Since the advent of the antihero cable drama, there’s been a peculiar, vile hatred of the wives. Carmela Soprano was the first woman who couldn’t win. Either she was too weak-willed and submissive, our when she took control she was the shrew that stood between Tony and rampant sexual escapades and ruthless executions. Some of the criticism is valid, such as the backlash against Mad Men’s Betty Draper/Francis who acted as the benign growth latched to an otherwise thriving season five. And then there’s Skyler White. Skyler, in my view, is the most sympathetic woman of all. As a mother, she’s slowing realizing that the father of her children is at his core, a sociopath. As a wife, she must reconcile her shared intimacy with a killer with her own complicity in his criminality.
While I have a tenuous kinship with these Heisenberg groupies—watching him don the porkpie really revs my engine—their fury speaks more to moral relativism than a craft flaw in Skyler’s characterization. It’s not as if she lacks development. Her trajectory has gone from unsuspecting caregiver, to co-conspirating money launderer. She’s had to make tough choices for her bear cubs. What would do the most harm? Turning in her husband to her brother-in-law or becoming a silent partner who could reign in his antics and limit the collateral damage. This complexity is overshadowed, in the eyes of Walter White minions, by her status as a roadblock to awesomeness. Because she jeopardizes his ability to perpetuate violence and wreak havoc on the community, she’s annoying. It’s a warped view that encompasses sexual double standards and a lack of ethical accountability. But this week, even the most fervent anti-Skyler fans must have swallowed their rhetoric. Skyler, more so than Mike, may be the “big bad” of season five. She is every bit the roadblock, but she’s less of a hazardous obstacle and more of a oncoming vehicle playing chicken.
If Mike is weary of Walt’s time bomb, Skyler sees it as her salvation. Walt infects his son with arrogance, glorifying Scarface, discarding durable and dependable SUVs for American muscle, and encouraging him to hound his own mother into servitude—see how vehemently he demands his mom shape his dad’s bacon into the number “51” in the name of “tradition” (a.k.a patriarchy). The only game where she stands a chance at out-dueling him is the waiting game. Mike foresees the clock running out on Walt’s luck. Frankly, we all know that Heisenberg’s Houdini acts and chemical ingenuity will end their winning streak eventually. Yet it might be a case where the warranty runs out before the machine breaks down. When Walt towers over her, pestering her about what her plan is to keep his children away from him, she admits she hasn’t covered all bases. All she can do is wait, outlast his wrath. Walt, who has begun to view himself as impervious to threats, isn’t aware of this angle. “What are you waiting for?” Answer: “For the cancer to come back.”
It’s ice-cold, and even though it’s targeted towards a megalomaniac whose hubris is ballooning at an exponential rate, it stings and throbs in your heart muscle. If there’s any humanity left inside of him, it’s wounded. His whole philosophy has been that if it means that he can die knowing his family’s future is secure, than his parasitic and deplorable role in the drug trade will be justified. Now one of the very people he wished to protect would rather him be dead. She’d feel more secure if nature took it’s course. I said last week that while chemistry has been his ally, his go-to weapon, it could literally blow up in his face. And while cancer is no explosive, it’s still science backfiring on one of it’s greatest advocates. Poetic justice? Perhaps. For Skyler, it’s the way she could combat his magic and Houdini her way out.
What has Sky searching for an escape? We start at a garage where Walt picks up his trusty Pontiac Aztek. For once, his windshield was intact, but a litany of other repairs has been completed. The mechanic raves about the SUV’s durability. Unlike its owner, it stills has a couple hundred thousand miles left on her. The wheels in Walt’s head start turning and he offers the car up to his mechanic for the nominal fee of $5o. Some perspective—the repairs cost him $1900. Even Junior looks at him confused. Why wouldn’t he spring for a better deal? What is the chef cooking this time? He winks, the mark of a cocky S.O.B, at his boy and we cut to the White driveway. Rolling in behind Junior’s PT Cruiser is the sleeker, sexier Chrysler—an all-black 300.
It’s not his son’s cup of tea though, a luxury sedan. Therefore, in the next frame, what follows Walt’s new whip but a replica of the Dodge Challenger Walt splurged on last season before being shut down by Skyler. Now he’s so sure of the grip he has over her, and the rest of the world, that he feels leasing these flashy rides will be sufficient cover. Hyper-masculinity is in abundant supply as they floor their gas pedals, but the most despicable indulgence is his seduction of his own son. At least Tony Soprano held his spawn to higher aspirations, whereas Walt tries to ensnare his boy into a lifestyle of trappings and excess in anticipation of the moment where he’ll reveal where his success stems from. While Walt may be a walking powderkeg, the most damage he could cause is in his children’s hearts and minds. It’s this potential for corruption that snaps Sky out of her catatonic state with a mission, separate her children from his influence.
