“Fifty-One” (05.04, 2012)
Written by Sam Catlin (Previous Episodes: “Down,” “4 Days Out,” “Green Light,” “Fly,” “Half Measures,” “Open House,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space”)
Directed by Rian Johnson (Previous Episodes: “Fly”)
It’s not every TV show that can get the best film director working today to direct a few episodes. In fact, it’s exactly one TV show: Breaking Bad. My fandom of Rian Johnson is apparent just from the name of the blog, and then I’ve praised him with regularity as well.
Johnson’s presence is apparent in this episode’s visuals. It is loaded with the kind of dark but warm-toned shots that characterized much of his latest film, Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012) (my review). He also provides much more noticeable contrast lighting, even in the scenes that would not normally be terribly interesting. Notice the scene between Hank and the DEA higher-up who promotes him: it’s all full of shafts of light broken by deep shadows from the blinds, and they are carefully placed throughout the scene—on the top of Hank’s head, between the two men, etc. And of course there is the haunting, exquisitely beautiful shot of Skyler underwater in her suicide attempt, a beautiful combination of lighting and filters that no other television show would come close to. He also gives us a respite from some of the conventions, most notably the always-brilliant montages, that Breaking Bad has fallen into, which is necessary if those conventions are to maintain any power.
We finally get a specific date marker this episode in Walt’s 51st birthday, including an excellent callback to that brilliant opening when Skyler serves breakfast and Walter Jr. insists that she has to put the bacon in the shape of the number 51 because “mom has to do it—it’s like a tradition!” It draws attention to the isolation Walt must have been feeling in that opening scene, breaking the bacon in half the same way Skyler always has to spell out his age. The time marker also emphasizes that we’ve still got a year to go before Heisenberg ends up as Walter White, at Denny’s, needing a machine gun in his trunk. Considering that the entire show to this point has happened in a year, that means we have a lot of time that’s going to be covered in the second half of the season. Heisenberg’s fall is going to be swift on-screen, but not too swift in real life, and there is plenty of time for almost anything to become the threat that leads to his need for the machine gun.
Meanwhile, we get some depth to the jittery Lydia character, as Mike explains that she is dangerous and insane and passing her off as nothing more than a an overly nervous but overall harmless person is “sexist.” It’s an interesting moment for a show whose characterization of women has drawn some criticism in the past. However, within the show, it provides an important hint that there is more to Lydia than meets the eye. After all, when consummate professional badass Mike is afraid of her, there simply has to be something to worry about. It turns out that while she is cautious and panicky, she is also conniving enough that Mike actually believes that she placed a GPS tracker on their methylamine barrel in order to scare them into working elsewhere and Mike is willing to say, “She deserves to die as much as any man I’ve ever met.”
Skyler also steps up a bit in this episode. She’s been fearful with little else until now, but she, using her children as the reason (whether it’s sincere or not), is finally able to stand up a bit to Heisenberg, setting the limits of what she will and will not accept. She says that she will accept his criminal life and launder his money but does not want the children there, in danger, even throwing Heisenberg’s own words back in his face. She gets the children away and admits to desperation and an inability to find a real way to get away from him, but says that she will do whatever she can, hoping for his cancer to return and take him away. It’s an important moment for Skyler, as it’s essentially this season’s first sign of the strength she normally offers, and even that show of strength is accompanied by desperation and fear. We see exactly how trapped Skyler has become at this point. The point is also brilliantly emphasized by the actors’ movements, as she backs away from Heisenberg to all corners of the bedroom and he chases her around menacingly, but there is no screaming or actual violence. It’s a truly Hitchockian moment that Rian Johnson, Bryan Cranston, and Anna Gunn should be extroardinarily proud of.
This episode is perhaps the best of this season so far. Not only is it simply beautiful, but it advances the plot via its characters, the way Breaking Bad has usually moved in the past. This season so far has mostly seen characters and plot advance rather separately, and the tighter connection in this episode is great.
- The Aztek got essentially a Viking funeral, which was a good way of sending us into the show’s final run. It was always rather a symbol of Walter White–a hideously ugly, run-down car that
- Much as I always love Rian Johnson, that long sequence of Heisenberg and Junior with the new Chryslers was rather silly and overdone. Chrysler more than got its money’s worth, but I hope Chrysler paid well.
- Walt gets a trophy for his ability to manipulate Jesse: the watch Jesse gives him for his birthday. He then points out that it is really a trophy by using it to tell Skyler that the man who gave it to him recently wanted him dead. “He changed his mind about me, Skyler, and so will you.”
- Rian Johnson loves smoke as an image, so it’s great that he gets to work with Skyler for the first time now that she’s smoking regularly.
- Betsy Brandt’s look just before she tells Hank about Skyler’s infidelity is brilliant. You can see the thoughts cross her mind: “Oh, you were ahead of me, Hank? Really? Want to bet? I promised Walt not to say anything. But, dammit, he looks so smug over there! I’m telling him!”
- Anna Gunn is having a good season, even though Skyler White definitely is not. Hopefully, some of the hatred that has been aimed at Skyler online during the show’s run will be tamped down by her cowed, fearful existence this season, and Gunn’s performance has been heart-rending.