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‘Breaking Bad’ Talk: “Fifty-One”

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Welcome to ‘Breaking Bad‘ talk! Each week we’ll be discussing the latest episode with two critics. This week’s episode, “Fifty-One,” was directed by Rian Johnson and gives us an intimate portrait of what it means for Walter White to have and exert power in all of his relationships, especially with his wife, Skylar.

Editor Britt Hayes is joined this week by ScreenCrush’s own Jacob Hall and writer Rod Paddock. Jacob also writes for Movies.com and you can tweet him @JacobSHall. Rod writes for Slackerwood, a film site based out of Austin with a focus on Texas cinema. You can tweet him @RodPaddock. You can tweet Britt @MissBrittHayes.

Britt: This week’s episode was directed by Rian Johnson, who previously directed my personal favorite episode, “The Fly.” From Walt and Walt Jr. revving the engines on their brand new cars to Skylar entering the pool, “Fifty-One” was filled with gorgeous visual touches. So let’s get right down to it and discuss our former protagonist and current villain, Walter White, a man who makes me cringe every week now, and this week was no exception — from picking up the Heisenberg hat to rubbing his power in Skylar’s face, Walt is exerting his authority no longer with the faux cockiness of a man who is unsure he is capable of holding the power, but with an arrogance that is disturbing. How are you guys feeling about Walt’s actions this week?

Jacob: This entire episode played like a 45 minute horror movie, with Walt transforming into one of the most terrifying characters in the history of, well, fiction. Sure, it had its fair share of laughs (the MTV-style car revving montage at the beginning had me cackling), but this was easily the darkest episode of the show since “Crawl Space,” which ended with Walt cackling like a madman underneath his house. The episode’s big set piece was easily the bedroom confrontation between Skylar and Walt, which is noteworthy for its restraint. How easy would it have been for the writers to make Walt become a wife-beater? Instead, they stay true to the character and make him even worse: once again, his words are his weapons and he uses them like knives. One of my pet peeves with some fans of this show is how they pick on Skylar, call her a bitch and a nag and all other etceteras, but that has been ‘Breaking Bad’’s most twisted joke: by putting us on Walt’s side, we were tricked into disliking a rational, normal woman who had the audacity to want to know what the hell her husband was doing behind her back. Well, Skylar haters, you’ve got your wish: she’s officially under Walt’s thumb and the result is one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen on TV.

The short answer to your query, Britt, is that Walt somehow managed to reach new lows. He’s let Heisenberg into his home, introduced him to his wife and let him abuse the hell out of her. As stylish as much of this episode is, Johnson’s restraint, his willingness to let the camera just linger on situations is the closest I think we’ll ever come to seeing Michael Haneke make a TV show. Riveting. Disgusting. Unsettling. Wow.

But hey! Walter Jr. ate breakfast! And Mike made me crack up with his comments on sexism! What did you guys think of the episode’s pace and focus, moving away from the wacky criminal antics of the past few outings and focusing on Walt the monster instead of Walt the badass kingpin?

Britt: That scene in the bedroom was utterly horrifying. With every desperate plan Skylar proposes, Walt counters with something more sinister. When he suggested he might have her committed if she hurts herself to keep the kids out of the house, my jaw hit the floor. You’re right, Heisenberg is in that house now, not Walt. Every word of dialogue spoken from his mouth comes from a criminal, not from the cancer-addled husband and father who wanted to find a way to provide for his family. He no longer cares about protecting them — all he cares about is being the master, being in control, no matter what it takes.

Rod: Walter’s success at cooking meth, evading law enforcement, dealing with cartels, and ultimately murder has made him fear no one. I am sure he would kill Skylar if push came to shove. Walter was afraid of the monster and now he is the monster.

His ego will lead to his eventual downfall. His empire has weak links and he has blinded himself with power.

Britt: Exactly. There were two moments that stood out to me this week with regards to Walt — the errant thread hanging from his hat, which seems to signal to the audience (and possibly to him) that he isn’t quite the powerful man that he thinks he is. And also the scene with the Rolex ticking at the end, which seems to allude to a countdown of sorts. How long until Walt’s power is upended and he’s on the run?

Rod: The scene with Jr. making mom deal with Walt’s  food was disturbing to me. It was almost if Skylar has become an indentured servant.

Jacob: A countdown until his power is gone or a countdown on his life? In both cases, time is running out. The big stand-up-and-cheer moment of the episode was definitely Skylar telling Walt that her plan is to wait him out and let the cancer do him in. That’s how dark this hour was: we take relief in one character wishing cancer on another. As Rod points out, Skylar is a slave within her own home, but she has the one thing Walt doesn’t have: time.