The Skyler/Walter standoff was perhaps the most scintillating part of “Fifty-One,” but at this eight-episode run’s halfway point, we’re at the apex of the roller coster, with only the stomach lurching descent left. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, the skittish Madrigal board member, returns in her Houston office as Hank and the DEA come knocking. Paranoid, after Mike calls warning of their arrival, Lydia leads them to a warehouse where they leave with “Ron” in bracelets. Seeming already crazed—the focusing on her mismatch shoes tipped me off—she calls Mike back anticipating the apocalypse. She’s without a “guy” now who can drive the barrels of methylamine, but Mike ensures he’ll supply a new one.
This doesn’t quite talk her off the ledge though, and I’m still as cautious about this character as I was at her introduction. Steve Gomez later voices what I’ve been thinking—she’s not cut out for this game. But I have the power of knowing that she is indeed a major player. How did she get sucked into this biz? Is it a case of a crime syndicate gaining leverage? Did she enter the Madrigal web of intrigue under duress? I’m just anxious to learn more about her, but less because she interests me, and more because she doesn’t fit the puzzle yet. Her existence has mostly served plot purposes to this point, when will she earn her keep?
Prone to visual metaphors, Vince Gilligan tosses another out there when Skyler pulls up to the driveway and she can’t park because of the new purchases in her way. It’s a not-so-subtle way of suggesting she may feel like she’s on the outside looking at her life. However, unlike visiting an aquarium, there’s no protective glass between her and “the danger.” She simply stares at her food, staying uninvolved as the boys brag about the specs on their respective rides. Walt even alludes to his joyride where he performed donuts in the Challenger he was forced to return. When Walt promises to teach him, Skyler glares and shows her first semblance of authority in a while, indicating to me that she’d be fighting back soon. She squeezes her finger extra tight as she flosses, the pain a welcome reprieve of the numbness of late. Walt plops a stack of bills on the bathroom sink and Skyler timidly interjects, “You’re back at it?”
Operation: Child Separation is a-go. She meekly proposes sending Walter Jr. to boarding school, but this makes no sense to Walt since he has only a year left in high school. He then mocks the idea by suggesting they send their eight-month old to the Peace Corps. When Walt probes her about the genesis of this idea she’s dismissive, but says, “A new environment might be good.” In response, he asks irritatedly, “What’s wrong with this environment?” He ensures that there is nothing to be afraid of anymore, transitioning into the talk of his birthday. Here his manipulation is much more childish and apparent. He spins it that celebration would be good for the family.
On the day of the big 5-1, Hank is viewing the big board on which he has pinned most of his hopes and the major players in Gus’ enterprise. Notable exclusions, obviously, are Walt and Jesse. He’s noticed that the blue is back on the streets so those two charred bodies in the lab must not have been his cooks. Due to his exceptional work on “The Chicken Man” the replacement for Merkert suggests he throw his name in for a promotion to ASAC (Assistant Special Agent in Charge). Hank takes the promotion on account of Marie would kill him if he didn’t. This is good news for Walt, since he’ll be off the scent. For a bit, at least.
Arriving home, expecting a party, Walt is surprised to find little fanfare. On the way, Hank barely flexes his interrogation muscles to get Marie to spill about why she’s been in a funk. She says it concerns Walt and Sky and infidelity. Hank presumes Walt, referencing the “second cell phone” of season two. Thus, after dinner the tension is unbearable. Hank playfully derides Walt’s recent buys, but Walt unsurprisingly turns the conversation to him. He mentions how his diagnosis came a year ago tomorrow, and he starts yapping about how appreciative he is of his family, and how he thought he was a goner. Why does Walt think that if he just keeps talking, that something he says will sway his audience? As this is happening, Skyler approaches another psychotic breakdown. I’d gather she was sick of him twisting his self-image to seem preyed upon by circumstance. He rambles on about his aversion to treatment as she kicks off her shoes and dips her feet in. As he discusses one memory of Sky comforting him on the floor, she descends into the pool. She becomes hypnotized by the sheen of the blue water, as if it were a beacon calling her home. She walks to the deep end as Marie and Hank playfully ask her to get out. But this is a one-way ticket to escape. But before she can drown, Walt pulls her back to the surface. While I think her objective was just to seem deranged, would she have allowed herself to die? I doubt leaving the kids with him is a better solution.
