Breaking Bad 5.04 "Fifty-One"

A tv review article by: Nick Hanover, Paul Brian McCoy


Nick Hanover: I'm starting to wonder if Vince Gilligan has bugged your home, Paul. Because last week, you were lamenting the loss of independent Skyler. And here we are a week later and independent Skyler is back with a vengeance, Henrik Ibsen-style.

Paul Brian McCoy: It had to be coming. There was no way they could have credibly stayed with catatonic Skyler and kept up the quality we've come to expect.

And while it was a comeback that was hampered by a lack of real character options, it was still a pretty powerful moment.

Nick: This episode made it obvious that what we viewed as inactivity and submissiveness on Skyler's part before was actually Skyler biding her time, trying to distract with inaction while internally she planned her exit strategy.

Paul: I don't know about that. I think she's just been traumatized by all the violence and Walt's acceptance of it. This seemed more like an act of desperation. I mean, she didn't even know Walt was cooking again until this week.

Nick: I'll explain why I think you're wrong. If you remember, when Skyler went to visit Ted in the hospital, she walked into the room appearing distraught and apologetic, ready to do whatever she needed to in order to gain his silence. But as soon as she saw his fear, Skyler backed away and played it cool, nodding her head like this was the plan all along. I think in that moment, she recognized that she couldn't stay where she was, that so many other houses of cards would soon be falling and if she couldn't save herself, she at least needed to save her children. You could see the wheels turning then, but you wouldn't have realized it, it just seemed like shock. But considering the sudden shift, the way she made a u-turn in her emotions makes me immediately reevaluate that scene and what came after.

Paul: It's possible. I think she was traumatized by what happened to Ted and the fact that she and the kids were suddenly targets. The fact that Walt was able to come out on top, killing Gus and was no longer afraid-- hell, was adamantly confident and unrepentant about killing him-- sent her into shock. I think she's just been broken and trying to figure out how to get herself and the kids out. When Walt revealed he was cooking again, that was the final straw and in desperation, she sacrificed herself (to some extent) to get the kids out of the house. But it's a shitty plan, and she knows it. All she can do is hold on until Walt's cancer takes him.

Still, that was one of the strongest scenes of the season, and maybe the entire show. I'm just disappointed she doesn't own her situation and embrace it. I'd rather see her strong than desperate.

Nick: Well, I think it's too soon for her to own her situation and embrace it. This was a tremendous first step and we can't expect her to reveal all her cards just yet, or to be 100% ready to take on every facet of Walt's new identity. I mean, I don't think she even knew the extent to which Walt had fully embraced his own situation, or more specifically, how he has become Heisenberg, not Walt.

Paul: I just don't see any planning or forethought. She's just desperate and broken.

Nick: Unless that's exactly what she wants Walt, and by extent us, to think.

Paul: I can't see it.

I'd like to be surprised, but I think you may be reading more into it than is there.

Nick: It wasn't long ago that she was completely playing Walt, manipulating him as well as Ted. Yeah, she screwed up a bit and she's now in a situation that's far more chaotic than she may have originally imagined, but Skyler has been quickly adapting to terrible situations since this show started.

Paul: We'll see.

I can only hope that if I turned evil, Dr. Girlfriend would have my back and not become my enemy.

Trying to take my cats away from me. That shit wouldn't stand.

Nick: Never get between a man and his cats. Or his meth.

Paul: I could never cook a clean batch. There'd be cat hair in everything.

Nick: Speaking of contaminating the batch, I think we need to step back for a moment here and celebrate the return of Rian Johnson, whose previous Breaking Bad directorial effort was "Fly," Breaking Bad's only bottle episode and one entirely devoted to the efforts of a lone fly to contaminate a batch.

Paul: Yes, indeed.

When does Looper hit, anyway? I'm really looking forward to that.

Nick: September 28! Like last week, I saw this episode at the Drafthouse, and it was once again a packed house. And the audience went completely fucking nuts for that cold open. But I have a feeling that the dubstep car ad it turned into wouldn't have struck me the same way had I watched it on my own. So I really want to hear what you thought, Paul.

Paul: It actually put me off. Surprise!

Nick: I'm pretty sure it would have put me off, too. But mob mentality and all that.

