We’re officially halfway through the first set of episodes in “Breaking Bad”’s bifurcated final season and episode 4 has really been the first opportunity for the audience to catch their collective breath. Directed by Rian Johnson (“Brick,” the upcoming “Looper”) — who was responsible for the love-it-or-hate-it bottle episode “Fly” from Season 3 — “Fifty-One” may be the calmest episode this season, but you can feel the storm coming (Bryan Cranston has said that the next episode will also be “the biggest episode we’ve ever done as far as scope and cost.”). But before they blow it up, they’re bringing it in and letting us focus on just how disconnected the characters have become from one another.
Yes, it’s been one year since we first met the White family and wow, how things have changed. In the pilot episode we saw Walt turn 50 years old, celebrating the milestone surrounded by friends and family, shortly before being diagnosed with lung cancer. One year later and the cancer is gone (for now) but he’s still rotting out from the inside even if he doesn’t realize it. Another year from now, as we saw from the season premiere, he'll be completely alone.
Despite having a heavy influx of cash, Walt has never been able to spend his earnings for anything other than paying his hospital bills. The one time he tried to do something with it, buying a nice car for Walter Jr., Skyler forced him to return it. So instead, he just blew it up. But he’s not taking orders from Skyler anymore and the episode opens with Walt doing just what he pleases. He practically gives away his SUV to the repair shop in order to shed his old skin and leases himself and Walter Jr. a pair of brand new cars. He also recovers his Heisenberg hat (which, if we’re not mistaken was used in the sketch artists’ rendering of him, so might not be the best idea to wear around.)
For the first time in a long time, Walt seems lighter, unburdened. In his mind, Gus was the threat to him, he’s dead and it’s all smooth sailing from here on out. (It appears he didn’t exactly learn anything from “Scarface” last week.) But for the time being, he seems to genuinely be enjoying his family and for once, his behavior is not an act. He might be deluded but he’s enjoying the spoils and still believes he is doing this for his family. Now that his business is up and running he believes his family life should settle down again too. If he keeps pretending things are normal, he figures eventually Skyler will relent.
Instead of the big 50th birthday bash he got back when he was a nebbish, now he gets a no-frills birthday dinner thrown by his wife, who obliges his requests for chocolate cake like she’s following orders from her kidnapper. But Skyler, who has looked nearly catatonic for most of this season, finally breaks down and wades into the swimming pool in the middle of dinner. Once the house is clear she confronts Walt in a great scene that the season has been building to. She feels trapped, which of course she is legally and otherwise, and Walt backs her even further into a corner until she realizes she doesn’t really have a plan. She knows that she will do anything to keep her children safe and anything beyond that is up in the air. In the most devastating moment of the season, she tells her husband that she's waiting. "For what?" he asks. "For the cancer to come back."
Meanwhile, Jesse drives to the Madrigal offices to pick up the methylamine from Lydia and with a little detective work, we put together the location of “Walt 52” in the season opening flashforward. Since we used a little bit of info from the “Breaking Bad Insider” podcast to put this together you may consider it a minor spoiler. Vince Gilligan and co. mention that though it’s not apparent during episode 2, that Lydia actually lives in Houston, TX, not in Albuquerque where the rest of the series is set. Walt had told the waitress in the Season Premiere that he was about a 30 hour drive from New Hampshire (and that Albuquerque is 37 hours) we knew he had to be in a city just East of New Mexico.
Jesse mentions that it’s a 14 hour drive back to Albuquerque from the Madrigal offices and a quick Google search shows that Albuquerque is 14 hours from Houston. This seems to indicate that Walt has arrived in Houston to settle some business with Madrigal but an interview Cranston gave to Rolling Stone makes things less clear, “I asked Vince several specific questions. I said, ‘Am I alone?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Why am I coming back to Albuquerque?’ He said, ‘You’re coming back because you need to protect someone.’ And I went, ‘OK. Is the cancer back?’ He didn’t quite answer that. He said, ‘Possibly.’” Without a wedding ring on we can assume he’s probably not there to protect Skyler. Could it be Jesse? Walter Jr.? Time will tell.
After raiding the Madrigal offices and nearly giving Lydia a panic attack, Hank gets a promotion that means he’ll have to forgo his investigation into Gus Fring’s drug ring, putting him, for now, off Walt’s trail. But Walt may have other issues as it appears that Lydia planted a tracking device on the methylamine, hoping to pass it off as the DEA’s and scare them off from future pickups. Mike wants to kill her but Walt insists that nothing stop production which will likely lead to his downfall. There’s more to Lydia than meets the eye and Mike chides himself for being “sexist” in letting her live. He tells Jesse repeatedly not to underestimate her, which means she’s definitely going to be trouble down the line. Could this by why a year from now Walt is arming himself to the teeth in the parking lot at Denny’s?
Some exceptional scenes between Skyler and Walt anchor this atypically subdued episode which is still very good, if not quite up to the impossibly high standards set by the previous three. According to the podcast, upcoming episodes 5 and 7 are going to be nuts, so assume this is a necessary breather for an audience until now have barely had a chance to catch their breath. It's also a chance to reflect on the previous year and realize that it's still possible for our characters to get out clean. "There's blood on my hands too," Skyler tells Walt emphatically, and if they continue on this path, before too long it's going to be everywhere else too. [B]