Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Breaking Bad each week in a series of letters. Want to join the conversation and see your name on the digital pages of Paste? Starting this Friday, we’ll be running a special Breaking Bad Mailbag each week to psych us all up for the new episodes. Mailbags require actual mail, so send your Breaking Bad questions, theories, and rants to BreakingPaste@gmail.com before Friday, and Josh or Shane—possibly both!—will answer the best ones.)
My initial reaction to Episode 10, “Buried,” is that it should have been called “A Whole Bunch of Teasers Without Resolution Because We Had to Play for Time Until Episode 11, Which, Believe Us, is Going to Be Awesome.” Not quite as snappy, I guess, but definitely more accurate.
We came close to witnessing a number of critical conflicts, led on by writerly hints and innuendo, only to see the thread aborted at the last minute with a sudden plot twist or a strange decision or just a simple deferral until next week. We probably should have seen this coming; Episode 9 was so forthcoming and ripe in terms of resolving the cliffhangers from the first half of Season Five and vaulting us into the closing stretch that the show might have slightly blown its load. By Breaking Bad standards, the writers offered up about three shows worth of information last week, and the obvious result of that, when you have seven episodes until the grand finale, is that you’re due for some slow movers along the way. I found “Buried” a bit empty, and I have a feeling when we look back, we’ll see it as the weakest installment from here on out. I see it as The Hamster Wheel Episode—lots of spinning, very little forward movement. A few examples:
1. The visually and aurally excellent opening with the old man discovering the wads of cash gave us no new information, which is actually pretty rare for this show. Think about last week’s cold open with Walt in his bombed-out home, which poked the internet beehive with a sharp stick and launched us all into an orbit of frenzied speculation. This one? Jesse threw a few more dollars around, and wound up on a…wait, what are those things called? It’s not a merry-go-round, right? I could look this up easily, but I’m sort of curious if you know it offhand. Anyway, a lot of tension in that scene, with zero advancement.
(Although, man, another aesthetic masterpiece, right? I talked about how amazing this show is with sound last week, and here the combination of the metal creaking and the bird’s-eye-view of Jesse staring off into space was pretty much the perfect audio-visual metaphor for Jesse’s desolation. I hope this show wins every audio and visual award at the Emmys, if they even have such awards.)
2. At the end of last week, there was an implication that something would happen in the garage after Walt’s amazing “tread lightly” threat. Instead, the garage door opens, and nothing has really happened. So they both call Skyler.
3. And Skyler eludes Walt for reasons that I didn’t even attempt to fathom, subjects us to her miserable acting in the diner for 10 minutes, and finally ends up screaming at Hank and storming out.
(WARNING: TWO PARAGRAPHS OF PURE BLUE SKY SKYLER-HATE COMING, SERVED UP HOT!)
These were the two latest in the already impressive “Inexplicable Skyler Decisions” canon. Do you think the writers sit around in the room going, “hey, we have an actress who can barely hold her own in normal scenes with the rest of our incredible cast…why don’t we make her act irrationally and try to infuriate everyone?” As we said last week, the cool thing now is to accuse people who don’t like Skyler of sexism, but Josh, I’m about to drop a theory bomb—if we want to accuse anyone of that, it should be the writers themselves! If the code words for sexism are “irrational” and “unpredictable” and “annoying”—which is an argument I actually don’t buy at all, since it’s sexist on its face—then they’re writing her in a sexist way!
To clarify that line of thought: Criticizing Skyler-haters for sexism is itself accepting a sexist framework, and also fails because it wrongly points the finger at the haters rather than the writers, but is flawed on a deeper level anyway because the sexist framework is nonsense, and the real issue is that Skyler kinda sucks.
(By the way, Josh, this was one of two scenes in which I found Skyler to be hopelessly outmatched by her scene partner. Hank (Dean Norris) was so strong in that scene, conveying the perfect amount of anger at Walt and desperation to get Skyler to talk, and he was getting nothing from across the table. The second was the confrontation between Skyler and Marie (Betsy Brandt) in the bedroom. Brandt has always been excellent, and watching the truth dawn on her—that her sister probably knew even before Hank was shot, and thereby bore some responsibility for the hell she and her husband went through—was, in my mind, awesome. And next to her on the bed, Skyler did the lower-lip blubbering thing she probably learned from, what? Watching soap operas?)
