Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 5, Episode 10 of AMC's "Breaking Bad," titled "Buried."
I don't know about you, but when this week's "Breaking Bad" episode ended, I howled "Noooo!" We were denied the sight of Hank Schrader interrogating Jesse Pinkman, something that I very much hope is on the menu next week.
After thinking about it a bit, however, I'm actually OK with "Breaking Bad" holding back on that confrontation for a little while. When an exceptional show reaches its endgame, it is, ultimately, all about the final confrontations and showdowns. Friendships, partnerships and relationships of all kinds undergo their final sets of tests, and you want time to savor each hurdle, hiccup and unexpected alliance.
"Buried," for example, was all about the fantastically charged confrontations between Hank and Skyler and Marie and Skyler.
We know how Walter is going to play the game: He wants to "win" the situation by somehow holding on to his ill-gotten gains -- for his family. Yeah, right, sure. We all know the truth: That pile of money buried in the desert is all about who "wins." Even when he's in the ground, if that money's still in the possession of the White family, then, as far as Walt is concerned, he'll be able to claim bragging rights from beyond. This is the man we've seen for the past five seasons -- this is how he operates, this is how he thinks: When he dies, he may not go out on top, but he wants to take his last breath knowing he got over on somebody, and Hank and/or the DEA will do nicely.
Hank also wants to win: As is the case with Walt, it's mostly about pride and ego at this point. If Hank went into the office, explained that he'd figured everything out and, whoops, he kind of missed the drug kingpin who'd been sitting under his nose, he wouldn't get to leave the DEA with his head held high. Hank's a demonstrably better man than Walter White -- I'm not trying to claim an equivalency here, given that Hank chose almost none of this -- but there is a choice in how he plays the hand he's been dealt. Hank has few options, and none of them are very appealing, but for now, it looks like Hank has chosen the one in which his pride takes the smallest hit and his ego gets to take some kind of cover behind a win.
On first viewing of the episode, I thought both Skyler and Marie were firmly in their spouses' corners. After thinking about it for a bit, however, I'm not so sure. The look on Marie's face as she realized the depth of Skyler's betrayal and the set of Marie's jaw as she sat in the car with Hank showed just how committed she is to the cause of Jail the Whites. Obviously, she wants Walt to go down, but I don't think Marie would be all that bothered if Skyler served some time too. I think it would upset her, sure, but Marie would revel in the role of stepmom to Walt and Skyler's kids, and some part of her, I think, would enjoy having the upper hand over her sister.
I don't say these things to impugn Marie or imply that she's a bad person; she's just a complex person with an array of good and bad impulses, and hooray for that. Marie's arc is yet another example of why television storytelling can be so satisfying. Permit me another example from "The Shield" (another fine crime drama I mentioned in last week's "Breaking Bad" recap). I'm not saying Marie Schrader will be as legendary as "The Shield's" Shane Vendrell, but both characters started out as near-cartoons and became very human, especially in their respective show's final seasons.
Marie was, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of annoying in "Breaking Bad's" early days, and at various times, the show didn't know quite what to do with her. She was either grating comic relief of some kind or just part of the Whites' suffocating suburban milieu -- someone for them to react to or converse with.
But as "Breaking Bad" comes to the end of the road, Walt's dreams of expanding far beyond the world of backyard barbecues and Marie's purple throw pillows have vanished. Walt and Skyler's world is now positively claustrophobic: They really do only have family left, and the horrifying irony is that their family connections are what may do them in.
Walt has earned that a hundred times over. Hank and Marie have every right to be furious about the danger the Whites' secrets put them in. Hank was owed last week's punch and Marie certainly deserved to dish out that slap to Skyler, especially after Marie realized Hank would never have been shot had Walt not been part of their lives. They may have faults and flaws as people, but they've never been motivated by greed or selfishness, and they've helped out the Whites time and again. To be repaid with a pack of lies, well, nothing can ever undo that.
So the lines have been drawn, and what Walt, Hank and Marie want (or don't want) is fairly clear right now. And that's why, for my money, Jesse and Skyler are the most interesting characters on the show, in part because it's hard to guess which way they're going to jump. Jesse has nothing to lose, and Skyler has everything to lose.
Walt may have to give up his money and Hank may lose face at work, but ultimately, those are really just checkmarks in "wins" and "losses" columns. The contours of the "Breaking Bad" contests involving pride and ego are a little easier to see, at least at this stage. For Skyler, however, all bets are off: She lived by the rules and was deposited in Hell anyway, and that makes her unpredictable. At this stage, she's just trying to protect the lives of her kids, and it's quite easy to believe that she would do literally anything to protect their future. She'd put her life on the line, and sacrificing anything short of that would be a no-brainer. She's not driven by hubris and a desire to win, and that may work to her advantage, in that it's hard for Walt to even conceive of that kind of mindset.
