Walt embraces his Heisenberg side as he turns 51, but Skyler's finally had enough of it

By Ray Rahman
August 06, 2012 at 06:00 AM EDT
Ursula Coyote/AMC
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Even before he was diagnosed with cancer, Walt’s most preciously guarded asset was time. Breaking Bad‘s earliest chronological scene (three weeks before the pilot’s flash-forward cold open) takes place on the morning of his 50th birthday. Skyler arranges Walt’s bacon in the shape of a “50” — but it’s veggie bacon. “Zero cholesterol,” she tells Walt. She’s looking out for him, hoping to extend his life just that much longer.

Clearly, these are the types of people who would own a Pontiac Aztec. As Walt’s mechanic points out in this week’s opening scene, the unassuming car is an easy punch line (a point echoed to EW by Breaking Bad‘s transportation coordinator), but it is “sturdy as hell.” It’s the eve of Walt’s 51st birthday, and he’s at the body shop to pick up his fern-green Aztec, mended after the latest in its long line of injuries. “I’m bettin’ you get another 200,000 miles on it,” the mechanic says of the car with nine lives.

For Walt, this strikes a nerve. He doesn’t have nine lives, just one, and he doesn’t want to spend 200,000 miles of it driving a car that represents so many of the things he’s worked hard to shed. The Aztec was purchased pre-cancer and, as the ol’ black porkpie he finds in the passenger seat reminds him, pre-Heisenberg. It belonged to a man scared of Gus Fring, scared of Tuco Salamanca, scared of chemotherapy, scared of cholesterol. So, after taking a long look at his porkpie, he sells the car to the mechanic for fifty bucks — a dollar for each year of his previous life. “Dad, are you crazy?” Walter Jr. asks. His father answers yes, but not it any way Junior would recognize: Without saying a word, he simply puts on his Heisenberg Hat.

Cut to the two Walters pulling up to the White family driveway in a pair of brand-new cars (the scene is soundtracked by blaring brostep, perhaps the official music of crazy people). Junior revs a red Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes (just like the one Skyler made Walt return in season 4) while Walt, Heisenberg Hat firmly in place, laughs like a maniac in a shining black Chrysler. The series has always been savvy about its use of cars, so it says a lot that Walt went with the tough-guy-approved, halftime-in-America company whose latest ad proclaims, “If you’re driving one, you know what it means to earn something.” For Walt, it also means he’s done counting his days. He’s ready to live them.

NEXT: Not so fast, says Skyler

Yet there are a number of people who could bring Walt’s young reign to an end, and two of them intersect in the next scene. Hank swings by the office of Madrigal exec Lydia, the panicky and constantly short-of-breath precursor supplier who, in just one episode, has already triggered the death of two of Mike’s associates. She manages to stay cool as she leads the authorities to the warehouse and fingers Ron as Madrigal’s methylamine leak. But after returning to her office and shrieking into a pillow, Lydia calls Mike to frantically tell him of the “14 DEA agents” (it looked to be just Hank and Gomez, plus two local cops) who were “screaming and yelling at me” and “squirming all over the warehouse” (in fact, they talked lowly and walked slowly). Still, she has reason to worry. Hank, after all, is the kind of cop who knows something’s up when a woman’s wearing mismatched shoes.

But Walt’s biggest opponent is turning out to be someone more mundane and right under his nose. Skyler rages silently during dinner that night, listening with consternation as Junior swears at the dinner table and convinces his father to teach him how to donut in his new sports car. Skyler’s storm has been brewing for a while now, of course — see the barrage of “shut up”s she hurled at Marie last week — but it’s yet to fully hit Walt. As they get ready for bed that night, he assures her the new cars fit their story — they’re just leases, anyway — and then throws down a massive stack of dollar bills on the bathroom counter. Surely, telling her he’s back in business will make her feel better?

