Breaking Bad season 5 episode 4 review: Fifty-One

It's Walt's birthday once again in Breaking Bad, proving that a year is a long time in TV. Read Paul's review here...

This review contains spoilers.

5.4 Fifty-One

“The future is uncertain but the end is always near”, sang Jim Morrison, and it’s a sentiment that echoes throughout Fifty-One. It’s a reflective, devastating episode that detaches itself slightly from the focused, determined plotting of the first few shows to ruminate on a theme that’s always bubbling in the background in Breaking Bad, in much the same way that it must be continually simmering in the subconscious of its protagonist: simply put, it’s about time.

It’s humanity’s greatest invention, and its greatest curse. The most simple of concepts, and yet also the slipperiest and most elusive. We use it, abuse it, manipulate it, use it as an excuse, and use it as a weapon. It’s the great healer and the ultimate absolver, while also being our most powerful and unstoppable enemy. We fear and respect it like nothing else – nobody goes up against time and comes out smiling. Not Walter White. Not even Heisenberg.

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The long-form nature of television series means that it’s an ideal medium for exploring concepts of time, but it’s even more so the case with Breaking Bad. It’s built right into the structure of the show: it’s the combination of both Walt’s lack of time left on Earth and the sense that he has wasted his existing time that spurs him into his action to begin with.

Speaking of the show’s origin, Vince Gilligan has said that “Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades….when I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?” Of course, the answer turned out to be this: give your character a countdown. If Walt thought he had more time on this earth, we’d all be watching a sitcom about a bumbling chemistry teacher having a midlife crisis. We’d be watching a show in stasis, about a life in stasis.

Despite its massive importance to the structure of the show, it’s probably the first time since Breaking Bad began that we’ve deliberately had our attention as an audience drawn to the show’s internal time-keeping – it’s now officially one year since the show began, one year after Walt’s birthday, his cancer diagnosis, his fateful ride-along with Hank where he encountered Jesse for the first time, and the deaths of Krazy-8 and Emilio. So much has happened since then, both in the lives of the characters and in our own lives (Breaking Bad’s been on the air for four years now), that it’s hard to believe we’ve only seen a year of BB-world time elapse. Marie agrees, responding to Walt noting a year has passed since his diagnosis with a knowing “Seems like longer, doesn’t it?”

The line works as a funny bit of meta-commentary on behalf of the showrunners, but it’s also quietly brutal in its pithy assessment of the hell these characters have been pulled into. Gilligan got his wish – this is a different set of people to the group we met a year ago: Hank was all cowboy cock-of-the-walk arrogance, Skylar a beaming mum-to-be, Marie the stereotypical bitchy big sister and Walt was…well, something approaching a human being. It’s a testament to how brilliantly written everything is that these huge changes feel organic rather than manipulated for the sake of cheap drama or an easy plot twist.

As this most dysfunctional of families sits round the table and eat Skylar’s torturously prepared meal of chicken and potatoes while exchanging equally torturous small-talk, each hiding secrets of varying magnitude from everyone else at the table, the damage inflicted by Walt’s escapades over the past year is plain to see, both physically and emotionally.

The cumulative effect of all of this emotional trauma clearly weighs heavily on all of them as they struggle to hold even the most basic of conversations; except for Walt, of course, who seizes the opportunity of the birthday spotlight to launch into a self-aggrandizing speech laden with faux-humility and grace. 

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It’s his phony appreciation of Hank and Marie that seems to send Skylar finally over the edge, and it’s not hard to see why. Out of nowhere, the cop and the klepto have become one of the sweetest couples on TV (their scene in the car on the way to Walt’s was lovely), and it’s becoming increasingly tough to watch them be manipulated by Walt and drawn further into his world of deceit as we move slowly closer to the end of the series, with Hank’s new appointment as an ASAC giving him even more to lose should his link to Walt be discovered.

So when Walt sweetly tells them he “couldn’t have done it without them”, Skylar begins her slow descent into the pool, submerging herself fully beneath the water before being ‘rescued’ by Walt. There’s a few ways to read this scene – you could argue it’s a calculated attempt to act crazy and get the kids out of the house, but I think it’s more like a genuine attempt to put herself in the numb, noiseless cocoon of the water where she won’t have to listen to Walt’s endless bullshit any longer, if only for a few precious seconds. A victory of sorts.