Right about now, I think Skyler is running a long con on both Walt and Hank, which is delicious on all kinds of levels. I think her play is to let both of them think that she's confused or conflicted or otherwise unwilling to call the shots. Don't get me wrong -- I don't think she's planned anything out in advance; she is quite often scrambling to keep up with the shitty developments that keep on coming. But ultimately, I think there's going to be a gorgeous reversal of the White family dynamics. Skyler's going to do what she needs to do to save her kids (and ideally, herself), and if she needs to deceive and endanger Walter White while doing so, well, that's just too damn bad.
There's been a lot written about Skyler over the years, and this isn't the time to dig deeply into that topic and discuss how the reception to her was colored by gender issues. It's an incredibly complex issue, and I'm just coming off vacation and very much need to sleep for about 14 hours.
But to oversimplify the topic for the moment, I'll just say that sometimes, people don't like the wife of the cable-TV anti-hero because A) they don't like anyone who gets in the way of the alluring rogue; B) the wife/girlfriend role is often underwritten, complain-y and repetitive, thus less interesting; C) characters who are in the dark about key story elements that viewers are aware of are (regardless of gender) often come off as dismissible dupes; and D) and sure, sexism and double standards are part of this syndrome too.
When it comes to Skyler, all these things have been come into play over the years, to greater or lesser degrees. But to its credit, "Breaking Bad" has worked hard to make her a central player in the drama (and certainly Anna Gunn has risen to every challenge the show has thrown her way). One of the great things about "Breaking Bad" at the moment is the way it has depicted Skyler's very different process of breaking bad; that process has made her both more human and more opaque. Is she Walt's Lady Macbeth, which is what the final scene between Skyler and Walt implied? Is she the desperate woman Hank and Marie saw descend into the pool? Is she something else entirely? It's not easy to guess what she'll do next, but her dilemmas have been limned with both ferocity and compassionate restraint.
There's no doubt she was freaked out by her conversation with Hank at the diner -- it was yet another masterful confrontation in a show chock-full of them -- but she also kept her cool to a remarkable degree. Her "Am I under arrest?" was not only a genuinely desperate question -- that was also an effective bit of theater that got Hank to back off his self-serving White Knight routine. Skyler is working on a lot of levels here, and we'll know what she's planned for these controlling men when she's good and ready for us to know.
The proof really is in the pudding here: Ultimately Skyler's arc is an overt and concrete rejection of "the antihero's wife as victim" trope. "Breaking Bad" may have unconsciously fed into that trend when it started out, but it's energetically spent the last season and a half making Skyler every bit as formidable as Walt, Hank or Gus.
Skyler may not have many options left, but she's certainly not a passive player in all this; she's not waiting for Walt make his final moves or for Hank to rescue her. She's not a football to be thrown between two men who are equally obsessed with each other. The Skyler of Season 1 is long gone: In Season 5, she is is a formidable woman, and her quest to hang onto her independence and save her kids will probably determine how the dominoes fall.
So really, the worst thing Hank could have said to her is, "Here's what we're going to do." The look on her face said, "There's no 'we' here. Now get out of my way."
Jesse appears to want nothing, and this makes him a wild card as well: What can anyone do to the man has no one and who throws his money into the street? But I bet Hank will know just how to play him: Wouldn't it be smart to get Jesse to wonder about the future of Walt's family? Kids have always been Jesse's soft spot, and I'd bet Hank tries to get Jesse to cooperate by throwing out two connected lures: He'll try to get Jesse interested in revenge against Mr. White -- whom Jesse could also remove from his long-suffering family.
Both Jesse and Skyler aren't really out for themselves; money, pride and "wins" aren't what drive them. When Jesse's capable of caring about anything or anyone, he's kind and tender to those with less power and less money, and he thinks he's entirely undeserving of the protected status his money has brought him. Skyler just wants out, and even if she has taken some of the steps on the path to damnation of her own free will, no sacrifice is too great for her, if she can keep her kids off that road.
There's a lot of talk about what Walt will get and what Walt deserves, but maybe, his fate isn't really the point. While we all spun our brains into hyperactivity speculating about how low Walt could go, "Breaking Bad" did a very good job of making many viewers care a great deal about what will happen to the two least selfish people left in Walt's world.
Maybe it's time to re-label "Breaking Bad." It certainly has been a rigorous and compelling examination of what an anti-hero is capable of.
But as the end nears, it looks to me like it could be a heroine's journey -- or, at the very least, an anti-anti-hero drama.
A few other thoughts:
- "Sending him off to Belize" now officially replaces "sending him off to a farm in the country where he can run free" as a euphemism used for pets/people who, er, never come back.
"Breaking Bad" airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.