To shift gears, what did you think about the characters lingering at the fringes of this episode? Hank returned after being absent last week along with crazy Lydia, who’s trying to play Mike for a fool with that fake tracker business. Walt has Hank (his secret arch enemy at this point) eating out of the palm of his hand and he obviously has a plan for Lydia that differs from Mike’s “bullet in the back of the head” approach. How long until Walt’s control of the people outside of his home begins to spiral out of control?

Britt: I don’t think Walt has any real power over the people tied to Madrigal, but he’s enjoying the idea that he thinks he does. I was thrilled to see Hank and Marie together, and although Hank has taken the promotion, I don’t think he’ll be letting go of the Fring case that easily. Do we trust Mike’s instincts that Lydia planted the tracker, or is there something else going on there? I don’t think Hank is that sloppy, but I wonder if a third party is involved. I hope Lydia doesn’t bite the big one just yet because I’m enjoying her neurotic, paranoid antics a little too much, but if we have to get rid of her to make more room for Jesse Plemons, I’m down with that.

Jacob: YES! Jesse Plemons! Landry Clark forever! Texas forever! The casting directors on this show deserve all of the money and/or alcohol.

Rod: I don’t think we have seen all that is Madrigal. There are some people that work at that company that are probably watching what is going on with Walt and Co. I would be surprised if Mike is not deeply involved with the higher ups there. How else would they be keeping all these people quiet ? Remember we are driving to the point where Walt needs an M16 (or whatever it was) with a grenade launcher on it. Wondering if that will be the final part of this 8 week arc.

Britt: I’m also just really glad that Walt Jr. had a sensible breakfast this week, and it gave me such joy when Skylar took his bacon away. Little victories.

Jacob: Forget drugs! Bacon theft is going to tear the White family apart!

Britt: I feel like Jesse isn’t being used as much this season so far, and while I love the exploration of the monster Walter White has become and the Mike-heaviness of the episodes, I long for more Jesse! It breaks my heart each week when he does or says something nice to Walt, showing how much respect he still holds for him and how much he still trusts him. I like to give Jesse the smart cookie benefit of the doubt, but when will he realize what a terrible person Walt has become?

Jacob: Oh, Jesse. My heart breaks every time I see the poor guy. This season has been the longest stretch he’s gone without being beaten up or chewed out or generally just made miserable, but he’s only stable because of the foundation of lies that Walt built underneath him. How long before that completely shatters and Jesse realized that he’s been played as a fool by a man who looks up to as a father? Jesse hasn’t been a major player this season, but he has a front row ticket to THE major conflict: Walt vs. Mike. Eventually, Jesse is going to have to side with one of his surrogate mentors. We can only hope he’ll pick the one that actually cares about him (It’s Mike! It’s Mike, you dummy!). I think we’re about to see the battle for Jesse’s soul in the episodes ahead.

I want to bring up one of the most striking moments from the episode: the pool. While Walt talks and lies (and talks and talks and lies and lies), Skylar, unable to take any more if it, plunges into the pool. For a moment, she looks like she’s at peace, only to be pulled out by Walt. A haunting, gorgeously shot scene, for sure, but how much of it was a real reaction and how much was for show? Was this something she did to make a statement and quietly alert Hank and Marie that something is wrong or is she so broken that the pool felt like the right choice?

Rod: Jesse is the Warren Buffet of the group. One detail I noticed is that Jesse is still driving that piece of s— Toyota wagon from the first season. When I pointed this out last night, we realized that Jesse is actually richer than all of the other dudes. He could walk at any moment with no problem. Not sure why he doesn’t.

I am still processing the whole Skylar pool incident. She is mentally shot and the pressure has definitely overwhelmed her already fragile psyche. It’s odd that in such a short amount of time she went from a drug kingpin money launderer to a shell of a person. The realities have caught up where the realities of the situation have completely left Walt.

I am not so sure Mike is Jesse’s savior. I have a hard time believing any of his motivations. If that off shore account had not been wiped would he still be around? His gatekeepers are keeping him close at hand. Maybe until they can get a hold of Walt’s recipe?

Britt: It totally delights me to know that Jesse has all of this money and just doesn’t care. He was so ready to cover Walt’s cost for the overhead in the previous episode, and he just keeps throwing his money around because he genuinely doesn’t know what else to do with it. But I think it’s a really honest portrayal of someone like that, you know? Without a drug or alcohol habit anymore, what would Jesse do with his money? He has everything he needs and he is smart in not being excessive, unlike Walt who insists on blowing money on ridiculous cars.

Jacob: Jesse’s come a long way in the past year, huh? While Walt’s become a monster, he’s transformed it a professional and responsible young man who is a vital member of his surrogate family. He’s still a criminal, but hey, at least he’s no longer putting chili powder in his product.

