TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Buried” (05.10, 2013)

Written by Thomas Schnauz (Previous Episodes: “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Shotgun,” “Bug,” “End Times,” and “Say My Name”)

Directed by Michelle McLaren (Previous Episodes: “4 Days Out,” “I.F.T.,” “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Shotgun,” “Salud,” “Madrigal,” and “Gliding over All”)

 One of the elements of Breaking Bad that has always been unusual (perhaps even unique) is its preoccupation with its own future. The show has often been structured as teasing a surprising future and then slowly building up to it from a present that seems to have little in common with it. It gives the show a remarkable amount of tension when we are actually locked into the present tense, as we are usually concerned with connecting present events to the future that we know is coming than as much as we are with following the present. Season five has been even more extreme than usual in this sense, since it began with that teaser in the diner and began its second half (last week’s episode) with another teaser set seemingly just after the diner scene.

This episode, while it certainly still plays under the spectre of those teasers, is far more focused on the present than we have seen lately. It’s exploring the aftermath of the Walt/Hank confrontation and Jesse’s continued depression.

We begin with a beautifully-shot sequence as a man comes out of his lower-class home to discover a number of bundles of money—clearly the money Jesse was throwing out his window—and then wanders into a park where a strange light hits a children’s bar dome and it really looks like the dome is an alien spaceship that has landed. I don’t know if that was just me or if that was an intentional homage to Vince Gilligan’s previous show, The X-Files, but it added to the mysterious, foreboding feeling of the entire sequence. When it turns out that Jesse crashed his car into a swing set (or parked it in front of it, but it appeared to me to be touching the set) in the park and is currently on a merry-go-round, absent-mindedly spinning himself in circles. It’s a great image that makes the sequence tolerable and perhaps tells us that the show knows that it’s currently spinning its wheels with Jesse’s plot and also reminds us that Michelle McLaren is perhaps the most talented regular director the show has.

Then, we watch as Hank and Walt race to Skyler to find evidence. Hank knows he doesn’t have enough to make an arrest and Walt, with an assist from Saul, knows that his money is the only tangible evidence Skyler has. So, Skyler unwittingly keeps Hank busy as Saul and Walt dispose of his money, with Walt burying it quietly in the desert.  The sequence is interesting as the wife-turned-accomplice Skyler unwittingly becomes Walt’s accomplice in another way and also gets trapped in a bizarre situation where Hank presents her with a way out of the situation but she is unsure whether it’s a plausible way out and has no idea what she should do. Just a few months ago, she was waiting for Walt’s cancer to come back to kill him and get her out of this, and now she’s unwilling to this way out.

The scene between Hank and Skyler is also just a beautiful scene, watching as Hank attempts to manipulate Skyler into making a statement, the angry cop in him having taken over for the brother-in-law and Skyler’s mental wheels just start spinning so quickly and crazily that she cannot answer. She’s tough enough and smart enough to stand up to Hank’s manipulations and see them for what they are, and Hank is shocked to discover that. However, he also does want to help her out, and the cop manipulation has ruined any possibility of doing that. She leaves the meeting responding to him as though he is just any other officer, not her brother in law, asking repeatedly, “Am I under arrest?”

However, perhaps the most important part of that scene is the revelation that Skyler had not heard about Walt’s cancer. He passes out in the bathroom in front of her later and tells her that it’s true that the cancer is back, asking her, “Does that make you happy?” She responds negatively, and there is just a hint of a smirk on Walt’s face as his prediction back when she wished for the return of his cancer that Skyler would change her mind about him has come true. At this point, Skyler seems to be in Walt’s corner, which of course brings to mind the question of why Walt and Skyler seem to be apart again in the future.

However, other things are in motion on this show. Lydia meets with Declan, the dealer who took over Heisenberg’s operation on his retirement, to try to fix the declining quality, and we finally see a bit of why Mike warned the other guys about Lydia: when Declan refuses to re-hire Todd, whom he fired for apparently no reason after he provided a couple of decent-but-far-short-of-Heisenberg cooks, she has a rival gang bring Todd in and kill him. Lydia is a strange mix of coldheartedness and unwillingness to get her hands dirty, and that’s never been more perfectly depicted than her walking across the desert in high heels surrounded by dead bodies whose murder she ordered with her eyes closed so that she doesn’t see them. I’m increasingly confused by Lydia’s character, and I’m really not sure that she’s anything more than a plot point. Her personality may be whatever the show needs for its plot rather than something cohesive, which would be a shame for a show that has always stayed character focused as well as this show has. I’m willing to give Gilligan & Co. the benefit of the doubt about pretty much anything at this point, but we really need to get more development of her by the end for her to make any sense.

