Breaking Bad Breakdown: Digging Down
Sunday afternoon, I started thinking ahead to Breaking Bad in anticipation, and the question I kept coming back to was, “I wonder what they’ll do with the cold open?” The series has always used its pre-title sequences as a site of both artistic experimentation and narrative playfulness, from the puzzle-like flash-forwards in season 2, to the flashbacks to dead characters like Jane and Combo, to the fake music video celebrating Heisenberg. I was not surprised in the least when last week’s episode picked up on New Hampshire Walt’s flash forward return to Albuquerque, as it seemed like an appropriate way to signal the season’s return and remind us of where we’re going. But what might they do this week?
The cold open doesn’t play much with time or narrative—although I suppose it rewinds a little from the end of “Blood Money” to Jesse’s nighttime door-to-door cash machine—but instead focuses on style and character. While we spend the first few minutes with a mystery man following Jesse’s lucrative breadcrumb trail, it’s all leading up to that final shot, with Jesse lying on the carousel numb, broken, and literally spinning inward out of control, fitting for a series that always seems to offer centripetal complexity by pulling each new event into the core of its characters. The overhead shot echoes the image of Jesse’s heroin experience, reminding us of everything he’s gone through since and how stuck on the ground he is now. Aaron Paul doesn’t speak a word in this episode, but his shattered presence in the bookending scenes sets the tone for the very downbeat and heavy drama throughout.
While last week it felt like the series would just fast-forward through Hank and Walt’s cat-and-mouse, rejoining Walt leaving Hank’s garage highlights how much the two still must do to capture or escape respectively, shot as a wild West showdown with a garage door opener as weapon. If “Blood Money” focused on Hank’s emotional reactions to uncovering Walt’s secret identity, “Buried” explores the ripple effect that this discovery has on Skyler and Marie. Hank gets to Skyler first, but misreads how to play her—one of Breaking Bad’s challenges is to keep track what each character knows about various secrets, and reminding the audience about these knowledge differentials. Skyler’s knowledge of Walt’s violence and deceit is more limited than Hank’s, but he has no idea how involved Skyler has become in the drug empire. The restaurant scene is a masterful example of how such knowledge differentials can be played to create viewing pleasures, as we know more than both of them, and desperately want each to reveal enough key information to help each other take down Walt. If only Hank told Skyler more about Walt’s murders and how he tricked Hank with the fake call about Marie’s accident, she would be much more likely to want to help him rather than the monster who dug the hole she’s stuck in; if only Skyler asked Hank for immunity for her role in money laundering, he could surely get it for her. But as the scene played out, Hank assumes Skyler was just Walt’s prisoner whom he can set free, and Skyler thinks that she is as guilty as Walt—and we’re forced to powerlessly watch with suspenseful delight.
I have written a good deal about Skyler’s story as serial melodrama, and how the final two seasons have shifted our perspective on her as an abused spouse imprisoned both by her husband and her lack of full knowledge about his actions. One the one hand, her refusals to help Hank and communicate with Marie makes it feel like she is protecting Walt, choosing the monster over the heroic knight. But I read Anna Gunn’s brilliant performance in this episode as motivated far less by protecting Walt than fearing for her own safety and the relative stability (and ignorance) of her children—when Marie tries to take Holly away from what she sees as an unsafe home, Skyler insists on retaining control of one of the few aspects of her life that still feels innocent, flexing her agency wherever she can. She’s not looking to retain her criminal power or the money; she’s looking to avoid her guilt by doing what she’d planned on back in “Fifty-One”: waiting for Walt’s cancer to take him away and wipe the slate clean. But in my favorite exchange of the episode, Walt asks the cancer’s return makes her happy, while she clarifies how little her own emotions matter anymore: “I can’t remember the last time I was happy.” She’s still a victim of Walt’s crimes (as are all of the other characters), but no longer a passive one, and given the limits of her own knowledge, she appears to have dug in and gambled on the wrong side (at least morally, if not strategically).
