TV Club

Breaking Bad recap: “Fifty-One” and Skyler’s arc

Is Skyler going to kill Walt, or is Walt going to kill Skyler?

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Lydia (Laura Fraser).

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Lydia (Laura Fraser).

Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Yes, this week is All About Skyler. Matt, you wonder if she could kill Walt. But over at Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz asks whether Skyler is becoming the show’s moral compass, because she’s facing up to the wreckage Walt wreaks and her own role in it. (Love this: “Every cigarette Skyler smokes is another wish for her husband’s destruction.” And this: “Walter White doesn’t just have cancer. He is cancer.”) To me, the power of the latest turn in Skyler’s drama is that it encompasses both of your possibilities and more.

I was dying for that confrontation between Skyler and Walt. It’s hard to watch a character descend into the miasma of depression, and Skyler’s practically speechless, servile version of it—chocolate cake with chocolate icing—gives me feminist heartache, especially paired with the big-dick cars and god-awful repartee between Walt and Walt Jr. about torque and doughnuts and other macho road showmanship. Skyler’s walk into the pool isn’t full-fledged Ophelia, but she’s inching in that direction, and her trajectory is at once confusing and interesting and heart-rending. Because what do you do if you’ve gone halfway down the road to perdition with your husband, only to realize that you loathe and fear him with every nerve ending, and have no idea how to get your children and yourself away from him? Walt is a one-man toxic environment, so, hey, let’s fight poison with poison and coat the living room in cigarette smoke.

I loved the cinematic effects with Skyler, too. She was shot in a black frame at dinner, bloated and ethereal in the pool, then blurry and backlit in her anguished face-off with Walt. My favorite part of the confrontation scene was her self-destructive honesty. Walt wants to know her plan: Ostensibly, he’s forcing her to see how poorly she’s thought out what happens to her kids after they’ve spent a few days at Hank and Marie’s, but in criminal mastermind mode, he’s also ferreting out her thoughts in order to arm himself against her. She knows that—she is too smart not to, however depressed—but she tells him anyway. In part, I think that’s because her brain is racing and she finally has to give voice to her thoughts, and in part because she’s hoping her death wish for him will shock him into either seeing how monstrous he’s become, or (more likely, since we’re clearly headed for comeuppance) force his hand to end her own slow walk into watery immoral oblivion.

Skyler is rightly desperate. It’s one thing to put up with unwanted sex with your breaking-bad husband—that’s degrading, but it’s restricted to yourself—and another to watch him corrupt your teenage son. Did you catch how when Walt Jr. told his dad that he drives like a dork, Walt chortled instead of taking offense? He wants his kid to be the faster, slicker version of himself, the red sports car to his black one. If you are a mother trying to raise a right-thinking teenage boy, Walt is indeed a dangerous kind of man to have around the house.

I ended the hour wondering not whether Skyler would kill Walt, but whether he could come to see her as the obstacle to his self-deluded power rush, the latest incarnation of Gus Fring—and kill her. As our commenter Thurston puts it, “Seems to me the show is setting up Skyler to be Walt’s big next foil—at least as much as Hank, anyway. As it typically has him battling multiple fronts, it would make sense that he eventually is closed in on three sides: the cartel, which surely will re-emerge; the law; and now, his wife that is on to him and will eventually gain, or try very hard to gain, the upper hand and leverage him into a corner.” Maybe that’s the run-up to Walt’s foreshadowed ragged run.

Meanwhile, back to the narrative arc of drug conspiracy: I also think Lydia planted the tracker—on this one, we’re meant to trust Mike’s instincts. And I’m intrigued by the questions commenters are asking about what’s up with Jesse. As in this, from commenter Desktop: “His adamant protection of Lydia and the watch he gave Walt don’t seem right. Has Jesse been turned or is he in cahoots with other parties? Don’t know, but he clearly has other things on his mind.” Jesse is no one’s moral compass, but he cares more about keeping people alive than Mike and Walt do. Are the writers just reminding us of Jesse’s humanity to keep us on his side, or is he actually starting to extricate himself, by sparing Lydia and giving Walt a time piece that will somehow boomerang?

I’m not sure, but I can’t wait to find out. Which is exactly what makes Breaking Bad awesome and addictive: As Emily Nussbaum laid out deftly in The New Yorker recently, the show uses cliff hangers “not merely as an engine for excitement but as a narrative challenge, a glimpse into the extremes of human experience.”

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