There isn’t much to say about Michelle McLaren—she’s incredible and this is one of the best-looking episodes of television you can ever seen. The opening sequence is something a film could be proud of, let alone a tv show, and everywhere throughout the lighting, camera movement, and use of color is just perfect.

At this point, I feel good about the direction the show is headed—it looks like we’re really building to a false climax with Hank but the wheels are already in motion for Walt’s disappearance and the final confrontation. The first two episodes of this final mini-season are excellent.

It feels like we’re still headed toward the same ending as it felt like last week, though now we have some complicating factors that should make the trip a bit spicier: Jesse being in custody, Todd being brought back into the operation when he had been thrown out as untrustworthy, etc.

Notes

  • Laura Fraser’s accent has gotten much better as time has gone on. In her early appearances, it was sometimes distracting, but either I’ve just gotten used to it or it has improved.
  • Marie slapping Skyler and trying to take the baby was actually a surprise to me.
  • Skyler has essentially taken Walt’s side against Hank now. Will that turn the tide of the virulent anti-Skyler crowd online? I actually have lost some respect for her throughout season five, as she has joined in with Walt far too easily, and that continues to this point.
  • Anna Gunn and Dean Norris, probably the two actors who’ve receive the least attention in the show’s amazing cast, were amazing in this episode. The diner scene (This show has a lot of those!) was just a beautiful piece of acting that almost reminded me of the argument between Orson Welles and George Coulouris in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941)—a scene that will always be a gold-standard scene for confrontational acting for me.
  • There’s still a weird cloud around Todd as a character. He seems to be a psychopath (I mean that in the clinical sense.), but is that why everyone treats him differently? It doesn’t exactly seem to be a characteristic too terribly out of the norm in Breaking Bad’s meth world.
  • Lydia is clearly going to be the final villain at the end, so there should be plenty of opportunity to establish her character further. I just hope they don’t get so wrapped up in plot that they forget to do it.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Gliding over All” (05.08, 2012)

“Gliding Over All” (05.08, 2012)

Written by Moira Walley-Beckett (Previous Episodes: “Breakage,” “Over,” “Mas,” “Fly,” “Bullet Points,” “Bug,” and “End Times”)

Directed by Michelle McLaren (Previous Episodes: “4 Days Out,” “I.F.T.,” “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Shotgun,” “Salud,” and “Madrigal”)

 

We all knew this was how this half-season would end, didn’t we? It was obvious that it would be Hank discovering Walt’s identity, and as soon as the writers started playing Chekhov’s gun with the Leaves of Grass book, it was obvious what the method of discovery would be. Thankfully, rather than something ridiculous like Hank thinking that only Heisenberg would possibly read Leaves of Grass, the writers inserted an inscription from Gale that made Heisenberg’s identity clear (which does undoubtedly seem like something Gale would have done).

However, the episode went through some machinations before ending on Hank’s stunned face at the revelation.

First, Heisenberg and Todd clean up after Mike using the hydrofluoric acid again, which is treated even more matter-of-factly than the last time. The simplicity of the shooting and quickness of the description—just showing us the car, a body inside, and the same barrels that have housed bodies before—make it into a small, unimportant action, a sign of how commonplace killing has become in Heisenberg’s world. Skyler was upset about “shrugging off killing people as ‘shit happens,’” but Heisenberg has even taken it a step further: melting the dead bodies of his co-workers in hydrofluoric acid doesn’t even merit that much thought.

Then, Heisenberg makes a deal with Lydia for the names of Mike’s nine former Fring employees, and it’s the type of deal that Walter White would like but Heisenberg really doesn’t: in exchange for the names, he will allow Lydia to set up international distribution into the Czech Republic for him. She says that it will double Heisenberg’s profit and reduce his risk, but if there’s one thing we know about Heisenberg at this point, it’s that he doesn’t care about reducing risk and if there’s one thing we know about money on this show, it’s that drug sales never actually result in gaining it. This brilliant-sounding deal is one that is clearly doomed to fail just from that history, and then Lydia tells him that she was making this deal for Gus Fring when Heisenberg killed him. Suddenly, the safe-sounding-but-doomed venture becomes palatable for Heisenberg, as he now will be doing something that even the Chicken Man was never able to do, establishing an empire of a special, heretofore unknown nature.

Then, we get another patented Breaking Bad montage, though this time instead of meth cooking, it’s a balletic, carefully coordinated murder campaign that Heisenberg paid for, taking out Mike’s nine remaining guys as well as the lawyer who appeared ready to flip on him. It’s a beautiful sequence that continues Breaking Bad’s penchant for montages, but takes them in a different direction for the first time this season, and it wraps up the entire Mike storyline for the season.

