Breaking Bad: “Fifty-One”
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Breaking Bad: “Fifty-One”

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Breaking Bad

“Fifty-One”

Season 5, Episode 4

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“What’s the plan?”

Last week’s episode of Breaking Bad was about the seething tension between Mike and Walt, uneasy partners in a new operation aiming to fill the Gustavo Fring vacuum. The recurring leitmotif in the dialogue was “what you do”: what Mike does according to Walt (threaten people), and what any person in Mike’s position ought to do, according to Mike (take care of his people). This week, the cold war between Walt and Skyler breaks out into open hostilities as Skyler musters up the courage to tell Walt to his face she’s fighting back. And the line Walt throws at her repeatedly is: “What’s the plan?”

He’s not really expecting an answer; what he means by asking is to expose her pretense to power. When subordinates ask their boss what the plan is, they expect a straightforward response. But when a boss asks subordinates the same thing—if he’s a controlling megalomaniac like Walt—he’s trying to show them up, and shut them up. The boss in the only one who’s smart enough to have a plan. Give it up, plotters and pretenders.

For some people, “Fifty-One” might come off as too talky or too full of ominous portents. But I was on the edge of my seat as Walt, who has always thought of himself as a smooth yarn spinner, able to finesse any situation with the power of his words (or with his sheer determination to keep yammering), gets pressured into dropping the act and telling Skyler how he really feels. Right from the cold open, in which Walt chooses the trappings of badassery over the carefully maintained façade of propriety that characterized Fring’s public profile, it’s clear that Walt has had enough with being careful and circumspect. Remember when he tried to buy Walt Jr.’s love with a new Dodge Challenger, and Skyler made him take it back? Then, his way of acting out against being under her thumb was to do donuts in an empty lot and then torch it. Now he’s like the omnipotent kid in The Twilight Zone’s “It’s A Good Life”; having paralyzed Skyler with fear, he gleefully does whatever he wants, including buying a black muscle car for himself and a replica of that Challenger for Walt Jr., knowing she’s too terrified to gainsay him.

But Skyler has been pushed enough to start making a few moves of her own. When Walt tosses a stack of bills on the vanity (“You’re back at it,” she realizes), she sets what sliver of a plan she has into motion. Really, it’s more of a goal: Get the kids out of the house. First she suggests boarding school for Walter Jr., an idea that earns relatively gentle Walt derision (“Where are we sending our eight-month-old, the Peace Corps?”). She shows her hand a bit too much when she comments that “A new environment might be good for them.” “What’s wrong with their environment?” Walt pounces, before turning on the oozing, shoulder-squeezing, abusive-husband charm, telling her that there’s nothing to be afraid of (“clear sailing from here on out”) and suggesting that they return to normalcy with a little birthday party for the paterfamilias. (“Maybe, if I may be so bold, chocolate cake with chocolate icing.”) “Life is good, Skyler,” he asserts, confident in his Big-Brother-like power to define reality.

When the new devil-may-care badass Walter White tells somebody to jump, he expects them to jump. So he’s less than impressed when he strolls into the house after leaving Jesse to finish packing up at work and finds no evidence of a big celebration in his honor. “What’s the plan?” he prompts Skyler, inviting her to recollect his monologue from the night before. “Hank and Marie are on their way,” she reports in a monotone. “Chocolate cake as requested.” Clearly she’s insufficiently terrorized, since she’s not falling all over herself to please him; Walt Jr. even had to insist that she form a 51 with bacon at breakfast (“Mom has to, it’s tradition!”), and then objected that the one was too small. In response, she grabs a piece of bacon off her son’s plate and tosses it onto Walt’s. “Family teamwork,” Walt crows in mock triumph, “making sacrifices, right?”

On the way to dinner at the White residence, Hank uses irresistible DEA interrogation techniques to get Marie to spill the secret about Skyler’s affair. Okay, it doesn’t take much to get Marie to crack, but you’ve got to admire Hank’s methods all the same. And at dinner, after Marie’s exaggerated amazement over Skyler’s whipped-potato secrets (“A ricer? You don’t hand mash!?”) fails to break her sister out of her funk, Walt starts spinning his birthday yarn. “A year ago tomorrow… honestly never thought I’d make it this far... so many dark days… you guys got me through this… Skyler was right there…” And in the background, Skyler standing at the pool’s edge cracking, cracking. In lieu of screaming shut up 14 times, she chooses a quieter, altogether stranger way of ending the torture of Walt’s endless tale of martyrdom. She walks into the pool, and thank God for a moment the voices stop, until Walt dives in and grabs that left arm that is his particular favorite to torture.

