Over the course of its previous 55 episodes, Breaking Bad has presented us with some unquestionably brutal viewing: the melting corpse of Season 1, the slit throat of Season 4, the parade of prisoners, stabbed and beaten like piñatas just one year ago. And let's not even get into all the unspeakable things Walter Jr. has been doing to a stack of pancakes every morning. But none of that carnage was as difficult to watch as what transpired last night between Marie and Skyler.
I'm honestly not sure if this most unstable of shows has ever unsettled me more. The scene between the two sisters lacked box cutters, but it was plenty sharp. There was no acid, but it burned just the same. Breaking Bad is, itself, such a wonderfully elaborate fiction that it has often been possible to forget the scrim of lies and make-believe that's been wrapped around the main characters all this time. But now the truth is raining down like pieces of Wayfarer 515 and the wreckage is just as gruesome. Last week Hank and Walt dodged the debris with busted noses and macho bluster. But Marie and Skyler just let it all crash into them. There were barely any words, just Skyler's nodding head pushing the knife in deeper and deeper. Yes, she knew about Walt when the DEA had them all under lockdown. Yes, she knew when the two cartel cousins shot Marie's husband to hell. Marie's entire existence has been about putting a bright, purple smile on even the most hopeless situations; whatever pain she kept for herself was subsumed first in the illicit rush of petty thievery and then in the micromanaging of her husband's rehabilitation. Over the course of this single one-sided conversation, every bit of optimism and sunshine was stolen right out of her.
It made sense, then, that Marie's first course of business, after slapping her sister full across the face, was to reach for baby Holly. (The slap also made sense. It's what you do when you want to hurt someone but it's also what you do when you want them to wake up. Skyler and Jesse were both presented with the same laundered bills, but only she managed to blind herself to the blood staining every last one of them.) Marie had just lost something precious and vital, and as much as she wanted to protect her niece, she also wanted to reach into her sister and pull out something just as essential. But, oh, the cries of that baby — a baby who, with typical Vince Gilligan meticulousness, has never once so much as sniffled in any of the previous seasons — as she transformed from an actual breathing girl to a nuclear football of anger and recriminations. There's a reason why Michelle MacLaren, easily the most dynamic director on a show full of them, was brought on to shoot this; it felt like she used a sniper rifle instead of a camera. Every second was precise and deadly. And, to their great credit, neither Betsy Brandt nor the often unfairly maligned Anna Gunn flinched when things got bloody.
In a previous scene, when Saul suggested sending Hank to Belize on the Ehrmantraut Express, Walt looked at him with sanctimonious horror. "Hank is family," he brayed. "Do you understand that?" But the events at his home just moments later proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that none of the Whites actually understands what family is, not anymore. It has been a rationale for so long and for so many terrible things that it has become permanently abstracted. To Walt, family is the Get Out Of Spiritual Jail card you wave around while you cheat, murder, and manipulate your way to glory. What Marie reminded us of with her baby-stealing fury is that actual family are the people who wind up paying the cost for all that hubris when the bill inevitably comes due, the ones who end up badly hurt by all your high-minded efforts to "protect" them. A well-intentioned lie is still a lie. Collateral damage is still damage.
"Buried" managed to do something that not even Heisenberg's vaunted blue could manage: It sustained a previous high and possibly even surpassed it. The hour had a few merciful splashes of lightness — Huell and Kuby's Scrooge McDucking their way to fantasyland; Walt's ingenious usage of the lottery ticket as a way to remember the GPS coordinates of his treasure — but what I admired most about it was its gathering, near-biblical darkness. When we approach the end of a beloved series, we tend to fixate on loose ends as if the act of making timeless television can be reduced to some gentle crocheting. I've already written at length about how I think Breaking Bad is going to satisfy those who believe in that particular sewing circle.
But a better metaphor might be how the accumulated weight of character actions, creator decision-making, and unanswered questions can hang around the neck of a show's final run like a millstone. Since Breaking Bad has used its five seasons the way an avalanche uses a mountain, it's possible to see that accumulated weight not as a curse but as a blessing. When Marie slaps Skyler, when Hank considers pushing the self-destruct button on both his family and his career, when Walt collapses after burying his ill-gotten gains in what looks like the world's largest grave, and when Jesse says volumes without saying anything at all ... here the weight feels not only oppressive but earned. It's as essential — and unavoidable — as gravity.
Yet even as Walt's past rises up to swallow him whole, the story still pushes forward. Lydia seems to have toughened up considerably since her twitchy stevia days but, thankfully, she hasn't lost her flair for the fashionable — or the dramatic. I've heard about bringing knives to a gunfight before, but Louboutin pumps? The smartest thing Lydia did in the desert wasn't forcing Walt's former turf rivals turned majority shareholders in Vamonos Pest to out the location of their meth lab (which was, as it happens, as buried as the title of the episode), it was the way she did it, using her corporate slickness to hide her literal headhunting. Walt may have lifted a polite method of vomiting from Gus Fring, but Lydia clearly learned a few things from the guy about appearances.