4. Saul Goodman suggests what a lot of us have been thinking, and which Walt himself hinted at last week—why not kill Hank and nip the problem in the bud? The line was delivered in classic Saul fashion, using the “send him to Belize” euphemism, so the importance of the moment might have been hidden beneath the humor, but it was important nonetheless. Walt reacts without the cold-blooded malice of his garage threat, and for now it seems off-limits, but am I the only one who saw a millisecond of consideration? One that might blossom into something more? The problem here is that the longer he waits, the more killing Hank is a useless gesture; Marie knows by the end of the episode, and it looks like Gomez and Ramey might be in the loop themselves before long. Speaking of which…
5. Marie tries to convince Hank that he needs to take what he knows about Walt to his co-workers, offering the very good reason that if they find out without him, he could be screwed for not saying anything. There’s also the unspoken reason, which is that the sooner he tells someone, and the sooner Walt knows he told someone, the incentive to kill him is gone. But Hank wavers, thinking he’ll be fired for missing the fact that it was his own brother-in-law (a plot contrivance, in some ways, that I don’t really believe), and that his only salvation is to come in with rock-solid proof. So even that drama is deferred.
One piece of solid plot advancement we did get, Josh, came after Walt buries his money and he and Skyler share a tender scene in the bathroom. Skyler seems to understand that Hank can’t quite prove anything yet, and when Walt confirms that his cancer has returned, she delivers this weighty line:
“So maybe our best move here is to stay quiet.”
She didn’t need to finish the sentence: “Until you die.”
That’s Skyler at her coldest and most calculating; she knows if Walt turns himself in, they can kiss the money goodbye, and she knows the only way to keep it for herself and her kids is let the cancer do its work before Hank solves the puzzle.
I’ve already rambled too long, so I’ll leave you to talk about the only non-teaser scene in the episode, when Lydia and Landry Clarke (where’s the TV show about how he broke bad and moved to Arizona after kicking that winning field goal?) obliterate a rival cartel. That was genuinely fun. But, true to form, the episode-long teaser ended with two more beauties: Will Hank tell Ramey and Gomez about Walt? And, oh man, what’s going to happen in that room with Jesse?
I’ll conclude here by saying that although this episode kept my attention, the best thing I can say in hindsight is that it made me really excited for next week. And now, my friend, I’ll turn it over to you for the less curmudgeonly take.
Vince Gilligan has promised with just a handful of episodes left, there’d be a lot of plot to pack in there, so even though I knew last week was going to be impossible to follow, I was still surprised at how slow-burning this episode was. To view this through rosier glasses, this eases any concerns I had about the writers having to rush through the ending. If we’re going to get scene after scene of Jesse’s Vacant Stare (*free band name), Hank quietly contemplating the enormity of what Walt has done and Saul’s bodyguards taking a quick cash nap, the writers don’t seem to have been forced to wrap things up more quickly than they would have liked.
This really should have been Anna Gunn’s episode to shut up the naysayers. I’ve always thought she and the writers were equal to blame for the poor reception the character has had. For the last couple seasons, she’s been torn between anger and guilt, judgement and greed. That should have made her complex and intriguing, but it always came across as muddled and inconsistent. Her motives have come from every compass point, and I agree that to respond to her dislike as sexist is to attribute irrationality and shrillness as feminine qualities. But she had good material here. Hank wants to be her ally, but she knows she’s already in too deep to betray Walt. Marie wants the truth until she realizes that Skylar could have prevented Hank’s original trip to the hospital. Gunn is at her best capturing the maternal panic when Marie tries to take her daughter, but these encounters that we’ve been waiting years for should have felt epic. We should be talking about the diner scene like we’ll be talking about the garage scene for a long time to come. But none of that was communicated in her performance, and I won’t remember it by the time this show wraps up.
Marie and Hank, however, continue to deliver. I didn’t particularly like either character in the first season. The normal suburban couple seemed like an obvious foil to what Walt was becoming, and even Marie’s shoplifting was just kind of boring. But the further Walt spiraled down into the depths of the underworld, the more this loving couple grew on me. Their relationship just always seemed very real and by the time Hank is telling Marie to give back Holly, you feel so much in Hank’s pleading: He understands his wife’s desire to save the kid from the madness of her family. He knows that taking the kid would basically be kidnapping. He hurts that has to stop her, especially since he’s failed to see that Walt was Heisenberg all along.
The visual (and sound) that stuck with me from “Buried” is the violence with which Walt’s face hits the bathroom floor. I know that like a dozen more people died this episode thanks to Lydia and her clear-eyed, full-hearted new meth cook, but seeing Walt crumple jarred me the most. Skylar seems to rally around Walt, but as you say, maybe she also sees an out if he dies. I have to say I didn’t pick up on that, but I blame Gunn.