Turns out Jesse is the new “guy” for Lydia. Still panicky she insists he divulge Mike’s last name for security purposes. She says she won’t apologize for being careful, then implying he could be one of those undercover cops they send into high schools. So…she’s saying we should do another 21 Jump Street remake with Aaron Paul? I’m game. As they remove a specific barrel from the warehouse (the one she wiped from the system) she observes something stuck to the bottom.
Hank consoles Walt, thinking therapy is the best route. The bit of comic relief for me was watching Marie pretend she hadn’t told Hank about the affair when Hank already let Walt know he knew. After providing her own shrink’s number, Marie then suggests a reprieve from the kids so that he and Skyler have space to work out their issues. His Spidey sense begin to tingle and he inquires, “Marie. This idea, was it yours?” It’s all coming together. What a coincidence that now the kids are out of the environment, just as she’d suggested before. Walt insists to Skyler it will be smooth sailing now that there’s no more threats. Skyler references one of the now infamous Walter White quotes, “I am the danger” with her retort—”I thought you were the danger.” Thus, she sets off the confrontation that we’ve been itching for since the new season began. No longer sitting by, Skyler won’t let her children be compromised. She has blood on her hands that she intends to not let spread.
She calls him out on bullshit rationales—”Dealing drugs and killing people are shrugged off as ‘Shit happens?’ She swears she’ll do whatever it takes to keep them away. So Walt, the science-fueled schemer, pokes holes in her plan. “What’s your next move?” Despite all he’s done, this is the most threatening I’ve seen him. Sure, there’s no brute force or elaborate bomb, but the psyche of his loved one is a delicate battlefield. He’s not looking to maim, he wants to destroy her spirit. Skyler says she’ll hurt herself so that Marie will keep them longer, but Walt says he’ll have her committed to inpatient care. She jumps next to giving herself a black eye, implying she’s been beaten. Walt then boasts that he can expose her financial dealings with Ted in court. She brings up boarding school again and Walt brushes it off because Junior would never go for that. “You want to take me on?” He’s practically beating his chest now. However it’s Sky who sinks his resolve. “I will count every second the kids are away from you as a victory….I’m a coward. I can’t go to the police, I can’t stop laundering your money, I can’t even keep you out of my bed. All I can do is wait..and buy time.”
Then she brandishes that loaded C-word, and I imagined her dropping the mic and walking away. Then the symbolism is piled on. You could view this episode as either brimming with extended or tired metaphors, but foreshadowing has always been a “Bad” strong suit. And every single one, much like the pool scene, is mesmerizing. First, Walt shaves his head and cuts himself. Warning. Then he starts picking at a loose thread in his Heisenberg hat. Warning. And last, Jesse bestows a Rolex on his buddy for his birthday. WARNING. Clearly each symbol serves as a reminder that things are coming apart at the seams, he’s living in borrowed time. As he falls asleep, he sees a triumph, and we see his grip on control ticking away. He uses the watch as an emblem of his conquered territory. Jesse, not too long ago, pointed a gun at his head. Now he’s buying him lavish gifts. You, Skyler, will learn to love me again as well. He’s just as concerned about what his power affords him as he is with maintaining it. I mean, what’s the point of cooking meth and piling up cash if it can’t buy you love and adoration. I know the Beatles sung a different tune, but Walter doesn’t believe rules apply to him.
Even facing a possibly loosened screw, he won’t be derailed. While Mike is convinced that Lydia is setting them up—he views her pointing out a supposed tracking device as a plant on her part—Jesse’s empathy stops him from signing off on her death warrant. Though Mike believes his half-measure was sexist, and that he should have treated her as he would any other liability, Jesse believe she’s just uptight. This, of course, has Mike calling out sexism again because Jesse’s qualifying what he believes is obvious instability. Can I get a spin-off where Mike is a feminist professor and an assassin on the side?
I’m unsure how any soul could walk away from “Fifty-One” without siding with Skyler. If you were unimpressed with her bed-ridden blankness, and still unfazed by her freakout, this episode had to have given sight to the blind. I’m going out on a limb and saying Skyler is the most formidable foe he faces. Mike, while he detests the man, has agreed to some form of submission. Skyler has stood up and said, I’m not backing down. She may have to grasp at straws and pull the rabbit out her hat to combat his sinister sorcery, but as the grating second hand of Jesse’s gift reminds us, he can’t outwit cancer. What he sees as a token of allegiance, we the audience see it as the detonator to a revolt inside his castle. Even the king is a servant of decay.