50 Episodes in, the Past Haunts 'Breaking Bad'

By Scott Meslow

Why Walter White can't shake the events of the past year

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AMC

Breaking Bad's fifth season has been haunted by the ghosts of the series' past. Last week's "Hazard Pay" offered pointed references to two of the series' dearly departed: Gale, whom Jesse killed at the end of the third season, and Victor, who was killed by Gus Fring in the fourth-season premiere. But if "Hazard Pay" earned some of its power by touching on Breaking Bad's history, "Fifty-One"—the 50th episode of Breaking Bad —is absolutely drowning in it. Exactly one year has passed since the events of the pilot, which chronicled Walt's grim 50th birthday and subsequent cancer diagnosis. As Marie says, "It feels like longer" (and not just because more than four years have passed in real time).

In one year of story, Breaking Bad has seen its leading man undergo a complete transformation. Walt has become—among many other things—a masterful bullshit artist. It's amazing how convincing he is during his droning birthday speech, in which he applauds Skyler, Hank, and Marie for supporting him throughout chemotherapy. But when Walt says he "never thought he'd make it this far," he's not talking about surviving cancer, or thanking the people around him. He's talking about Tuco, and Jesse, and Gus, and everyone else who's wanted him dead over the past year—and praising himself. At this point in the series, Walt's cancer is just another of Breaking Bad's ghosts: It lies on the fringes, gone but never quite forgotten, and always threatening to reemerge.

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Not that Walt gives much thought to cancer—or any of the dangers in his life—anymore. As Breaking Bad has moved into its endgame, Walt has been less careful about keeping his "professional" face from merging with the one he shows his family. As "Fifty-One" begins, he dons the Heisenberg hat and purchases a Heisenberg-level car to match his newly Heisenberg-centric life (though the loose thread on the hat that bothers Walt feels like a particularly unsubtle metaphor for the troubles we know are ahead). Just as shooting Jesse James doesn't make you Jesse James, surrounding yourself with the trappings of power doesn't make you powerful. Walt may be able to grandstand with Jesse, but there's one person in his life that he can't control: his wife.

Skyler and Walter's fight in "Fifty-One" is as ugly and charged as any dispute in Breaking Bad history. As Skyler confronts him about putting their children at risk, Walt repeatedly tries to fall back on what's worked for him in his "professional" life, alternating between the slimy charm of a snake-oil salesman and the sarcastic, sadistic menace of Heisenberg. But Skyler knows Walt far too well to fall for either persona. If arguing was an Olympic event, Walt would be the night's winner; Skyler can hate him, but she can't really stop him. But Skyler lands the biggest blow when she tells Walt that she's just waiting "for the cancer to come back." It's an awful thing to say to a person, and it's a credit to both Breaking Bad and Anna Gunn that the sentiment feels not just understandable, but justified.

If Skyler manages to wound Walt, he rebounds the following day, when Jesse—a recent enemy—gives him a watch for his birthday. Arriving home, Walt sneeringly confronts Skyler with the gift: "The person who gave me this present wanted me dead too. Not that long ago. [...] He changed his mind about me, Skyler. And so will you."

There is, of course, a key detail that Walt has chosen to omit: Jesse had every reason to want Walt dead. Walt may have earned the affection of his methamphetamine sous chef, but he did it through the most callous, calculated manipulation imaginable. Jesse's mistake wasn't distrusting Walt; it was changing his mind. There are a lot of smart people who have allied with Walt out of misplaced loyalty or desperation. But Skyler is the only one who was with him out of love—not for the person Walt has become, but the person he was 50 episodes ago, when Breaking Bad began. That love is long gone—and whatever happens in Breaking Bad's future, it's hard to imagine Walt can ever change her mind about that.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/08/50-episodes-in-the-past-haunts-breaking-bad/260742/