Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season Five (Part 1)

by PopMatters Staff

15 August 2013

Photo: Frank Ockenfels/AMC 



S5E4 Fifty-One

Despite his absolute worst intentions involving a series of head-on collisions and sideswipes with humans, light poles, other vehicles, etc., Walt’s Pontiac Aztek has somehow survived.

It was therefore telling that the final goodbye to Walter White’s iconic mode of dweeby white guy suburban transport was said with a tip of Heisenberg’s equally iconic black hat found in the backseat. The vestiges of Walt’s former life have vanished faster than Emilio in a tub of hydrofluoric acid, but somehow the Aztek stuck around. Serviceable, tough-as-nails, and as geeky as it is nondescript, the car befits a middle-class man living a middle-class life of quiet desperation. This is no longer who Walt is.

Walt buys not one but two flashy cars to replace the aforementioned Aztek, ostensibly inspired by his 51st birthday, the same birthday he none too subtly asks to be celebrated with a medium-sized get-together replete with chocolate cake. It all still comfortably fits into the ever-expanding narrative of the upward mobility afforded by a fledgling carwash business begotten by gambling winnings, he insists.

Somewhere in there also resides the touching, triumphal story of Walt’s successful journey through the pain of life-threatening lung cancer. It’s a story Walt recounts with the trembling timbre of a humble man who is just grateful to still be alive. It has been a full year since his initial cancer diagnosis that set in motion his whole ignoble voyage into darkness. “Fifty-One” marks a set of milestones to be sure, the consideration of which leads Skyler to step slowly and deliberately into the freezing swimming pool that offers her only escape from Walt’s insipid recounting.

In a series known for superlative writing and acting performances alike, when a peerless performance such as the one turned in by Anna Gunn in this episode stands out, it resonates all the more. Skyler has been demoralized over her inability to provide her children with any protection from Walt. She holds on with her fingernails to the thought of the life she once had, the life she seems less and less able to pretend to be in possession of any longer. Skyler has all along chosen the path of least resistance; her future is too closely tethered to Walt’s to permit her to leave, and she is still too pusillanimous to get up and walk away. All she can do is step into the blue abyss for a moment of respite, wondering what it might be like if she could just stay down there, out of earshot of the monster constantly in her midst.

So how does she go on? How does Skyler muster the requisite energy to even care for herself enough to keep watch over Holly and Walt Jr.? In a scene that captures the uncompromising brilliance with which Gunn plays the role of a hopelessly outfoxed, vulnerable and terrified woman, she finally lets Walt into that desolate place in her soul where she culls enough motivation to live. She isn’t hoping for him to change. She isn’t hoping for Walt’s enemies to get the best of him. She doesn’t believe Hank will crack the case and lock Walt away in a prison cell. He’s too smart, too successful, too sadistic to succumb to any of that. Skyler merely hopes for the cancer to return and finish the job it started.

It is the conundrum for which Walt has no solution. “Fifty-One” is a reminder of how little temporal space has been covered in Breaking Bad. One year since Walt’s maiden RV trip into the desert, Walt has a storage locker full of cash, a bunny hill of dead bodies with his name on it, a cadre of henchmen helping him run his meth enterprise and a long list of vanquished enemies. As we come to find out by the end of this season, his most identifiable foes are the silverfish that threaten to eat through his mountain of money if Skyler does not chemically treat it. However, what Walt no longer has is even a sliver of respect from his wife.

The bond that existed between Walt and Skyler is irretrievably broken. The betrayals are far too profound and long lasting to ever return to that beautifully simple thing they had: love. He has no answer for this problem at the moment. Walt seems resigned to the fact that while he is up to his neck in blue meth, Skyler will continue to loath him. But in love as in meth, Walt thinks ten moves ahead. He brandishes the watch that Jesse gave him as proof that he will solve this little problem of a shattered marriage.

The watch, as Walt explains to Skyler, was given to him by Jesse, who once upon a time wished him dead with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. In Walt’s mind, the transgressions perpetrated on Jesse were far more severe than anything he has visited upon Skyler, bottoming out when Jesse pointed a gun right between Walt’s eyes and threatened to pull the trigger. No one else got Walt a gift for his 51st birthday. Someday, he believes, it will be Skyler honoring him on his day yet again.

“Fifty-One” explores more than the depths of the Whites’ marriage. Delightfully frantic, Laura Fraser’s tightly wound Lydia Rodarte-Quayle presents as a new problem for Walt and the boys. The once-reliable Madrigal now appears to be a blind spot where the DEA is poised to pounce. Considering the scale of the threats already neutralized, the tracking device that she may or may not have planted on a barrel of methylamine seems like small potatoes. Considering the utter disarray of his home, these really are only minor nuisances.

To Walt, matters of the heart can be analyzed with the same shrewd rationality as even the most esoteric scientific question. It’s the central conceit upon which Walt operates, assuming that he can indeed perform enough penance during his post drug dealing life to win back the family he believes that he has only temporarily squandered. He cannot.

He cannot comprehend the vast differences between his relationship with Jesse and the relationship he has with Skyler. He cannot see that Jesse never trusted Walt the way Skyler did. He never loved Walt the way Skyler did. He never felt so afraid, so vulnerable, and so alone when it appeared that Walt might be on death’s door. He never pictured himself growing old with Walt. He never created two lives with Walt for whom he is completely responsible. Skyler did all these things; she felt all of these things. She said, “I love you” to Walt countless times, and she meant it.

A lot has changed in a year. Robert Downs Schultz

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//Mixed media