Breaking Bad Review: "Fifty-One" (Episode 5.04)
“What’s the plan?”
All of the tension building between Skyler and Walt is brought to the forefront in “Fifty-One" when Walt asks her how she plans to deal with him. Walt’s been foolishly telling himself that Skyler has been withdrawn because of the Ted Beneke incident. The reality is much a harsher one: she’s repulsed by him. At this point it would make sense for Walt to just move out again; clearly Skyler wants nothing to do with him. But for Walt, having a family—even if it’s falling apart at the seams—is a part of the delusional life he has built around himself. To not have a family would also force Walt to face the reality that his life is in shambles—that he hasn’t actually “won” anything at all. In an excellent outing from Cranston and Gunn, Skyler and Walt come to verbal blows, as Walt rebuffs every single idea she has to get the kids away from him. She eventually gives in and admits that Walt has her beat. She then replies to Walt’s question with “all I can do is wait"—wait for the cancer to come back.
“Fifty-One” is one of the darkest and most uncomfortable episodes of the series because it takes an ugly look at the corrosive effects Walt has had on his family. The show started out with a sympathetic science teacher being diagnosed with cancer, and now his own wife is wishing that his cancer comes back and kills him. It’s fitting that the episode takes place exactly a year after the show first started, as it gives us a stark contrast between where the show started and where it’s at now. Walt is now a bastard, completely obsessed with his own fantasies of what he thinks he is and what he deserves. Up to this point he’s either been in denial about why Skyler has been depressed, or he’s been aware and has been ignoring it, but now there is no excuse. The feelings are out in the open. Instead of just accepting the situation, he keeps declaring that things will get better. But this begs us to throw the question back at Walt: what is his plan?
Rian Johnson, who directed the polarizing Season 3 episode “Fly," returns for this week’s episode. “Fly" is often regarded by fans and critics as one of the best episodes in the entire series. It was a “bottle episode” that focused heavily on character development, specifically Walt’s relationship with Jesse and the guilt he felt for letting Jane die. Similarly “Fifty-One” is a bottle episode, leaving any action or plot development on the side, as the focus here is completely on the White family. The bulk of “Fifty-One” revolves around Walter’s 51st birthday and the tension that has been building around his marriage. Walt talks Skyler into throwing him a party. He buys himself and Walt Jr. a sports car. In his mind everything is going perfectly and he’s living the kind of life that Heisenberg would live.
Instead of getting the grand party he expected though, he gets a small family get-together with Hank and Marie. Between the awkward conversation and the pandering from Walt, Skyler can no longer take it. Stepping into the pool, she sinks to the bottom, the only place that she can escape having to hear his voice. But it was also a part of Skyler’s plan to get the kids out of the house, as she tells Marie that she and Walt need time alone to reconcile their problems. This acts as a pretty substantial turning point for the show. A lot of our sympathies with Walt were revolved around the family that he would have to leave behind after dying. But now we are presented with the idea that the family would be better off with him dead. The imagery here is great. In the first season Walt is thrown a party by his loving family with a lot of friends. Walt isn’t expecting it and almost feels uncomfortable with that kind of attention. Now that he thinks he deserves this kind of attention, he’s alienated everyone in the process so that no one cares about him to give it. Assuming the flash-forward open is in fact Walt’s 52nd birthday (and not just a fake birthday tied to his new identity), he’s gone from having a birthday with loving friends and family, to being completely alone in a Denny’s diner.
In terms of the main plot being moved forward, we learn that Lydia is starting to crack under pressure. After the DEA comes to visit her office and arrest one of her employees, she places a fake DEA tracker under the barrel of the methylamine so that Mike will think it’s unsafe to use her as their source. Mike catches onto this and decides that she has to die, as she’s become an unstable liability. As Walt sits in his office staring at his Heisenberg hat, he notices a loose thread. Transfixed by it, he zones out to the conversation that Mike and Jesse are having about Lydia’s fate. The cracks in the façade of Heisenberg are now starting to show. Whereas Heisenberg used to be a symbol for Walt’s alter-ego and unstoppable power, it’s begun to lose its effectiveness and is now starting to bleed into his regular life. Heisenberg is no longer invincible. Walt’s plan is revealed: it’s to stubbornly push forward and continue to cook. It’s the only thing he seems to be good at doing anymore, and if they stop now he’s nothing. If that means keeping Lydia alive and forcing her to give them the methylamine, so be it.
The episode wraps up with Jesse giving Walt a Rolex for his birthday. For Walt, it’s the only gesture made by anyone that shows they actually cared about his birthday. Instead of being moved by the fact that he and Jesse have a strong relationship (really it’s the only relationship he has anymore that resembles family), he’s instead proud of the fact that such a relationship can exist given the terrible things he’s done to the other person. He takes this moment and throws it into Skyler’s face by telling her that the man that gave that to him had a gun a pointed at his head not too long ago. “He changed his mind about me, Skyler, and so will you," he says.
This, of course, is also a lie. Jesse isn’t aware of his betrayal, and thus only accepts the illusion Walt portrays of himself. Skyler only sees him for what he is. His belief that Skyler can some day accept him, given that he cannot manipulate her to see what he wants to see, shows a major crack in Walt’s perception of things. Ultimately, the irony is that Walt’s family used to be his strength but now is the instability in his life that threatens to bring him down. The shot of Skyler sitting on the couch smoking cigarettes and blowing them into the air is proof of that. The fact that she’s doing whatever she can do to try to quicken the decline of Walt’s health, even down to taking up smoking full-time again, shows how badly she wants him gone.
“Fifty-One” is going to be divisive among the audience. It’s an extremely beautifully shot episode, one that really reaches into the darkest aspects of the series, forcing us to come face-to-face with all the uncomfortable consequences of Walt’s actions. But it’s also an episode that really takes its time to set up all the dialogue, and the episode almost entirely revolves around these exchanges. But this is what Breaking Bad does best. It builds up uncomfortable tension and slowly releases, making us take in everything, no matter how disturbing. Like “Fly,” it will be an episode that will be reflected better once the season is over and we see how it fits into the overall arc of the story. The rest of the season will no doubt focus on Walt’s business and the problems they will face, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the explosion that blows out the floor from underneath Walt’s feet is the ticking time bomb that is his family problem, which he’s continuing to ignore.