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Breaking Bad Recap: Stop Digging

Skyler White (Anna Gunn) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

When you’re in a hole, stop digging.

I’ve heard and said that phrase many times in my life, and I’m sure you have, too. I thought about it again during the aptly titled “Buried,” written by Thomas Schnauz and directed by Michelle MacLaren, one of my favorite American filmmakers, TV or theatrical — especially during those wonderful, horrible scenes in the desert, with Walt desperately and single-handedly trying to bury his money, sweaty and exhausted, looking for all the world like a cancer-ridden 21st century cousin of Humphrey Bogart’s wealth-crazed Treasure of the Sierra Madre hero, Fred C. Dobbs. (Actual Dobbs quote: “I think I'll go to sleep and dream about piles of gold getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”) Walt’s been figuratively digging himself deeper into a hole for — what is it now, about a year and a half of Breaking Bad time? And what does he have to show for it? Well, millions of dollars, sure — but also a constant gnawing sense that it could all unravel in an instant.

And it did, the second he decided in last week’s “Blood Money” to turn on his heel, swagger back into Hank’s garage, and ask about that tracking device, instead of walking away in pretend innocence and letting Hank stew over the fact that (by his own admission to Skyler in this episode) his case against Heisenberg is mainly circumstantial. By turning around and playing the alpha male — as this onetime pasty, whiny chemistry teacher tends to do — Walt triggered what looks like an endgame. Hank beat the hell out of him and told him he knew everything, and rather than deny it all, he couldn’t resist pleading for mercy (citing his cancer) and warning Hank to “tread lightly.” Now we’re in pack-everything-you-can-into-one-suitcase-and-flee-the-burning-house mode. The last six episodes of this show may end up feeling like the last half-hour of Goodfellas.

In this episode as well as last week’s, we got that sense that we were watching continuous segments of time chopped up into discrete, carefully shaped sections. The first scene in the episode proper — Walt storming out of Hank’s garage, then nervously phoning Skyler, who was talking to Hank on another line — picked up right where last week’s episode left off. Ditto the nighttime prologue, in which the old man finds bundles of cash that Jesse threw, a la Robin Hood, and then finds Jesse sprawled on a merry-go-round — the latest of many visual acknowledgments that Jesse is, in many ways, still a child, with the innocence of a child.

Hank’s desperation, in his scenes with both Skyler and Marie, confirmed that the stakes are dire for him, too. He conceded to Marie what we viewers already knew — that even if he successfully busts Walt, it’ll be the end of his career at the DEA, because for all his street-smarts and physical bravery, he’s still going to be remembered as the schmuck who didn’t know his brother-in-law was Heisenberg until he found an autographed copy of Leaves of Grass on top of his toilet.

The writing in the Hank-Skyler coffee shop scene belongs on anyone’s list of great Breaking Bad moments; it just built and built and built to Skyler’s escalating repetitions of “Am I under arrest,” keeping you on tenterhooks the whole time about whether she’d turn state’s witness or lawyer up. She lawyered up. “Am I under arrest? Am I under arrest? Am I under arrest? Hank, are you arresting me? Am I under arrest!” Spectacular. Mamet-worthy. "Will you go to LUNCH? Will you GO to LUNCH?" Or, if you prefer: “Shut up. Shut up! SHUT UP!” This poor woman is in an impossible position. Walter White is, as this episode reminded us, a guy who had multiple witnesses killed in prison, plus he’s her husband and the father of her children. She knows what she’s doing is wrong. But she’s Walter’s mate. And even if she goes into witness protection she’ll be living in anonymous near-poverty for the rest of her life, and it’ll be her who has to tell her kids that daddy was a drug-dealing murderer, and that she was complicit in his crimes. Her reactions, or mixed reactions, make perfect sense.

That’s one of the many things I love about this show: All the characters behave in internally consistent ways, even when they’re doing objectively preposterous things, or showing you sides you might not have previously imagined they had. You believe them.