Paul: I know that he explained it away as a couple of leases, but as with the Scarface scenes last week, it felt more like shorthand than real development. Of course, if it had been something like Anthrax instead of dubstep, I probably would have loved it. I'm fickle like that.

But then it may have been more ironic. Or maybe I'm just missing the irony.  

Which is very possible.

Nick: We're talking about Walt here. He probably would have been blasting Chicago's "Twenty Five or Six to Four."

Paul: Ha!

But that's really a good point! It wasn't in-scene music. It was narrative music and as such a directorial manipulation of the scene.

Nick: But I do feel like it accomplished what it set out to, which was to show that Walt has turned into an epic douche who has thrown subtlety out the window. He's no longer using his apparent timidness and meekness to his advantage but is instead acting like Peter Parker did back in the early Spider-Man comics, when he was just as much of an asshole as the bullies that had tormented him forever. With great power comes great responsibility. Or great assholery. Whichever.

Paul: Throwing the dubstep in, and using the quick cuts, really made it seem more like directorial commentary rather than allowing the storytelling to take front and center. It was like a bad music montage to show how meaningful a scene is, only in the other direction. It was telling us what to think rather than letting us interpret the scene independently. It didn't trust the audience. I'm afraid that this is something we're going to see more of as they try to cram a year's worth of story into one season.

Nick: That misstep aside, though, I felt that Johnson brought his a-game here. Most of the character building in the episode was more subtle, and the tension between Walt and Mike was brutal. On top of that, Lydia is already proving how weak Mike can be in his own way and Hank got a promotion that could either buy Walt more time or put the pressure on him even more.

Paul: Oh, yeah. After the opening, this episode slammed itself back on track.

They even addressed my concerns there at Walt's birthday "party" with Walt going over how much shit has gone down in just a year. A year spread out over four seasons.

Nick: That scene was the most awkward party on television since The Office's "The Dinner Party."

Paul: And yet it really didn't come close to that Office episode. That was brutal. This was more stylized and artistic instead of going for raw emotional breakdowns. The Skyler in the pool scene was gorgeously filmed, but lacked an emotional center. It was too meticulous and planned, being what I think was Skyler's first real glimmering of a plan. The other characters (sans Walt) see it as a suicide attempt, but we know better. And that distances our emotional connection to the scene.

But it was beautiful.

Nick: I quite liked the way Johnson shifted the focus to Hank, though. Hank fulfilled the audience surrogate role, as he was clearly as uncomfortable as us by what was happening. Really, I think the only thing keeping him from figuring out what's going on with Walt is how distracting the awkward family dramatics are for him.

Paul: True! He's doing all he can to not think about family stuff. I'm very curious to see how his promotion is going to play out. Now he can direct the entire branch toward focusing on the blue meth.

Nick: I disagree that the other characters viewed Skyler's behavior as a suicide attempt, though. Hank immediately shot that down and Marie appeared to be the only one considering it. For everyone else, it seemed clear to me that they thought of it as a mental breakdown, which is why the talk centered around how Skyler could benefit from the same therapist Marie uses.

Paul: I think the talk of seeing a therapist was clear concern for her well-being, with Hank being so uncomfortable he didn't know what to do.

Nick: Speaking of the blue meth, how fucking arrogant is it of Walt to flaunt that in front of the police? Does he think they're going to assume someone else, someone unconnected to Fring, is magically making the same formula?

Yeah, Walt is clearly not concerned about the DEA at this point. They're beneath his notice. Until Hank inevitably mentions something about it to him. I wouldn't be surprised to see Walt decide Hank has to go before this season is over.

Nick: Or he steals Mike's hush money idea and frames Jesse then shifts his attention to Mike. After all, Walt did just eliminate the only thing Jesse had to live for.

Paul: Jesse's step to the background is a little troublesome for me. This season seems to be shifting to an almost complete Walter focus with the others just serving to support his ultimate fall.

We're not getting any Jesse alone-time at all.

Nick: This is Breaking Bad. Nothing is ever as it seems.

Paul: Normally I'd agree with you, but the whole format for this season has me worried. There's gonna have to be a lot of time jumps to encompass an entire year in one season after the pace they've set over the first four seasons.

