In which Our Hero reacquires his Fedora of Power, pimps his ride, gets his cake and has to eat it, too.
Upon the release of his 1993 film “The Age of Innocence,” Martin Scorsese described his Edith Wharton adaptation as the most violent movie he had ever made.
I really didn’t understand what Scorsese meant until I watched the latest installment of “Breaking Bad.” Now, not much happens here in the way of action. There are no acid baths, diabolical schemes or even good old-fashioned meth cooking. But the exquisite tension between Walter and Skyler White reaches a kind of crescendo. The façade of their relationship has long been cracked. Now, the foundation is revealed to be totally rotted away. Time, the real star of this episode, is not on anyone’s side. It is a one-year commemorative edition hour where we take stock of just how far things have deteriorated, and just how much farther they have to go.
We begin by saying farewell to one of the most beloved icons of “Breaking Bad”: Old Walter’s hideous lime-green Aztec. Fortunately, that accidental collision with the two “deer” on the corner of Despair and Violence has been cleaned up and that “gunky build up” of deceased gangbangers have been removed. And it is here where the march of time first steps on our plot. When Walter is informed that there are at least 200,000 miles left before the old Pontiac bites the dust, his reaction suggests this is more of a personal death sentence. Every one of those looming miles seems destined to tick off Walter and his clock. And when he spots Heisenberg’s old fedora, Walter is reminded of whom he has become and the New Walter he thinks he now must be. Throwing caution and Skyler’s “keep a low profile” warnings aside, he makes one -- then two -- impulse buys. And when the Dad n’ Lad matching muscle cars appear in her driveway, the War of the Whites is declared.
Meanwhile, we rejoin “Lady Banjo Eyes” as she presides over a monumentally boring Madrigal Electromotive conference call involving rogue computer software. Why does it make perfect sense that Lydia speaks flawless German? Then, a phone call and another of our ticking clocks is introduced. Like the “heads up” notice Mike made to Hank, alerting him that he had just 60 seconds before he almost met his maker at the hands of The Cousins, Lydia gets a 30-second warning before a surprise visit from the very ambulatory Hank Schrader and company. Another Fring employee is busted, and the chain of evidence gets more tightly wrapped. And, as its weakest link, Lydia gets wound tighter, if that is humanly possible. She is the very “antithesis of OK.” Mike promises “a new guy” will be coming to pick up the slack. What could possibly go wrong?
The real action in “Fifty-One” is fought in the emotional no-man’s land of the White residence. Skyler has given up all hope for herself, and now she is just trying to get her children out of the war zone. The distance that the Whites have traveled since Walter’s last birthday is mapped out in every exchange. And Walter, being Walter, has to push everything too far. His “reality distortion field” remains pegged to 11. When he presents Skyler with the paltry remains from last episode's incredible shrinking money pile, her numb acceptance that Walter is “back at it” is yet more proof that she has abandoned all hope. Haunted by guilt over the fate of Poor Ted, Skyler is resigned. Indeed, she almost seems anxious to atone for her sins.
Meanwhile, Hank tries to connect the dots of the lost Fring Empire. Perhaps he is connecting too many dots, because it sure looks like his creepy new supervisor wants him to stop. If I didn’t know better, I’d think that the tendrils of Madrigal have reached out and touched someone in the Albuquerque office.
And then: the most depressing birthday party of all time. No guests, no life, no emotion. Skyler has had enough. The White pool has hosted burnt teddy bears, burnt money and, now, the burnt-out cinder of Skyler White. She doesn’t have the energy or the will to even commit suicide. In a nightmarish mash-up of Benjamin Braddock lying on the bottom of the pool in “The Graduate” and a ritual baptism, Skyler wades in. Even in the aftermath of this sequence, Walter’s brilliantly expedient cover story about Skyler’s affair continues to hide his tracks. Skyler cannot even make a dramatic suicide statement come out the way she intended.
Thankfully, we cut away and meet Lydia’s “new guy,” and we get a glimpse of another great odd couple. Worlds collide when Lydia meets Jesse. In this case, opposites do not attract, but they do amusingly distract. Lydia’s fears about being gang raped by prison guards inspires her to cross Mike the Enforcer. But with his chronic inability to see the worst in people, Jesse gets in the way of this home delivery Angel of Death. Lydia lives to whine another day, but I would not place bets on her continued employment, or survival.
“Fifty-One” climaxes with the final verbal shoot-out between Skyler and Walter. This is one of the most violent scenes in all of “Breaking Bad,” and that is truly saying something. Walter is always one step ahead of her as she tries to wiggle out of his trap. Again, time becomes a supporting actor as Skyler tells Walter she will count every minute that her children are out of the house, and the days, the months, the years until Walter’s cancer comes back. Of course, we all know that a different kind of cancer has already eaten up the man she married. Skyler knows it, too. We then cut to a scene straight out of “Mishima” as Walter shaves his head, drawing ritualistic blood.
The episode should have ended here, but after Jesse’s successful fight for Lydia’s life, his birthday gift to Walter ticks out the time “Mr. White” -- and the family he has irrevocably ruined -- has left. We started the fifth season with a flash forward to Walter’s bleak 52nd birthday. This age of not-so-innocence is drawing to an abrupt and messy close.
Random Notes and Observations
* Pillow talk. Lydia carefully drawing the blinds and screaming into her pillow. And Marie reminding us about the “talking pillow” intervention. Boy, time has passed since that awkward family night, hasn’t it?
* The tight shot of the dental floss, wound up tight on Skyler’s finger.
* Hank noticing that Lydia had mismatched shoes, and clearly filing it away for future reference.
* Marie learning the secret of good mashed potatoes. It’s all in the ricer, apparently.
* Jesse reminding Mr. White that there is a receipt in his gift box, if he should decide to exchange the present. Heartbreaking.
* Skyler smoking in the near dark, thinking God knows what. We’ll be finding out, and rightly soon.