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