When we left Hank and Walt facing each other down in the garage last week, the question uppermost in our minds from the last half season—when will Walt find out that Hank knows?—had been answered. The electricity of that moment lay in the thousand new questions suddenly clamoring for attention. In “Buried,” Breaking Bad methodically sets out to answer the most crucial subset of those thousand questions: What do these characters want? And while on the surface this episode is just moving the pieces into place, its singleminded attention to motivation provides just the kind of revelations that prime the engines for the stretch run. Each character chooses a personal victory condition—a definition of “winning” that sets their course but also traps them inside of it. If somebody doesn’t break free, there’s going to be one hell of an explosion, and a tragic periphery of collateral damage.
We start with Walter’s motivation, and it’s both the simplest (at least initially) and the most dramatic. No sooner have the two men parted ways—initiated by the portentous garage door opening in the background as the cul-de-sac kid’s RC car skitters in the foreground, and punctuated by a full-blown High Noon confrontation complete with low-angle shots and itchy trigger fingers—than Walter scrambles to warn Skyler that Hank knows. He’s in full-blown panic damage-control mode. His only desire is to shut down the numerous avenues Hank can take to hurt him. But he’s been outgunned. Hank is already on the phone with Skyler, arranging a meeting at a diner.
There, the advantage tips in the other direction, because Hank is so eager to close the case and so oblivious to Skyler’s possible conflicted feelings that he clumsily shows his cards. He hugs her, assures her that she’s “done being his victim,” and whips out a recorder to take her statement: “Just remember to state your name and the date.” Now we know what Hank wants: To get his man. All that matters is his case. He’s wanted Heisenberg since he first saw the blue meth, and this is just the latest and most intimate moment in the process of that quest getting more and more personal. Saving Skyler is just a means to an end, as Hank reveals when he objects to her request for a lawyer. Lawyers “put up roadblocks” where they don’t need to be, and then “my ability to control this” is impaired. Hank means to reassure Skyler that as family, he can protect her better than the legal system can, but his words betray him to us viewers, and they’re chilling. He wants control. Just like Walt has wanted for the last three seasons. Sound the sirens; they’re on a collision course.
And then Hank gets Marie in on the act. At first Marie wants Hank to get the whole DEA on the matter right away, and she’s fearful of his insistence on gathering enough evidence for an airtight case. When Skyler is unable to assure Marie that Hank has misinterpreted the evidence, when it dawns on Marie that her sister’s lies and collusion with the enemy actually put Hank in the hospital, a new bond is forged between the in-laws. “You have to get him,” Marie states baldly, and she and Hank are united in their desire for vengeance.
Stunned by Hank’s offhand mention that the cancer is back (“I don’t want that bastard running out the clock,” he snarls), Skyler doesn’t yet know what she wants—until Marie’s threat to take Holly away stirs her to unequivocal action. And while she’s taking stock, Walter is taking it upon himself to put the giant pile of money where no one can find it. He comes back from a long day of burying money barrels in the desert (if only he had partners with a backhoe, like the last time he came up with a burying-barrels-in-the-desert plan) to collapse on the bathroom floor in front of his wife. When he comes to, she’s lovingly swaddled him right where he lays. And that’s when Walter reveals what he wants in the long haul, given that he believes himself to be a dying man. “I’ll give myself up,” he tells Skyler, as long as she will promise not to ever give up the money. “Please don’t let me to have done all this for nothing.” The giant pile of money, now buried in the desert at coordinates Walter disguises as lottery picks, is the only proof Walter has succeeded, and the only legacy of victory he expects to leave. And then Skyler reveals what she has decided to want. “The way Hank talks, he’s got his suspicions but not much else,” she reassures her fatalistic husband. “Maybe our best move is to stay quiet."
So the two husband-and-wife teams square off against each other: Hank seeking vindication of his year-long vendetta, accompanied by Marie seeking retribution for her sister’s unimaginable betrayal; Walt seeking preservation of his legacy, bolstered and guided by Skyler seeking a loophole of insufficient proof that will allow them to keep both their freedom and their giant pile of money.
And in between, framing this episode in the cold open and the final scene, is Jesse, who doesn’t want anything but to be rid of the blood money. He’s practically in a fugue state when his old friends in the APD do their familiar vaudeville act while questioning him, after he was discovered by an early riser at the end of a trail of money bundles. Earlier in the episode, Saul fails to reach him by phone; now, Hank is the one who gets to this critical but currently inert linchpin first. If Hank can find a way to make Jesse want something—anything—he will have the upper hand. Neither Hank nor Walt had thought about targeting Jesse, either to turn him or to lock up his allegiance, so in one sense it’s mere happenstance that Hank gets to him first. But it’s also the result of Hank and Marie’s capacity for initiative. Unlike Walter and Skyler, who are playing defense, Hank has something he can do—and Marie suggests he do it with the help of trusted colleagues at the DEA. When Hank goes to work and tells Gomie to push a budget meeting so he can get the team together on a conference call, we know that he’s followed Marie’s advice. And that’s what positions him to realize the leverage Jesse represents.
Everyone has chosen sides and identified goals. Now to address the question that will set in motion the end of this story: What will Jesse want?
- Two more motivations, both uncomplicated but both critical to moving the plot along: Lydia is motivated to get better quality meth to her Czech suppliers than the 68 percent pure stuff that Declan and his boys are cooking in a buried school bus in Mexico, so she engineers a bloody coup with the help of Todd and his murderous uncle Jack. And Saul is, as always, motivated by saving his own skin, to the extent that he suggests Walt takes care of the threat posed by Hank’s knowledge by, you know, “sending him on a trip to Belize.” After all, “It’s an option that’s worked very well for you in the recent past.” (Walt angrily dismisses the suggestion on the grounds that “this is family,” then mutters: “I’ll send you to Belize,” which we probably all ought to keep in mind here in the next few weeks.)
- The more desperate the characters are, the more the camera moves in highly stylized ways and provides oddball points of view. The overhead camera spinning in perfect sync with Jesse’s playground carousel; the barrel’s POV rolling down into the desert grave; the view from behind the phone’s screen as Walter smashes it.
- If hubris is Walt’s undoing—something he acknowledges for the first time when Skyler asks how Hank found out: “I screwed up”—then it might be Hank’s as well. “He looks me in the eye and says ‘If what you think you know is true.' IF!” Hank seethes to Skyler, unable to hide the injury to his pride.
- “I gotta do it, man,” Huell says to Kuby as they stare at the giant pile of money. Who can blame him? If there’s a pile of cash, you gotta go full Scrooge McDuck on it.
- So delicate of Lydia to be squeamish about the carnage she just ordered. She arrives with a blindfold on (escorted by some younger fake Heisenberg, all bald and goateed), then tells Todd “I don’t want to see,” holding her hand over her eyes in a self-imposed blindfold as he leads her back to the truck.
- Poor Holly, screaming in fear as Skyler and Marie fight over her. Nothing gets to me like the unfeigned emotion of babies, the same no matter the era and always evoking a primal response.
- Declan defends his not-so-superlab: “It’s not filthy. It’s dimly lit.”
- Huell and Kuby uncover the barrels before handing the van over to Walt, figuring he’d want to see that all the money was there. Walt looks at the uncountable mass, gives the two henchmen a knowing look, and growls: “Close enough.”