A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I channel Scrooge McDuck…
“You can’t give yourself up without giving up the money. That’s the way this works, Walt. So maybe our best move here is to stay quiet.” -Skyler
Oh, Skyler. You had to cross that line, didn’t you?
This has been an amazing era for TV drama, and “Breaking Bad” has been one of the very best products of this era. It’s also been an overwhelmingly male era: stories of charismatic men doing terrible things and the women who object to that behavior, and become pilloried by the fans as a result. With “Breaking Bad,” we have a show with a male lead, a male second lead, a wave of larger-than-life male antagonists, and a host of male concerns. The Walter White we meet in the pilot is dying, not just of the cancer, but of an emasculated lifestyle where he earns too little money, gets too little respect at work or home, and where one of his 50th birthday presents is a half-hearted hand job from Skyler while she’s busy monitoring an eBay auction and hassling him about painting the nursery. By becoming Heisenberg, he’s able to provide for his family in the event of his death, but he’s also able to feel like a real man for the first time in his life, in a show that’s an equal blend of organized crime and Western motifs, brilliantly dripping with machismo as Heisenberg gradually gets the better of each man put in front of him. Beyond Skyler and Marie (and baby Holly), there are only a handful of women of note through five seasons: Jane, Lydia, Gretchen, Andrea, Jesse’s hooker friend Wendy, Saul’s secretary Francesca and maybe Skank (aka Spooge’s Lady). It’s a male show with a male audience; last week’s audience was 62% men.
And perhaps because of that, the female characters often suffer the same audience reaction as their predecessors on “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” et al. Walter White is, as Hank notes in this very episode, a monster who has destroyed many lives, but it’s Skyler who seems to draw more objections from the fans, in the same way Betty is an easier punching bag (including, at times, from yours truly) than Don, even though his behavior is objectively worse than hers. We are conditioned to bond with the protagonists of our stories, and to resent those who stand in their way and call them out for the very actions we’ve come to cheer. At Comic-Con, both Anna Gunn and Vince Gilligan talked about this phenomenon, with Gunn noting that the audience has to root for Walt on some level for the show to be in balance, and that the villainization of Skyler in some quarters is a necessary but unfortunate byproduct, while Gilligan said viewers are uncomfortable identifying with powerless characters, which is what Skyler has been for so much of the series.
That birthday hand job scene is such a perfect encapsulation of Walter White’s demeaning existence that it’s necessary(*) to understand why he’d be willing, even eager, to become a meth cook. But it also creates a very strong negative image of Skyler, and we all know the power of first impressions. She spends most of that season desperately trying to save her husband’s life, and in season 3 becomes completely trapped when Walt moves back into the house against her will, knowing she won’t rat him out to the cops. But it’s that dark early image that sticks with some, as well as hapless later moments when she intrudes in Walt’s business by trying to launder the money. She’s a victim of Walt’s criminal lifestyle, but the structure of the series turns her into one more problem for Heisenberg to solve.
(*) It was cut (along with several other scenes, including one where Skyler and Marie discuss the results of the auction, and the state of Skyler and Walt’s marriage) from the pilot after the first few AMC airings. The DVD and iTunes versions are the original 58-minute version, while Netflix has lately been streaming the 48-minute version that doesn’t have that scene. I wonder how people who started the show recently via Netflix feel about Skyler versus those who were first exposed to her with the longer pilot.
Marie isn’t introduced in the best light, either. She’s Skyler’s annoying, gossipy sister (when Skyler stages an intervention to get Walt to accept treatment, Marie undercuts her by suggesting Walt’s probably wise to skip chemo), and for a long time her chief defining traits are her kleptomania and her love of purple. When we first meet Lydia, she’s a nervous wreck wildly out of her depth in the drug game, making a fool of herself with Mike at the coffee shop, and unable to put on a matching pair of shoes for an important day at the office. (When Mike, perhaps the most show’s reasonable character at that point, decides the world is better off without Lydia in it, we are inclined to agree.)
Gilligan and the other writers are acutely aware of, and not comfortable with, this reaction to the women of “Breaking Bad,” and I suspect a desire to balance the scales a bit was one of the driving forces behind “Buried.” It’s not an episode that suddenly flips the gender or power dynamics of the series – Skyler, for instance, again has to choose between two horrible options, after which matters are again beyond her control – but it’s one where most of the action is driven by the women of “Breaking Bad.”
And in part because of the work of another woman of “Breaking Bad” – the show’s best director, Michelle MacLaren – it’s an incredible episode: gorgeous to look at, but taut and heartbreaking.
Let’s start with MacLaren, because her contributions to the hour are enormous. We’ve known since “4 Days Out” just what she can do when you give her a few desert vistas to shoot, just as we’ve known since “I.F.T.” just how agonizing she can make a scene where Skyler is painted into the tightest, most humiliating of corners. And she sure makes the sequence where Walt buries the money look beautiful, just as she renders the six and a half minute diner conversation between Skyler and Hank among the most uncomfortable scenes the show has ever done.
