Breaking Bad, Episode 50: “Fifty-One”

by Alex Greenberger

breaking bad, season 5, fifty-one, bryan cranston, amc

via collider.com

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you’ve probably seen “The Dark Knight Rises” by now. The central villain of Christopher Nolan’s tremendous finale to the new Batman trilogy is Bane, whose name has its obvious implications as the bane of society’s existence. A lot of critics were quick to attack Nolan’s weak writing of Bane, but I found his character to be particularly menacing, thanks to Nolan’s characterization of him as an evil horror movie monster. Nolan films Bane from a lot of really weird, uncomfortable angles—from slightly above and behind, from slightly below—and the result is a powerful, scary villain that nearly causes Gotham to fall to shambles.

You’re probably wondering why I’m starting off a review for “Breaking Bad” by talking about “The Dark Knight Rises.” My reason for doing as such is based solely around several shots of Walt shaving his head in the last third of “Fifty-One.” Following a commercial break, we’re shown a shot of Walt from slightly below where his head his covered with shaving cream. He takes a razor to his head, and moody, atmospheric music begins. We cut to a close-up of his now half-shaved head as blood slowly flows down the middle. To me, this whole sequence reminded me a lot of the way Nolan frames Bane in “Rises,” and it occurred to me that Walt is basically the bane of the White family’s existence. He’s truly a monster—we just never saw his transformation before.

Walt’s own threat to his family and marriage is a theme that’s explored many times in “Fifty-One,” an expertly directed, character-based episode from Rian Johnson, the writer/director of “Brick” and the upcoming thriller “Looper.” Johnson’s marvelous work brings “Breaking Bad” to new, dark levels by juxtaposing heavy moments with scenes of shocking lightness.

In the episode’s opening, Walt buys several luxury cars for himself and Walt Jr. We know how this is going to end—we know Skyler will be unhappy, and that this will just cause their marriage to plummet to new depths—but the sequence is treated with a surprising lack of seriousness. Johnson films Walt and Walt Jr. parking the cars in the driveway with kinetic camerawork and edits with a frenetic pace, setting it all to an awesome use of Knife Party’s “Bonfire”—it’s all the kind of filmmaking you might expect from a materialistic video from the 1990’s.

Later, however, Johnson settles for a much more austere, much less movement-oriented style of camerawork in which he really gets to play with Walt’s evil side. After Skyler’s dip into the pool (and attempted suicide by drowning), Skyler and Walt’s scenes are filmed in high contrast lighting, which gives them the right foreboding feel they need.

In fact, I’d dare to say Skyler and Walt’s extended argument is the most terrifying scene this show has produced to date. Their bout’s closing line, in which Skyler, upon being asked what her plan to get rid of Walt is, says that she will wait “for the cancer to return,” is absolutely chilling. In a matter of four episodes, we’ve seen their marriage decline so far, and we’ve seen Walt completely transform to the point where he’s basically inhuman. We even see Walt physically force Skyler into a corner, much the way that a movie monster might. Scenes like this are so uncomfortable to watch that they put the sex scenes in “Girls” to shame.

And yet, no matter how powerful these scenes are, they’re dramatically punctuated by the action that happens in this episode. We get some interesting story about Lydia, and how she’s deliberately not giving Jesse and Mike methylamine. Johnson’s direction is also notably stylized and cool in these sequences.

But all the thrilling, noir stuff serves as a backdrop for the domestic conflict in the White household. One shot of Skyler smoking a cigarette basically says it all. Walt comes in and asks her if she’s coming to bed. She continues to sit there, silent and smoking, without saying a word. The cigarette smoke presents a compositional barrier in which she and Walt are physically separated in the space of the screen—it serves as a symbolic representation of the decay of their marriage. And then, following this, we see Walt, lying awake in bed, largely unperturbed by his fights with Skyler, listening only to the ticking of the watch he received as a birthday present from Jesse. He’s completely zoned out and totally distanced from the world. And he couldn’t care less.

This episode brings exactly one year away from the flash forwards at the season’s opening, and this is the man we’re presented with. Just how much worse can this man get, and how much greater can TV’s finest anti-hero become?

Alex Greenberger is a staff writer. Email him at entertainment@nyunews.com.

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