"Breaking Bad" -- "Fifty-One": Scenes From a Marriage

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"Breaking Bad" — "Fifty-One": Scenes From a Marriage

By Daniel Carlson | TV Reviews | August 6, 2012 | Comments ()


There are more ways to lie to your partner than you'd think. There are the obvious ones: I didn't do that, or say that, or mean that. There are the less obvious ones: I don't think you heard me correctly, I don't remember saying that. And there are the awful ones, the truly insidious ones that aren't about putting spin on a situation but in denying the situation ever even happened. When you talk to your partner as if nothing's wrong, with a breezy air of kind misunderstanding, you create a sick, demeaning version of the world where you can't be wrong. You attempt to create your own reality, and it's one of the cruelest things you can do. You put up walls, pretend they aren't there, then act confused when the other person doesn't understand.

When Walt lies to Jesse, he's hiding his actions but still allowing himself to exist in the same world, with the same rules. But when he tells Skylar everything's OK, it's infinitely worse. His stubborn refusal to even acknowledge the truth of their relationship has driven her over the edge, and she's had a sadly understandable series of emotional breaks. There's a real horror to the nuanced way "Breaking Bad" has explored the dissolution of Walt and Skylar's marriage, and it's shocking in its honesty. It would have been so easy for them to simply ground a basic conflict in Skylar's discomfort with Walt's criminal life. But to make the engine of their destruction Walt's emotional control over what he allows Skylar to consider real? To let their downfall not just be greed or lust, but the way Walt manufactures his world to let him pretend to be the man he never really was? It's amazing, gripping, heartbreaking, nauseating stuff. There was so much truth and pain in "Fifty-One" that I could barely take it. It was almost too real.

When Skylar finally got Walt to take the mask off -- when the kids were away, the house was dark, and there was nothing between them but the dust on the bones of their marriage -- she realized just how much power he still had. Her staged display for Hank and Marie worked in the short term, but she couldn't hope to match Walt for strategy or sheer force of will. He didn't even blink when she threatened to hurt herself. He saw it as a chess move, and the man who just beat Gustavo Fring isn't about to let this woman keep him from running a business or seeing his kids. He had her at every turn, and when she tried to poke holes in his reasoning, he just doubled down. (I did enjoy her saying "I thought you were the danger" when he tried to tell her Gus had been the real threat. Nice callback to one of the most powerful moments of last season.)

I've always pitied Skylar, though I've gathered that others feel differently. I came to the show a few seasons in, so I wasn't paying attention to criticism or commentary its first few years. Even now, I block most tweets and tags related to the show. However, I'm pretty sure that there have been viewers who outright hated Skylar, and who even felt she was some kind of badgering presence in Walt's life. I don't have the stomach this morning to visit the corners of Reddit that would validate my theory, but I don't think I need a lot of sourcing this time. I've seen tweets, Facebook statuses, and other posts complaining that she's always been a nag or a wretch. This couldn't be more wrong. Imagine the narrative from her point of view: Her husband suddenly becomes moody and withdrawn, announces he has cancer, disappears for long periods of time, becomes physically/sexually/emotionally abusive and manipulative, misses the birth of their daughter, loses his job, and gets upset when she tries to ask him about any of this. Then he lets her in on the truth: He's a drug kingpin, and he needs her to launder his money. She struggles to reconcile this new vision of her husband with the man she used to know, and all the while, he continues to pull her in deeper. She's now just as criminally liable as he is, and to top it off, he tells her about the murders he's committed to keep his job. You know, "for the family." When she expresses fear or worry, he browbeats her into submission. When she threatens to escape or harm herself, he dares her to go through with it. Her every move and reaction has been totally relatable and realistic, and Anna Gunn has acted the hell out of her role. Who could complain?

Skylar's in prison now, while Walt revels in the power he feels certain will never go away. Where Gus drove an old Volvo, Walt went out and leased two new sports cars. He tells Mike and Jesse that they aren't about to ramp down on production. He emotionally abuses Skylar to a point where her sanity becomes fragile, then he pushes harder. Skylar knows she can't beat him, either, not really, not like he beats people. All she can do -- and I gasped when she said this -- is wait for the cancer to come back. His death is her only escape. What a phenomenal, wrenching hour of TV.


• This episode was directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, the upcoming Looper), who previously directed the wonderful bottle episode "Fly" from the third season. It looked fantastic, too. He brought some nice polish to certain shots and moments, but he also didn't override the series' look or tone. He handled the final bedroom scene wonderfully, too, following Walt as he shadowed Skylar around the room like an animal.

• Writing credit goes to Sam Catlin, who's worked on the show since its first year. Catlin's name's been attached to a number of scripts that seem to go the extra mile to showcase Walt's devolution, including "Fly" and "Crawl Space."

• Interestingly, this was the 50th episode of the series, and we've come one narrative year since the pilot. That's enough to make me want to rewatch one episode per week and get a rough feel for what that year would've been like for Walt and the rest. (Also: Skylar's bacon thing is indeed a tradition. She gave Walt a "50" made of veggie bacon in the pilot.)

