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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With Hank – who assumes Skyler was entirely a victim in all this, forced to stay quiet by a criminal he knows to be violent – a part of Skyler clearly wants to open up, while a much more forceful side of her personality can do nothing but instantly (and silently) run through a mental checklist of all the crimes she herself has committed. Money laundering. Tax fraud. Conspiracy to harm and intimidate (i.e. the Ted Beneke debacle). The simple fact that she never went to the police after learning the truth. No matter what, Skyler is in part a victim of her husband’s crimes, but she also chose to do bad things, and to keep on doing them, and she knows that if Walt is going down, she will, to some extent, go down with him (*).
(*)Even if it is just a case of personal reputation – Skyler could probably cut a deal with the DEA to testify against Walt in return for immunity (netting Heisenberg would undoubtedly be worth it), but it would come at the expense of her entire family. Not just Hank and Marie, but presumably Walter Jr. and Holly, who I assume would be forcibly removed from their parents’ orbit.
So Skyler stays silent – from a legal standpoint, at least, as shouting “ARE YOU ARRESTING ME” is the middle of a semi-crowded diner is a hardly a quiet means of protest – and while Hank is mostly left baffled, when she tried to do the same thing with Marie later on, she winds up meeting her match.
As problematic as Skyler could be in those early seasons, Marie has always been a difficult character for the show to crack, a figure who has been made intermittently interesting – the season 4 episode “Open House” probably being her most consistently compelling showcase – but never fully functional in the context of, say, her own ongoing character arc. But as spotty as the show’s track record has been with her, Marie’s material in “Buried” was absolutely outstanding, easily Betsy Brandt’s best work on the show to date, and powerful precisely because it drew upon what history the show has managed to establish with her over the years. The core reason why those exchanges between Skyler and Hank and Skyler and Marie are so endlessly fulfilling is because they are fueled by five seasons worth of experience with these characters, so when it came time for Skyler and Marie to have their confrontation, it was readily apparent Marie would see through Skyler in a way Hank never could. Because while Marie can be prone to bouts of excessive tunnel-vision, she knows her sister better than Hank, and she is self-absorbed enough – usually a negative character attribute, but much less so here – to recognize how Skyler’s lies pertain to her and Hank’s own personal suffering.
So Skyler stays silent again, save for a seemingly heartfelt attempt to apologize, while Marie very quickly puts it all together, realizing not only that Skyler knew and stayed silent, but that she has known long enough to have had the chance to prevent Hank’s shooting and countless other crimes. Whether or not it is fair to put all that at Skyler’s feet – she obviously should have gone to the police immediately, but it is much easier to say that now, with perfect 20/20 hindsight – Marie is justifiably furious, and becomes just as determined as her husband to put Walter White behind bars.
And in the midst of all this, what we see from Skyler – or, I should say, from Anna Gunn’s tremendous performance (another person doing series-best work, I think) – is a woman feeling the immense weight of guilt. In these two confrontations, she has come to realize exactly how much she has done wrong, regardless of her husband’s sins, and in those scenes, she looks apt to shake apart at the seams. She barely knows how to hold herself, let alone what to say or do – by the end of her exchange with Marie, she is operating purely on instinct, confident only that her children will not be taken from her (even though I side 100% with Marie on getting that baby out of that house ASAP). And throughout those scenes, what Breaking Bad demonstrates is the singular kind of dramatic richness one can only get with a series this deep into its story, this far along in the arcs of its characters, and this willing to put everything on the line and explore it all in full.
Even then, the show manages to push Skyler one step further in this episode, having her not only feel the tremendous weight of her actions, but choosing, after internalizing them, to transgress utterly and, most likely, irreversibly. In that conversation with Walt on the bathroom floor, after he offers to turn himself in so long as she ensures his money will eventually transfer over to her children, she is the one who gets the last word, speaking in a way that strongly mirrors the attitude of her husband:
“You can’t give yourself up without giving up the money. That’s the way this works, Walt. So maybe our best move here is to stay quiet.”
Is there any way to listen to Anna Gunn deliver that line and not think about Walt’s “tread lightly” threat last week? The sentences are constructed along identical lines, and in insisting that Walt continue trying to move forward, Skyler has definitively entered the same criminal territory as her husband. Her transformative arc that began long ago is, in a sense, fulfilled, as she has now not only given up any hope of getting this monster out of her life, but accepted that this is the life she will lead, no matter what may come.
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It is a fascinating place for the character to arrive at, especially in contrast to Walt who, while not the focus of this hour, has some absolutely fascinating material nevertheless. The first half of Season 5 charted Walt’s total ascension as head of a massive drug empire, and one of my major problems with those episodes is that, while Bryan Cranston still turned in great work, I found myself largely disinterested in a Walt completely devoid of all recognizable humanity. I understand the point of bringing Walt to that disgusting point of inhuman ego, but I thought it made the storytelling reductive at a certain point, and I like how these last two episodes – “Buried” especially – has brought Walt back to earth as he contemplates his mortality once again. The Walt we see here, furiously burying his money and then confessing that he wants it given to the kids, is clearly the same man who went through that phase of aforementioned ego overdrive, but the knowledge of his imminent death has reawakened his dormant paternal instincts, and now he seems to be tackling life the same way he did back at the start of the series – not to build an empire or prove a point, but because time is running out, and he wants to do whatever he has to for the future of his family (and, most likely, to leave some sort of mark on the world, even if it is a meth-filled one).
