a guy and it’s time for a change so Jesse should just disappear, skip town, start fresh (you’re so young!) ensues. But Jesse calls bullshit:
“Can you just stop working me? Can you stop working me for ten seconds straight? Drop the whole concerned dad thing and tell me the truth… It’s really about you. Just say so! Tell me it’s either this or you’ll kill me like you killed Mike!”
Hysterical now: “Just tell me you need this!”
In a moment more murderous than any to this point, Walter, saying nothing, embraces Jesse Pinkman.
And it’s like the deadly coil of the old serpent himself.
The red, sobbing, suffocating devastation on Jesse’s face is the image that will stick with me all week. Who would have thought that the ruined, reckless tweaker of season 1 or 2 would become our last glimmer of hope for redemption in season 5? If we are all somehow bad deep down, at least to a degree, we are not all hopeless. Jesse is not hopeless. We can now see so much good in him, even if his exterior shielded it from view in the beginning. There is now, at least, the gutted realization that his humanity was there all along and is not yet all gone.
Last week, my conversation partner Zac pointed out that to write Walter off as a sociopath may go against the viewer’s experience of relating to the snowballing choices he makes – which would then bring all of our sanity into question. (And indeed, our sanity, in light of Walt’s descent, may be a worthy thing to explore.) But what about Jesse Pinkman? Do we relate to him? If we really think about it, I’d wager that we do. Jesse is a vision of our reality in all the places that Walter is a vision of our fantasy; where Walt’s risks – and astounding acts – make us feel like we could, Jesse’s fumbles make us feel like we have. Even his more surprising moments, like the time he killed the chemist Gale, are more authentically like our own moments under pressure, feeling desperate, breaking bad.
Jesse is not like Walter.
And not in the sense that Jesse is perfect. No, he suffers from sins at the root. But his trajectory is virtually opposite of Walt’s. Whereas Walt’s reassuring exterior slowly crumbles to reveal the demons within, Jesse’s disturbing exterior fades to reveal the divine.
Tonight, I think we saw the righteous, indignant God to Mr. White’s slithering devil.
Oh, and might I add: The “Confession” for which this episode was officially named?
It was diabolical indeed.
The Prayers and Tears of Jesse Pinkman: Season 5, Episode 11
Amidst all the bleakness of an already stark and unforgiving narrative, the urgency for some cathartic redemptive moment in Breaking Bad has never been more pressing, especially in light of the now apocalyptic turn the story has taken in the latest episode. In a story where the corrupting power of evil systemically strips each character slowly of their humanity, as each person begins to devolve into a baser and more frightening image of their former selves, the burden of redemptive hope rests on a single figure: Jesse Pinkman. Of all the characters in Breaking Bad, Jesse is the only one who has actively and clearly struggled with the guilt and consequence of his complicity in the evil perpetuated by Walt’s insatiable ambition. Certainly, other characters have questioned and wrestled with their guilt, Skyler being a primary example, but if Breaking Bad has proven anything, it must be that the distinction between good and evil is one of gradation, not of quality. Each character, regardless of how moral or scrupulous, at some point demonstrates not merely a tendency to slip into the arena of self-serving violence, but a kind of ruthless proficiency for it. What locates Jesse’s character as distinct from the others stems from the fact that his journey has been one of evolution, not devolution.
Jesse is perhaps the most troubled of all of Breaking Bad’s characters. Fans have watched him transition from street punk, meth pusher and addict to a “responsible,” insofar as his responsibilities include becoming an excellent meth cook, and capable young man. In complete opposition to the cathartic burning and ruin we are compelled to feel toward Walt, in Jesse Pinkman is found a faint hope of possible redemption. But why Jesse? In spite of all his shame and remorse, Jesse has continued to side with Walt and return to the evils which have driven him dangerously close to madness. Why is it that, in spite of his long string of disappointing choices, Jesse almost subconsciously elicits hope rather than despair in the viewer? Simply put: prayer. Jesse Pinkman is a powerfully prayerful person, even if he is not aware of it and in Breaking Bad, he is the only one of his kind.
Jesse is the only person who has consistently struggled with his guilt on an authentically existential level. He is the only one who allows himself to become truly vulnerable to the point that the frailty and confusion of his heart is exposed. Frequently, whether through helpless tears or livid tirades, Jesse both rages and laments the wickedness of his actions, to Walt, to himself, to no one. Jesse, amid the chaos raging around him, is the only one who begs for forgiveness: in his actions, in his words, in his questions and tears. Indeed, it is precisely this vulnerability which renders Jesse so susceptible to Walt’s manipulative impulses. Any redemptive pulse in Breaking Bad, however faint, is kept alive in the prayers and tears of Jesse Pinkman.
