California Literary Review

Breaking Bad Recap: ‘Fifty-One’ (Season 5, Episode 4)

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August 6th, 2012 at 7:49 pm

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Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 4 Fifty-One

Illustration by Bee Johnson
© 2012 California Literary Review

Walt’s consuming obsession with his own manufactured persona continues this week, laced with increasingly prominent allusions to the impending chaos that will no doubt characterize the close of the season. We open in the front lot of an auto body shop, where Walt and Walter Jr. are retrieving their recently refreshed and detailed family car from a chipper elderly mechanic who jibes Walt about the car’s unhip yet “sturdy” reputation. Fondling his Heisenberg hat, Walt asks how much the mechanic would give him for the car, offering to sell it for $100 and then lowering his offer to $50. Stunned, the mechanic accepts the offer over Walt Jr.’s reluctant protestations. “Are you crazy?” Walt Jr. asks. In response, Walter silently dons the hat and coldly studies his distorted, sun-blanched reflection in the car’s side mirror, stroking the brim like a gangster.

The show blesses me with a glorious pre-credits mini-montage, featuring Walters Jr. and Sr. rolling up in front of their house twice in tandem. First roll-up is in a black Lincoln and somewhat more practical PT Cruiser, then subsequently, following Walt Jr.’s lukewarm reaction, they switch the Cruiser out for a purring replica of the red and black sports car Walt Sr. torched in the parking lot last season. The camera jerks back and forth between the two grill pieces while Walt and his son rev their engines gleefully, laughing silently and pounding the steering wheels with the palms of their hands.

Post-credits, Lydia is bent over her desk in her office looking like she’s about to have a panic attack. Her eyes focus on the tips of her black six-inch heels, and she realizes she is wearing two completely different shoes, one patent leather, and one velvet with a gold embellishment. “You have got to be kidding me,” she exhales, bug-eyed.

A cell phone in a drawer goes off, and it’s Mike, warning Lydia about an impending follow-up visit from the DEA. Sure enough, Hank, Gomez and a cadre of backup agents waltz through the door a few seconds later. Lydia confers with them in her office while her co-workers look on suspiciously, then leads them quietly through the warehouse where the methylamine barrels are stored, comes back, and screams into a pillow. She places a hysterical phone call to Mike, exaggerating the DEA visit into an aggressive, hostile confrontation, and claiming they “barged” into her office and were “swarming” all over the warehouse. She also needs a new connection to Mike’s operation since her previous one has been arrested. “I’ll send you a new guy,” Mike says stoically, and hangs up.

Skyler comes home and discovers the two new cars, blankly staring at her blackened reflection in the windshield of the sports car. Over dinner, she eats in methodical silence while Walt and Junior argue spiritedly about whose car has more horsepower. Walter’s dreams of becoming the head of his family and a role model for his son have evidently come true – he’s even able, at last, to work funny and engaging references to complex scientific concepts into casual conversation, expounding jovially about torque and drag and suspension. “You drive like a geezer!” Walt Jr. retorts, laughing. Walt offers to teach Junior to do donuts and then, momentary acknowledging Skyler’s uniformly tense and withdrawn expression, theatrically reverses himself, insisting he was only joking.

In the bathroom, Skyler tightens a length of dental floss around her finger until it turns purple. Walt babbles about the cars, rationalizing that they are both leased instead of purchased, and therefore nobody will suspect anything. In a flourish, he concludes by laying a large stack of bills on the counter, and Skyler correctly guesses that he’s cooking meth again. She nonchalantly mentions sending Walter Jr. to boarding school, but Walt shoots her down. “Where are we sending our eight-month old? The Peace Corps?” He murmurs a few token words of apology, then starts talking about throwing a birthday party for himself, claiming it would be good for all of them. “Life is good, Skyler,” he purrs.

At the DEA headquarters, Hank, Gomez and a besuited senior agent puzzle over a bulletin board covered with pieces of colored yarn, outlining connections between known participants in the Fring operation. Hank says nobody they’ve arrested will talk, and he correctly suspects that Mike is the reason why not – his associates have all been offered security packages in exchange for doing their time quietly. Coincidentally, the department has also been witnessing a blue meth resurgence. Gomez leaves, and the El Paso agent compliments Hank’s work on the case and offers to promote him to head of the department. Hank appears to harbor some reluctance, but he ultimately smiles and accepts.

In the car on the way to Walt’s birthday dinner, Hank and Marie are terse and distant with each other. Hank is irritated that Marie doesn’t seem more excited about his promotion. After some mostly feigned waffling, Marie admits that Walt told her about Skyler’s affair. Hank reacts with a mixture of confusion, horror and disgust.

Walt Jr. is excused following the birthday dinner, and the four adults banter awkwardly. Looking like she’s going to be sick, Skyler stands up and walks to the pool, standing with her back to the table and staring silently into the water. In counterpoint to his awkward, cryptic public speeches of previous seasons, Walt speaks with captivating ease about his cancer diagnosis of one year ago. “There were times when I was sure I was done for,” he intones mystically, “But then someone, or something would come through for me.”

