One of things that makes Breaking Bad not just a great show but a landmark one is the attention it pays to images. Even CSI: Miami has a “look,” but few shows are as meticulous (and occasionally pedantic) about their visual plan. This mind-blowing chart of the way the colors of the characters’ wardrobes have evolved over time tells one side of the story, but with the show’s longtime cinematographer, Michael Slovis, in the director’s chair, “Confessions” was particularly striking, especially in the use of darkness to symbolize Walter White’s descent into the moral abyss, and how he’s taking everyone else with him. (Spoilers, naturally, follow.)
After the cold open, we find Jesse at a low ebb, with his attempt to expiate his guilt over the death of a child having landed him in police custody. Here he is, adrift in a sea of black:
And here’s Hank, just barely holding it back.
As Hank moves in to offer Jesse a deal, a chance to, as per the episode’s title, confess, light shines down from above, although it’s fluorescent rather than sanctified. But Jesse doesn’t take the bait.
Here’s Walt at home, facing what may be the most benign light source in the episode, but he’s already occluded by the black band across the frame’s right edge.
And here he is, pulling Walter Jr. out of the light and into the dark. (The Whites’ front door is green, but it sure looks black here.)
As Walt tells his son about his cancer recurrence — the “little shadow” on his lung — he’s playing the concerned dad, for reasons that are part genuine and part manipulation. That inky blackness will haunt the center of the frame for the rest of the episode.
Walt prepares to tape his false “confession,” and the darkness behind him grows: That pathetic table lamp at lower right lodges a piddling protest, and the yellow wallpaper looks as if it’s tinged with rust.
Walt’s last chance to turn back, to face his deeds rather than build his most elaborate lie. He still has a choice.
And he chooses the dark, as the blurry video image eclipses the man he was.
When they meet Hank and Marie at Garduno’s, where the guacamole is made fresh right at your table, Walt and Skyler are dressed in off-white, still pretending, in Walt’s words, that “there’s nothing to confess.”
But Hank, wearing Schrader purple, and Marie, clad in unprecedented black, aren’t buying it. They’re this now too, stuck in the oozing tar of Walt’s deceit. Note how the different colors of the backgrounds in the couples’ matching two-shots enhances their respective palettes.
Back at home, Hank and Marie slip in Walt’s DVD, their flatscreen positioned where that dark spot loomed between Walt and his son (whom Marie still calls “Flynn,” as if to distance him from his tainted lineage).
Slovis cannily matches the lighting on Walt and Hank’s faces so they seem to be in the same room, meeting face to face as Hank and Jesse did across an interrogation table. Is this as close as they’ll get? Their faces are half in light, half in shadow.
By the end of the video, the room behind Walt has disappeared, and he’s surrounded by darkness, just as Jesse was in his opening shot.
And there’s that black spot, looming even darker between Hank and Marie.
Not much room for shadow in the desert, but there’s still the contrast between Saul’s white sedan and Walt’s black car.
At the car wash, Walt checks on on a near-catatonic Skyler, but now he’s all darkness, barely distinct from the shadows around him.
And here’s Skyler, looking away from the light, knowing she’s lost her chance at redemption, too.
This doesn’t quite fit the pattern, but man is it a cool shot.
And finally, here’s Jesse, making the choice symbolized by the traffic arrows at the bottom of the frame. This is his crossroads, and he’s picked his path.