Stars: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn
Writer: Sam Catlin
Director: Rian Johnson
Network: AMC, airs Sunday Nights
Original Telecast: August 6, 2012
“Fifty-One” is perhaps the most harrowing episode of BREAKING BAD this season, as it deals primarily with the toll Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston’s) year-long transformation has taken on his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). Since Walt’s become a power-hungry madman, we were aware that this toll was heavy, but this episode features several gasp-worthy moments that is notable not only for the depiction of Walt’s depravity, but for its abject sadness.
Some of those difficult domestic moments include:
- Skyler, in an effort to save their kids from what Walt’s become, suggests sending Walter Jr., (R.J. Mitte), off to boarding school, explaining to Walt that “a new environment might be good for them.” Walt knows what she’s driving at and confronts her by asking “What’s wrong with their environment?” rhetorically, until she has to retreat. Her response, a weak, sad, “nothing” is devastating.
- At the breakfast table, an oblivious Walt Jr. wants Skyler to recreate a birthday ritual from happier times, and she reluctantly snaps Walt’s bacon into a “51”, (his age). She completes this act as though every second makes her skin crawl. This particular ritual is a clever idea on the part of the writers because it offers them a unique way to externalize Walt’s age, (we saw him make a “52” out of his bacon in the diner in the flash forward sequence that began this season), and because it’s so painful to watch what was obviously once a quirky demonstration of Skyler’s love for Walt re-created as some horrific pantomime, done under duress, with all the joy removed.
- At his birthday dinner, Walt gives Hank (Dean Norris) and Marie (Betsy Brandt) a monologue about his (apparently honest), emotional response to learning he had cancer a year before, and going into touching detail about how Skyler cradled his head while he was sick on the bathroom floor from the chemo-therapy. There’s no reason to believe the things he’s saying aren’t sincere, but they just don’t matter anymore. Behind him, Skyler slowly walks into the pool like a somnambulist and submerges herself, desperate to escape this moment in any way possible.
- After this incident, Skyler goes to bed. Walt can only explain the whole scene as the result of Skyler’s guilt over her infidelity with Ted Beneke. Walt’s cover story is effective in that it deflects suspicion from his family’s involvement in the drug trade, but it’s humiliating to Skyler, who isn’t able to provide a counter narrative. She is apparently able to plant a story with Hank and Marie, however, that the kids need to be removed from their home temporarily to give their parents time and space to address their marital issues. She succeeds in this, and she and Walt get the house to themselves for the night.
- When Skyler finally gets up the courage to confront Walt with her true feelings, her worst fears about him are essentially realized. She begins by questioning the logic behind his statement that the family is somehow safe from the harm because he “keeps the work at work.” The first part of this conversation sounds like it could have occurred last season, as an argument among concerned parents trying to make the best out of a hopelessly screwed-up situation. But those days appear to be over, and Walt’s mask has finally come off. Walt starts to tell her she shouldn’t “beat herself up” over her involvement in his drug dealing and it’s effect on innocent people. She “didn’t set out to hurt anyone” and did what she “had to do to protect her family. He tells her “That doesn’t make you a bad person – it makes you a human being.” (This was one of those gasp-worthy moments, as it seems incredible that Walt could have so little self-awareness as to believe this, given that he apparently also imagines himself to be Scarface now). Skyler tells him to stop with the “bullshit rationales,” and that she won’t have her children staying in Walt’s house. And then she discovers the depths of his depravity when he gives up any pretense of arguing with her and merely bullies and threatens. He has a counter-move for all of her plans to remove the children from their home. Nothing she could do to strike out at him would be effective, and she knows it. He taunts her by asking sardonically what her plan is. Her only remaining weapon against Walt at this point is to reveal her true feelings and hope they still have the ability to cause him pain. She says she doesn’t have a plan, and “I don’t have any of your magic” and her “only good option is to hold on, bide my time, and wait.” When he asks, “Wait for what – what are you waiting for?” her response is the emotional climax of this episode. She waits “For the cancer to come back.”
- At the end of the episode, Jesse gives Walt a watch for his birthday. Later, Walt shows it to Skyler and tells her the person that gave him the watch wanted him dead too. “He changed his mind about me, and so will you.”
I was riveted by all of this, but something about it gave me a tiny bit of unease. Perhaps even the beginning of a suspension of disbelief issue, although I’m not willing to commit to it yet. I keep coming back to the question “How can Walt think all this is okay?” The reason Jesse trusts Walt now is because Walt has fundamentally deceived Jesse about his true nature. He knows that Skyler now understands exactly who he is, however, so the two situations are not analogous. Given what just transpired, shouldn’t he realize that he’s lost her emotionally forever? How delusional do I believe Walt is? I can accept that Walt is a man without great insight into himself, but for several decades prior to his cancer diagnosis, Walt had been a functioning, non-sociopathic member of society with a reasonably healthy marriage. He at least once knew what concepts like love and trust actually meant, and how they functioned in marriages generally, even if they didn’t turn out to be huge priorities for him. But in one year he’s apparently lost that body of knowledge, or at least decided to shove it aside in favor of a new arrangement. Now he seems willing, and even eager, to live in a house with a prisoner and two hostages.
So here’s one thing that keeps my suspension of disbelief temporarily at bay: There are two references in this episode to Walt’s actions to date having been in some way “guided.” In his monologue by the pool, Walt says, “there were times I was sure I was done for, but then someone or something would come through for me.” He’s ostensibly speaking about the cancer, but he could also be speaking about the myriad brushes with death he had while dealing drugs. And each time he faced a challenge in that arena, he got through it by doing something immoral that would have been unthinkable to him before his diagnosis, and it always got him through the danger. And it was a ridiculous amount of danger. Even Saul Goodman compared his survival and success to winning the lottery. And at the end of it all Walt was even more powerful, which probably brought with it a confirmation bias. For Walt, his experience could have taught him the lesson that the worse he becomes, the more he prospers, so he now looks for any opportunity to let “Bad Walt” take over and drive the car. Even if it means believing he can rekindle love with a wife who wishes him dead as easily as he swapped out his Pontiac Aztek for a muscle car.
When Skyler says she doesn’t have any of Walt’s “Magic,” her word choice is telling. It’s either magic or outrageously good fortune, but the effect is the same. It makes Walt seem like a force of nature she can’t fight against. If Skyler, or anyone close to Walt, has any hope of escaping the horror his life has become, it’s probably a process that can’t begin until fate starts turning on Walt. And that has to start soon, right?
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Article: TV Review – BREAKING BAD – Season 5 – “Fifty-One”