At first, it seems to play right into the hands of Walt in his role as the sainted, long-suffering spouse. Hank and Marie solicitously suggest she go into therapy, and Marie says she’ll put Walt in touch with her guy Dave. (“Not that Marie is an advertisement for advanced mental health,” Hank sniggers.) Then Marie broaches the entirely reasonable idea of giving the Whites “some space to work through this stuff” by taking the kids for a while. “Just the thing—for both of you,” she says, and the wheels start turning behind Walt’s hardening eyes. “Marie, this idea: Was it yours?” he asks, and she innocently reveals that no, it was Skyler’s. 

That precipitates a long conversation—or maybe it’s better termed an opening skirmish—that defines Skyler as Walt’s newest and most intimate enemy. At first she admits there’s a sort of bond between them, albeit a bond of both having blood on their hands. Walt turns the familiar self-justification he has recited since day one toward her: “You didn’t set out to hurt anybody. You made a mistake, things got out of control, but you did what you had to do to protect your family and I’m sorry, that doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a human being.” But he’s now talking to Skyler “SHUT UP!” White, and she finally snaps. “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!’” I would have cheered if it this weren’t Breaking Bad, where no moment of triumph is ever simple. 

Sure enough, Walt takes this open rebellion as a signal that he needs to go on the offensive. Stalking her around the suddenly-too-small bedroom, he mercilessly tears apart all of her ideas for keeping the kids away. She harms herself, he has her committed. She accuses Walt of beating her over her affair, he makes sure the police find out all about Ted’s financial shenanigans. “You wanna take me on? You wanna take away my children?” he screams his challenge. “What’s the plan?” And she surrenders, admits his superiority on this field of combat (“I don’t have any of your magic, Walt… I can’t even keep you out of my bed”), while letting him know that the war’s just beginning, and reminding him that nature has given her a doomsday weapon. “All I can do is wait,” she promises; “Wait for what?” Walt asks. “For the cancer to come back.”

It’s as ice-cold and as honest a moment as Walt ever faced from Gus or the Cousins. No accident that it’s taking place in his home, the refuge he has gone to great lengths to sweep clear of threats. He assures Skyler that the kids are safe there (“it’s never been more safe!”) because he “dealt with” the people who came to the house to kill them all. But in his spiteful zeal for re-establishing his place as lord of the manor and head of the family, he’s moved into the sphere of an enemy who knows best how to hurt him. And no matter where he runs, he can’t escape his own body and its dormant cells biding their time until they run wild.

Not to mention that right there at his kitchen table is that other enemy he’s decided to ignore for the moment: Hank the DEA agent. Except it appears that Walt’s caught a break there; Merkert’s temporary replacement from El Paso wants to promote Hank to ASAC (Assistant Special Agent in Charge) of the Albuquerque district office. He also seems quite insistent that the Fring case ought to be wrapping up. When Hank mentions that they’re going over the file again, he says pointedly, “I assume before you submit a final.” And when he offers Hank the job, he insists, “We’d need to reassign all your day-to-days, Fring included. That’s the job and you’d need to be okay with it.” Hank doesn’t kick; he jokes that his wife would kill him if he didn’t take the job, but he also seems genuinely eager when he says “I want it.” We know, however, that since it’s the Fring case that saved Hank from a lifetime of lying in bed looking at rocks, and since its loose ends nag at him, he’s unlikely to let it go—which could mean trouble for him as well as for those who are “rebooting” the Fring formula and putting the blue meth back on the streets.

One of those loose ends is Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, Madrigal executive and serious nutcase, whom Hank and Gomie visit at her Houston office to nab another suspect in their investigation. They’re after Ron Forenall, a warehouse supervisor, but Lydia freaks out and calls Mike on her special meth phone to insist that she can’t be expected to keep supplying methylamine without “the guy.” “I’ll send another guy,” Mike deadpans. That guy is Jesse, whom a panicky Lydia interrogates about Mike’s last name before she’ll let him into the warehouse (“I’m not going to apologize for being careful… For all I know you could be one of those undercover people they send into high schools”). But when they pull the barrel of precursor that Lydia’s erased from inventory off the shelf, she spots a device stuck to its bottom. Cue Walt getting a call on his own special meth phone while he’s eating cereal alone. “Just relax, I’m coming,” he sighs, before obstinately continuing his meal. Being the boss means getting bugged all the time to solve problems, an aspect of power he might have overlooked. (It also means losing interest in your primary competencies, like cooking high-quality crystal, because you start thinking they’re beneath you. Don’t make a habit of leaving the cook early, Walt. Tend to your knitting.)

