“I don’t want to see.”
Near the end of “Buried” came a comic-chilling moment in which Lydia, having orchestrated the machine-gunning of an entire crew of disappointing meth-cookers, is led out by the hand by Todd, eyes closed, so she can be isolated from the consequences of her actions. She doesn’t have to look–we watch her heels stepping gingerly around the bloodied corpses–but we do. Which in a way was a microcosm of the episode itself. Last week’s return episode, “Blood Money,” set off a bomb in the White/Schrader family. “Buried” determined to make us look at the carnage.
The immediate question hanging after last week’s Breaking Bad was: What happens now? Surely Walt had considered, after a year of watching Hank’s investigation of “Heisenberg,” that some day his brother-in-law might find him out; surely he had some contingency in case, as Saul inimitably put it, the monkey got in the banana patch? Surely it would sink in to Hank that the triumph of exposing Walt would mean exposing himself as the guy who had been duped by his own drug lord in-law for months? Surely Skyler, through a year of agony she did not ask for, had played out in her mind what it would be like if the truth came out? So: what the hell happens now?
In “Buried,” the answer is, in one sense, not much. It seems–with Hank’s hurried phone call and Walt’s peeling out of the driveway–as if everything is going to blow, and soon. Then Hank hits a wall, first with Skyler’s reluctance to talk, then with his own realization that solving the case will end his career. Instead, lets us see the effects of the revelations play out, one at a time–and that’s where everything happens.
One thing that distinguishes Breaking Bad’s narrative is the elasticity of time. Scarcely a year has passed in the series–two, if you count flash-forwards–but the narrative can make it seem as if much more, or much less, time has passed. It can hold on to tension like a suspended breath, as it’s doing right now with Jesse. (I’d need to re-watch to be sure, but I’m not sure he speaks a single word this episode, yet his silence is compelling.) It can blow through weeks of Walt’s meth-making career in one one sequence, and it can slow down one excruciating day, as it does here, to linger on the emotional minutiae so that you can’t look away.
“Buried” is largely Skyler’s story, told through three encounters, with Hank, Marie, and finally Walt. The first, in the diner, manages with nothing more than words to utterly shift the dynamic of both the investigation and their relationship. His manner begins brotherly and protective–“It’s just you and me now, OK?”–but from the second he takes out the recorder, something changes; minute by minute, line by line of dialogue, a heart-to-heart becomes an interrogation, and finally an ugly showdown. It’s a hug that turns into a dance that turns into a verbal fistfight.
But the beauty of the scene is that it allows you to see it just as easily from either of their perspectives. Hank does produce that recorder awfully quickly, and it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that he cares more about getting an un-lawyered statement, now, than he cares about his sister-in-law’s welfare. And it’s possible to imagine that he honestly believes he’s doing nothing more than trying, for everyone’s sake, to end an awful situation as fast as possible. But whichever is the car, Dean Norris and Anna Gunn never let you forget–whether Hank and Skyler are family or enemies–how painful this is for both of them.
The second scene, between Skyler and Marie, plays like a reprise of the Hank-Walt showdown last week–right down to the smack across the face–and yet more intimate and, if anything, more horrifying. Betsy Brandt often has a quasi-comic role in Breaking Bad, but she nails this dramatic showdown and Marie’s sense of confusion and betrayal. As the scene unravels and Marie desperately tries to abscond with Holly, it’s excruciating partly because an infant is involved but partly because of the sense that anything could happen, that the wheels are coming off and no one knows how to drive this thing right now.
That’s the case with Walt too, even in the scene that gives “Buried” its title (at least in one sense). On the surface, Walt’s drive out to the desert, with Scrooge McDuck’s barrels of money, is a familiar Breaking Bad setup: Walt stays one step ahead of his enemies and contrives a way to save his operation. But this time, there’s no triumph, only desperation. Walt looks small, exhausted, alone, and when he collapses in his bathroom–sunburnt and wrinkled, like some larval thing coughed up from Hell–it suggests that his tank is empty, that he may finally have run out of magic tricks.
(What a gorgeous scene, by the way, of the white van driving into the red desert. It’s landscape as moral commentary, this natural wonder despoiled by a man burying his sins.)
This sets up the last of Skyler’s triptych, her talk with Walt. Not long ago, in episode time anyway, she had told her husband she was waiting for the cancer to kill him. But now that she’s got her wish, she can’t even summon up the passion to care about to be happy about it: “I can’t remember the last time I was happy,” she tells him. After a long day of ugly emotions, she won’t permit herself–or Walt–any more, even hate.
Not to jinx anything, but I get a vibe from “Buried” of the last, outstanding season of The Shield. There, we saw the reckoning that Vic Mackey had avoided for years finally draw around him; we saw confrontations and confessions and desperate acts that we had imagined (or dreaded); and the season drew its power from lingering, unflinching, honoring the enormity of what we’d seen in the series leading up to the end.
Over five seasons of Breaking Bad, a lot has been buried and is suddenly being exhumed. And Skyler–who is not an innocent in all this but never asked for it either–once again needs to bury her feelings (the other sense of “Buried” here) and deal with the repercussions. “Maybe our best move here,” she tells Walt, “is to stay quiet.”
Her mouth may be closed again. But for better or worse, her eyes are open.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Breaking Bad Images of the Week: Jesse, shot from above, spinning on the playground roundabout as the camera tracks him; Walt, framed between two barrels and lit by his red taillights, like a little red devil in a box.
* “We’ve gotta do a job. Not channel Scrooge McDuck!”
* It’s easy to classify Bob Odenkirk’s performance as comic relief, but the beauty of it is how he manages to be comic and exist in the world of dead-serious drama at once. Check that little eyebrow twitch he gives as Saul suggests Walt send Hank on “a trip to Belize.”
* I am on vacation as you read this, lying on my back on top of a rented pile of money. I won’t be back in time to review next week’s Breaking Bad episode. There may be a fill-in in this space next Sunday, but in any case I’ll be back on the Walter beat two weeks from tonight.