The rarest of all events in Heisenberg’s life then happens, and it’s shown in Breaking Bad’s favorite method. We get a cooking montage with surely the show’s most appropriate song in history (“Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells), but it’s showing a three-month period of entirely successful operation. For three months, Heisenberg cooks and deals his meth with apparently no problems, assisted by Todd in the lab and Lydia and the other dealer (whose name I never caught) on the business end. There’s an odd tension to this montage, knowing how rare it is for Heisenberg/Walter White to receive good fortune, even temporarily, on this show, but it isn’t punctuated by explosions or gunfire.

Instead, it is followed by a short sequence in which Skyler shows Heisenberg the fortune he has amassed and explains that it is more than she can launder, more than any car wash could dream of laundering. Skyler tearfully pleads for her children back, never outright saying what it is that she is asking of Heisenberg: that he get out of the meth business. Then, in a shocking scene that is a dead ringer for the scene back in season one when Walt first agreed to get treatment for his lung cancer, Heisenberg tells her, “I’m out.” She accepts his statement and appears relieved at the news, showing the exact same reaction that she did to his acceptance of treatment so many years ago.

In between, he gives Jesse the money he was owed, and we see how terrified of Heisenberg even Jesse has become, as he essentially breaks down and reveals that he has been holding a gun throughout Heisenberg’s visit—it’s a great moment for Aaron Paul. It’s also the first time we’ve seen Jesse recognize what a dangerous man Heisenberg is.

Then, we get a scene of a Skyler/Walt/Hank/Marie/Junior dinner that seems cut straight out of the time before we ever met these people. Until now, a happy dinner among them was something we imagined had to have happened with regularity before the show began but that we had never seen, but here it is. Everyone is seemingly happy, for the first time in the show’s history. Walter White even seems to be back, with Heisenberg nowhere to be seen.

And then, Hank goes to the bathroom and sees the book.

Dean Norris deserves some credit for his reaction, which beautifully told us the shock that he felt, but also the confusion. And, really, what does Hank do now? If he leaves this piece of evidence, he may never see it again. If he takes it, Walt may know. If he calls Steve about it, he’s going to be kicked out of office just like his predecessor. If he tells anyone else, they aren’t going to believe him. It’s a mix of shock and confusion that he plays absolutely perfectly, and, as the least heralded member of the Breaking Bad regular cast, we should throw some kudos to him for it.

The conclusion of this season essentially leaves us back where we started, wondering why, in about nine months, Heisenberg will be Walter White, coughing in a Denny’s, needing a machine gun in his trunk. The truth is, in eight hours, what’s changed is that Hank knows. Yeah, Mike is out of the picture now, but he was also seemingly out of it until being dragged back in at the start of the season. Instead of the continuation of the story of Heisenberg, this season has provided us with a snapshot of the future and few clues as to what will happen. That’s all there is. It was still enjoyable and it was better made than most shows could dream of, but it was frankly a lot of wheel spinning for little reward.

 

Notes

  • There was an interesting and possibly telling shot just before Walt claimed to be “out” in this episode: we saw him getting an MRI and literally being turned 180 degrees. There are many, many possible meanings to this shot, but the most obvious is that it was a shot meaning that Walt’s cancer has returned, since it was after all a medical test and he was shown reversing course.
  • Michelle MacLaren is amazing.
  • I find it difficult to believe that Heisenberg is out. First of all, it would take him some work to get out—he couldn’t just say, “I’m out” and drop everything with the organization of people who depend on him. Secondly, Heisenberg would not leave his empire for anything, including the family that Walter White desperately wanted.
  • I always said that the finale would be first Walt vs. Hank and then Walt vs. Jesse, but I have to admit that at this point, I don’t see how the latter could be the end. He’s going to take on Jesse somehow and needs a machine gun? That seems pretty unbelievable. It also doesn’t sound right that it’s for a final confrontation with the DEA. More likely, either the cartel is finally coming for him or there is something bigger and scarier coming related to Madrigal. The latter is probably the more likely of the two.
  • It’s pretty clear that Walt is going to turn to the “disappearer” that Saul told him about last season, and with Hank’s revelation here, it seems that’s coming soon. How is he going to get to the disappearer and get out before Hank gets to him? It wouldn’t take long for Hank to put him away at this point, since (a) he’s got an incredibly strong circumstantial case already and (b) he’s Hank–he is a relentless, smart agent who will work his ass off until he has everything there is against Walter White.
  • Seriously, what does Hank do right now? It seems like any choice he makes is wrong. It seems like the best thing he can do is call Gomez, which risks ending his own career.
  • This half-season was still good, but it was easily the weakest Breaking Bad has ever been. Hopefully, much like the first half of the last season of The Sopranos, it’s setting up something special.