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Breaking Bad #511: "Confessions"

Before we get to the episode, some of this week's commentary: Anna Gunn, the terrific actor who plays Skyler White on Breaking Bad, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times offering her perspective on the phenomenon known as "Skyler hate" (which we discussed a little in the comments here). Gunn's take is measured and convincing, though it may give too much credit to the emotional depth of the haters, who I am convinced are mainly misogynistic creeps with an inability or unwillingness to distinguish between fictional characters on TV dramas and the real-life people who create them. I'm not sure why anyone that shallow would bother with a show like Breaking Bad -- aren't there cheaper thrills out there? -- but Emily Nussbaum has observed that such "Bad Fans," who aren't rising to the moral challenges of the series, are represented within the show by the character of Todd ("a sociopath who took shooting a kid to be just another kick-ass element in his drug-world adventure"). I think last night's episode was a major confirmation of that theory, but we'll get to that in a moment.

I also agree with critic Maureen Ryan that Skyler is (or was, for the first few seasons) not as well-developed a character as she could have been. Still, the fact that Skyler was a wet blanket in the first couple seasons of the show is not something I hold against her or the writers. She was pregnant with a surprise late-in-life baby and had a special-needs teenager and a husband who is a decade older than her and barely making ends meet. Then she finds out he has late-stage cancer and hasn't bothered to tell her. Then he starts shutting her out and lying to her. And it gets worse from there. I often wished there was a little more flesh on Skyler, but I had no problem identifying with her anxiety and resentment and fear.

I'm not sure Ryan is correct in saying that "Skyler may well be the hero" or that Breaking Bad has, belatedly, "quietly inserted a heroine's journey -- or a believably nuanced woman with heroic qualities -- into an anti-hero drama." But that brings us, again, to last night's episode...

I had just read Nussbaum's tweets about Todd as "Bad Fan" when the episode began with...Todd, impressing his contract-killer friends with the tale of the Heisenberg train heist. And leaving out what is for most viewers the most memorable part of that whole caper -- the cold-blooded murder of the little boy, committed by Todd himself. Eric Thurm (of the Onion's AV Club), responding to Nussbaum, suggested that Jesse was the "Good Fan," who "finds it all repulsive and wants out/to be clean." And Todd made me realize that even in his more carefree days, Jesse never dined out on the stories of his escapades with Walt. He had a swagger at times, but he was never insensitive to the awful things he had seen and participated in, especially when children were endangered. We didn't see any more of Todd last night, but we did see an ominous spider catching Jesse's eye. And I have to assume that Todd's well-established sociopathic streak is going to be a factor in these final episodes.

As for Skyler-as-heroine, I'd say Skyler is fully Walt's accomplice now, joining in his delusional fantasy of keeping the money somehow, and willing to sell out her brother-in-law to make that happen. My questions about Walt's ingenious "confession" strategy: Why would Hank have pushed so hard to keep the DEA on Heisenberg's tail if he was directing that criminal enterprise all along? And, if Hank is a kingpin, where is his fortune?

The poisoning of Brock made a return after all, and I'm glad, but not completely satisfied. I don't buy Huell as a master of sleight-of-hand pickpocketing, as he would have to be to have taken the ricin cigarette from Jesse back in season 4. He's not exactly built for dexterity. And it's an awful lot of information for Jesse to put together in a few seconds: "My dope is gone...Huell must have made the switch...That means he also took the ricin cigarette which I thought I'd lost in my apartment after Walt found it in my Roomba, which means Walt must have planted it there to distract me from figuring out that he did indeed poison Brock." And if Walt really did somehow get to Brock -- found his class schedule and slipped him a poisoned juicebox or whatever -- it's strange for the show to leave that shrouded in mystery, when we've seen every step of his other evil schemes. We watched him making and wiring and setting and re-setting the bomb that killed Gus, but when he was enacting a complicated plan to poison Brock, we never saw it? Wouldn't that have had a pretty profound impact on how we viewed the character?

Still, we're there now, and Jesse's breaking point is pretty apocalyptic. Or so it seems. Was it Jesse who destroyed the Whites' house, leaving it in the state we got a glimpse of in #509? (I actually rewatched that opening scene, and the low lighting makes it hard to say whether we're looking at the aftermath of a major fire.) Also, a sure sign of Jesse's having broken bad: he was finally on the giving end of a beatdown, after having received so many. Now he is the one who punches.

Was it meaningful that baby Holly was not glimpsed and barely mentioned in this episode? Or just typical Breaking Bad neglect of what caring for an infant actually involves? In the restaurant scene, Skyler said something like "What about Walt Jr.?" and Marie's answer was something like, "Walt Jr. and Holly should be living with us." Is it significant that only Marie thought to mention the most vulnerable White of all? When Jesse started prepping the house for a conflagration, I found myself thinking, "Oh God, is Holly in there?" Then I realized, no, she's probably not home alone -- even though the show has never before acknowledged that leaving an infant home alone while both parents go to work is not a thing that people do.