It doesn’t. Meekly, Skyler pitches the idea of shipping Junior to boarding school, but Walt doesn’t buy it. “What’s wrong with our environment?” he asks. She replies, but not with enough force, allowing Walt to drop the subject with, “It’s clear sailing from here on out, I promise.” He moves on to something much more exciting: his birthday party. He’s picturing a big celebration and “maybe, if I may be so bold, chocolate cake with chocolate icing.” That’s the new Walt, decadent and self-centered. “Life is good,” he says finally as he turns off the light, letting his sentence’s silent “my” hang in the darkness.

Skyler begs to differ. When she serves Walt his birthday breakfast the next morning, the strips of bacon are as real as they are greasy. Unlike last year, she no longer cares whether clogged arteries get the better of her husband —  if anything, she’d like to expedite the process. (“I Am the One Who Clogs”?) Big Walt and Little Walt ply her to fulfill her annual tradition of making Walt’s bacon resemble his age, so she does so reluctantly — and makes the “1” in “51” much smaller than the “5”. The message is clear: She’s hoping this year of Walt’s life will be a short one. When they insist she fix it, she swaps a full strip from Junior’s plate with Walt’s half-strip, a move that echoes Skyler’s prime concern: The longer Walt lives, the more he puts his children in danger of having their own lives cut short. Junior protests, but his dad says it’s okay — families make sacrifices.

Meanwhile, Hank’s back at the office trying to put together another set of clues. How can two dead men, Gus and Schuler, still be supplying precursor chemicals to meth cooks? He toys with the idea of the middleman actually being a middlewoman with mismatched shoes, but before he can finish that thought, he’s gets interrupted by his acting boss. It turns out Hank’s getting promoted, which is both good and bad for Walt’s operation. His super-cop brother-in-law will give up his day-to-day duties on the Heisenberg file to instead oversee all the cases in his department, so that’s a plus. But on the other hand, Hank’ll be in charge, making it easier for him allocate DEA resources to thoroughly investigate his hunches. And Hank is nothing if not full of hunches.

Then again, his detective skills do fail him sometimes. As he and Marie drive to the modest, family-only birthday party Skyler’s throwing for Walt, Hank misreads his wife’s anxious hints and guesses that Walt’s been caught cheating on Skyler. But the White family is Marie’s domain, and she smugly welcomes her husband to the dangerously expanding club of people who know about Skyler’s affair with Ted.

After an awkward dinner in the White family backyard (“A ricer? You don’t hand-mash?”), Walt goes into one of those signature introspective monologues that’s won Bryan Cranston so many Emmys. There he is in front of his presents, sentimentally recounting his year and doing that thing where he asks people questions without giving them time to answer, when Skyler suddenly shifts the focus to herself. Tired of hearing Walt talk about Walt’s life, she slowly submerges herself in their swimming pool, drowning out her husband’s incessant voice. Her brief spell of peace comes to an end when Walt yanks her out of the pool, but thankfully for actress Anna Gunn, Skyler will still be heard tonight — and steal the show in the process.

The incident prompts Marie to put Skyler to bed and then, on her sister’s behalf, insist to Walt that she and Hank take care of Junior and Holly for a while, ostensibly so that the Whites can “have some space” to hash out their marital problems. Walt obliges, realizing the breadth of Skyler’s pool stunt.

This leads to the first direct argument they’ve had this season. It’s been a long time coming, and Skyler has a lot to get off her chest. Her version of the last year sounds a lot different from the Hallmark card Walt was writing outside. Reminding him how recently he was in the literal and figurative crawl space, she rejects his suggestion that “it’s smooth sailing from here” now that Gus is dead. And, of course, she’s right. Walt’s argument — that there’s nothing to be scared of now that he’s in charge — is obviously flawed because, well, a former chemistry teacher killed the last guy in charge. Besides, Skyler throws The One Who Knocks’ words back at him: “I thought you were the danger.”

