"Clear sailing from here on out, I promise."
–Walter White (Bryan Cranston)
Well, as Walt said, "it has been quite a year." "Breaking Bad" celebrated its protagonist's 51st birthday last night by bringing back "Looper" director Rian Johnson (who helmed the season-three bottle episode "Fly") for an installment that clarified both how little time has actually passed on the show and how destroyed the White marriage has become.
The latter revelation comes less of a surprise to the audience than it does to Walt, who demonstrates again that he's not the keenest observer of human behavior (though he's gotten better) when it doesn't line up with what he wants. And what he wants is for his family to be cheery and adoring and to not ask questions while he supports them with his new career as the local meth kingpin. Despite Skyler (Anna Gunn) having kicked him out of the house before, having asked for a divorce and having retreated, traumatized, to bed in the wake of her family being threated and Ted (Christopher Cousins) ending up permanently injured, he still presumes she's going to be willing to throw him a party and smile for the cameras.
Obviously, she's not, and in that searing scene between the two of them in the bedroom after she's ending their dinner by walking into the pool, she reveals the extent to which she feels trapped and terrified and has given up on self-preservation in favor of trying to protect her children. "What's wrong with their environment?" Walt snaps when she tells him she feels the current situation isn't good for Walter Jr. and baby Holly, because for him, things are pretty close to perfect — he's gets to be the provider and to have all the power, and he thinks he deserves to be appreciated. (That he expects to be greeted with a party attests to how little he understands what his wife thinks of him.)
Walt repeats his line about doing "what you had to do to protect your family" to Skyler, and she calls him out on what it actually is, a "bullshit rationale." Walt didn't have to delve into the drug business a year ago when times were tougher, and he doesn't need to go back to it now — he wants to, he likes it, likes reclaiming his Heisenberg hat and becoming the badass rather than the trampled on high school teacher, the disappointment.
But Walt's also firmly convinced himself that it's still an act of necessity even though he no longer has the cancer or the economic need as an excuse — at this point, it's a belief that's actually just a comforting delusion. Skyler walked into the pool while Walt monologued about how grateful he was about everyone's support, the camera closing in on him as she stands in the background, because it was part of her plan to get the kids out of the house, but also, you'd think, because she just couldn't stand listening to him anymore.
What does Walt mean when he talks about wanting to protect his family? In the awful verbal duel he has with Skyler, he seems ready to exclude her from that definition when he counters her threat to hurt herself with one of his own to have her institutionalized. He's shows that he's willing to use their kids as collateral to hold over her in a horrifying way, and in her manuevers she's triggering his impulses to prove his dominance and his ability to out-think her.
When Walt says "you want to take me on," it's because he's looking at this as some sort of competition he can win, when all Skyler wants is to minimize the damage as much as possible for their children. She's not trying to out-Gus Fring him, she's acting out of desperation with no long-term strategy other than to just wait for him to die. And Walt, in his unassailable egotism, hears this and counters by showing her the watch Jesse (Aaron Paul) got him as a present, as an example of someone who not long ago wanted to kill him but changed his mind. Maybe Walt should tell her how he got Jesse to do that, hmm? We saw Skyler's bacon birthday trick, a callback to the flashforward that opened this season — whether Walt's left his family, they've left him, they're in hiding or have been taken from him, he's set to be celebrating the big 5-2 alone.
We said hello again to Heisenberg's pork pie hat in this episode, but goodbye to Walt's poor, trusty Pontiac Aztek, which has served him so well in killing people, making meth deals, hooking up after PTA meetings and driving frantically through the streets. Getting rid of the car, and for next to nothing, was another ding on Skyler, who forbid him for tax reasons from making these sorts of purchases in the past — and he bought not just an upgrade for both himself, but one for Walt Jr. as well. It seems a safe bet that the swank new ride Walt's got for himself will soon be a crumpled wreck somewhere, given his record with motor vehicles and the fact that he's really got it coming — and it probably won't just be the windshield this time.
And speaking of having it coming, what could Walt's yet-unheard plan for Lydia (Laura Fraser) entail? Like Walt, she has more faith in her intelligence in the criminal arena than is fully merited (her ideas of what it means to be cautious, including quizzing Jesse on Mike's last name, are certainly off base), and if her spotting of the tracker on the methylamine was just a convoluted way to get herself out of business with the firm of White, Pinkman and Ehrmantraut, she's going to have even more to regret now. As Mike puts it, it might have been a little sexist to let her live when she did enough in his eyes to merit dying just like the man who turned on him.