But MacLaren puts such care put into every individual frame and scene. Consider, for instance, Walt’s exit from Hank’s garage, mere moments after he warned him to tread lightly at the end of “Blood Money.” This is a show that’s toyed with Western tropes practically from the start, but I can’t think of a better-looking, purer homage than the shot of Hank and Walt staring each other down from opposite ends of the driveway, posed for all the world like a pair of aging gunfighters getting ready to pull, with Hank’s garage remote filling in for a trusty six-shooter. It’s just one shot of many in the hour, and a brief one at that, but it’s as visually striking and evocative as possible, just like the overhead shot of Jesse twirling aimlessly on the merry-go-round (with a much emptier look on his face than in the overhead shot of him after his first dose of heroin), or Huell and Kuby enjoying the bed of money, or Lydia’s Louboutins stepping carefully around corpses and spent shotgun shells.
And she’s just as good in working with the actors. In that diner scene, our focus is understandably on Skyler, who’s completely at a loss for what to do or say, and Anna Gunn is fantastic throughout, particularly when Skyler makes a scene just so she can get away from this man who will not stop asking her questions she can’t answer. But look at Dean Norris for a minute or four. Look at how empty and remote his eyes look, listen to how strained and lost his voice sounds. Hank is only tenuously connected to reality as he knew it, and though Skyler understandably feels like she’s being bulldozed, Hank has no more control of that conversation than she does. He’s a drowning man hoping she’ll toss him a rope if he speaks forcefully enough.
There’s so much quiet in their voices in that scene, and then when Marie goes to confront Skyler at the house. The whole family has been placed in unexpected, untenable territory. Nobody knows where to go, what to say, whom to trust. But just as Skyler ultimately recognizes who has the power in her talk with Hank, it’s Marie who figures things out – and far more quickly than her DEA agent husband – simply by reading her sister’s face and recognizing how the puzzle pieces would have to fit together given this strange new information. In a way, Marie’s interrogation of Skyler evokes the one Skyler put Walt through back in the season 3 premiere, as she guessed that he was dealing heroin, then cocaine, before he finally blurted out that it was meth, but that earlier scene was played for dark laughs. There was nothing funny as one sister realized how much the other had betrayed her and her husband, leading to a brutal slap (do not mess with Marie Lambert Schrader or her husband) and then an even more brutal screaming match over who will be taking care of Holly. (Once again, Marie is trying to take something that’s not hers, but in a far more altruistic, devastating context; even with the limited information she has, I do not blame her in the slightest for the primal desire to grab the baby and run.)
Now, Hank and Marie don’t know what we do about Skyler’s involvement in the business. It’s only on the money end of things, and if she were to testify against Walt, I suspect her attorney could get her immunity for that, but she has a perfectly valid reason for not wanting to talk into Hank’s voice recorder at the diner. That said, Marie turns out to be right: Skyler ultimately doesn’t want to talk because she thinks that if they stay mum, they will get away with it – even if it’s just from Walt dying in a few months. (And though I’m sure many of you can suggest worst contexts for her to find out about the recurrence, this was not a good way to be told.) She has the chance to do the right thing here, but she’d rather keep the money, Walt’s reputation in his kids’ eyes, and all the rest. No half-measures anymore for Skyler White. She’s going for it all, dammit.
And that’s what’s made Skyler such a complicated, prickly character, and one whom I’m not sure even the show always wants us to like even though her circumstances are generally sympathetic. She had her opportunities to turn Walt in back in season 3; she chose not to, though her fear of what this would do to the kids was not unfounded. Then after the Cousins shot Hank, she started horning in on Walt’s business, insisting on the gambling cover story so they could pay for Hank’s rehab, then on the car wash as the means to launder the drug money. Again, much of this is understandable – she wants to help her brother-in-law, especially since his injury is Walt-related, and she wants to feel even a tiny bit of control over a situation which has been entirely out of her control to that point – but it’s also Skyler inserting herself into criminality when she really, really shouldn’t. She is not a saint. If she was a saint, she wouldn’t belong on a show that recognizes the messy contradictions that come with being a human being on this planet. She’s a complicated person, sometimes a victim, sometimes a fool, sometimes a heroine. She is, in other words, a worthy, fascinating character in this story, and even if it’s Walt’s story, Skyler’s role matters, and needs to be considered once again before things are over and done with.