Walt offers his usual rationales — everything that’s happened has been for the good of the family, etc — and Skyler loses it. With that “Shut up!” intensity in her eyes, she tells her husband the different plans she has for protecting her children: cutting herself to buy the kids more time with Marie, accusing Walt of domestic abuse, the boarding school thing again. But she’s playing chess with the man who outplayed Gus, and he stays one step ahead of her, showing her why each option would end in disaster. “What’s your next move?” he hectors her. “What’s your plan?” Devastatingly, she bursts under pressure and admits her “only good option”: to simply wait for Walt’s cancer to return.

She might not have to, though. Back in Houston, Jesse meets Lydia to pick up a barrel methlymene, but she’s making it rather difficult for their little drug cartel to prosper. After making him promise he’s not an undercover cop from 21 Jump Street, she freaks out as he pulls out the barrel and points to a device stuck to the bottom. A GPS tracker, she guesses, planted by the DEA.

So Jesse returns empty-handed, but the ever-wary Mike second-guesses Lydia’s motives. What if she planted the GPS there herself, out of panic? She’s bad business, he decides. But when he leaves to kill her, Jesse gets in his way and makes a case for Lydia’s life. He points out that business would grind to a halt without a precursor source. So be it, says Mike. They look to Walt as a tiebreaker. With his Heisenberg Hat in hand, he tells them, “We’re not ramping down. We’re just getting started. Nothing stops this train — nothing.”

As he enters his gleaming Chrysler, Jesse runs out to give him a new luxury watch — the perfect birthday present for a man who’s just getting started. When Walt gets home, he’s eager to show off the gift’s symbolism to Skyler. The person who gave it to him, he says, once wanted him dead too. “You’ll come around,” he promises. Of course, Walt’s also telling her, in subtle fashion, that he’s got time. And if she’s waiting for him to die, it’ll be a long wait. As we learned in this season’s first episode, Walt lives the full bacon strip; he makes it to 52. And with a full head of hair at that.

Self-satisfied with the watch routine, Walt retires to the bedroom and takes off the gift for the night. But as he turns off the light, he can still hear it ticking from the nightstand. The camera zooms in, and it starts sounding increasingly menacing, less like a watch and more like a timebomb.

NEXT: Walt’s shifting relationship with money

Here are some stray observations to chew on until next week:

–This one is not exactly “stray”: As you may have noticed by now, I am not Melissa Maerz. Your usual Breaking Bad recapper is away on official Madrigal business, but rest assured, she’ll be back before you know it.

–One thing that didn’t track with me, and maybe you readers will have an explanation: Walt is usually persnickety when it comes to money. Earlier in the series, he gave Jesse a hard time about “breakage,” the small percentage of money street-level dealers are expected to lose on the job; in a memorable scene from last season, he quibbled with Saul’s receptionist over the price of plate glass; and just last week, Walt and Mike had a tense disagreement over the “legacy costs” that come out of their revenues. So why wouldn’t he sell his Aztec according to its Blue Book value, or at something closer to it than a measly $50? Living life and spending extravagantly is one thing, but it doesn’t make sense to me that he’d just throw good money go out the window so easily.

–That brostep song in the cold open was Knife Party’s “Bonfire.”

–Given Saul’s absence, Marie and Walt got to split the episode’s funniest lines: the aforementioned “You don’t hand-mash?” and Walt’s mocking “‘Where are we sending our eight-month-old, the Peace Corps?”

–In his speech, Walt brought up one of my favorite Breaking Bad scenes: Marie’s Talking Pillow! Incidentally, that one also featured another teary Cranston speech.

–The mug that Skyler was using to ash her cigarette during Walt’s watch speech seemed to read “Danger: Entering 51.” Or was it “Area 51”? Hard to tell from the angle.

But what about you guys: What were your thoughts on the episode? How do you think things are looking now that we’re at the midpoint between the show’s first episode and this season’s opening scene? Do you hand-mash? Go Heisenberg on us in the comments!

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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