"Confessions" returns to the theme of the dangerous fragility of crushed American masculinity, which has always been Breaking Bad's grandest concern. Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Hank (Dean Norris) are both struggling working-class men who've recently experienced unexpected surges of great power with Walt's advent of the "Heisenberg" master criminal, but the latest episode in the series appears to pave the way for a circular narrative structure that will return the men to their stifling humble origins while potentially destroying everything and everyone else in their wake.
For Walt, of course, his cancer's return began this humbling, which culminated last week with the image of Skylar (Anna Gunn) cradling Walt like a child in their bathroom after he collapsed. Well, maybe. Walt appears to be growing confident again, particularly when his titular "confession" is revealed to be a brazen threat to frame Hank. Viewers can be forgiven for initially falling for Walt's deception, as his steadying weariness over the course of this season, while always exploited for its maximum capacity to manipulate others, has also often appeared to be legitimate. Walt's original suggestion to Skylar that he turn himself into the authorities, which he voiced while sprawled out on that bathroom floor, appeared to carry real notes of exhaustion that weren't just physical, but mental, spiritual, and emotional. The Heisenberg monster appeared to be running out of guises to assume.
And this is why Walt's mockery of a confession comes as such a shock. "Buried" was a prolonged act of coaching the viewers to let their guard down for the moment in "Confessions" where Hank and Marie (Betsy Brandt) stand, aghast, while watching a video in which a broken Walt confesses to cooking meth for an empire that was...built by Hank, who exploited his DEA connections to wage a turf war against Gustavo Fring. Walt's story, which merges his own real desperation with Hank's submerged feelings of inferiority, is the frighteningly plausible work of a brilliant sociopath. There's also a painful revelation for Hank: that Marie accepted $177K from Walt and Skylar to pay for his hospital bills, which were, in the story Walt's threatening to tell the DEA, the result of injuries that Hank incurred in his own personal drug war.
Hank didn't know about that loan (which is, let's face it, a gift), which might damn him for a number of reasons. There's the literal damnation, as the money helps to solidify Walt's accusations. There's also a figurative castrating damnation that brings Hank to a place of vulnerability and embarrassment that Walt knows only too well. Remember, this is a reversal: Walt was once stuck with hospital bills, and resented the idea that Hank and Marie would offer assistance. Walt's "confession" is a masterpiece of multiple revenges, then, as it allows him to clear the ledger of the various grudges he's been nursing against Hank and Marie all these years. And we know that Walt has a hell of an ability to nurse a grudge.
The great dramatic question is: Where does this leave Hank? We were expecting setbacks (there are still five episodes to go after all, and Walt is still walking around in the occasional flash- forwards that punctuate the season), but Hank's disempowerment is surprisingly deflating. We have come to regard Hank as one of Breaking Bad's great surprises: He rose from a probable blowhard punchline to become a hero of real stature. And he's still a hero, but now he may be a tragic one, a man who's reduced by a villain to the very state of economic and masculine instability that rendered the villain in the first place. But this humbling could also turn out to be the ironic source of Hank's great empowerment. Heisenberg rose from the ashes of Walt's humiliations. What will rise from Hank's?
And there's Jesse (Aaron Paul), who finally comes to terms with Walt's ruthlessness when he pieces together who actually poisoned Brock, in a moment that's already hotly debated. Logically, Jesse's realization is a bit of a stretch, especially when you consider the tedious, unyielding naiveté that's often been a hallmark of the character. But thematically, Jesse's discovery fits the episode's exploration of shifting identities as governed by perceived power strata. He needs to face the man who initiated his moral decline, and he begins that face off in "Confessions" when he demands that Walt just talk to him as a co-worker, rather than a tormented child. Jesse demands that Walt put aside his most effective manipulative guise, of the concerned father and former teacher, and conduct himself as Heisenberg. Walt wins that round, as he, using fatherly manipulation, embraces Jesse, who heartbreakingly succumbs to tears in the man's arms. But Saul's (Bob Odenkirk) lifting of his dope gave Jesse a palpable excuse to accept a truth that he almost certainly always knew. And now Jesse finally declares open war on his mentor, raiding his house with a gasoline canteen. The ending isn't just a great cliffhanger, but a wrenching potential confirmation of Jesse's ultimate unmooring: Jesse has finally admitted himself fully to the cynical and hopeless world Walt and Hank occupy—a world of emasculation, torment, and fruitless fatal acts of over-compensation.
Chuck Bowen is a freelance film and TV critic living in Richmond, Virginia. Check out his website, Bowen's Cinematic, and follow him on Twitter.