How criminal is it that Anna Gunn has largely been left out of the accolades Breaking Bad has received over the years, only earning her first Emmy nod this year? Skyler White has long been one of the most thankless roles on TV, a woman who spend half of the series being completely out of the criminal loop, and the other half scrambling to come to grips with her family’s new reality by trying on a variety of responses – including one-upmanship, via her affair with poor Ted Beneke – only to find herself just as completely trapped as ever, only with a fuller understanding of just how trapped she is. That awareness finally leads to some frank discussion on her part about her desire to break free, no matter what that may mean, and those moments provide for the most potent dramatic material of the season so far, whether or not the Skyler detractors will see it that way.
More on that later. There are two, simultaneous, and equally appropriate responses to “Fifty-One”: attraction and repulsion. The former comes partially courtesy of director Rian Johnson (Brick, the forthcoming Looper, and Season 3 standout bottle ep “Fly”), whose tricked-out, anarchic cold open, with Walts Sr. and Jr. high off the euphoria of expenditure represents the show at its most gleefully stylized and hyperkinetic. Johnson also works to exploit Breaking Bad‘s love of minute detail and extreme close-up to potent effect, from the blood that divides the frame when it’s taken up by Walt’s freshly shaven skull, to the ever-encroaching ripples in the White family pool, to the amplified sound of the fancy watch Jesse purchased Walt that closes the episode in spectacularly macabre fashion. Tick. Tick. Tick.
The latter feeling stems from the fact that “Fifty-One” might be the most cringeworthy episode of Breaking Bad ever, assuming you’re not completely indifferent to Skyler’s plight. Walt’s insistence that his birthday be cause for celebration while Skyler can only nod hopelessly is a squirm-inducing thing to behold, the dramatic equivalent of watching Ricky Gervais perform his demented monkey dance on the UK Office. This sort of queasiness makes up a whole lot of the episode’s first two thirds, making it seem as though “Fifty-One” is going to be an endurance test for even the most ardent of Walt fans. (Are there any?)
Luckily, Vince Gilligan and co. seem to sense that 3-and-a-half hours of Helpless Skyler is enough to make us yearn for, if not some autonomy for Skyler, at least a little bit of frankness. Gilligan has a spectacular feel for dramatic timing, so that when Skyler finally, er, breaks, it comes just when we think she might be beyond saving. After spending the rest of the hour in near-catatonic silence, following the indignity of having to arrange Walt’s meager “party” and arranging his ceremonial birthday bacon, she half-heartedly attempts to drown herself in the pool – or perhaps she just wants to see Walt make an ass of himself having to pull her out. Regardless, she scores the tiny “victory” of having the kids spirited away from Walt’s world for a little while, while she finally admits to him what she’s surely known for a little while: she dreams of a Walt-less world. “All I can do is wait…’till the cancer comes back.” The episode might mark Gunn’s most potent work on the show to date.
There are a few niggling issues, but none that can’t be resolved with time. I can’t shake the feeling that the easiest, most painless option for Skyler would be to go State’s Witness; sure, Walt Jr. would be upset, but surely that’s an acceptable price to pay for likely immunity and her family’s continued safety. And I’d still like to know how the super-skittish Lydia, who more and more resembles Tilda Swinton’s high-powered but supremely nervous corporate tool in Michael Clayton, got the sorry drug-runner’s-beauracrat gig in the first place. Still, “Fifty-One” proves that Gilligan’s best storytelling instincts are as present as ever, and I’m more curious than ever as to just how we wind up back where the season began, with Walt one year older and seemingly a hell of a lot more desperate.