The question remains though, of whether such a hope is misplaced. Jesse’s “prayers and tears” culminate in a the most arresting moment of the series thus far: in Walt’s embrace is simultaneously found the tenderest and most nefarious exchange between this fatherly figure and unlikely son. For a brief moment, the viewer glimpses the barest of hopes that Jesse may actually break the cycle of violence and find freedom. But Breaking Bad, as was stated last week, is not concerned with redemption. The virtue of the show is corruptibility and it is precisely at the moment of Jesse’s redemptive potential that the bleakness of the narrative inexorably draws Jesse back into its cycle. The question has been put forward of what the implications are for a culture which has abandoned its desire for the good–the hero–in favor of the corrupt and villainous. In Jesse Pinkman, this virtue is twisted further and raises a new question: not of whether our prayers are answered, but if the desire exists for them to be heard at all.
Nothing More than a Bad Dream: Season 5, Episode 11
To say that any given episode of Breaking Bad imparts the feeling of hopelessness is not to say much — the show inhabits very bleak territory by its nature, so much so that I had to take a year-long break from my watching binge to be able to finish the third season. But “Confessions” seems special to me in its revelation of the complete brokenness of the White-Schrader situation.
Let’s get to the confession. We watch Walt’s video monologue along with Hank and Marie, looking over their shoulders at Walt spinning his masterpiece and finally topping Skyler’s gambling tour de force. In a move that no one could have seen coming, Walter tells an elaborate tale of being enslaved to a drug empire run by none other than Hank. He has an explanation for everything– Fring, the twins, Salamanca. He exploits his cancer for sympathy. And he drops one key detail that Hank didn’t know about: that Hank’s medical bills were paid for in Walter’s blood money.
Of course Hank was injured by Walt redirecting the twins’ rage at him. And of course Marie thought that the money was from gambling. But none of that matters anymore: it’s a damning detail that entangles the Schraders in the Whites’ mess.
Zac Hoag calls Walt’s confession “diabolical,” and I have to agree. Of course Walter has done deeply selfish, awful things. But perhaps it wasn’t until the shot of the Lily of the Valley at the conclusion of season 4 that we knew just how twisted his purposes were. And this confession is the height of Walter’s depravity, showing his willingness to not only sever his ties to his family but to transfer his guilt to the innocent. Or nearly innocent — the way of tragedy is that a slip to accept “gambling money” can cost much more than it seems at first. It isn’t fair, but rain falls on both the good and the wicked here.
In the scene after this, Walter tries to convince Jesse to skip town and start a new life (slipping in the most unintentionally theological line of the episode: “Saul knows a man who specializes in giving people new identities.”). But the line that sounded truest in the moment was “In a couple years this might feel like nothing more than a bad dream.”
It probably wasn’t intentional, but that line felt like metanarration.
At this point, I do think that Breaking Bad will feel like a bad dream if someone doesn’t come out of this redeemed, if Hank doesn’t get his win. I found myself surprised to feel this way. Many have written on Breaking Bad as tragedy, and that has been compelling to me all along — until now. Now that we are so close to the end, I find myself furious that Hank and Marie have been sucked into the vortex and deeply hungry for justice and retribution.
Maybe, when it comes down to it, I’m not willing to invest five seasons in a tragedy. I think that tragedies are for one intense night at the movies or theatre, for an hour or two of Aristotlean catharsis and Christian compassion and repentance. But now that I think of it, I don’t think I can handle 62 hours leading only to injustice and sorrow. Maybe this is a lack of fortitude on my part. But I’m not so sure. Though most shows tend to unravel in later seasons, every show has a great amount of audience expectation laid on its conclusion. Many shows just don’t have an order for another season and have to wrap up things where they lay, but the best kind of long-form storytelling has an endgame.
It seems to me both naive and unavoidable that I long for comedy at the end of a serialized narrative. In the same way I need Sauron and Voldemort destroyed, I need Walter White punished. Of course this isn’t usually how things work out on earth. But the faith I have that all things will be made right in the end is, I believe, the same faith that makes viewers long for something like Jim and Pam’s reconciliation on The Office. While television viewers do not share a faith, on some fundamental level we share an eschatological wish. And after seeing the last ten minutes, I think “Confessions” might be Gilligan and co.’s play to rally our desire into the righteous rage of Jesse Pinkman.
A whole lot has happened in three episodes. I trust that a whole lot more can happen in the next five. If tragedy lies at the end, I’m sure it will be treated with the gravity and pathos it deserves. But a whole lot of me thinks that in a story this long and layered, something has to be redeemed, or it won’t be true to the human story we know and long for.
Lauren Wilford is an intern for Image journal and a film and music blogger. She studies aesthetics and narrative as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University. You can find her at www.wilfordlauren.tumblr.com.
Robert Andrew Norman
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle serves as the editor-in-chief of The Other Journal and coeditor of Dreams, Doubt, and Dread: The Spiritual in Film, which was published by Cascade Books. His work has been featured in the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and Modern Theology. He is currently drafting a book that develops an Augustinian theology of economy, and he holds a PhD in theological studies from Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion.