'Breaking Bad' review: Happy birthday, dear cruel Walter, happy birthday to you

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Image Credit: AMC

If you wanted to break down this week’s episode of Breaking Bad to its essentials, in the way it fits into the pattern of episodes thus far, you might say that if last week was all about Walter White convincing himself he was in control of his new business partner Mike, this episode, titled “Fifty-One,” was about Walt convincing Skyler (and us)  he was in control of his wife. But that, of course, is reductive.

“Life is good, Skyler,” Walt assured her, and he wanted to celebrate his 51st birthday. He expected all the White family traditions, too — eggs and bacon with the bacon torn into bits that formed that numerals “5” and “1”; a chocolate cake with chocolate icing. It’s been a year since Walt was diagnosed with cancer, and if ever any viewer watching this show wondered how much a cancer patient with this diagnosis can cram into a year’s living, consider what Walt has pulled off: He’s gone from beleaguered chemistry teacher to murderous drug lord in a scant 12 months. As Marie said, “Seems like longer,” indeed.

But as she proved last week, Skyler is furiously angry and on the verge of a breakdown. She wants to get her kids out of the house, away from Walt, and she’s grasping at any idea that flits across her fearful, scattered mind. It doesn’t take much on Walt’s part to convince her that Walt, Jr., is not going to agree to go to boarding school (Junior is a junior in high school, his dad has just given him a new cherry red car and has shown himself to be freshly good-natured and open to his son). And how long can Marie and Hank realistically take care of the baby? No, Skyler is trapped, and her zombie walk into the backyard pool, while Walt calmly spouted life-is-good banalities during his birthday celebration, was the silent cry for a help that Walt is only going to smother. “Now I’m running things,” Walt said.

In threatening to have her committed if she does anything rash, Walt was exerting the power some men can still yield over some women; it was all too convincing that in their city, with his powers of argument, Walt’s word would probably prevail against Skyler’s. And another woman’s lack of power, and the presence of her panic, was evidenced by Lydia (Laura Fraser), alarmed when DEA agents showed up at her Madrigal office to arrest an underling she pointed them toward. She had to then become the point-person with Jesse in the continued procurement of the methylamine precursor Jesse and Walt need to continue their bug-bomb-house cooks.

As Breaking Bad closes in on its series conclusion, the awareness of time passing is ever more apparent. Creator Vince Gilligan is setting up everyone for final moments — if Jonathan Banks had his showcase episode last week, this one surely belonged to Anna Gunn, whose mixture of anger and fear and despair was beautifully modulated over the course of the hour. The watch that Jesse gave Walt as a birthday present? Its ticking, emphasized melodramatically at the very end, took on an the ominous portentousness straight out of High Noon (which I don’t entirely intend as a compliment; it was a tad hokey in a series that is almost never so). Walt also used the gift of the watch to continue his arrogant line of reasoning, pointing it out to Skyler as an example of someone who used to disagree with Walt — which in Breaking Bad terms means “wanted me dead” — but who “changed his mind about me, Skyler, and so will you.” (But has Jesse really changed his mind? Am I the only viewer who looked at that watch and thought of it as a symbol of a ticking time bomb that may eventually go off in Walt’s smug face?)

And of course, time weighs heavily upon Skyler’s mind, since at this point, she feels that all she can do is wait — in the night’s most devastating line — “for the cancer to come back” and kill Walt.

What do you think was Walt’s good idea regarding the fate of Lydia that Jesse complimented him on just before giving him the watch? Do you think Mike’s correct that Lydia planted the GPS on the methylamine barrel, and that, if you ascribe to the logic of his code, “this woman deserves to die as much as any man [he's] ever met”?

Breaking points:

• Hank is a very good law-enforcement officer; he noticed Lydia’s mismatched high heels as a giveaway that she’s not as together as she seemed to others. How is his promotion going to impede, or smooth, his ongoing investigation leading to Walt?

• I laughed at the way Mike defined his own mistake at underestimating the threat posed by Lydia as “sexist.” Feminism penetrated the skull of a middle-aged guy like Mike in the most roundabout, twisted way…

• Also laughed at the start of the episode, when Walt makes the spontaneous deal to sell the old car for $50 by assuring Benny the mechanic that he’s serious, “Sure as shootin'” — a cowboy cliche that fit the situation as perfectly as Walt’s rediscovered black Heisenberg hat.

• Walt continues to read the other Walt, Whitman, absorbing that copy of Leaves of Grass during his bedtime chat with Skyler, as though he’ll glean some wisdom either from the poet or from the dead man Gale.

• I so wanted to see more of the Vamanos Pest crew, especially Jesse Plemons, but I guess he’s a penny who’s going to drop in the series’ own sweet time.

• Marie referring to Holly as “the most delicious baby that was ever born” is possibly the most endearing sentiment ever expressed on this show; I don’t get why so many commenters on this site and elsewhere find Marie an irritating character.

• Marie complimented Skyler on the smoothness of her mashed potatoes, but we had seen that this was a fast-food birthday meal hastily thrown together by Skyler, who has no reason to want to cook for her meth-cooking husband: the take-out plastic container for the roast chicken was proof of that.

Twitter: @kentucker

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