SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, fry yourself up some bacon and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.
When Walter White defeated Gus Fring at the end of Breaking Bad‘s season four, my mind naturally went to the question: what would be the threat, the ultimate challenge, in the final season? The cartel? Madrigal? The DEA?
But as the previous episode, “Hazard Pay,” suggested, and “Fifty-One” underlined, Walt’s most dedicated adversary, and his most repellent crimes, may be right under his own roof. The way he’s treated the depressed, suffering, obviously terrified Skyler is as horrifying as any murder we’ve seen him commit, any manipulation we’ve seen him arrange. And–if foreshadowing means anything here–it could end up having greater blowback than anything he’s done.
Every trait we’ve seen Walt manifest as a criminal, he demonstrates as a husband, in his chilling scenes with his wife. His calculation. His ruthlessness. His self-interest. Above all, his hubris, and his seemingly religious faith now in his infallibility.
After all, when you wife tells you that she is waiting for your cancer to return and kill you, most men would take it as a sign of problems in their marriage. Not Walter White. He responds with cruelty, then serenity, first brutally showing Skyler that she has no realistic means of resisting him, than quietly insisting that, just like Jesse, she will come to see that he was right, to forgive him, to love him.
That last part, is for him, maybe the most important. It has always been important for Walt to believe that he is a good man, a family man, a man who acts in the best interests of those he loves. (As I wrote before the season started, Walt is sort of the “I’ll take care of my own” philosophy taken to a logical extreme–his sense of morality is very narrow, and ends at his front door.)
So in “Fifty-One” he acts out almost a kind of psychosis: it seems he simply can’t see that the woman he lives with is miserable, fears him, detests him, is walking through her life like a zombie. The disconnect is stunning, as he reminisces about how he pulled through chemotherapy with Skyler while she stares entranced at the pool and contemplates killing herself (or at least appearing to try to). He sees the world through Walt Goggles; having faced down Gus and survived, he’s like a crash survivor who believes he simply cannot die.
Skyler, meanwhile, is like a woman who has already died and is just waiting for her body to catch up. And if I was impressed with Anna Gunn’s performance last week, this week I was just devastated. The scenes with Skyler and Walt at home carry a sense of dread beyond any scene of violence Breaking Bad has shown us–their house is less a home than a prison, and the episode’s direction frames and lights it that way. The Whites’ house feels like claustrophobic, even outdoors.
It might be more satisfying to see Skyler take Walt down a peg–to outmaneuver him, to outsmart him as she did the owner of the car wash last season. But it wouldn’t be as effective, or as believable. She may have agreed to take Walt back and to launder his money, rather than let their children know their father is a drug dealer, but she, unlike Walt, is not a natural criminal. A year ago, she was happy enough with a life paying bills, trying to write short fiction, selling things on eBay.
So when she confronts Walt about her attempt to move the kids out of the house, it’s a mismatch. It’s as brutal as any beating. Walt has become something unhuman, a kind of deception machine, and as she fumbles for counterplans that he knocks down one after another—simple, improvised ruses like you or I might think of—it’s like watching someone try to battle a tank with her bare fists. Finally she gives up. In a way:
“I don’t have any of your magic, Walt. I don’t know what to do. I can’t go to the police, I can’t stop laundering your money. I can’t keep you out of this house. I can’t even keep you out of my bed.* All I can do is wait. That’s it. That’s the only good option.” “Wait for what? What are you waiting for?” “For the cancer to come back.”
*[Gunn's read on this line is chilling, and it makes blatant, as this season has already suggested, how intimate Walt's violation of Skyler's sense of safety is.]
I first expected the episode to end on that line, but it continues—to Walt’s cut head as he shaves, to his “weighing in” on the problem with Lydia and the precursor and to Walt’s showing Skyler his birthday present from Jesse as proof that resistance is futile. She says nothing. The one thing she can hold back from him is her assent, her approval, her love. So Walt goes to bed alone, with the wife who nursed him to health now praying that his lung cancer comes back, sitting in a chair–smoking.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Breaking Bad visual of the week: the luminous backyard pool, where Walt sat after learning his diagnosis, where debris from the plane crash rained down, where Walt spun that fateful pistol–Breaking Bad’s alpha image and, maybe, its omega.
* Marie spilling the beans to Hank about Skyler’s infidelity: least surprising plot development ever?
* Thank goodness, by the way, for Marie, who manages to get in a bit of comic relief in a birthday-dinner sequence that’s excruciatingly awkward: “A ricer! You don’t hand-mash?”
* One thing that the episode develops—again, with painful clarity—is how totalizing Walt’s domination of Skyler is. As with Jesse, it follows a psychologically abusive cycle, aimed at breaking her down so she can see him as the wronged party, right down to telling her that his re-entry into the drug business is entirely her fault: “You’re back at it.” “Well, yeah. Have to make up for that $600,000 we lost.”
* Farewell, Pontiac Aztek. That car was one of the most apt external representations of a character through his vehicle anywhere. The beaten-up, ungainly suburban workhorse was one of the last vestiges of “Mr. White,” who—salvaging his black hat from the back seat—is now fully transformed to Heisenberg.
* Speaking of which, by leasing new cars for himself and Walt Jr., Walt is flagrantly re-making a move that Skyler got him to step back from, because the spending might be too glaringly extravagant in the eyes of investigators. Buying the cars, and celebrating with Jr. in front of Skyler, is a way of saying that—post-Gus, post-Ted—she has no say in this family anymore.
* “I had a chance to deal with this woman before and I gave her a pass. That’s what I get for being sexist.”
* I have less to say this week about the meth-biz side of the story, which suggests that Lydia will continue to be a problem, and an unpredictable one, even as the operation continues to depend on her for precursor. But feel free to add your thoughts below—or where Hank’s investigation of the Gus and “Burgermeister Meisterburger” network will take him now that he’s accepted his promotion.