As far as being a tease, that an episode called “Buried” refers not to Lydia ending up in a hole but to trashcans of cash in the desert was a little underwhelming. But man, I’m starting to think that I’d rather be on Walt’s bad side than Lydia’s. Making sub-par meth is enough to get your whole gang executed. Those Czechs must be pretty demanding. She may be squeamish about seeing all the dead bodies, but she’s kidding herself about having real moral quandaries about rising body counts. She’s stone cold. No wonder she gets along so well with Todd. His good-ol-boy manners, guiding her like a genteel lady as she steps in her heels around the bodies of those she’s just betrayed was priceless. They’re contenders for the most ruthless players on the show (though neither of them used their own oxygen tank as a bomb in a suicide-revenge plot).
PS – To answer your question, that merry-go-round thing is sometimes called a roundabout, a name that, according to Google results, no one actually knew.
I have to say, there have been a lot of good tracks released this year, but my favorite single is definitely “Whatever, Mr. White” by Jesse’s Vacant Stare. It’s equal parts languid and dystopian, an apathetic “Bohemian Rhapsody” that studiously reflects—yet somehow impassively heightens—the burned-out post-millennial zeitgeist.
(Did you like my patented MUSIC WRITING in that last sentence? If I ever do it again, please send me to Belize.)
Totally agree with you about Marie and Hank. Looking back, I think her bouts of kleptomania had the potential to be a real stinker for Breaking Bad, along the lines of the Landry and Tyra murder saga in Friday Night Lights; a weird plot point that served nothing and just seemed like the writers forcing a crazy idea on the show for all the wrong reasons. Instead, Brandt played it so well, with such obvious and believable pain, and Norris was so strong as her supportive but worried husband, that it managed to humanize and flesh out two characters who badly needed it at that point. I agree that it didn’t capture me immediately, but I think it was the start of the average viewer looking at Hank and Marie a bit differently. Since then, they’ve been consistently great as foils to Skyler and Walt. They are to Breaking Bad what John Smoltz was to the mid-’90s Braves; dependable, productive, and shockingly, when you look back at the numbers, elite. (Note: Now that I’ve made a comparison to your favorite baseball team, I fully expect you to reciprocate and tell me how the show relates to the Yankees. Only fair, Josh.)
Great call on Walt’s face hitting the floor. To get technical for a second, they also used an incredible three-shot sequence to document his fall:
1. Security camera style footage from the ceiling behind Skyler as Walt was reeling and began to fall.
2. A shot of Skyler watching him, realizing what’s happening, with Walt’s fall visible in the mirror over her left shoulder.
3. Close-up of Walt’s face hitting the floor.
I’m not going to pretend to be smart enough to know why they did it, but the quick cuts were jarring in exactly the perfect way. And background sound, again—the patter of the running shower had a second or two on its own before Walt fell, a steady drum ratcheting up the tension as we wondered if Walt was about to go crazy on Skyler, or what. The masters strike again.
On the topic of Lydia, holy God, her weird gentility is getting really creepy. We knew she was ruthless from the moment we saw her, when she wanted to kill the nine inmates and Mike had to talk her down. But the blind walk through the desert of the dead was disturbing on a new level; she’s like a kid who believes that if you can’t see something, it didn’t happen. And you’re right, Jesse Plemons is the perfect complement to her. The way he stuck his head down in the meth lab and casually told her it was all done, you’d think he was a friendly UPS guy who needed her signature on a package.
Also, I think this solves the ongoing debate about whether music with violent imagery causes actual violence. Landry’s devolution into a cold-blooded killer clearly stems from his satanic work with Crucifictorious. I used to be a liberal on this issue, arguing that poor parenting, poverty and mental health issues were the foundation for sociopathic violence, but the Landry saga has changed my mind completely, and I now blame Marilyn Manson for everything bad that happened in the ‘90s. (In the 2000s, I’m not sure…Creed? Definitely fun. so far in the 2010s.)
Last thing: How about this facial hair??? Somehow, despite all the murders and psychopathic behavior we’ve witnessed in five seasons of Breaking Bad, that might have been the most unsettling visual in the show’s history.
Okay, sir, I now spin the ROUNDABOUT back to you (how did we spend our entire childhoods not knowing what that was called??). Signing off in the usual way: Please don’t die, Jesse Pinkman.
I think you know how Breaking Bad relates to the Yankees, but I think there’s also probably something there with Mark Teixeira and Skinny Pete and former talent not getting put to much use.
One thing that hasn’t been teased yet, but that we all know is coming, the inevitable Walt/Walt Jr. encounter, when the most blameless character on the show realizes that dear old dad is a monster. That’s going to be heartbreaking.
I’m looking forward to our first mailbag, so people—please send us your questions and comments. Join the conversation by emailing BreakingPaste@gmail.com. We’ll publish our first Breaking Bad Mailbag this Friday.
Have an A1 day.