Speaking of the restaurant scene: last week, when Hank and Skyler met in that diner, I was remarking to my husband on the terrible table service people always get in restaurants on TV. That whole time they sat there, nobody came over to take their order? Nobody even checked on them? No wonder tense TV meetings always take place in dining establishments. The privacy is unparalleled. So, it was gratifying to see a depiction of what it would actually be like to stage an awkward confrontation in a restaurant that employs people whose job it is to hover and try to get you to buy things. 

What do you have to say about "Confessions"?

Update: Check out Alan Sepinwall's analysis, especially good on the subject of Jesse's inferences about Brock and how the show has (and hasn't) set them up.

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Also worth reading: Tara Ariano (who knows from overinvested TV fans on the internet) at Previously.TV, on how Anna Gunn's op-ed was "for sure the classiest meal anyone ever served up to their trolls," and on her view (which I share) that "the people who create content for TV should focus on their work and assiduously ignore what fans have to say about it online."

I am not a fan of Skyler as a character on the show. Not because of how she is portrayed; I think Gunn is a terrific actress. Nor because of any misogyny. I think part of the reaction is due to a frustrating reaction to her behaviour. For example, the melodramatic walking into the pool as some kind of quasi-suicidal act and done in public no less!!! This is hardly the behaviour of a strong woman. The only time she exhibits mettle and strength was when she met with Hank and made the choice that she had, in fact, already made some time ago. She may not like who she has become, and that is indeed a tragedy but it is a consequence of her own choices. I thought that the scene last night when she was in the office and Walt came in spoke volumes. The sooner she comes to the realization of who she has become - the more we can sympathize with (and not judge) her. 

Let's remember though that is is just a show and the characters are just that. There needn't be this personal attack on Gunn as an actress. Her character is what people love to hate.

 

George, your comment about Skylar’s failing to be a strong woman jumps out in light of the explosion in discussions last week oriented around critiquing the phenomenon of the SFC (strong female character). Might be interesting to look at some of those (starting with the article that started the whole convo: http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2013/08/i-hate-strong-female-characters ).

 

Abe:

Interesting article. Gender and sex is such a complicated weave. Heroism is also not that easy to define. Nassim Taleb once said, "The only definition of an alpha male; if you try to be an alpha male you will never be one."

I think that goes for women too. I liked her ideas. The only analogy to this whole "strong woman" phenomenon, I can find is in the world of gaming. My daughter is a teenager and into gaming (Borderlands 2, Skyrim, Fallout, etc.). Interestingly, in early games they only came out with male leads. The producers found that young boys would not play a game where they had to play as the female lead (I think that Tomb Raider was an exception). Yet, girls would play as males. Boys vastly outnumber girls as far as gaming so it was a market decision. But in recent games, players have the options of selecting female characters to play and there is roughly the equivalent as far as ratios that the author of the article you posted suggests.

 

I agree that not showing how Walt poisoned Brock was a bit of a cheat, although you can see why the writers avoided it. By withholding that information, they were able to stage the big dramatic reveal with the lily of the valley plant at the end of Season Four. The show is always doing this with characters, most recently poor Hank realized that Walt had covered his medical treatment. This time the audience was left in the dark. I'm basically OK with this, although I'm more OK with the idea of Huell as a good pickpocket. I actually think it's kind of awesome, and am willing to suspend disbelief just to see more of that actor in action. 

With respect to the Skyler issue, I am both more defensive of her in one regard than most commenters, but less defensive in another. 

 

I'm less defensive about her affair with Ted. Maybe it is something deeply primal for a male, but I would have forgiven her anything more so than that - certainly I would've not blamed her morally leaving the marriage and sending Walt to jail.  But an affair, even if motivated by the desire to drive Walt out of her life, seems too much a humiliation of him as opposed to a purely defensive measure.

 

Conversely, I don't view her recent actions as making her a true partner in crime. Perhaps because I'm an attorney, but my analysis of her situation is that however unwilling she was to lead a life of crime, and however trapped she justifiably felt, her actions now would leave her subject to jail time as a money-laundering co-conspirator if Walt becomes subject to prosecution. Thus, I think she is now solely trying to survive, rather than trying to actually align herself with Walt affirmatively. I don't think her current alliance with him is driven by affection, solely by survival. I think she has correctly analyzed that there is no way her life can survive if he goes down.

 

By sheer happenstance, an example of what I'm referring to is portrayed dramatically in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen's latest, which is out in theaters now. Except that the character in Blue Jasmine loses everything, where Skyler would likely be prosecuted. I don't think she has any choice at this juncture except to follow along with whatever course of action would preserve Walt from prosecution.  Her own survival depends on it