Director Rian Johnson returns to the world of Breaking Bad this week for one of the most family-centred episodes of any season of the show thus far. And, without resorting to the stylised, brutal violence that Breaking Bad is know for, Fifty One is also one of the tensest and most disturbing episodes as well, as the crumbling relationship between Skyler and Walt is brought to the fore.
The opening, however, doesn’t hint at this at all. As the episode begins, we see Walt and Walt Jr buying new, expensive cars which they put on lease in order to avoid questions from the IRS. Although it is still bound to annoy and scare Skyler, Walt seemingly doesn’t care. This is all shot in a very obvious, music video style which mirrors Walt’s own state of happiness, despite his ignorance to the multiple factors working against him. Personally, I found this sequence to be quite terrible; the erratic camera moves were irritating beyond belief.
What a relief, then, that after the credits roll the episode’s tone becomes far more subdued, even with the build to a big emotional showdown. It is nearing Walt’s birthday and therefore the 1st anniversary of his cancer diagnosis. In a fantastic role reversal, Walt is incredibly eager to have a big party with his friends and family, while Skyler just doesn’t care. A look of constant fear is struck across her face, trying to move the subject toward the safety of her children, suggesting that they move the kids to a boarding school in Arizona.
Skylar remains very withdrawn and totally unaffectionate in her relationship with Walt but Walt acts like everything is fine; in his mind he and Skyler are living a very stereotypical suburban lifestyle. Skyler is aware she lives with a very dangerous man who could turn violent if pushed to his limits though.
It would be interesting to compare the scenes from the pilot with Walt’s birthday to the scenes of this episode. Skyler has taken Walt’s position of being the nervous, depressed family member, while Walt is all smiles and bon homie.
Only with Walt, those emotions are extremely creepy. Never will you hear a more chilling line than Walt asking for a chocolate cake with chocolate icing while smothering his wife with hugs and kisses in bed. In true Breaking Bad style, when Walt comes home from a day of cooking meth with Jesse (who he gleefully tells about his birthday), there is no surprise waiting for him at all. Instead, there is only Walt Jr and Skyler, with Marie and Hank en route to join them.
A big party would presumably crack Skyler’s facade of remaining normal even more, so one assumes she keeps it small to deny any chance of becoming overwhelmed. It’s a rare moment of Skyler manipulating Walt, holding off an impending break down further.
It doesn’t last long, though. While aimlessly chatting around the outside table, the conversation turns to Walt’s cancer. He reminisces about his experience of being told that he had cancer but focussing on the immense support given by his son and especially his wife. In this moment, the guilt that Skyler feels for covering up for her husband in front of her DEA brother-in-law and living an inescapable life with a sociopath becomes too much.
She walks away from the table and into the pool, in an apparent suicide attempt. It is a beautiful yet haunting sequence, with terrific direction from Johnson. His camera switches between Skyler’s stony expression and her POV of the calming, azure coloured pool water. This may be the only way out for a woman who now lives in terror.
As it turns out though, this is just a ruse, a carefully concocted – if in the end, fatally flawed – plan to get the kids away from her husband. Marie and Hank are now both aware of Skyler’s affair with the ailing Ted Beneke and they think Skyler’s behaviour is a reaction to Ted’s illness. They also feel that Walt and Skyler should take some time alone to hash things out and patch the relationship up. And so, they offer to take the kids to protect them.
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