Every week for the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, our roundtable of TheAtlantic.com's J.J. Gould, Chris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss the latest happenings on AMC's show.
Kornhaber: This episode’s big reveal: that the currency of Breaking Bad is, in fact, currency. For a long time, we’ve seen the show’s various players convince themselves that they act out of some combo of pride, familial duty, and self-preservation, so it’s been easy to forget the real animating force—the source of power, the goal of attaining power, the means of losing power—is money.
Not just money in the abstract, either. When talking crooks, you’re talking cash, a physical presence that “Buried” shows to be more alluring and more dangerous than drugs. For Walt, those dollar stacks are both incriminating evidence to be hidden and the God-given spoils of righteous conquest—and either way, as Skyler points out as Walt lays on the bathroom floor, they’re inextricable from his criminality. For Jesse, money’s the material manifestation of suffocating guilt that, he learns in this episode, can’t be lost merely by tossing it out a window. For Lydia, stammering in the desert about a $50 million shortfall, it’s the justification for a massacre.
So that scene with Huell and Kuby in the storage unit wasn’t just a needed comic break from an otherwise intensely emotional episode—it was a reminder of the polar stakes here. “Mexico, all’s I’m saying,” Huell groans, resting on Walt’s mountain of dollars, indulging in the fantasy of wealth as escape. “Guy hit 10 guys in jail within a two-minute window, all’s I’m saying,” Kuby replies, reminding of the deadly peril that Bad has shown accompanies attainment. Live Free or Die: It’s the state motto that gave this season’s opener its name, and, viewers suspect, the principle that will characterize Walter White’s endgame.
So that’s more or less the economist's take on this episode. The TV-viewer take: Damn, that was stressful. Great, but stressful. And basically exactly what I wanted to see after last week: a generous look at how the impact of Hank’s revelation ripples across Walter White’s web. We were treated to scene after scene of bravura acting as characters stared one another down, trying to come up with some non-catastrophic solution to the question what now?
I stick by my assertion last week that Walter is no longer what’s interesting about Breaking Bad. Walt, we already knew, will go to life-threatening lengths to cover his tracks—all we can hope to learn is how. The only compelling Heisenberg-related question mark was whether he’d try and send Hank on that trip to Belize; it was little surprise that by his code, family is "off limits.” (Relatedly, I’d be freaking out over the foreshadow-y possibilities of his offhanded “I’ll send you to Belize” to Saul if Vince Gilligan hadn’t made so much noise about there being a Bob Odenkirk spinoff in the works.)
Skyler, though, was the real star tonight, and not just because Anna Gunn likely sewed up another Emmy nomination by how well she said very little. What was she going to do? Who was she going to side with? I honestly wasn’t sure when the episode began, and the suspense kept each of her scenes fascinating. The Schraders riveted as well: Hank for how burningly angry yet clearly off his game he was—his clipped, teeth-gritted delivery with Skyler; his feeble return to crass joking with Gomez—and Marie for the way she slipped from empathy to frightened hurt at her sister’s lies.
Would Hank really be so reckless as to confront Walt before amassing satisfactory evidence, and then scare off Skyler by trying to record testimony at a diner table? Would Skyler really make a mortal bet on Walt being able to outmaneuver Hank—and would she want Walt to outmaneuver Hank? We could do a whole 'nother roundtable spelling out the cases for and against how the show has decided to answer these questions (for what it’s worth, Skyler’s actions seem more plausible to me than Hank’s). But we’re at a point where you either trust the show’s writers on what their characters do, or you don’t. Chris, do you?
Heller: I do, although this episode tested my faith. The first time I watched "Buried," I didn't like the breakneck pace of its revelations. Why would Hank go right to Skyler? Why would he tell Marie about Walt, and what did Marie hope to accomplish by confronting her sister about her lies? Perhaps most important: How will Vince Gilligan and his merry band of tragic pranksters find a way to introduce chaos in the remaining chapters of this story, now that (almost) all of Walt's sins are out in the open? "Buried" didn't feel like a supreme disappointment, but I felt it lacked the grace in execution that's been a hallmark of Breaking Bad.