Rod: I love the role reversal. Jesse was a low life scumbag Walt was the family man. A short time later, boom! Roles have changed.

All conspiracy theories are broken by the weakest links. Lydia is definitely in that position. Hank is already onto her. Hank’s cop skills worked when he noticed the different shoes. Walt leaving this weak link could be the catalyst to ending his reign.

Jacob: Rod’s right about Lydia being a catalyst for something bad happening. At the end of the episode, Mike was ready to kill her and simply remove her from the picture, but Walt had a different plan that we still haven’t heard. Is Mike in the right for wanting her dead? Will Walt and Jesse letting her live mean bad things in the future?

Britt, you’re a big fan of Lydia. If you were a criminal mastermind, would you trust her?

Britt: I may be a fan of Lydia, but I don’t know if I’d trust her. I think I just empathize with her personality type, but I think that type allows for one of two things to happen: she slips up (like her mismatched shoes) or she’s more careful than most. She’s too fragile and scared right now, and I’m sorry to say, but I think letting Mike “eliminate the problem” might be the best and only option at this point. I’m just not sure that her paranoia and neuroses can be contained.

Rod: “Eliminating the problem” is what the careful, calculating Walt would have done. Mike is correct in his assessment, but his and Jesse’s ideas don’t matter. Walt is the head of the family and what these two say has no bearing on him. His power became more solid at the end when he said “We go forward!”

Jacob: If there’s one thing ‘Breaking Bad’ has shown us, it’s that people are capable of taking their weaknesses and transforming them into strengths. Walt’s shaved head was once a sign of weakness. His hat was once a goofy disguise. Now, through sheer will, he’s transformed them into signifiers of his toughness. What if Lydia’s neuroses are like Walt’s cancer: the obstacle that, once overcome, will unleash a beast? I think we’re going to see a lot more from Lydia and I think she, like Walt, will be able to focus her instability into a weapon.

Rod: Did anyone catch the major discrepancy in the timeline last night. He said it was a year since the diagnosis. Skyler got preggers and had a kid and now the kid is like 8 months old. Was that an error on the part of the screenwriters?

Britt: I noticed this too! I think that’s a goof on the part of the writers, for sure. There is no way that baby is like, two months old.

Jacob: That baby is definitely too old. Honestly, it’s probably just easier to deal with slightly older kids from a production standpoint… and the baby is just too cute for words, so all is forgiven.

Rod: The whole head-shaving thing was interesting. He still cut himself and ended up like the professor dork he started as in the beginning with a band-aid on his head. It was a good message. You are still a man, dude. If you get cut, you still bleed. You are not invincible. Also, it was like the opening to ‘Dexter.’

Jacob: Between that ending and going with the pest control plan, Walt is definitely displaying an anti-voting sentiment in our little blue meth triumvirate, huh? Mike’s letting it slide for now (mainly because he controls the cash and can put Walt in his place), but I don’t want to be around when they finally butt heads…

…okay, I do. It’s going to be great. But we’re forgetting the most important question raised by the episode: what is more important in a car? Raw speed and power or driver experience? This is important. Answer honestly, guys.

Britt: Having a DEA agent uncle to tear up your tickets.

Jacob: Perfect answer. You’re a regular Heisenberg, Britt.

Rod: As an, AHEM, older gentleman, it is 100% driver experience! Just saying!

Britt: I want to wind this down now by asking you guys what your favorite moments this week were. I’ll go first:

My favorite moment was most definitely Skylar walking into the pool. It’s so suspenseful because you just know as soon as she walks over there, it’s her plan. The way Johnson filmed that gorgeous blue water and Skylar’s beautiful dark blue skirt — mesmerizing. But I also loved the juxtaposition of Walt’s ridiculously self-important monologue against Skylar slowly losing her mind. She’s a trapped woman, and she’s a very different Skylar from the one we used to know. I was rooting for her as she walked into the water and I wanted her to have peace.

Jacob: A tough choice. I could (and should) say the bedroom confrontation because it’s one of the most unsettling things I’ve ever seen, but I’m a big Mike softie, so I’ll go with his Lydia discussion in the final scene, where he blamed sexism for not killing her when he had a chance. Jonathan Banks has steadily become this show’s supporting MVP and after the horror of the previous 40 minutes, those laughs were gifts.

Rod: To me it is when Walt declares “Nothing stops this train. Nothing!” This is a defining moment to me. It solidifies his power and also his total disregard for consequences. He is struggling to get back to where he was and will stop at nothing to get there.

The second defining moment was the breakfast table incident. That part was a scary transference of power (albeit temporary) from Jr. to Sr.

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