Monday, 6 August 2012

Television - Breaking Bad 'Fifty One' review

The similarities between Walter White and the late Gustavo Fring were becoming apparent last week. Walt shares one of Gus' problems - an unruly subordinate who cannot be eliminated due to their vital role in the meth operation - but none of the self-control which allowed him to stay in control of a vast criminal empire for the better part of twenty years. As Mike noted: 'Just because you shot Jesse James, don't make you Jesse James.'

Gus let victory slip through his fingers due to one moment of bravado, allowing his anger to push him into declaring victory before crossing the line. That small miscalculation cost him his life. Walt is all bravado, all the time, and despite his former profession as a teacher, is not a man who learns lessons from past mistakes.
Where Gus had an army of men loyal to the end and only one Walter White, virtually everyone in Walt's employment has reasons for wanting their boss dead. Some are aware of the fact, others only lacking one or two pieces of information to get there. Unhappy at how his income was being divided up, Walt identified Mike last week as enemy number one. As usual, it was a decision driven by vanity: Mike is the least likely person to turn traitor in the nascent operation, so long as everything is being done as it should. Meanwhile, Skylar is breaking down at home, Hank is continuing to dig deeper into the Fring operation which had seemed dead and buried, and while Jesse may be looking favourable upon his old boss for now, only a sniff of Walt's culpability in Jane's death or Brock's poisoning is needed to justify carrying out the death threat Walt references at the episode's end. Not to mention that he is now a talented meth cook in his own right. Gus was the lynchpin of his empire. Walt can be replaced all too easily, despite his refusal to see it.

Where Walt expects Mike to represent his main source of trouble going forward, it's Skylar who poses the real risk. 'Fifty One' disappointed in not presenting anything which couldn't have been gleaned from a little careful consideration last week, making explicit the underlying parallel between the Gus-Walt conflict last season and what looks to be Walt-Skylar this time around. Skylar says she knows she doesn't have a choice but to continue doing what she's doing, but will be looking for a way to protect her children from their father at every opportunity. She doesn't have Walt's 'magic', as she puts it, but does have an advantage her husband never had in his conflict with Fring. Time. Even if she does nothing, she'll win eventually. Though Walt dismisses her every plan for breaking his hold over her, she's going to keep on thinking. In the meantime, what can he do? He needs her to launder his income, and the more his image as a decent family man is threatened, the more vulnerable he is to Hank putting two and two together.

Hank may be about to take a promotion which could take him off the Fring case he has put so much time into, but his new position could make him more dangerous to Walt than ever. His board laying out the strands of Fring's operation shows many different pieces operating independently, all feeding back to one man in the middle. On his own, Hank can only investigate so many at one time. With an entire police force at his disposal, he'll be able to cast a much wider net. Both Gus and Walt have used smaller criminal activity to cover their larger operations, and if Hank is now in charge of tidying up all the city's crime, Walt could find it a lot harder to stay hidden.

It's not as though Walt has even been someone interested or capable of noticing the danger of small cracks turning into gaping fissures over time, devoted as he is to short term gain over long term stability. Under the illusion of safety, Walt is now even willing to ignore the big fractures threatening to swallow up his plans, like Lydia's cack-handed attempts to get out of her 'contract' with Mike (e.g. she does what he wants, or he kills her). Mike immediately recognises his mistake in letting her live and is prepared to let business run dry for a few weeks to ensure future safety. Walt, though, cannot see the danger (as Skylar pointedly remarks, exposing how poorly his stories fit together: 'I thought you were the danger.') and refuses to sanction the loss of their supplier, no matter how unstable her mental condition. Going for quiet for a few weeks could have been an ideal solution: the disappearance of blue meth from the streets could have convinced Hank that Heisenberg was gone for good, with the traces left on the streets just remains from the Pollos empire. He'd be distracted with his new job by the time Mike would be able to find a new methylamine supplier, giving Walt an easier ride. By continuing apace, Hank's suspicions that Heisenberg has started afresh are only going to be confirmed.

It's interesting to note Mike putting his reluctance to kill Lydia first time around down to 'sexism', because the most prominent motif in this episode was women unable to handle the pressure of working in a business run by men. Lydia's general hopelessness continues - showing her fraught state of mind by wearing mismatched shoes during a DEA visit; turning off the wrong fuses to deactivate the security cameras; the obvious ploy with the GPS - making it even less believable someone as careful as Gus (who immediately saw through Walt's shortcomings at their first rendezvous) would use her in a vital position. Skylar is understandably at her wits' end, but her behaviour in walking into the swimming pool in the middle of a birthday dinner makes her look weak and unstable. Combine that with Marie, always a problematic character for the series, and you've got a cast of men characterised by their choices and manner in which they take the initiative in their conflicts, and women who go a bit wonky whenever the pressure rises. It's not the sort of thing which particularly bothers me personally, although a strong woman would be a welcome addition to the series, but it's probably wisest not to call attention to such shortcomings through hollow, offhand acknowledgment.

The fact only a year has past since Walt's diagnosis also annoys me, as it feels like far too much has happened in that short space of time. I preferred being able to see the series in a timeless vacuum, despite the flash-forward which opened the season technically putting paid to that. That scene gave the series a two-year timeframe, though, which was generous enough to accommodate the confrontations with Tuco, Jane, the cousins and Gus. All that in just over a year, though? A tough sell, for me.

While such frustrations made 'Fifty One' the season's most problematic episode to date, it wasn't without its pleasures, particularly the callbacks to how Walt has changed over the course of the series (exemplified by his frustration at not getting a big birthday celebration this time, where he was furious at being made a fuss of over his fiftieth) and call-forwards to a year from now, when he'll have a full head of hair, a nasty cough, and a machine gun in the boot of a borrowed car. The clock is ticking.


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