• I love how much visually darker the show has become to track its characters descent into a hell of their own making. This is most profoundly seen in Walt's home, which used to let in a little light and is now a gloomy, shadow-filled place that offers no comfort. Even in the daytime, the house feels dim and cramped, and at night it's nothing but jagged edges and stark, minimal lighting. Heisenberg has taken over.

• Jesse remains the bruised heart of the show. The watch for Walt, standing up for Lydia even after she lied about the GPS device: the guy just doesn't want to do any more dirt than is necessary.

Best (only) comedic moment: "People like to joke, but I really, really like this car." Right on, mister mechanic.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Old 'n Crusty

    can..... not ...... wait...... for.......Skylar.....to.....DIE.....hopefully a long slow painful death. Great acting job to produce that kind of emotion from an old bald guy like me.

  • MRS

    This episode had so many great parts (the cat and mouse scene with Sky and Walt, the smoking scene, the pool) but there were parts which felt so out of place. I thought BB was above taking cheap shots, but no, they use a time filling dubstep video to start things out. It's the first time I ever rolled my eyes at the show. It was so bandwagon-y.

    On the Skyler issue: For me, Skyler is a woman who has a very strict moral view and the series has done a great job of showing her disruption. There was a time when she seemed to revel in her new role of "wife of a kingpin," which, even if only for a brief moment, discredits her moral high ground. Now she has come back to what seems to be her "true" character. It makes her struggle to distance herself and her children form Walt more believable.

  • Kip Hackman

    The moment that he sold his car, I knew that Walter White was gone and only Heisenberg remained. In the span of a year, that car has been through nearly as much as Walter himself, and with the exception of one incident involving a ticket which lead to pepper spray, has been as faithful to Walt as any inanimate object can be. Even through debris destroying the windshield (and then Jesse destroying the new windshield), mowing down two thugs and driving into traffic to stop Hank from seeing the laundry, the mechanic was still able to get it into good working order. But Heisenberg, being the King, deserves a better car than an oddly tinted Aztek. Everything he does now is about sending a message and showing how dominant he is (as much to himself as to anyone else), now that Gus is gone. It's almost sad to see that car go because I identify that car with this show. The car is (was) almost a character in its own right, yet he doesn't need it anymore. Sentimentality is for suckers and Heisenberg is a winner (for) now.

  • HeyBulldog

    I dont know that it's fair to blame Skylar for Walt's unhappiness and underachievement in the beginning of the series. Clearly he is a miserable man wasting his talent in a dead end, humiliating life (especially the car wash job). But i dont remember Skylar being the source of his conflct. I don't know that she cut his balls off and controlled every aspect of his life. And her jabs and counter punches to Walt weren't really because she was losing control as much as it was retaliation for the emense amount of shit Walt had heaped onto her.
    After Walt's fall out with Elliott and Grey Matter, he seemed to have just given up any ambition her ever had. And even though Skylar seems to have let him give up, what choice would she have had? That's why Walt is a miserable schlub at the beginning. Yes, she freezes him out in the second season and comes off really shrewish with the whole silent treatment thing. But she knew Walt was lying and wasnt going to stop lying, so I can understand her reasoning behind her tactic, unpleasant as it was.
    Even banging Ted, I can understand. That was the largest weapon she had to retalliate for the damage done to their marriage by Walt. Which is why she told him immediately afterward. It was all a big "fuck you" and I think we can all agree Walt had that coming. Ted was the only victem in that scenario, but he's a tax cheating douchebag so who cares? (though I certainly sympathize with shaved head/halo/cripple Ted)
    This pro Skylar / anit Skylar debate is a sign of just how amazing the story telling has been from the begining of the show. If the story was told from Skylar's POV, we would love her and HATE Walt. But instead we tend to take Walt's side even though we know better than Skylar just was a devious bastard he really is.

  • Walt absolutely fucking terrified me in his end rant to Sky. My jaw hit the ground as he did a complete 180 from portraying the loving, caring family man to the hulking, tactical drug lord. And Skylar's reactions to Walt were acted so incredibly well. I felt scared for her. I have a feeling she isn't going to make it out of this season alive. All Walt has to do is fake a suicide and the problem is gone.

    Wrap it up folks, the Emmy is won.

  • Ted Zancha

    I was totally in the "Hate Skylar Camp," but I find that this season I'm loving whenever she is on screen. Anna Gunn was phenomenal last night. Their fight at the end had me on the edge of my seat.

  • Weck

    Some Rian Johnson nods -- during the scene with Walt, Mike & Jesse at Vamanos, there is a diagram of a fly behind Walt as he sits on the couch. Also, both this episode and "Fly" ended with Walt lying in bed looking at a specific object, capped by a zoomed-in shot of said object.

  • Wednesday

    Yeah, I noticed that, too. The fly poster highlighted right as Walt is being bullheaded about doing things his way, no matter the cost.

