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.