'Breaking Bad' Recap: Who's Afraid Of Skyler White?

anna gunn

Do not read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 4 of AMC's "Breaking Bad," "Fifty One," Sunday's episode of "Breaking Bad."

I'm taking some time off after the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour, so this "Breaking Bad" recap will be shorter than normal, but before I get to my thoughts on this week's hour, I want to give you a heads up on what's coming next on the "Breaking Bad" front. Instead of a recap of the fifth episode of the season, later this week I'll post my interview with the show's creator, Vince Gilligan. I'll post some highlights from our hour-long chat, which I excerpted here, and I'll post the interview in podcast form as well, in case you'd like to download it and listen to it at your leisure.

Leisure isn't a luxury Skyler White has. "Breaking Bad" has always had a gift for extracting exquisite tension from the mundane: a suburban house with plaid curtains, a dorky-looking car, a hat, etc.

In this episode, the scale of the drama was reduced down to a tiny patch of real estate -- the Whites' bedroom -- yet the astonishing scene between Walter and Skyler was every bit as epic as past showdowns between Walt and Gus. The look of their final scene in "Full Measure" stands in contrast to Skyler and Walt's creepy duel in "Fifty One," but like so many scenes on this show, both moments reeked of claustrophobic angst and controlled desperation. It's a mark of its masterful control that this drama can make a pressure cooker out of wide-open country and intimate spaces.

And how wonderful that, five seasons in, this show can still surprise me. I thought I knew what that scene was about -- Skyler's long-simmering fury and anger coming to a boil and Walter finally removing the "regular suburban dad" mask to show her the monster underneath -- but there was a shocker at the end of this spectacular "Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf" duel.

She may not have the guts to kill Walter, but she can't wait for him to die.

As awful as the idea of wishing cancer on someone is, this show has meticulously led us to this point: We can entirely see Skyler's position. Her family is in danger, Walt has made it clear that he is the danger (as she acidly reminded him), and she knows he probably can out-strategize her. He's in control, but the one thing he can't control is his own body, and it's rather brilliant of her to wait for his body to betray him.

She wishes she could get this man out of her life once and for all, but if she waits long enough, his body will do the dirty work for her. Bet Walt hadn't planned on that being her plan, eh?

Anna Gunn has been doing superlative work all season; with very little dialogue and brilliantly subtle gestures, attitudes and body language, we've completely understood Skyler's disgust, horror and despair (think of the way she broke up his bacon to make it look like a "51." Her feelings couldn't have been clearer in that scene). This is a show that intuitively trusts its actors to convey what we need to know, and Gunn has been mesmerizing, not least in the pool scene.

Sure, that moment partly may have been a ruse meant to lead Hank and Marie to think that she's losing her marbles -- and it worked -- but the water also offered this trapped woman a momentary escape from her fiendishly controlling husband. He looms over her in bed; he plays the chipper dad who buys his son a sports car (so much for not flaunting wealth); he makes her play her role in this scenario he's constructed. Who wouldn't want to escape his voice, if only for a moment?

How could she listen to him extol her virtues as a caring wife during his cancer treatment without experiencing that monologue as one more twist of the knife? She took care of him only to find that he was putting their children in extraordinary danger. No doubt she was wondering what would have happened if she had just let him die. And clearly that's the plan now.

Kudos to Rian Johnson for capturing every level of the pool scene and making the bedroom scene a gripping confrontation. And kudos to the writers and Anna Gunn for making Skyler -- a character who grated on me in the early seasons -- the lynchpin of this final season. This is just speculation, but I have a feeling that what Skyler does about Walt will end up changing everything. She made it very clear that she absolutely will do everything to protect her family (and that may well be the case with Lydia as well).

This episode's Walter White birthday party makes me all the more anxious to see what happens before the next one -- the sad, solo 52nd birthday in that diner.