The biggest moment on tonight’s Breaking Bad came before the opening credits rolled. Sudden and shocking, it nevertheless had an air of inevitability, like something the world of Walter White had been waiting for for a long, long time.
That’s right: Breaking Bad put a dubstep song on the soundtrack.
Haha j/k LOL. It’s true that dubstep’s vertiginous drops, gleeful lizard-brain button-punching and clattering discordant aggression, as exemplified in “Bonfire” by Knife Party, make it a weirdly perfect accompaniment to Walt’s mad-science misadventures. But the real Rubicon crossed in that opening sequence was a matter not of soundtrack but of wardrobe. After trading in his reliable old family-man Aztec SUV – sturdy as hell and good for another 200,000 miles, but rejected by Walt for a faster and flashier whip, it is perhaps the most metaphorically resonant motor vehicle in television history – Walt dons his Heisenberg hat in full view of his adoring son Walt Jr. With that, the boundary between Walt and Heisenberg, which since Walt’s crawlspace crack-up had already been doing its best Berlin Wall circa 1989 impression, collapsed entirely.
Written by longtime BB vet Sam Catlin and directed by Rian Johnson – the feature film director (Brick, Looper) who previously helmed the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Season Three bottle episode “Fly” – “Fifty-One” had one basic purpose: to squeeze itself between Walt/Heisenberg and Skyler/the audience, then push them apart as hard and fast as it could. Bizarro versions of previous plot points were its weapon of choice: Walt wearing the hat he’d used for the express purpose of hiding his secret identity while in his secret identity. Walt buying not one but two expensive and ostentatious sports cars, then steamrolling Skyler’s concerns in true IDGAF fashion where once he went so far as torching a similar gift to get rid of it. Walt forcing Skyler to fix his birthday breakfast with all the joie de vivre of making a hostage tape, where just one year earlier it was a heartfelt and totes adorbs expression of their mutual affection. Walt’s ridiculous, oblivious (and frankly a little hard to swallow) surprise and disappointment that Skyler hadn’t chosen to throw her emotionally abusive, multiple-murdering, meth kingpin husband an elaborate party like she’d done before she’d seen his true face. Walt droning on about the importance of family like he has in so many heart-to-hearts with Hank, Marie and Skyler, even as Sky silently prepares to literally drown her sorrows right behind his back. (Kudos to Johnson for shooting the show’s loveliest image to date there, by the way.) Over and over the show contrasts the here-and-now with better, saner times in the past, to show us how far Walt has gone since then. (Well, OK, that goddamn pool’s been snakebit from the start, but the rest of the point stands.)
Walt’s still the main character, of course, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever fully leave him behind. But this level of disconnect and delusion makes him increasingly difficult to connect with. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of another show that’s taken its antihero protagonist this far into irredeemability and sociopathy. In the apples-to-apples comparisons, i.e. David Chase & Tony Soprano and Matthew Weiner & Don Draper, Vince Gilligan & Walter White have left them in the dust. Even straight-up lead antagonists, like Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell on The Wire and Al Swearengen on Deadwood, were portrayed more sympathetically than Walt is looking right about now, although the season opening indicates he’ll eventually end up back in tragic-figure territory.
In the meantime, this leaves a tremendous amount of weight on the shoulders of Anna Gunn – and is there any doubt she can carry it? Skyler has assumed the “good-hearted low-level criminal in hopelessly over his/her head” role once occupied by Walt himself, as Walt takes over the Tuco Salamanca/Gus Fring position; she mimics our own “holy shit, this guy’s nuts” reaction to the man we thought we knew. If anything she tops her own series-best work from last week in this episode, in a performance that has three movement,s like some kind of battered-wife-syndrome symphony.
First she’s in rabbit-in-the-crosshairs mode, minimizing speech, sound, and movement around Walter like a prey animal who knows it’s being hunted.
Then there’s the agonizing, hollow-eyed march into the pool. In fact, everyone shines in that sequence – Gunn, humanizing a grand poetic gesture with nothing more than the look on her face; director Johnson, digging into a deeply off-kilter emotional state just as he did with Walt’s sleep-deprived, doped-up exhaustion in “Fly”; Betsy Brandt as Marie, the one character whose experience with mental illness predates Walt’s bad break and who thus can sympathize with her sister the strongest; Dean Norris as the freshly promoted Hank, acting with the same confident competence we know will sink him when he eventually uncovers the truth about his brother-in-law; Bryan Cranston as Walt, laying it on as thick and fast as he can.
Finally comes Skyler’s bedroom confrontation with Walt, when she’s finally drained and exhausted and bottomed-out enough to say “fuck it” and go toe to toe with the guy. It’s not a good decision. Though she successfully gets the kids out of the house (like a Vamonos Pest customer clearing out before Walt’s crew rolls in), Walt methodically batters her resolve to a pulp, swatting away every long-term escape route she proposes with all the abusive arrogance of Jack Nicholson telling Shelley Duvall to gimme the bat. Eventually, she does, hitting him square in the face with her hope that he’ll die of cancer before he can do any more damage. It’s an emotionally brutal moment, and it’d be enough to make you empathize with Walt all over again if you got the sense he’d learn something from it, reevaluate his actions because of it. But the next time we see him he’s shaving his head in a scene shot and scored like a tribute to Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers and insisting to Mike that the spice must flow, no matter how unreliable a business partner Lydia is turning out to be.
Speaking of whom: Ms. Lydia Rodarte Quayle has become the season’s most intriguing mystery. How does someone brittle enough to scream into a pillow every time the FBI comes calling and dopey enough to repeatedly try to pull one over on freaking Mike Ehrmantraut become an indispensable part of Gus Fring’s billion-dollar drug empire? It can’t just be her access to chemicals – any number of mid-level execs would surely fit the bill. No, there’s something about her mismatched-shoe-wearing self we’re not seeing yet. Certainly Jesse doesn’t – as he often does, he sees her as someone to be saved, or at the very least someone who doesn’t deserve summary execution. (BTW, with her pale skin and dark hair and big eyes, I’d imagine she’s ringing some Jane bells for him.)
Mike himself sees Lydia, or would like to see her, as a dead woman. His desire to finally take the full measure against her is a flash of vengeful anger we haven’t seen from him in a while. And his contention that his own sexism saved her life is a funny, yet also provocative, inversion of chivalry, and one that jibes with the Internet debate about badly behaved women characters in general: If we mentally cut women off from the full range of human behavior, with the full range of consequences, we’re doing them a disservice. By this light, plugging Lydia despite her womanhood and motherhood would be some deranged act of feminism.
Last episode: The Sky Is Falling