As much as Hank hates Walt right now, he appears to be in a very similar mindset as his arch nemesis: Aware his professional life is on the verge of absolute collapse (“The day I go in with this is the last day of my career”), and single-mindedly determined to do everything he can to make these final days count. What Hank confesses to Marie at the end of the hour, about how this case will irrevocably damage his professional reputation, is something viewers have been aware of for a long while – a DEA agent does not get to continue being a DEA agent when his extremely close brother-in-law is the biggest meth kingpin in the American southwest – but it is still undeniably impactful to hear Hank explain that reasoning out loud, especially in how he connects that knowledge to his current mindset. No matter what, this is it, and without any second chances or any extra time, Hank has to make every single action count – otherwise, what will any of this have meant?
That not only seems to be the driving motivation behind the show’s two central male figures, but also the creative attitude of Breaking Bad in its final hours. The end is fast approaching, and the series is not wasting even a second of the time it has left, knowing, just as Walt and Hank seem to realize, that the quality of an ending is not defined by the literal final moments, but by everything one does in preparation for them. Breaking Bad is preparing for the end by acknowledging and making full use of the collective weight of five years’ worth of storytelling and character development, laying everything it has to offer down on the line and creating some of the richest, most meaningful drama in its celebrated six-year history.
- Michelle MacLaren is one of the finest directors working in television today – a reputation earned in part due to her spectacular work on prior Breaking Bad episodes “One Minute” and “Gliding Over All” – and “Buried” marks some of her finest work to date. MacLaren is known for unspeakably gorgeous imagery – like the “Cystal Blue Persuasion” montage in “Gliding” – but what impressed me most about her work here is how understated much of it was. Those centerpiece confrontations between Hank/Skyler and Marie/Skyler are masterpieces of direction, but not in obvious, flashy ways – they are simply expertly staged to both maximize the tension and emphasis the distance between the characters conversing. Such quietly powerful direction occurs throughout, coupled with some of the most overtly eye-catching imagery in Breaking Bad history, like Walt burying the money out in the desert (I love the barrel-cam shot), Lydia in the underground meth lab, or even something as simple as Jesse spinning on the merry-go-round.
- This is not MacLaren’s last time working on the series – she will also be directing the fifth (or thirteenth) episode of the season. But for the hour’s writer, Thomas Schnauz, “Buried” does mark his last credited contribution to the series, and he leaves behind quite the legacy of his own. He joined Breaking Bad in its literal finest hour, debuting with the series’ all-time greatest episode, “One Minute,” back in season 3 (which was also, not coincidentally, directed by MacLaren).
- One subplot I did not have time to mention was the outstanding scene with Lydia, Declan, and Todd’s skinhead Uncle, which was tense and atmospheric in utterly unique, consistently surprising ways. Narratively, all this material is just laying the groundwork for future stories, but I found the scene riveting nevertheless, in part because MacLaren’s staging utilized a character who typically annoys me – the overly mannered, excessively timid Lydia – to ground the scene and add that extra layer of tension (of course Lydia would stay underground as the shooting took place, and want to keep her eyes shut when she came out). And that underground meth lab, while a far cry from Gus Fring’s standards of quality, was quite the achievement in production design.
- Jesse’s lone two scenes bookend the episode, and I love how we spend the majority of the hour waiting for Jesse to return, wondering what he is up to, right up until he returns in the most significant context possible: Arrested, practically wrapped like a Christmas present for a desperate Hank. This provides us with a killer cliffhanger – Hank and Jesse have not shared the screen since season 3, if I am not mistaken, and then Hank was beating Jesse within an inch of death – and the question of whether or not Jesse will be the one to flip. My prediction? Jesse will not sell Mr. White out immediately (though I think his loyalty has all but evaporated), but I would not be surprised if Hank inadvertently points Jesse towards the truth about Jane or Brock, leading Jesse to get revenge on Walt by any means necessary.
- MacLaren’s previous directorial contribution, “Gliding Over All” (last year’s finale), was a callback-heavy episode, constantly referencing Breaking Bad’s past in preparation for the major paradigm shift about to take place. “Buried” is also filled with callbacks, from the little boy in Hank’s neighborhood with the remote-controlled car (you’ll remember him from early in season 2, getting his car run over by an angry Marie), to Walt returning to a desert highway reminiscent to the one in the pilot, to Walt laying on the bathroom floor in his underwear (pilot and episode 2), to the presence of an additional underground meth lab. Whether these callbacks have any significant meaning (or are even connected to MacLaren, who is not a writer) I cannot say, but they are interesting to notice nevertheless.
- I loved that scene with Huell and the henchman from last year’s train heist going to get the money, only to wind up lying on top of it and basking in its glow – “We are here to do a job, not channel Scrooge McDuck” – which was quickly surpassed in comedic effectiveness by Saul using the phrase “sending him on a trip to Belize” as a euphemism for death. Even at the end, Breaking Bad is not bereft of humor, and boy were those some outstanding examples of comic relief.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.Previous