    This episode was very painful to watch. I was married to a drunk, a guy who constantly said one thing and did another and it takes an enormous psychological toll. You begin to question everything you know, because hey, this is your loved one, and how is it possible that his reality is the polar opposite of yours?

    I loved Skylar's passive-aggressive smoking in the home after she tells Walt she's waiting for the cancer to come back. While flicking the ash in his "Happy 51st" mug.

  • googergieger

    Oh and Skylar has given Walt the perfect out. She showed Marie and Hank she is suicidal. So he can get rid of her no questions, rather easily.

  • googergieger

    Walt isn't lying to Skylar. Nothing is wrong. Walt won. Walt is the boss. If he says it is all okay, it is all okay. I'm not saying it is, but to him it is. So he isn't lying to Skylar(and she knows it). He is lying to Jesse but we can almost ignore that for now. Walt and Skylar never loved each other or knew each other. They got married, had kids, and lived the life they were expected to. The cancer happened and it changed both of them. It created a series of events where they both finally see each other for what they are. Walt is an arrogant man who is tired of settling for anything less than
    what he believes he deserves. Skylar is a controlling woman who doesn't
    like Walt being in charge of everything. Kids seem stuck in the middle
    of everything.

    Skylar isn't an innocent. She just hates Walt being in charge. Seriously for all this, "I'm doing this for my kids" you figure if she thought Walt or anyone was a serious danger, she would go the cop route automatically. Clearly she doesn't love Walt anymore. Does she care about what Walt Jr. thinks that much that she would risk his and her daughters life over it? For Walt his family are now possessions. It is all about how he sees himself. How he thinks people see him.

    No person in this series is innocent. Outside the kids.

    With all that said, I'm glad Walt and Skylar finally had it out a bit. An entire episode of wait for that scene really. Where they have that back and forth. The opening scene with the cars and the closing scene with the clock ticking was a bit too mtv film school for my liking, but all in all that back and forth made the episode worth it. Can't wait for next episode.

  • kayla

    I'm surprised this got so many downvotes. I agree. It's amazing to see how the tables have turned in their relationship. Their dynamic is completely opposite now. She's not wearing the pants anymore.

  • Fred

    Weirdly enough, very few people like being in a situation where they have no power and the other person has it all. I don't think Skylar can be faulted for that.

  • googergieger

    Didn't say that? Just saying it has less to do with poor innocent victim and more with a power struggle. I mean think about this, at the start of the series even during the early transformation of Meth cook, Walt had little to no power. Skylar has always had it. I fault Skylar for pretending this is about her being scared of Walt or scared for her kids, because she clearly isn't. At least Walt is upfront about what he is.

  • dizzylucy

    What an amazing episode. It was small and close and yet so big in terms of the show, and heartbreaking. I'm not sure I blinked or breathed during their whole confrontation. Just when we though Walt poisoning a child to manipulate Jesse was the coldest thing ever.

    I never cared for Skylar until last season, and now I'm rooting for her so hard. Anna Gunn has been extraordinary in the past few episodes. From her "good" to Ted to admitting all she can do is wait for the cancer (and blow smoke in Walt's direction and light up another) Anna (and the writers) have really swung for the fences here.
    The filming of the pool scene was so lovely though - slow and dreamy,
    all blue and peaceful, until Walt crashed in to "save" her.
    Cranston, as always, delivered a knock out performance too. When Walt turned off the nicey nicey talk and started picking away at her options, it was downright chilling.

  • I never understood the Skyler hate. I've always felt so bad for her.

    This episode was claustrophobic-every shoulder squeeze, every comment, every threat from Walt had ME backing into a corner. So brilliant.

  • Burgermeister Meisterburger!

  • TheAggroCraig

    Someone go back to the first episode and tell us if Walt is wearing that watch in the flash-forward.

  • Clitty Magoo

    I watched flash forward in the season 5 premier just as you suggested. No watch. Too lazy to provide screen grabs. Sry.

  • TheAggroCraig

    Thanks, and I believe you.

  • I never hated Skyler cause she was a buzzkill. I hated her that she was super manipulative the whole time, yet people continually view her as helpless.

    I think what I've seen over the internet is that because I hate Skyler, I must LOVE Walt, and that is far, far from the case. I think people don't give Skyler enough credit for how smart she is.

  • googergieger

    Wrd Lyf.

  • L.O.V.E.

    I am getting a kick out of the references to different movies. The latest being Ratatouille. The "rat" who "cooks". Does this mean Walt will at some point become a rat and go to the DEA? Or just a reference to Walt secretly doing the cooking and being the boss while someone else is the front?

    Also, we see a continuation of color as part of the story, with the use of red on the watch. Also, getting rid of the white family car for the black sports car.

  • Alex0001

    I've read a couple interesting ideas to this theory like Jesse or Todd.

  • The rat that cooks-that's brilliant, I did not pick up on that. I HOPE it was intentional.

  • Schultheiss

    Not sure if posting YouTube links is frowned upon in this commenting community, as it is in some, but every time I read a description of the plot of Ratatouille I hear this in my head:


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