Breaking Bad: What a Difference a Year Makes (“Fifty-One”)
Well, it’s been a year, or thereabouts, by the timeline of this show. One year since Walter White turned 50, found out he had lung cancer and decided to cook crystal meth in an RV in the outskirts of Albuquerque. One year since a nerdy chemistry teacher tried to rouse enthusiasm in his students by talking about chemistry in a much more poetic language: “It’s growth, decay and then transformation.” We saw the growth- mild mannered science teacher creates the highest quality crystal meth ever seen in the southwest. Becomes a drug legend. We’ve seen the decay: loving husband and father slips down the moral slope- strangles a man to death, allows a young woman to choke to death, inadvertently causes a 747 to crash, makes his partner kill their rival cook, poisons a child, etc, etc, etc. But now we’re seeing the transformation. There is no more Walt. No more Mr. White. Just Heisenberg.
This episode, aptly titled “Fifty-One”, ushers in Walt’s 51st Birthday. Things couldn’t be more polarizing at the White residence. In a kind of sheer defiance, Walt buys not only one sports car for his son, but one for himself as well, trading in the Pontiac Aztec (no!) and the PT Cruiser. Walt seems to be trading in anything that makes him seem ordinary these days. He quickly re-dons the Heisenberg porkpie hat. Basically, Walt is in power mode, scrambling for purchase of every kind while he struggles to return his meth operation to full speed. But the focus of “Fifty-One” wasn’t just on the new and decidedly less-improved Walt, it was about the powder keg in his home, and how it’s basically gone off. Last week, I talked about how Skylar was spiraling downward with her anxiety and depression over what her life has become since getting into bed with Walt’s business. (Not that it was peachy when she was left unaware, really. It’s always been dangerous and Walt still doesn’t understand that.)
She certainly hasn’t improved since last week, but she’s finally striking back instead of sinking into bed. Once she realizes that Walt is cooking again, she immediately gets her number one priority in order: protect her kids. She fumbles to ask for it gently, at first, suggesting that Walter Jr. go to boarding school in Arizona.
“And where are we sending our eight-month-old,” Walt objects, “boarding school?!” But Skyler suggests that a new “environment” might be good for them. Of course, Walt, in full touchy-feely abusive husband mode, immediately snaps, asking what is wrong about their environment. Walt insists that there is nothing but smooth sailing for them from now on, since he’s doing his own thing, to say nothing of the problems with, you know, the DEA, or the remainder of Gus’s business.
“Life is good, Skyler.” Then, he makes some not-so-subtle suggestions about what he’d like to have for his 51st: a celebration, some chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. A gentle reminder: in the pilot, Walt’s birthday party is a big surprise party with box wine and Hank whipping out his gun and telling DEA stories. This time, it’s a sober affair with just Hank and Marie, even Walt Jr. leaves to go hang out with friends.
Which leads us to Skyler and the pool. As Walt rambles on and on to Hank and Marie about the bad early days of his cancer treatment, Skyler makes a very specific decision. She wades into the pool and submerges herself, and, seemingly, has no intention of coming back up. She floats there serenely, blue skirt, same color as Walt’s unique brand of crystal meth, billowing around her like the petals of a morning glory. At the last second, Walt dives in and yanks her back up.
“Suicide attempt.” “Cry for help.” Whatever neat term Hank, Marie or Walt can try to ascribe to it, Skyler’s made her point, and even more importantly, it’s part of a plan. Marie suggests that the kids come to live with her and Hank for a bit, while Walt and Skyler “take care of each other.” But Skyler has already shown this hand once, and it doesn’t take long for Walt to figure that shipping the kids off was Skyler’s suggestion.
The conversation that happens once Marie and Hank leave is one of Breaking Bad’s best. Walt immediately falls back on his usual M.O.: he’s doing this for his family, and that they couldn’t be any more safe now. But this is a woman who is pushed past the brink of being able to deal with her husband’s double life and abusive behavior: “I don’t need to hear any of your bullshit rationales. I’m in it now, I’m compromised, but 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!’”
And here’s the thing about Breaking Bad: people love this show. We love watching a guy who used to be our kid’s high school science teacher turn into a drug kingpin and kill people and pull off amazing things like homemade bombs because it’s awesome. It’s something that none of us can do. It’s a bizarre sort of American Dream/Wish Fulfillment cautionary tale. So naturally, even though many of us pound our fists about what a terrible person Walt is, and how he needs to be brought down (and oh, he does), this show doesn’t go forward without him.
But you have to have the normal reaction- which is what Skyler offers. She’s horrified by what Walt does, and wants to keep her children safe. And oh man, she is so through with Walt. He keeps asking her “What’s your plan?” like a crazed Bond villain, and even though she fully admits she has no good plan, all she has to do is wait. “Wait for what?” Walt asks. At first I thought she meant wait for the DEA to catch up with him, or for someone to finally blow him to hell like he did to Gus. But that wasn’t it at all. “For the cancer to come back,” she adds, like a dagger.
It’s not the first death sentence someone’s ever given to Walt. But it’s the first honest one. It’s easy to forget that Walt started this whole ordeal because of a probably-fatal diagnosis of lung cancer. One that he was sure was going to kill him. And one that went away, prompting him to think “I have lived too long.” But really, Walt died a long time ago.
The next day, Walt shaves his head in the shower. He doesn’t have to shave his head, but he does. It’s the Heisenberg image, the one that’s been enshrined in the deserts. But even the oil painting is starting to crack. He cuts himself, and blood oozes through shaving cream. His hat has a loose thread that he can’t ignore. And his business plan is awful.
There’s some side business where Mike sends Jesse to pick up a barrel of methylamine from Lydia. But there’s a snag: Lydia and Jesse find a tracking device on the bottom of the barrel. Lydia insists that the DEA have been trampling all over the warehouse and that they must be tracking the barrels. Mike thinks it’s too clumsy a plant- and that Lydia must have done it, and further more, he was stupid not to kill her, and “for being sexist.” (By not killing her.)
But Jesse says there’s no need to kill her, because Jesse is still clinging to his moral center, which Walt is trying to exploit and Mike is trying to protect by not making Jesse deal with things like whacking people. Jesse puts it to a vote. At first I thought Walt would vote to waste her, but he doesn’t really seem to care about the peons who give him what he needs, as long as he gets it. “This train doesn’t stop.” Outside, Jesse gives him a Rolex for his birthday. Later, Walt shows the Rolex to Skyler and says that the man who gave it to him wanted to kill him once, and changed his mind. I think we all know if Jesse knew half of what Walt’s done to him, there would be no question of where Walt would be now.
Which basically leaves us to the future. We’ve seen a glimpse. The 52nd birthday spent alone at Denny’s, with the 52 over a plate of breakfast he doesn’t even eat. “Mr. Lambert” from New Hampshire, whose only birthday gift is a semi-automatic, which “won’t even leave the city.” A lot can happen in a year. Has Walt reached his ultimate point of transformation? And if not, how much more decay is yet to come?
“Fifty-One” is the second episode of Breaking Bad directed by Rian Johnson (Brick and the upcoming Looper) following season three’s love-it-or-hate-it “Fly”, which was another long-burn episode full of meaningful conversations, loaded imagery and stunning character moments (also co-written by Fifty-One’s writer, Sam Catlin). I hope, in these last 12 episodes of Breaking Bad, that we get at least one more outing from Mr. Johnson.