In my review of last week’s season premiere, I wrote at length about how Breaking Bad returned wasting no time in exploring characters – and, in turn, delivering big moments – in ways fans have been anticipating for a very long time. Most television series would, even in their final season, delay such gratification until doing so was no longer an option, but from a character standpoint, at least (“Blood Money” was not necessarily a plot-heavy episode, just one that dived right into examining how the ensemble reacts under these circumstances), Breaking Bad started its last eight episodes off like a bullet. And just as we would similarly expect this week’s follow-up, “Buried,” to slow things down and reset the table – because that is just how most television shows work – Breaking Bad proves itself extraordinary by not only continuing, but rapidly accelerating that momentum.
By the end of the hour, very few ‘secrets’ remain unspoken in the extended White family. Skyler knows that Hank has put the pieces together, and furthermore learns her husband’s cancer has returned. Hank tells Marie everything he knows as well, and Marie even goes a step further in realizing how complicit Skyler has been in Walt’s crimes. These reveals and revelations come out through a series of intensely personal, amazingly rich exchanges, in which what is not said, the communication that exists in between the lines, often means more – to both the characters and the audience – than the actual words being spoken. And in those moments, even as the plot and character arcs are accelerating as quickly as they ever have on this show, Breaking Bad is not just moving things along for the sake of fast, nail-biting pace – it does so because pushing the characters to these points, and not wasting a second more in having them lay everything on the table, illuminates, maximizes, and enhances the fascinating depth they have been carrying within all along, and makes the experience of watching as rewarding as possible.
Consider Skyler, arguably the standout figure of “Buried” and a character who I feel the writers had a lot of trouble with in the show’s first two seasons. Breaking Bad, for all its various innovations and quirks, pertained from the beginning to the general mold of many modern, great TV dramas, in which the male anti-hero is characterized in large part by an untruthful relationship with his family, and especially his wife. Those narrative parameters help to make the anti-hero complex, compelling, and relatable, but often at the expense of the spouse, whose confusion over her husband’s actions can come across as shrill, narratively distracting, and above all else, powerless – which only makes for great drama under the best of circumstances. That is who Skyler was, unfortunately, in Breaking Bad’s early years – a character we could only partially relate to, given both the vast divide in narrative knowledge between her and the viewer, and what I feel was a pretty major miscalculation in how fast the writers made her suspicious of and antagonistic towards Walt (we knew Walt was doing unspeakably horrible things, but if all she saw was him being distant and aloof after a terminal cancer diagnosis, her almost immediate level of distrust and anger did not, to me at least, hold up).
It was not until Breaking Bad finally decided to invert this familiar ‘cable drama wife’ archetype that Skyler became an invaluable part of the series. In the third season, Skyler went from ignorant and suffering victim to a willing (if not fully informed) participant in at least the financial arm of Walt’s criminal escapades, and almost immediately, both the character and Anna Gunn’s performance (which had always been strong) came fully to life. She no longer felt like a perfunctory and incomplete part of the show’s universe, but an essential piece of the puzzle, someone who, like Walt, was initially born out of cable drama archetypes, but had now developed into something singularly compelling.
And just as last week’s episode felt like a partial culmination for Walt, Hank, and Jesse – the long threads of each character being pulled tight, with the weight of their time on the series coming sharply into focus – “Buried” feels like the natural kick-off to the endgame for Skyler, who completes at least one major part of her ongoing character transformation over the course of the hour. Her material here embraces that aforementioned characterization – from victim to proactive criminal participant – fully, and brings Skyler to a point where, with lies and secrecy removed from the equation, she can sense the complete weight of her actions, and choose where to go with that knowledge at heart.
Look at the two scenes in which Skyler is confronted by a member of the Schrader family, first Hank and then Marie (for my money the two best scenes in this all around spectacular episode). Each sequence is similarly modeled, with Hank or Marie serving as both instigators and propellers of the encounter, as Skyler stays resolutely silent – her feelings bubbling just underneath the surface – until an emotional explosion at the very end. The scenes are mirrors of one another, and while each says very different things about Hank and Marie (characters we shall touch upon shortly), both intentionally underline the same point about Skyler: When confronted by people who see what a monster her husband has become, she is reminded of how she felt upon first learning these truths, and becomes instantly reflective on the role she has played in allowing her wicked husband to prosper.
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