Nick: Well, two seasons, technically.

And honestly, I think the cold open of the premier is the only time we're going to get a glimpse at the future for the rest of this mini-season.

Paul: I think they're streamlining. So far, it hasn't really shown, but as the season goes on it's going to become more and more obvious. Regardless, they're going to have to get to that 52nd birthday for the climax, and that means shoving an entire year of story into less than ten episodes.

I feel like Chicken Little.

Nick: I've got faith in Breaking Bad's track record and so far I'm enjoying the way things are falling into place. I was as cynical as you are now when the teddy bear was floating in the pool. Then every theory I had was proven wrong and I was blown away so entirely that I swore to never doubt the show again.

Now we have waffles, bacon and an assault rifle, but it's the same thing, really.

Paul: But that was an entirely different narrative approach to the season

Nick: Of course, but it was vastly different from what the show had done before.

Paul: And now we know that the timeframe for that was just a few weeks.

Nick: You're also assuming that Gilligan is going to go over all of what happens in this year.

Paul: That's my point.

Nick: But it's entirely possible that there will be a catastrophic event and the second half of this season picks up in the premier's present.

Paul: I'm afraid we're going to have to jump around so much and shorthand so much that it's going to damage the series in the end.

Granted, that's completely unfounded and paranoid.

Nick: Eh, I completely disagree. One jump does not constitute a lot of jumping around. And to stretch my epic hero metaphor from before, how many epics involve similar jumps?

Pretty much all of them, and I don't hear anyone claiming The Odyssey was damaged by its time jumps.

Spoiler! This is how Breaking Bad actually ends!

Paul: But no one would claim that the final chapter of The Odyssey was as strong as everything that came before.

He just gets home.

The end.

We've still got a helluva lot of journey left to go here and I just don't think the math supports a strong final stretch, given everything that has come before. We're going to see the equivalent span of time as the first four seasons pass in less than one. That means huge jumps in time compared to what's come before.

Nick: Breaking Bad hasn't given me a reason to doubt it yet and until it does, I'm not willing to condemn its finale. This isn't BSG or Lost, this show has always had a definite finale and while details between the beginning and end have changed, Gilligan and company have been adamant that the ending of Walter White was decided from the get go. Whatever storytelling compression Gilligan resorts to is for a clear and definite purpose. Whatever stylistic deviations he concocts are likewise in tune with similar stylistic departures the show has taken and I don't think the specific mathematics of the ending matter much. We've got different ingredients here. This is blue meth to the white we've known.

Paul: Again, I hope you're right. But BSG and Lost also were very strong going into those final seasons.  

Not as strong as Breaking Bad, but strong nonetheless.

Nick: You must have watched a completely different Lost than I did, then. And BSG infamously had a definite ending with season four, then it got renewed and they scrambled to come up with a new ending.

Paul: I did. That time travel season was Lost's best, most innovative stretch of storytelling. And I think you're confusing BSG with Babylon 5.

Looking at it from the perspective of someone who tries to write stories, this feels like forcing the story into the parallel structure of the birthdays and can possibly-- not definitely-- hurt the final push to the conclusion. Regardless of how pre-planned the end-point was. We are, without question, going to have to jump large stretches of time to hit that 52nd birthday. Hopefully, it will still be satisfying, but it's a dangerous play.

Nick: I think Lost has just rocked your faith here and now you're overly paranoid. But I'll tell you what. I am so confident that Breaking Bad will not crash land that I am willing to bet you a case of beer of your choosing.

Paul: No, I'm one of the people who liked Lost's conclusion. It wasn't as good as I'd hoped it would be-- it fell far short-- but I still thought it worked in the context of the entire show.

I won't bet for the failure of one of the best shows on television. I want it to prove me wrong.

Nick: I think that means I automatically win beer. But let's rate this thing, already. I'm going 4.5

Paul: I'll go 4.

It was pretty strong after that dubstep opening.

I just know I wouldn't structure a story I wrote like this.

Nick: Next year, on AMC- Coffee, Sex and Creation.

Paul: Deal!

Nick: I'd watch it.

Paul: I'd cash in on it.



When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights, Spectrum Culture and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover



Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot,Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle USKindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.




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