There's nothing quite like a birthday (or Christmas, Hanukkah, a major anniversary, etc.) to make you sit back and reflect on how much, or how little, has changed in a year. In tonight's Breaking Bad, the appropriately titled "Fifty One" (directed by Rian Johnson, of season three's "Fly," Brick and soon-to-be Looper fame) Walt reaches a milestone year: 51, his first time blowing out the candles since receiving his terminal cancer diagnosis exactly one year ago.
For Walt, these are happy times — he demands a celebration, somehow clueless to the fact that Sklyer has been acting like a deer in headlights ever since he murdered, and effectively became, Gus Fring. For Skyler, this is a breaking point — even though she wasn't there when Walt finally, shockingly, donned his Heisenberg hat in front of his son, she knows that her husband has reached the point of no return. Don Draper publicly maintains a healthy distance from Dick Whitman, and Tony Soprano played the part of the doting husband/father in the presence of his immediate family, but Walter White and Heisenberg are one and the same. He was Heisenberg when he traded in his humble Aztec SUV for two flashy sports cars, and he was Heisenberg when he brutally dismissed Skyler's pleas to get the kids out of the house. All she can do now is wait — "Hold on, bide my time, and wait," she says. "For the cancer to come back."
Of course, thanks to the premiere's bleak flash-foward, we know that Walt's days on top are numbered. By the time he ceremoniously shapes his diner bacon into a depressing "52" he'll be on the run, seemingly Skyler-less, from the next big threat to enter the ever-changing picture. But for now, in the so-far slow-burning first part of Breaking Bad's final season, Walt's biggest threat seems to be coming from the home front (or, more accurately, from himself). We've spent four seasons watching Walt transcend from Mr. Chips to Scarface, his original criminal intention being the financial stability of his family after his own untimely, cancer-ridden demise. Now we're seeing Skyler take on the role of a reluctant Mr. Chips as Walt finally emerges as Scarface, and if her Virginia Woolf meets The Awakening moment at Walt's birthday party is any indication, she either can't or won't handle that pressure.
Naturally, Skyler didn't catatonically wander into the family pool without any impetus. She had been slowly unraveling since Fring's murder, but it was the cars (and Walt's maddeningly cheerful disposition) that finally sent her tumbling over the edge. When Walt brought home not one, but two flashy new whips after burning a similar car to protect the family's middle-class image months before, then droned on and on about the importance of family without acknowledging the pressing threat to their safety, she finally, fully realized what we've been seeing for multiple seasons now: This guy is bats**t crazy. She didn't even need to see him wearing the Heisenberg hat in front of his teenaged son to realize that Walt was now a danger to his children. And having to keep that secret from a clueless Hank and Marie — who are probably her only way out of her impossible predicament — was too much to bear. Kudos to Johnson, writer Sam Catlin, Vince Gilligan, and especially Anna Gunn for pulling off one of the most quietly viscerally disturbing sequences in Bad's turbulent history. Skyler's quiet, determined, dead-eyed march into that eternally troublesome pool was just as effective as Fring's final face-off, and the supporting players' varied reactions perfectly capped off the emotional gravity of the scene. Hank was quick on his feet and emotionlessly efficient, Marie was endlessly empathetic as the family's resident insanity expert, and Walt was just a huge dick, piling on lie after lie to protect his reputation.
As we saw later on, during the series' most heart wrenching fight since the Walt vs. Jesse smackdown of 2011, Skyler's suicide attempt did serve a higher purpose — it got her kids out of the house, at least for the time being. After the party, an emotionally drained Skyler finally let loose and told Walt of her plans to get the kids away from him, but he cruelly, abusively tossed aside each of her frantic pleas with an almost sociopathic ease. Finally Skyler — no longer a woman on the verge of, but instead in the middle of, a nervous breakdown — uttered the words that should have made Walt reconsider his entire life plan. She would sit and wait for the cancer to come back, but this shocking, brutal statement only made the impact it deserved on the audience. The next time we saw Walt, he was shaving his head and insisting to Mike that the show must go on, even if Lydia proved to be an unreliable business partner.
Which brings us to tonight's B-plot: Jesse met up with Lydia to retrieve her Madrigal-approved supply of methylamine, but the skittish, mismatched shoes-wearing bug-eyed brunette seemingly panicked when she realized that her supply may have been tampered with. This was enough to convince Mike that Lydia is a crazy, disposable liar, but Jesse wasn't convinced. (Poor guy — always seeing the imaginary best in people. He's definitely on the wrong show.) Mike thinks that Lydia — who we know is a bonafide liar, as she told Mike that a gaggle of DEA agents came in and screamed at her, when it was really just a recently-promoted Hank and a few buddies, calmly chatting — tampered with the container herself, but the true story remains to be seen. Either way, something is clearly very, very up with Lydia. You don't get to be a trusted, high-ranking member of Gus Fring's criminal enterprise for your methylamine access alone. Mike begrudgingly thinks that her femininity has given her a permanent pass, but I'd put money on this woman having many other hidden tricks up her designer sleeve.
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[Photo Credit: AMC]