Bathed in dim red-orange light from the table lamps, Walt recalls his first chemotherapy sessions, describing how Skyler held him, sang to him, and took care of him while he was sick. In a reverse shot, Skyler listens expressionlessly, her face illuminated by the rippling, mechanical blue of the swimming pool. She slowly descends the pool ladder and strides across its concrete bottom, until the water goes over her head and she’s floating serenely, eyes open, skirt billowing around her head. Marie and Hank call out to her fearfully. Finally, like a shark, Walt cuts through the water, looms up behind her, and claps a hand on her shoulder.

Lydia meets Jesse in the warehouse after hours, suspiciously questioning him about who he is and who sent him. Jesse is exasperated. Lydia takes him to the barrels, explaining that one barrel with a specific serial number has been erased from the database and that’s the one they need to take. Just as they’re in the process of forklifting it out, however, Lydia notices something that upsets her – what looks like a mechanical tag or tracking device gummed onto the bottom of the barrel.

Back at home, with Skyler safe in bed, Walt, Hank and Marie discuss Skyler’s mental health. Marie suggests she and Hank take the kids off Walt and Skyler’s hands for a few days while they work through the fallout from the affair. Walter correctly intuits that this was Skyler’s idea, not Marie’s.

In the bedroom, Walt confronts Skyler, who is curled up in bed pretending to be asleep. Walt calls her out, she sits up, and they angrily have what is probably, hilariously, the most frank conversation they have ever had in the entire history of the show. Skyler is freaked out that Walt’s back in the meth business and claims she doesn’t think their home is a safe place for their children. Walt keeps insisting that everything is different now because he’s running his own operation. Skyler is not buying it. She blames herself for what happened to Ted and Walt tries to comfort her, saying she only did what she had to do to protect her family.

They scuffle over the situation with Junior and Holly. Walt threatens to have Skyler committed, Skyler counters by threatening to bruise herself up or blacken an eye and nail Walt for domestic abuse. Walt snidely shoots down all her suggestions, pointing out how each of them would only upset or damage both her and the kids. Finally Skyler caves, admitting she doesn’t have a good plan to get the kids away from Walt, and that all she can really do is wait. Walt asks for what, and Skyler whispers, “For the cancer to come back.” They regard each other in stony silence.

In the extermination office, Jesse freaks out to Mike about the barrel tracker, showing him a picture of it on his cell phone. Without the Madrigal supply, finding methylamine to cook with will be pretty much impossible – “It’s like, unicorn rare,” Jesse exposits. Mike picks the whole theory apart, opining that Lydia planted the tracking device on the barrel herself to dissuade Mike’s people from pursuing any further business transactions with Madrigal. Mike threatens to kill Lydia for trying to put one over on them and Jesse tries frantically to talk him down, appealing to Walt for an outvote. Walt obliges.

Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 4, Fifty-One

Walt has a solution to their methylamine supply problem but we won’t know what it is until next week.
Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Jesse flags Walt down in the parking lot, thanking him awkwardly for siding with him about Lydia, and shoving a black box into his hands through the open car door. It’s a Birthday present – a watch. Jesse cheerfully wishes Walt a Happy Birthday and takes off, Walt staring sadly after him.

Walt goes home to a dark house. Skyler is smoking a cigarette alone in the living room. Walt attempts some friendly banter, but Skyler is laconic and disinterested. Walt shows her his watch, explaining it was a Birthday present. “The person who gave me this present wanted me dead too, not that long ago,” Walt says. “He changed his mind about me…and so will you.”

Walt lays in bed alone, staring sadly at the watch as it ticks peacefully on his bedside table. The episode closes with an encroaching series of tighter and tighter cuts, zeroing in on finer and finer details of the watch face as its arms creep slowly around the perimeter, minutely counting down the seconds. The ticking of the inner mechanism grows louder and louder on the soundtrack until it’s a roar.

At first glance, “Fifty-One” appears to contradict the previous episode’s rash assumptions about the depths of Walt’s remaining capacity for empathy or complex moral decision-making. His connection with his family is at least superficially reaffirmed, and his investment in his marriage appears foregrounded as well. These displays contrast troublingly with the cold manipulation of prior episodes, however, revealing Walt’s true motivation – perhaps from the very beginning – as a selfish and self-deceptive one, related more viscerally to a desire for masculine dominance than to a sacrificial desire to nurture and provide for his family. It also reveals several significant and telling facets of Walt’s own psychology – he’s aware, on some level, that time is running out and that the only appropriate response is to become increasingly reckless.

What Walt isn’t aware of, however, is the entrenched quality of his own deceptiveness, and by extension, the artificiality and irreconcilable conflict between the two personas he’s been attempting to construct. His sudden attachment to the Heisenberg hat – even in situations where it’s not needed and seems out of place – and his insistence on the enforced normalcy of shared family dinners and birthday parties emphasizes this rift. His closing lines to Skyler are, of course, not true – Jesse didn’t change his mind about Walt at all; he was successfully fooled into believing Walt was innocent of something that Walt was in fact guilty of.

The disparity between Walt’s home life and the perils of his profession have formed the show’s narrative crux from the beginning, and the emphasis this week on their similarities rather than their differences is an interesting twist on the show’s standard approach. The closing shots of the ticking watch face foreshadow a long anticipated and inevitably impending merging and collapsing of both trajectories.

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