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'Breaking Bad' recap: Episode 4, 'Fifty-One'

By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

8:00 AM EDT, August 6, 2012

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"Breaking Bad" has always used understatements as dark jokes, but Walt took the (birthday) cake with this one: "It's been quite a year, huh?"

A year since his cancer diagnosis, it's also Walt's 51st birthday. (It's strange to consider how little time has passed through five seasons of the show.) But only Walt feels like celebrating, so he leases a new sports car and gets back a new Dodge Challenger for Walt Jr. Skyler, on the other hand, begrudgingly cooks Walt breakfast (spelling out "51" in bacon, a birthday tradition in the White house) and invites Hank and Marie over for dinner. After some roast chicken and hearing Walt talk about his sickness, she walks, fully clothed, into their pool, hoping to die or to send a message to Walt or both.

The relationship between Walt and Skyler has been boiling under the surface and extremely uncomfortable for viewers all season. Not only is she afraid of her husband, but Skyler clearly abhors the man he's become. When she served Walt his breakfast, I wrote in my notes: "When and how will Skyler explode?" The answer came quickly: 20 minutes and in dramatic fashion.

"Breaking Bad" is a show built around action — big explosions, shoot-outs, throat-cutting murders and other vivid portraits of the messy drug-dealing business. Besides Jesse's breakdowns, we rarely we see the exisential crises all of these character must be dealing with at all times. That's why Skyler's trip to bottom of the pool was so unnerving: The director (Rian Johnson, who directed the "Fly" bottle episode two seasons ago) focuses on the clear blue pool and Skyler's dead eyes, all while Walt's empty reflections on life hang in the air. Skyler's growing desire to walk to the bottom of the pool and leave her beyond-chaotic life behind was palpable and, most of all, heart-wrenchingly sad.

I don't doubt Skyler wanted to kill herself, but really, her walk to the deep-end was a grand way to alarm Marie and Hank. And thus, it got the kids out of the house: She asks Marie to take them while she and Walt work out their "differences" (uh, good luck), but really she just wanted to get them out of what she perceives as harm's way.

"We aren't in danger anymore, Skyler," says Walt, attempting to reassure her that she and their children are safe.

"I thought you were the danger?" she replies. Ouch — Walt, who's back to wearing his Heisenberg hat, deserved that.

The ugly exchange between Walt and Skyler in their bedroom continued Walt's moral descent, which is quickly spiraling out of control. Showrunner Vince Gilligan seems unbelievably committed to making the audience hate Walt. What started as a somewhat sympathetic character (nerdy under-achiever discovers his cancer and wants to leave his family a nest egg) but he's quickly devolved (all in a year!) into a gifted drug manufacturer who considers himself untouchable.

The saddest part of "Fifty-One" was Walt pressing Skyler for her "plan" to keep him away from his family. Like the know-it-all genius he is, Walt had a rebuttal to all of Skyler's short-sighted escape routes. Then she exposed her real plan: Skyler will wait out the madness until Walt's cancer returns. The woman who was willing to do anything for her husband's health now wants him to die.

When Mike and Jesse discuss what do with the ever-increasingly difficult Madrigal employee Lydia, Jesse asks Walt for his opinion. With the weight of his domestic issues squarely on his shoulders, he looks up and says, "Nothing stops this train. Nothing." With the divide growing between him and his family, Walt has no choice but to see this Heisenberg drug-takeover through. It's now the only thing that validates his existence.

The real question now: Is Walt's ego so big that he can't see there are plenty of things (rivals, the D.E.A., Skyler, etc.) that can derail the train?