Breaking Bad Season 5 Part 1 hits its half waypoint this week with the episode “Fifty One.” In this week’s cold opening, Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) are getting the old family SUV fixed. However, as father and son are about to leave the mechanic shop, Walt decides to spontaneously sell off the perfectly usable car and splurge on some souped-up vehicles for both himself and his boy. The scene, with its bizarre Pimp My Ride shooting style and dubstep-laden soundtrack, seems to be a bit out of place on a show like Breaking Bad, but the scene still has a definite purpose; it’s used to show just how further the point of just how far gone Walt has gone in terms of responsibility, freely spending money that he doesn’t have (as said during the ”Madrigal” episode). That shirking of responsibility also shows how much of a walking hypocrite Walt is, as he constantly speaks about his responsibility to his family yet pulls stupidly reckless stuff like this.
As the episode continues on, we see Lydia (Laura Fraser) has become a nervous wreck since Mike (Jonathan Banks) threatened her life during her last appearance in “Madrigal”, to the point where she’s wearing mismatched shoes and staring out her window during conference calls. Her paranoia only increases when Hank (Dean Norris) and his fellow DEA agents come in, drilling Lydia with questions about her connections to Gus’ operation. In order to save herself, Lydia rats out a fellow employee that transported the methylamine to Mike, who sends Jesse (Aaron Paul) instead. All of this stuff as well as the scenes where Hank and his cohorts are befuddled over the return of the blue meth despite Gus’ death does a nice job of thickening the DEA subplot, as this shows Hank at his most competent. True, he’s still incredibly incompetent for never even thinking that Walt could be behind any of this, but at least he seems somewhat competent this time around.
However, that stuff pales in comparison to the central focus of the episode, which is Skyler (Anna Gunn). As I’ve mentioned in all these other recaps, Skyler has been broken throughout this season due to Walt’s actions in Season 4, letting Walt take action over the family’s decisions. This episode starts with her trying to suggest that maybe they should move Walt Jr. to boarding school, but Walt shuts down this idea. Then, she’s pretty silent for most of the episode, just sitting around and staring with a blank face as Walt and Walt Jr. get those expensive cars and soullessly shaping Walt’s bacon into a “51″ shape to mark his birthday (hence the title). Then, as Walt is faintly praising Hank and Marie (Betsy Baker) for helping him out since his cancer diagnosis during his birthday dinner, Skyler (in true zombie like fashion), simply walks into the family’s pool, fully dressed and seemingly bent on committing suicide before Walt fishes her out of the pool. I really loved the way this sequence was made with the gorgeously eerie lighting from the pool light. The use of music just captures how desperate Skyler is to escape the life she’s been forced into and (through Walt’s sudden intrusion) the fact that she can’t escape it.
Then… the scene happens. The scene that has stolen Season 5 for it’s own. After Walt muddles over bringing Skyler to a psychiatrist & letting the kids stay with Marie and Hank, Walt and Skyler have the most intense conversation in Breaking Bad history. The two of them get in this tension filled argument where Skyler keeps suggesting ways that she can keep the kids away from Walt in order to protect them from the possible danger of his drug production business, but Walt shuts down every single plan. This is all brilliant build up that speaks to the immense talents of not only Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston, but also episode director Rian Johnson (who you might know from films like Brick, The Brothers Bloom and the upcoming Looper, as well as the Season 3 episode Fly). The way the conversation just rattles up in pace through the editing and the delivery of the lines is so damn engrossing, which just shows how exciting something as simple as two people talking can be. It all culminates in an exchange that completely changes the dynamic between Walt and Skyler; Skyler says that she’ll “bide [her] time… until the cancer comes back.” Now, I know there’s a lot of hate amongst the Breaking Bad fan base towards Skyler (which I honestly don’t understand, but that’s a whole other article…), but the way she just shuts Walt up with that revelation of a line makes that hatred seem so invalid and earned Anna Gunn an Emmy for next season. It’s a show stopping moment that brings Skyler out of her depressed unmoved shell shock state that she’s been in all season and moves her back up to Walt’s level, which is sure to cause a hell of a lot of confrontation in the oncoming weeks.
So, while all of that hubbub is going on, Jesse is getting the methylamine from Lydia in Houston. However, as Jesse tries packing a giant container of it into his truck, he and Lydia notice a GPS device has been attached to it. Back in New Mexico, Walt, Jesse, and Mike discuss the situation, with Mike believing that Lydia is responsible for the GPS and should be taken out while Jesse believes that she’s innocent. Walt then intrudes, pointing out that the meth must continue production, regardless of how they deal with getting the methylamine. Outside, Jesse gives Walt a belated birthday present in the form of an expensive watch. At home, Walt shows the watch off to a now chain smoking Skyler, explaining to her that Jesse was willing to kill Walt a few weeks ago before turning to his side and that she’ll do the same soon enough. All of this sets up more tension to build upon over the season, both in terms of how the trio will get their methylamine and whether Skyler or Walt will break first. The episode even ends on a small bit of doubt from Walt’s perspective as the watch Jesse gave him ticks away while he lies in bed, symbolizing that maybe Skyler’s time biding strategy will be his undoing.
As per usual, Breaking Bad manages to once again best itself. The performances are stronger, the inclusion of a guest director provides an even more cinematic touch to the proceedings and this development in the Skyler storyline is sure to ratchet up tension in the White household. But only time will tell as we eagerly anticipate next week’s episode “Dead Freight”.