Skyler White towers over Hank Schrader. It's just a quirk of the casting, of course, a byproduct of Anna Gunn and Dean Norris's respective bodies, but there it is. Called to a diner meet-up by her brother-in-law to discuss the crimes of her husband, Skyler enters into an embrace with a man offering comfort she doesn't need and knowledge she already has. The height discrepancy makes him look superfluous, even parasitical – and, when coupled with his utter sincerity, pathetic. It telegraphs her coming rejection of his offer to help, and his request for her help in turn. "You're done being his victim," Hank tells her at one point. If he only knew.
Written by Thomas Schnauz and directed with multidimensional urgency by Michelle MacLaren, "Buried" doesn't so much run as cascade – an episode-length highlight reel of memorable imagery, intriguing details, laugh lines, major plot advancement, and years-in-the-making interpersonal conflicts. Clearly, rapid forward motion is the course that creator Vince Gilligan has plotted for his final eight episodes. And from the cold open – a slasher-movie-style dread-builder that had me half-convinced Jesse Pinkman died offscreen between episodes – to the crash-cut cliffhanger, this one never lets up, but its variety prevents it from ever becoming exhausting.
Not that it's not exhausting for the characters themselves. Jesse, for example, has clearly reached the end of his rope, the guilt of Drew Sharp's death too much for him to bear at last. He abandons his half-baked Robin Hood routine halfway through, ditching his car and his cash and spinning around aimlessly on a playground merry-go-round. There's an echo of this scene in Walter's collapse later in the episode: Jesse's ex-partner, too, is worn down to a nub by his attempts to unload his blood money. Worn down enough, in fact, to admit that he's not perfect: "It was me. I screwed up." We're already a long way from "Say my name."
By comparison, Hank and Skyler are slightly more functional. Hank may have misread Skyler, but he still had the presence of mind and the case-cracking instinct to ask to record a statement right away; she may be a hostile witness, but at least he's aware of it now, instead of allowing her to string him along. And if it weren't for Jesse falling into his lap, it sure seemed as though he was planning to take what he knew to his superiors right away upon his return to work, instead of indulging in a potentially quixotic attempt to nail Walt on his own and present it to the DEA as a fait accompli – an inglorious choice, but the right one, especially when compared to his impulsive decision to close that garage door and confront Walt on his own last episode.
For her part, Skyler could have instantly cracked when she got Hank's call, but she gave him nothing and told him nothing, keeping her preserve-and-protect-the-family mission alive. I'm not saying that will be the end result of this decision, but she thinks it could be, and she backed up her thought with action. And when she physically prevented her sister Marie from leaving the house with her baby, her tenacity in clinging to the dream became literal. (I'd hate to see what will happen if Flynn tries to skip breakfast the next morning.)
Marie herself emerged as an unexpectedly pivotal player. Over the years, Skyler's sister has been played by actor Betsy Brandt as abrasive comic relief, brittle on her purple-clad surface, yet ferociously loyal to her two-person support system of Hank and Skyler. As Hank tells Skyler, Marie is so important to both of them that their best interests are, or ought to be, the same. But when they're finally revealed to be in direct opposition – when Marie discovers that Skyler has not only been lying to her, but has specifically held back information pertaining to Hank's near-fatal shooting by Walt's enemies a few seasons back – Marie's sisterly bond finally snaps. She slaps Skyler, she tries to take the baby, she insists that Hank take Walt down, she encourages him to come clean about everything he knows to his bosses at the DEA right away. Her devotion to her husband has made her an implacable enemy to her sister and her brother-in-law; love trumps blood. In this, if nothing else, she and Walt can agree: Hank is family, and his life is to be preserved at all costs. La familia es todo.
Aside from the cold open and the brief Scrooge McDuck interlude with Saul Goodman's "A-Team" of Huell and Kuby, only one more scene takes us away from the family unit: Lydia's hostile takeover of Declan's substandard meth operation. Given all the domestic drama that surrounded it, it felt like another show, or at the very least a flashback to Breaking Bad's more action-oriented Gus Fring period. But that's as it should be. Lydia, and the increasingly terrifying (but polite!) Todd, are operating in Walt and Hank's mutual blindspot. And judging from the heat packed by Todd's Aryan uncle and his brothers in arms, it seems a safe bet that this new partnership is what will lead Walt to stow a machine gun in his trunk at some indeterminate point in the near future. While he and Hank attempt to outfox one another, complete with dueling cellphone calls to Skyler, there's darkness brewing in the desert that may put both their lights out.
As bleak as this episode got – and once you've endured a baby screaming as two women physically fight over her custody, things have gotten pretty bleak – it was still not just laugh-out-loud funny, but laugh-out-loud clever. "34 59 20 106 36 52" are about to be the most famous TV numbers since "4 8 15 16 23 42," and hiding them in plain sight on a Lotto ticket beats jotting them down on the endpapers of your edition of Leaves of Grass. Walt's still wearing tighty whities. Lydia rocks Louboutins at a massacre. Saul's "send him on a trip to Belize" is the best euphemism for a hit since "Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes." Hank's cringe-comedy hug for Skyler fit right in – an indication that no one here is quite on the level they think they are.
Previously: "Blood Money" - Breaking Bad Season Premiere