Lydia also gambles on what is likely the wrong side as well, enlisting Todd and his uncle’s neo-Nazi militia to take out the Phoenix gang and reclaim the means of production. Throughout the series, many scenes have shown how ill-fitted Walter White is to the seedier sides of the drug game, outfitted inappropriately to tangle with hardcore hoodlums like Tuco—but even Walt never wore high heels to a desert bloodbath. Lydia’s insistence that she not see the carnage she ordered is an effort to bury her head in the sand, or at least in the underground meth lab, but Breaking Bad never ignores the consequences of violence. Both Lydia and Walt have hired Todd’s army to do their dirty work, but I fully expect that they’ll both learn that working with neo-Nazis comes with strings attached, and debts will need to be paid.
While the title “Buried” certainly refers to Walt’s underground bank account, it more conveys the state of characters pushed down under massive amounts of pressure, whether from guilt or evidence. As is typical of Breaking Bad’s vibrant visual storytelling, especially when the brilliant Michelle MacLaren is directing, the shot composition highlights the episode’s emotions—we see broken Jesse laid out from above, just as Walt’s bathroom collapse is framed in a bird’s eye shot and we see Todd guide Lydia through a field of death in an aerial shot, not to mention Huell and Kuby luxuriating on a money bed. Whether these parallel framings are meant to suggest how death already possesses Walt and Jesse—the former via cancer and the latter from an almost catatonic emotional state—or more literally to foreshadow the deaths to come for the erstwhile partners (or Saul’s henchmen), we cannot yet say. But clearly much more than just a van fully of money is being buried over the course of this episode.
Random thoughts while lying on a bed of money:
- The episode’s emotional centerpiece is Marie confronting Skyler, a harrowing scene that serves as a counterpoint to Skyler repeatedly telling Marie to “Shut up!” back in “Hazard Pay.” Both Anna Gunn and Betsy Brandt have gotten far less praise for their performances than their male co-stars, in large part because they are rarely given the dramatic meat to chew on that Walt, Jesse, Hank, and others often get in this male-centered crime story. But both are phenomenal throughout this episode, and the scene might be one of my all-time favorites for portraying emotional violence and its consequences.
- In his desire to maintain utmost secrecy for where the money is buried, Walt digs the vault himself, rejecting Huell & Kuby’s offer to help. But Walt is a dying man who is clearly not up to such physical labor, marking another time that his pride and obsession for control have paid off with unhealthy consequences. I assume it will not be the last.
- When Walt was brainstorming options with Saul, I was surprised that the “vacuum cleaner salesman” didn’t come up, as the option to buy a new identity seems like Walt’s only way out now, and would help connect the dots to his New Hampshire relocation. It definitely seems like a more sensible option than sending Hank “on a trip to Belize.”
- In the cold open, I exclaimed with fear when the old man sees the car’s lights blinking, fearing that Jesse had run himself off the road. But when I saw him on the carousel, my thoughts turned to The Wire, when Nick Sobatka fled to his playground haunts to console himself after Ziggy’s impulsive actions. Alas, Jesse seems in even worse shape than Nick and Ziggy.
- The final scene with Jesse in the interrogation room both brings back two of my favorite bit characters, sarcastic Detectives Kalanchoe and Munn from “Face Off,” and delays the confrontation between Hank and Jesse that I’ve been anticipating for quite awhile. I only hope that Hank manages to play Jesse better than he played Skyler, although he faces similar but inverse challenges: with Skyler, his profile of her as a moral family member blinded him to the the possibilities that she might be culpable in Walt’s crimes, and with Jesse he needs to look beyond his picture of him as an immoral dirtbag and connect with his moral center. That should be worth the wait.
- I’m sure it’s not going to happen, but I would be in rapturous joy if next week’s episode is nothing but Hank, Jesse, & Walt in the box, paying homage to one of the all-time great television episodes, Homicide’s “Three Men and Adena.” Maybe there should be a fly buzzing around the room too.
- And kudos to Antenna editor Taylor Cole Miller for being my image jockey, and going above and beyond this week with his GIF of despondent Jesse!
Paratext of the Week:
While Breaking Bad does not inspire the puzzle-solving forensic fandom that I’ve discussed with Lost, How I Met Your Mother, and others, its fans are equally obsessive and detail oriented. Thus Wired’s list of seven “theories” of how the series might end is quite interesting, as the fans are not just conjecturing finales but analyzing allusions, patterns, and references. I’m particularly impressed with the color chart of character wardrobe change, as Breaking Bad is clearly invested in conveying narrative information through visual style more than nearly any other television series. We’ll check back to see what they got right in seven weeks.