When Mike hears about the GPS on the barrel (a sloppy, obvious way to track methylamine, and suspiciously attached to the only barrel Lydia allowed Jesse to touch), he puts two and two together and figures Lydia’s trying to get out of her deal with Mike. “She’s dead,” he announces, but Jesse balks—more at the idea of killing her than at the prospect losing their precursor supplier, although he pretends it’s the latter. “I had a chance to deal with this before and I gave her a pass. That’s what I get for being sexist,” Mike tells him. “If we have to ramp down for a while, so be it. It beats working with a lunatic who’s going to get us arrested or killed.” But Jesse appeals to Walt (“This is a voting thing! I vote this is a voting thing!”) to break the impasse, and Walt’s not interested in anything but staying open for business.

Because Walt’s bought into his own myth. He ditches the Aztec because a man in Heisenberg’s hat, with Heisenberg’s power, wouldn’t be caught dead in such a thing. (How quickly he forgets Gus’s sensible Volvo.) He flashes the Rolex Jesse gives him as a birthday present for Skyler, and asserts that the man who gave it to him pointed a gun at his head not long ago. “He changed his mind about me, Skyler, and so will you,” he predicts, because Heisenberg has that kind of omnipotence.

But these symbols cut more than one way. Heisenberg’s hat has a loose thread. The watch ticks on Walt’s bedside past 50, past 51, toward an inevitable, final moment. And despite his derision toward anyone else who dares to suggest a plan, Heisenberg’s pronouncement in the face of the Lydia dilemma is far from wise. “We are not ramping down; we’re just getting started,” he states. “Nothing stops this train. Nothing.”

That’s not a plan. That’s an ideology.

Stray observations:

  • Because I hear "Wow! Even better than Mama!" from the kids’ DS more than I care to admit, I have to pass along the Breaking Bad Cooking Mama browser game.
  • “Fifty-One” was directed by Rian Johnson of “Fly” fame, and although this episode is the farthest thing from that snazzy exercise in style, Johnson makes the most of his close-ups, not to mention the frighteningly beautiful sequence where Skyler walks into the water. The glowing blue water. With her blue skirt floating around her. Yep, she’s fully immersed in Walt’s poison, all right.
  • To the memorable cast of characters we meet in cold opens, add Benny the mechanic who reminds Walt that “nothing beats free” (in reference to buying aftermarket parts for the Aztec to make sure the insurance company pays the full bill) and disturbingly reminds us of the “deer” that Walt ran over when he describes power-washing the “gunky buildup” from under the front end. When Benny lovingly predicts that the car will last another 200,000 miles, Walt makes a snap decision that he’s not interested in longevity anymore. Things that last only tie you down, folks.
  • When we first met Lydia in “Madrigal,” I wondered if her nutball behavior was just an act. This week I believe we can confirm that nope, she’s just super-crazy, and gets more so when under stress. She realizes right before Hank shows up that she’s put on two different shoes (later we find out that Hank didn’t miss that clue to “Lydia Banjo-Eyes”’s possible involvement as a link between “Burgermeister Meisterburger” in the German home office and Ron the warehouse guy), and they leave, she screams into a throw pillow. She’s also prone to exaggeration, telling Mike that 14 DEA agents were screaming and yelling at her, and swarming all over the warehouse.
  • The show’s obsession with breakfast continues, and so does its use of cars to signal shifting relationships. When Skyler comes home in the Wagoneer and has to park on the street because Walt and Junior’s matching muscle cars are in the driveway, it means she’s an outsider in her own home. But when Walt comes home on his birthday, she’s taken his spot, and he’s the one who is left on the street. I also love the arrogance of Walt grooming himself in the car window, clearly expecting the party to be underway inside, only to find Junior flipping channels and Skyler microwaving something.
  • Hey car experts, what’s the make and model of Walt’s new ride? I couldn’t discern a logo.
  • Hank has certainly taken note of Walt’s free-spending habits. “I’m going to take a page here from Walt and buy myself a jet plane,” he tells Marie, and then when Walt Jr. jokes about getting his help fixing tickets, he says sure, “for my spoiled-brat car-wash millionaire nephew.” Walt, confident he can shift the message: “With these new lease rates, they’re mighty attractive!”
  • What do you do with your stacks of meth cash if you’re Jesse, and you have nothing to spend it on except your ex-girlfriend’s rent? You buy Rolexes as birthday gifts.
  • Heisenberg is an expert on everything. “Bullshit you ever did donuts,” Walt Jr. says, and Heisenberg demands, “Show me a modicum of respect and maybe I’ll teach you.”
  • “What’s your next move?” Hank asks Walt at the kitchen table, and perhaps too busy scheming how to make Skyler pay, Walt tries to deflect the question by quickly agreeing she should go to therapy (“I’m going to get on that first thing”). Then when Hank reports to Marie that he’s agreed to it, and Marie promises to get him Dave’s number, for the only time in the episode Walt looks like he’s been cornered.
  • The kids are watching Ratatouille over at their aunt and uncle’s. “Very sweet.”

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