It’s a breathtaking scene, stunningly directed and staged by the brilliant Rian Johnson, the man behind Brick, The Brothers Bloom and the fascinating-looking upcoming time-travel sci-fi Looper, starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Johnson previously helmed Fly, a divisive episode but one of my favourites of the entire series – another episode that like this one is talky and features nothing in the way of violence or sexy meth montages, but provides some of the most powerful moments in the series all the same. While undeniably innately stylish (the opening, Fast and Furious-style showcase of Walt and Walt Jr’s ridiculous cars set to furious dubstep being a case in point), Johnson is also a brilliant actors director, and has a real gift for wringing the maximum amount of suspense and impact from lines of dialogue and, often, brilliant use of silences.

Johnson demonstrates this in the other big set piece in Fifty-One, a quiet, talky scene after Skylar’s pool stunt, where Walt confronts her about her thinly-concealed plan to move the kids out of the house at least temporarily to stay with Hank and Marie. Walt’s insulted by this borderline laughable attempt to outwit him: as soon as Skylar attempts to engage with Walt on his level – i.e. the large-scale chess game, with everybody in their respective lives as pawns – she’s going to get creamed. Walt knows it, and she knows it. She heartbreakingly admits herself she doesn’t have Walt’s ‘genius’ when it comes to intellectual warfare, before hitting him with a line more brutal than any act of violence we’ve seen so far – she’s waiting for the cancer to come back.

And not just waiting – she’s actively trying to passive smoke Walt to death, if the last scene is anything to go by.  It’s doubly shocking for Walt because he knows that if he goes, Skylar will be responsible for is legacy. This woman, who despises him more intensely that he ever thought would be possible, will be responsible for keeping the name of ‘Walter White’ alive.

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The line has such weight not just because of the innate shock value of somebody saying “I want you to get cancer”, but also because it’s been a year in the making (or four years, if you’re operating in real-world years – and why would you?). It’s the time that gets you – only a year ago, Skylar was a loving, committed wife and mother; now, she’s someone who is clenching her fists and physically willing cancer to grow on her husband and kill him off so she can finally be free of him. The fact that a character can do such a violent 180 without it seeing forced or unbelievable is again, testament to the remarkable consistency in the writing over the past four seasons.

It’s a huge journey for a character to go on, and Anna Gunn deserves enormous credit for selling her scenes brilliantly in Fifty-One. So often derided as the weak link in the Breaking Bad ensemble, it’s always seemed to me to be a little unfair, and perhaps down to people projecting what they dislike about the character as it is written on to her as an actress. But to me she’s always been solid, and she is outright brilliant in Fifty-One, conveying the desperation of the victim of an emotionally abusive relationship with shattering conviction and clarity.

Elsewhere in the episode, there are problems with precursor Lydia, whom Mike suspects is trying to weasel her way out of the game by planting fake trackers on the precious methylamine barrels. It looks like Mike’s half-measures really will come back to bite him, as both Jesse and Walt vote against his plans to kill her: Jesse because he doesn’t want to see another life lost, and Walt because, fresh from being reminded of his own mortality, he knows he’s running out of time, and a break in production could end up literally being fatal.

Afterwards, poor adorable Jesse gives Walt the heartbreakingly thoughtful gift of a watch for his birthday. For someone with an ounce of shame, the sight of someone who he has treated so badly being so forgiving and decent might have resulted in some deep self-examination and reflection – but for someone recently re-united with his Heisenberg hat, it’s vindication. It’s affirmation that the ends justify the means, that people will ultimately bend to his will if he applies it firmly and astutely enough. It says, you will come round to my way of thinking. It says: I can make you love me. Nice one, Jesse!  It’s better than socks, anyway!

On the other hand, it is a slight bummer that the ticking timepiece is also such a blatant metaphorical reminder of Walt’s impending doom/death, but then symbolic resonance was never really Jesse’s strong point. Don’t hold it against him.

Who knows – maybe Walt’s got a plan to bend time itself. His hubris is such that at this point he probably thinks that if he only took a few minutes to sit down and give it some proper thought he’d probably be able to put together a makeshift time machine within the afternoon. 

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But the devastating events of Fifty-One will have, you would think, planted at least a seed in his subconscious that that is one battle he has no chance of winning. Even if he does manage to outsmart absolutely everybody; even if he does continue his reign of fear, deception, violence and terror unchallenged; even if he comes up with the wily masterplan to end all masterplans, deep down Walt knows that somewhere down the line there’ll be a time on a clock face that ultimately even he won’t be able to outwit.

Read Paul’s review of last week’s episode, Hazard Pay, here.

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