"Breaking Bad" recap: Skyler chooses sides

Hank thought he knew how this would come to an end. But families are full of surprises

By Jen Chaney
Published August 19, 2013 11:44AM (EDT)
                   (Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

In a spaghetti Western, when two men face each other and prepare for battle, it’s just a matter of time before one of them draws his gun.

In the latest episode of “Breaking Bad” -- week two in the final eight weeks of a series that may well induce a massive stress coronary in its entire viewing population -- Hank Schrader and Walter White faced each other in a continuation of last week’s suburban New Mexico “Good, the Bad and the Ugly” moment. After that “Tread lightly” confrontation, as the Schrader garage door between them closed, they clearly seemed prepared for battle. And indeed, it was just a matter of seconds until both of them drew … their cell phones.

There was something both nerve-racking and hilarious in that moment when Walt -- unmasked as Heisenberg and madly trying to reach his wife -- realized she was already on the other line with Hank, who just stared at Walt, dumbstruck, while making arrangements for what would turn out to be a diner meet-up in which Skyler completely flipped out. Each of them knew he needed Skyler in his corner before he could make his next move. And initially, each underestimated how Skyler would respond to her very tricky position as the key that, depending on which way she’s turned, can open two very different doors in the potential prosecution of Walter White.

Hank -- playing the role of the empathetic savior who’s always there for his sister-in-law, and also always ready to capture her incriminating her husband via digital recorder -- assumed Skyler would open the door leading directly to Walt’s capture and arrest. At first, Walt figured the same thing, presuming that because she had spoken to Hank so quickly she had blabbed out some damning details. But she didn’t. While sitting across from Hank at that diner, she kept her mouth shut, insisted on obtaining legal representation (Better call Saul!) and, when all else failed, shifted into scene-making screamer mode: “Am I under arrest? Are you arresting me? Am I under arrest?”

One could argue that Skyler’s behavior here represents an evolution -- or devolution, depending on your perspective -- in her character. She’s in so deep with the money laundering and her knowledge of Walt’s unsavory activities that, like her husband, she’s willing to do anything to maintain the house of cards they’ve so carefully stacked. But this behavior -- especially the capacity to launch that “Am I under arrest?” tirade, which was born out of genuine panic but also a tactic that allowed her to get the hell out of that diner -- has been in her all along.

Remember back in season one, when Skyler attempted to return the tiara she received from Marie at her baby shower and got detained at the jewelry store for allegedly stealing it? (She didn’t -- Marie did.) Skyler managed to avoid getting arrested by pretending to be in labor, doing her best grunting and panicky lamaze breathing until the store manager let her go. This week’s “Am I under arrest” jag recalled that moment. Skyler’s a survivalist who will do what it takes to extricate herself from unpleasant situations. She always has been. Like her husband, she’s capable of spotting others’ weaknesses and she has a spine of steel. It was no surprise at all when she concluded that Hank’s evidence against Walt was mostly speculative, and therefore advised her spouse, “Maybe our best move here is to stay quiet.” Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if that future Heisenberg spray painted across the Whites’ living room wall turns out to be the graffiti art work of Skyler herself.

Of course, staying quiet may be challenging considering that, just as Walt and Skyler are a single united front, Marie and Hank have now become a galvanized force focused on bringing Walt down. As soon as Marie realized that Skyler knew about Walt’s adventures in meth land before Hank was shot -- that, in essence, Walt had caused the injuries that nearly paralyzed Hank -- Marie slapped her sister and immediately tried to take baby Holly away from her, backing down only when Hank commanded her to do so.

Hank and Marie do not have children and, as actor Dean Norris told Salon in an interview last year, it’s never been entirely clear why. Maybe they’ve chosen not to be parents. But given the way they’ve embraced their nephew and niece, that’s never seemed plausible. I’ve always assumed that one of them was physically unable to have kids, which may explain why I’ve always sensed that Marie feels some unspoken resentment toward Skyler for being a mother and, especially, being able to conceive a second child a little later in the fertility game. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. But the fact that Marie’s rage immediately motivated her to grab that baby girl in a way that implied “Skyler, you’re not fit to be a mother” and also, perhaps, “I deserve this kid more than you do” further confirmed the existence of that resentment. It also was interesting that, upon realizing her sister might have been involved in illegal activity, Marie’s first instinct was to engage in her own previous illegal activity of choice: stealing.

Meanwhile, Walt’s first instinct after absorbing Hank’s “gotcha!” was: Keep Calm and Bury the Money. With help from Saul’s goons, Huell and Kueby -- who, bless them, couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a quick cash nap atop Walt’s storage facility mountain of bills -- Walt gathered his haul and trucked it out to a desert location that resembled the remote spot where he and Jesse used to engage in their RV cooking. Walt bought a lottery ticket that contained the coordinates for the treasure he buried -- 34, 59, 20, 106, 36, 52, which, for the record, actually points to a location not far from the real DEA office in Albuquerque --  a move that immediately made me think of Hurley from “Lost” screaming, “The numbers are bad!”

Whether those numbers are cursed or not, cash seems destined to become Walt’s downfall in one way or another, most likely because of the blood money Jesse tossed out of his car in last week’s episode. Not surprisingly, an alert citizen found some of those green stacks, then discovered a practically comatose Jesse spinning on a playground merry-go-round not far from the location of his “deliveries.” (That overhead shot of Jesse rotating was reminiscent of the image of him catching a speedball high back in season two, a trippy, visually memorable vignette that occurred shortly before Jesse’s girlfriend Jane pressured Walt to pay Jesse the money he was owed. Jane died shortly after that, while Walt just stood by and watched her choke on her own vomit. Clearly, good things do not happen when Walt pays Jesse in full.)

That trail of money crumbs led to Jesse being brought in for police questioning, which was just the gift Hank needed. After expressing the same reservations that last week’s recap suggested the career DEA agent might feel about acknowledging his brother-in-law’s guilt -- “The day I go in with this,” he told Marie, “is the last day of my career” -- he said he needed concrete proof before he could take action against Walt. Jesse can certainly provide that. If Hank can coax a confession out of a clearly vulnerable Mr. Pinkman -- someone Hank has physically beaten up before and, therefore, could intimidate again -- he’ll have the proof he wants. Hank thought he needed Walt’s partner in order to bring down Heisenberg. And he did. It just wasn’t Walt’s wife; it was the skinny punk who helped his former chemistry teacher build a meth empire.

Lastly, we need to talk Todd, who made a reappearance this week and -- along with the same crack team who snuffed out all the remaining, imprisoned members of Gus Fring Enterprises -- executed the shoddy meth cooks Lydia’s been using in the wake of Walt’s decision to exit the cooking business. From the minute Jesse Plemons showed up on “Breaking Bad” and forced us to think of him as someone other than Landry Clarke from “Friday Night Lights,” Todd has been set up as the heir apparent to Walt, the protege who took over for Jesse and who has come closest to recreating the purity of Walt’s product. Todd clearly has no qualms about doing what must be done to keep the blue crystal moving. And given how harshly Walt and Skyler rebuffed Lydia in last week’s episode, she needs to make a go of things with Todd, even, perhaps, to the point where she might want people to think that Todd’s work is actually the work of Walter White. In other words: we may have another guy who starts to call himself Heisenberg. If that happens -- and if Walt realizes that the brand he built for himself is being demeaned by less than top-quality craftsmanship -- it may be impossible for our Mr. White to “stay quiet” for very long.

Jen Chaney

Jen Chaney is a pop culture writer whose work appears regularly in The Washington Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture and The Dissolve. She’s currently working on a book about the movie “Clueless,” to be published next year by Touchstone.

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