I took a philosophy course in college that dealt with epistemology, or the study of knowledge. Basically — and I will stay as broad and vague as possible, in part because the class was years ago and I don’t want to embarrass myself — we talked a lot about true justified beliefs, and what conditions would be necessary to classify something as known/true instead of just a held opinion. (We were about as fun at parties as you would imagine.) I found myself thinking back on those ideas during this week’s “Breaking Bad.” The series has always been about many things, but a big part of its main story has been about Walter White’s determination not just to tell a few lies but to gradually construct a reality for himself and his family. More than that, it’s been about how easy it’s been for him to do this. Think about it: We generally assume that most people we deal with everyday are telling us the truth, or at least that they’re not trying to put one over on us. If you ask someone where they were last night, you will probably believe their answer simply because it’s the easiest course of action. Walt’s success has been to rely on that instinct and to know that, after a certain point, even when you’re talking to someone who has express reasons not to trust you, you can still get away with your version of reality. Without evidence, facts, or firsthand experience, it’s just somebody’s word against yours.
Interestingly, a lot of viewers have done the same thing. Anna Gunn wrote an op-ed in the New York Times the other day about the stunning level of vitriol that’s been aimed at her character in comment sections and online forums pretty much since the show started. She (very rightly) addresses the sexism and perversity that’s led some of the Internet’s more juvenile users to rant endlessly about Skyler and wonder aloud what it’d be like if somebody just killed Gunn already. Not the character, either; her. I have to think a major part of what’s driven some people to hate her character so much is that they’re too busy constructing their own version of the show’s reality. More accurately, they’re buying everything Walt’s selling, and they walk right along with his baby-stepping rationalizations of his actions. Skyler — who begins the show a loving spouse — becomes an obstacle for Walt and therefore an obstacle for them precisely because they want to believe in Walt’s version of things. I don’t know what those people think about the way the show’s gone. Walter White’s anything but a hero, and I can’t imagine anyone rooting for him after he chokes out Krazy-8, but that’s the Internet for you.
“Confessions,” then, was about the conflict between your version of the truth and everyone else’s, and what happens when the world you’ve built starts to crack. It wasn’t Jesse’s discovery of the truth about Walt and Brock that hit hard (though that was, of course, a tense and brutal sequence of events). No, it was the stunning ease with which Walt acted out and filmed a fake confession that turned Hank into Heisenberg. He knew just what to say, just what pieces of the story to talk about, to make things make sense. He willed a new world into being, and it worked for a day or two. The fake confession was haunting, and a beautifully timed echo of the very real confession with which Walt opened the series:
Addressing his family then, he said, “There are going to be some things that you’ll come to learn about me in the next few days. I just want you to know that, no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart.” Now it’s doubtful he could even remember what such emotions look like. His falsified confession was stunning, and a reminder that even a guy this bad can always get worse. When Jesse confronts him about being manipulative, all he can do is hug the kid and keep lying.
Yet it can’t hold up forever. His house will eventually be boarded up, with “HEISENBERG” scrawled across the living room wall. His myth-making abilities aren’t enough to stop the course of events he set in motion a little more than a year ago when, in a move of twisted desperation, he decided to cook crystal. He can’t get away with it. Nobody gets away with it, not for long, not for life. Not even Gus Fring made it out. To borrow a line: No one wins; one side just loses more slowly. Walt’s playing out the clock, he just doesn’t know it yet.