Let's dig deep in the kudos well again for MacLaren here. We didn't actually see the ensuing slaughter, but god if the sound of that wheezing fan wasn't nearly as horrifying as the machine gun fire or the ting-ting-ting! of the spent cases falling down like hail. As for Todd, he may be a kid-shooting, fire-starting sociopath, but at least he's polite. There was something downright tender in the way he escorted Lydia across the minefield of blood and bodies, like he was walking her into a surprise party at Applebee's. Then again, I suppose anyone looks like a sweetheart when standing next to a gaggle of tatted-up neo-Nazis. I'm going to avoid referencing a certain bearded Russian playwright this week, but Breaking Bad wouldn't show us something if it wasn't of potentially fatal relevance to Walt's life (and, you know, its opposite). So Todd's extended family will be back. But I'm beginning to think that Gilligan's endgame might be running on two tracks here, one short and one long. And I suspect that Lydia's faltering operation, with its clear and desperate need for either Heisenberg or his red-eyed deputy, might actually be the story line that, in the latter half of this mini-season, brings Mr. Lambert back from New Hampshire. So what does that mean for the next few weeks?
Nothing good for Hank, I don't think. As cataclysmic as his realization about his brother-in-law has been, what has stood out these past two episodes is the fog of his remaining ignorance. I don't mean the way Hank still wants to play the thorough lawman and get his ducks in a row before moving forward. I mean the way he and Marie both wanted so badly to drape Skyler in the innocent-victim shroud that has been the bane of many a TV wife; but both Skyler and her long history of action and inaction put the lie to that in a hurry. (How crazy-tense was that diner scene? And which would have been a more surprising unrealized outcome: Skyler spilling the beans, or Skyler somehow killing Hank then and there?) I'm now starting to think Hank is doomed for two reasons. One, because his mind still works on rocks while Walter concerns himself with the molecules and ions that form those rocks. I don't see Hank piecing it all together in time to save himself, for the same reason he couldn't imagine Skyler being in any way complicit. Everyone has different levels of unthinkable because everyone thinks differently.
The second reason is that, because of the personal nature of Walt's crimes, Hank is clinging to a mano a mano conclusion that's as outdated as the flip phones in Saul's desk drawer. Like Marie, Hank really wants to "get" Walt, to drag him down, to bring him low. "I could be the man who caught him, at least," he says when explaining to Marie his reluctance to come clean and, in the process, reveal the smudges that Walt left all over him. This desire to bring meaning and closure to the smoldering ruin that Walter White has made of everyone's life seems beyond Pyrrhic and bordering on the pathetic. It's the flip side to Walt's desperate plea to Skyler about turning himself in and her keeping the money: "Please don't let me have done all this for nothing."
The thing is, I don't think the moral universe of Breaking Bad works this way. I don't think it leaves room for hindsight excuses and neat little curlicues of resolution. I think the arc of Breaking Bad bends toward reality, not justice. The point isn't whether Walt did it for something, or even what he did it for. The point is that he did it at all. I think that's what Jesse Pinkman finally realized; it's the acceptance of his sins that led him to where the old, money-grubbing man found him, spinning blankly on a playground karma wheel. Walt, lost in his rationale, never stops talking. Jesse, by contrast, has now stopped talking altogether.
Will Jesse come clean to the cops? Which will Hank lose first, his job or his life? The more I think about it, the more I think Mr. Lambert from New Hampshire isn't lugging around that M60 out of anger or revenge. (Lambert, for all you conspiracy theorists out there, is Skyler's maiden name.) For awhile I thought he was on a rescue mission to save either his brother-in-law or his would-be son, but now I'm not so sure. Instead, I think the way he's carrying himself suggests a man no longer fueled by external reasons and instead consumed by internal guilt. I think, at long last, Walter White has been forced to confront everything he's done and, in turn, come to the realization that no matter what the license plates may say, he'll never be able to live free. He'll only be able to die.
And so maybe the Breaking Bad endgame is more complicated than I previously thought. Maybe in the next few weeks Hank and Jesse really will team up to kill Heisenberg. Not physically, but the same way a needle "kills" a balloon: They'll take the air out of him, remove his puffed-up bluster, and leave him the sad, dying wreck he was at the series's start. I don't think Mr. Lambert comes back to Albuquerque to save himself. The lines on his face in those scenes suggest an awareness that that particular Winnebago left town ages ago. No, instead I'm beginning to think Walter White returns to the scene of his crimes to atone for everything he did — to Hank, to Jesse, to the Lamberts, to the world — and to finally get around to finishing the job the cancer started.