Tuesday, 7 August 2012

BREAKING BAD, 5.4 – 'Fifty-One'

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

"I will not have my children living in a house where dealing drugs, and hurting people, and killing people, is shrugged off as 'shit happens'." – Skyler White

A slower and more thoughtful episode than we've had so far this season, but no less absorbing for its focus on Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Skyler's (Anna Gunn) failing marriage. Walt retrieving his porkpie hat from his repaired Aztec signified him reconnecting to his "Heisenberg" alter ego, and "Fifty-One" served as the clearest indicator that Walt's closer to Mr Montana than Mr Chips at this point. He's confident his troubles are behind him now enemies are dead and buried, but his wife's less naïve about what his chosen lifestyle might bring. Walt sees an opportunity to lavish gifts on himself and his son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), buying them both expensive cars on a whim, whereas Skyler sees the possibility her family will be killed once her husband's luck, or "magic", runs out.

Skyler attracts her share of scorn as a character, but it's hard to imagine anyone failing to enjoy Gunn's marvellous performance in this episode. She was fantastic and delivered her finest work on the show. Skyler's a broken woman; fearful of the husband she once loved and tended to, but her maternal instinct has kicked in, forcing her to timidly suggest sending Walt Jr to boarding school—offering the bizarre reasoning that a "new environment" will be good for him, when it's clear the upheaval won't help his education a year before college.

After her breakdown in front or Marie (Betsy Brandt) last week, another cry for help came with her walking into their freezing cold pool after a family meal—forcing Walt to dive in and rescue her, and frightening Marie and Hank (Dean Norris). Her plan: to force her son and baby daughter to stay with their aunt and uncle for a few days, where she believes they're safe. But it's an impossible ruse to keep going, as Walt reminded her during their brilliant confrontation in the bedroom later on. It was the first time I felt like the White's marriage is beyond saving; now that Skyler's threatening to self-harm or fake spousal abuse if it means keeping Walt away from their kids. And how can the White's ever come back from the awful moment when Skyler admitted her only real option is to wait "for the cancer to come back"? In one sentence, you saw exactly how low their marriage has sunk, considering how previous seasons of Breaking Bad's family-based storyline were built around the awkwardness of Skyler trying to keep Walt's spirits up during his cancer treatment. Now she's wishing him dead? Shocking.

The home life of Walt and Skyler was the main attraction of "Fifty-One", perfectly timed to coincidence with Walt's 51st birthday (confirming we're exactly one year on from Breaking Bad's pilot, and one year away from the diner scene of Walt's 52nd birthday glimpsed in the premiere's flashforward). The moment with Skyler traditionally arranging her husband's breakfast bacon into his age was a particularly good call-back to both moments in the show's chronological past, too.

But there were other stories in play here. The situation with Lydia (Laura Fraser) was returned to, with the DEA sniffing around her Madrigal office in Houston and arresting the man she paid to transport the chemicals for Fring's operation in New Mexico. Is that employee a likely leak, given the look he gave Lydia when he was being handcuffed? Will Mike (Jonathan Banks) manage to pay for his silence? It was also interesting to see Lydia try and wriggle out of her new deal with Mike, by crudely attaching a tracking device to one of Madrigal's barrels and claiming it belongs to the DEA. A clever ruse, to make Mike think it's too dangerous to keep involving her if the Feds are onto them, but Mike saw through it because any cop worth his salt would have put the bug inside the barrel.

I also loved seeing Jesse (Aaron Paul) give Walt an expensive wrist-watch as a birthday present, and for Walt to interpret that kindness as evidence he's gained cold-hearted respect from someone who, actually, just wants to be Walt's friend. I was also reminded of Mike's description of Walt as a "ticking time bomb" in the premiere, during the final shot where Walt's birthday watch sat on his bedside table, tick-tick-ticking away. This suggests Mike was right about him—but when and how will Walt explode, or implode, and is Skyler correct that his kids will be the casualties when he does?

"Fifty-One" was a great example of how compelling Breaking Bad can be when it's focused on its characters and their dynamics, particularly regarding Walt and Skyler's marital relationship. It was a welcome reminder that, away from its bravura tension and killer violence, the show is fundamentally a masterful character study about how one man's midlife crisis and ego can gradually rot away everything that was good about his existence—as unexciting and uninteresting as it may have outwardly appeared. Walt may have earned riches, respect and power since cancer forced him down this ugly path, but his Fall has definitely started... and I'm betting it's going to get a whole lot worse for him before this half-season's over.


  • Hank accepted a promotion to succeed ASAC Merkert, but you can tell he wasn't happy about the fact it will mean his field work days are behind him—and, consequently, the Gus Fring investigation will pass to someone else. He obviously won't be able to let this case go until he cracks it himself, so I assume he only accepted because it'll be easier to get the resources if he's the man calling the shots. Interesting that Hank and Walt have both risen to become leader in their respective professions, too. Walt's the top meth-cook in town, Hank's the top narc, so it couldn't get more juicy when Hank inevitably realises his brother-in-law's the notorious Heisenberg.
  • This episode was directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), who has directed a few episodes in the show's history (most notably season 3's bottle show "Fly"). It was less ostentatious than his other episodes have been, as the only notable visual indulgence was the teaser of Walt and Walt Jr driving their new hot wheels home. Incidentally, I liked how Jr's car was the Dodge Challenger he was bought last year, only for Walt to be talked into giving it back by the more cautious Skyler. Another sign that he's less easily cowed these days.
written by Sam Catlin / directed by Rian Johnson / 5 August 2012 / AMC