I believe that Skyler would feel an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame over her accessory status, but also that she’d stand by Walt against Hank and the DEA. In that coffee shop scene I also got the sense that she was reacting to Hank not just as a sister-in-law would react to her brother-in-law, but as any intelligent but scared woman would react to a beefy man who was trying to bully her into doing something not just because it was the morally correct thing to do, but to satisfy his own wounded vanity and indulge his redemption fantasy. Ironically, in this scene Hank reminded me of Walt — or Walt-as-Heisenberg. He just came on too strong. He let his desperation show. If he’d been able to manage a somewhat lighter touch he might have gotten what he wanted. And now it’s too late.

More believability: I believe that Walt would seriously consider turning himself in, but only if he could somehow hold onto all that money: The Walt/Heisenberg split has rarely been visualized with such droll humor. I believe that Jesse would be so ashamed of himself that he’d treat that money as if it were sprayed with poison and throw it from his car window at night, doing penance, and that he’d be haunted by visions that Walt killed Mike, the good daddy to Walt’s bad daddy. (Of all Wired’s marvelous theories about how the series will end, I like the Hamlet theory best.) I believe that Jesse would be ripe to turn state’s witness at the precise moment when Hank seemed as though he was ready to accept defeat and humiliation over not recognizing his brother-in-law as Heisenberg. I believe that Marie would be so enraged at Skyler’s secret participation in Walt’s viciousness, and the emotional and physical damage it inflicted on her husband, that she’d slap her hard. I believe that Saul would suggest taking care of Hank by “sending him on a trip to Belize…where Mike went to” — a metaphor worth quoting — and I believe that Walt, for all his treachery and violence, would consider that a bridge too far. “Hank is family,” Walt growls, saying that word again, that noun that supposedly means so much to him and that he’s systematically corrupted and destroyed.

Odds and Ends

* Maybe it wasn't "nice" to see Todd again, but his presence at the desert meth lab brought a memorably icy chill. He looks like Matt Damon's evil kid brother and talks like the scariest Boy Scout of all time. Interesting, subtle doubling happening with him (the obedient "good son" who does whatever Walt says) and Jesse (the sweet but "bad" son who's always arguing, resisting, and otherwise questioning Walt's authority). Of course this comparison is in many ways a mirror of how Jesse once interacted with Walt (bad dad) and Mike (good dad, murders notwithstanding).

* Funniest moment in “Buried”? Saul’s henchmen lying on the money pallet, first one, then the other. The subsequent scene with Walt in the back of the drum-filled van was also a kick. “We don’t mind overtime. Ain’t no thing.”

* Something about the direction of the prologue reminded me of Steven Spielberg. Maybe it was the way MacLaren staged it as an elegant slow-build, using a few shots as she could get away with, reorienting our attention by moving the camera or changing distance rather than by cutting, cutting, cutting, which is how such things are typically done nowadays. Or maybe it was the hypnotic repetition of certain sounds (specifically the metallic screech of the merry-go-round). Or maybe it was the shafts of light streaming through the trees. In any event, that opening was very E.T., or very Poltergeist, take your pick.

* The massacre of Walt’s inferior replacement meth-cookers seems to be setting the stage for an influx of German-accented killers. Maybe we’ll see Die Hard-looking assassins dipping chicken nuggets in “Franch” next week.

* One more direction shout-out: I love how Schnauz and MacLaren stage the massacre sonically. We never see the killings, only the aftermath. Breaking Bad has never shied away from graphic violence, but from time to time they stage mayhem old-movie style: bloodshed through implication. This was one of those times, and it was great.

* A brief note about time: The editing on this show is occasionally non-linear, flashing back or forward as needed, but the overall effect is a sense of tightly woven, fiendishly elaborate storytelling architecture, a machine in which all the pieces seem to be firing at once, creating an almost overwhelming sense of immediacy. The action might be happening in the present, the past or the future, but it always feels like it’s occurring right now. When you think about how many dramas, past and current, have tried and failed to do the same thing, making any deviation from present-tense feel like a digression, that’s a remarkable accomplishment.

* The scene between Skyler and Walt — the one where Walt is lying down after collapsing in the bathroom — was surprisingly tender. It humanized Skyler, and even Walt, in ways I did not expect, considering how deep they are in their respective ethical holes. “Maybe our best move here is to stay quiet,” she tells him. If there’s a silver lining in any of this, it’s that their marriage is stronger than it’s been in a very long time. Till death do them part?

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC