Breaking Bad series 5, episode 11: The last nail in the coffin

I need a new dust filter for my Hoover MaxExtract PressurePro model 60 - can you help me with that?

WARNING: This blog is for people currently watching Breaking Bad series 5, part 2. It contains spoilers.

Ah, bank holiday Monday. What better way to spend a lazy day at the end of summer than to the close the curtains and sip coffee while two dear old friends set off on the path towards mutual annihilation. For once, I was able to watch Breaking Bad as soon as it was uploaded to Netflix, at the generally office-bound hour of 10am. The episode, “Confessions”, began calmly, rolling with a detached prologue, the relevance of which was not immediately clear.

Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) calls “Mr White” - for reasons that aren’t obvious, approval maybe, or perhaps professional necessity? - to tell him that he has regained control of the meth business, and will cook again now that Declan (Louis Ferreira) is well on his way to Belize. So to speak. In a diner (where else), he tells his uncle Jack and his supremacist buddy the dramatic story of the methylamine train heist - minus the part where he shot and killed Drew Sharp, who saw it all, and whose tarantula he stole. After Jack wipes blood from his heavy boots, the three of them drive into New Mexico with the methylamine tank attached to the back of a pick-up truck.

Back in the interrogation room, Jesse wakes from his moral stupor when Hank reveals that he knows his brother-in-law is Heisenberg. There is a camera in the corner, which Hank turns off, before asking Jesse to inform on his former partner. “Eat me,” Jesse replies, but Hank knows something is up. “Happy people usually don’t go around throwing millions of dollars away”. Saul Goodman bursts in and reminds the two detectives in charge of Hank's previous dealings with Mr Pinkman. “He knocked the poor kid unconscious the last time the two of them were alone together”. Hank hobbles out of the room, and Saul calls after him, “Hey Rocky, keep your dukes up!” He explains to Jesse that the situation has “gone nuclear” before we cut to Walt in his bedroom, instructing Saul to bail Jesse out, whatever the cost.

Walter Jr (RJ Mitte) makes his first appearance of series 5 part two, and is convinced by his father to stay away from his aunt Marie’s house after Walt reveals that his cancer has come back. The young lad is distraught. Breaking Bad has always managed to blend high drama with a backdrop so familiar and kitsch as to almost be embarrassing (think the naff pine decor in Walt and Skyler's bedroom). As the Schraders and Whites come together to discuss next steps, a chipper young servitor named Trent breaks up the discussion to offer them beverages, water and home-made guacamole. Walt makes a second appeal for Hank to drop the investigation: to simply let him die in his own time, to which Marie buts in with the helpful suggestion that he do them all a favour and just kill himself. The entire conversation takes place through gritted teeth. Without ordering a thing (poor Trent will probably have his paltry wages docked), they part ways, but not before Walt hands Hank a DVD.

“We make it right here at the table!” - Trent. Image: AMC.

As the Schraders growled at Walt and Skyler's plea for leniency, I couldn't help but thinking: “C’mon Walt, show a little Heisenberg”. I needn’t have worried. Walt’s “confession” is not, as we were led to expect, a bargaining tool intended to inspire mercy in Hank. It is a threat. In front of the camera (nobody is liable to forget that Breaking Bad began with a similarly-worded admission), Walt explains that he is wrapped up in a drug empire, but that Hank Schrader, a man with both the connections, the know-how, and the perfect alibi, was the mastermind behind it all. Walt even manages to cry. His mention of $177,000 in medical bills provides the final piece of incriminating detail - “the last nail in the coffin” - that will make it impossible for him to prosecute without Pinkman.

Speak of the devil. Out in the desert - “Jesus, it’s always the desert” - Saul and Jesse wait for Walter to pay them a visit. A tarantula crawls towards Jesse's feet: a reminder of Todd’s crimes, and the creeping, manipulative power Walter seems to exert over the both of them. After Walt suggests Jesse make use of Saul’s relocation expert, Jesse breaks down into tears and tells him to “quit with the concerned father bullshit.” He tells Walt to ask him straightforwardly, as a favour, or even a warning, before the two embrace and we are left unsure whether Walter really cares for Jesse, or is simply relieved to be getting his way.

What happens in the desert, stays in the desert. Image: AMC.

Saul makes the call: “I need a new dust filter for my Hoover MaxExtract PressurePro model 60 - can you help me with that?” At the car wash Walter stands in the darkness and announces to Skyler “It worked and we’re fine”, before we cut to Hank looking pensive at the DEA office. One of the qualities of the show that always surprises me is the way it makes you root for everyone, and hope that they win out, while simultaneously making clear that nobody can win, and that sooner or later they all must suffer. In the process of arranging Jesse’s departure (to Alaska, he suggests), Saul and Huell swipe Jesse’s weed so as not to jeopardise things when the professional arrives to pick him up. Looking at the packet of wilmington cigarettes in his hand, a whiskery Jesse figures out that if Huell could swipe his dope baggy, he could easily have switched out the packet with the ricin in, covering for Walter after he poisoned Brock. In the episode's final moments father and surrogate son reach for their weapons: Walt retrieves a gun stored in the A1 vending machine, Jesse a canister of gasoline. Is this how Walt’s house is destroyed? we wonder. Is the house even empty?

Three extra things:

Walt Jr’s reappearance reminded me of this.

The Hoover MaxExtract 60 PressurePro Carpet Deep Cleaner is getting some interesting reviews on Amazon.

Charlie Brooker talks to Vincent Gilligan at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Jesse and Walter take a hard look at the "concerned father" complex. Image: AMC.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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