Lydia, meanwhile, is still the aggravating neurotic we first met last summer – she’s once again wearing the wrong shoes for the occasion, even if they’re matched this time – but she’s picked up lessons from both Mike and Walt, and has decided to have Todd, his Uncle Jack and Jack’s crew kill Declan (who took over distribution of the blue meth after Mike’s “retirement,” and who’s been running the whole operation since Walt quit) and take over the cook. This is a more dangerous Lydia than before, and a pretty nasty crew she’s linked up with; if I had to take a guess this week about whom the machine gun and the ricin are for – and I suspect this guess will be changing weekly from now til the end – I’d say the former is for Uncle Jack’s guys, the latter for Lydia. There’s a major sense of weariness and regret in the way Walt carries himself as Mr. Lambert; perhaps he’s coming back to destroy this terrible machine he created, and needs a noisy tool for one end of it, a quiet one for the other.
While Walt lies on the bathroom floor – yet another character speaking in a soft, distant voice as his world has been remade – he reiterates a statement he’s made a few times before (including in “I.F.T.”) about how all these terrible deeds will have been for nothing if his family doesn’t benefit. These words, and the general demeanor of Mr. Lambert, do not necessarily suggest good things are coming for Skyler and the kids. Walt refuses to send Hank on “a trip to Belize” because he’s family – the one thing he still seems to believe in ahead of his own survival and glory – and the episode’s final scene implies that this will not be a good call on Walt’s part. Hank and Jesse despise each other, but at this point both men hate Walter White far more, and can bring about his undoing if they can ever work together.
A few scenes earlier, Hank acknowledges to Marie what we’ve all known: that the moment he turns Walt into the DEA, his career ends. It’s as open and vulnerable as we’ve seen Hank since season 3’s “One Minute” – like this one, written by Thomas Schnauz and directed by MacLaren – when he confessed that after shooting Tuco, he realized, “I’m just not the man I thought I was.” Here, he’s again worried about the kind of man he is, or can be, justifying his decision not to take what he has to Gomez by explaining, “I can be the man who caught him, at least.” And though “Buried” is an episode where so much of the action is driven by the women, it ends with two men – one of whom has had a lot to do in the hour, one of whom hasn’t said a single word – about to come face to face, and perhaps team up to take down the great Heisenberg.
This is a male show about a male world. And it is among the best things ever placed on television. Every now and then, though, “Breaking Bad” can remind us in spectacular fashion just how compelling its female characters can be.
Some other thoughts:
* Last week’s episode was dedicated to Kevin Cordasco, the 16-year-old fan who died of cancer earlier this year. (In the official “Breaking Bad” podcast for that episode, Vince Gilligan explained that he offered to tell Kevin how the show was going to end, on the condition he kept it a secret; Kevin said he’d rather wait to see it, which is both inspiring and heartbreaking.) Tonight’s show, meanwhile, was dedicated to the father of Thomas Schnauz. (This is, I believe, Schnauz’s last writing credit for the series, after debuting with “One Minute.” We are so close to the end, boys and girls.)
* On the one hand, it’s extremely clever for Walt to hide the GPS coordinates of the buried treasure in a series of Pick-3 lottery numbers. On the other, couldn’t he at least have brought a pen with him to the desert so he wouldn’t have to rely on his memorization of those coordinates from the time he smashed the unit until he got to the nearest convenience store?
* Also, Walt’s been capable of near-superhuman displays of strength in the past when his life is in immediate danger. But the idea that a man of his age, even in the good shape Bryan Cranston keeps himself in, digging that hole and filling it with the barrels and more dirt (to the tune of “Qumey Neuquen” by Jose Larralde), all on his own in that span of time, seems sketchy – and that’s before you factor in the cancer’s return. That he collapses once he’s at home in the bathroom at least acknowledges it’s a feat he had no business attempting in his condition.
* The “tread lightly” line at the end of last week’s episode is among the more intimidating Walter White moments to date, but I appreciate that the show doesn’t get too drunk on the taste of Heisenberg, bad-ass; the moment he’s out of Hank’s sight, Walt is the same panicky, awkward middle-aged dude he is the great majority of the time. He can play the part, in word and in deed, but he’s not Heisenberg 24/7.
* Still, Walt has committed enough horrifying acts that Kuby shuts down Huell’s half-joking suggestion to grab all the cash and flee to Mexico. If this happens pre-“Face Off,” those two are very wealthy fugitives, right after they finish their Scrooge McDuck impression. Even Saul’s more afraid of Walt than he used to be, falling back on therapy speak (“This is a safe room!”) after Walt suggests that it might be Saul, and not Hank, who should be sent to Belize.
* More than a year has passed, and Walter White has become Heisenberg, but he still favors tightie whities.
* Declan’s underground meth lab appears to be a converted city bus, which feels like Walt and Jesse’s original business model with the Crystal Ship taken several steps further. Also, I like that both Lydia and Walt wind up in the desert dealing with buried treasure, with him putting it into the ground and her (and her guys) digging it out.
* He may be a remorseless killer of children and eager to work with his uncle’s swastika-tatted goons, but you have to give this to Todd: such a polite young man!
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org