Breaking Bad: Episode 5.04: “Fifty-One”

By Ron Peltier

“What are you waiting for,” Heisenberg says to his terrified and acquiescent wife toward the end of episode “Fifty-One.”

“For the cancer to return,” she icily replies.

Skylar has been the star of season five to this point and the exchange, the battle really, between her and Heisenberg tightened the tension to fraying levels in the fourth episode of this season—the half-way point. Indeed, throughout the episode various plot points also were ratcheted up to the point of ripping. Next week’s episode, Dead Weight, may very well center on the breaks the tension creates and the repercussions. When a cable snaps as a result of too much tension, isn’t there always unforeseen collateral damage as it whips violently back and forth?

It is Skylar who has the best interests of her children at heart, and so her desperate and valiant struggle to harbor them safely inspires while concomitantly deflates. In a terrific scene within a terrific episode, the bedroom battle of wits and ad-hoc plans leaves Skylar trapped and with little options except to wait and hope that cancer kills her husband. It was a brutal line that Heisenberg quickly shrugs off. Later when Heisenberg proudly displays the birthday gift—a fancy wristwatch—Jesse got for him, he asserts that like Jesse, who very recently wanted to kill him but now respects him, she too will come around. Of course, Heisenberg fails to mention that he has manipulated Jesse so much that were the unvarnished truth revealed to Jesse, he will likely kill Heisenberg.

The tension and double talk during the episode’s best scene, the birthday party, worked on a variety of levels. It made for great TV. Of course, we knew, and so too did Heisenberg I assume, that there was no way Marie could keep the “infidelity” secret from Hank. As Hank prods Marie to spill the beans in the car on the ride over to Heisenberg’s 51 birthday party, we cut to Heisenberg asking Skylar for an update on the plans. She has complied with all of his birthday desires he requested that morning, when he asserted to her that “life is good.” Hardly. But his taste for “Chocolate cake with chocolate icing” is honored, but not with joy or a wife’s loving touch. She goes through the motions as a beaten down woman biding her time.

Awkward silences and banal small talk simply heighten the anxiety in the scene. In an attempt to alleviate the tension, Heisenberg offers some perspective and seems to try to convince his wife in the process that everything will turn out for the better. Heisenberg reviews his past year—from 50 to 51—with remarkable comfort and burgeoning narcissism. “I was sure I was done for,” he says. Hank and Marie think he’s talking of the cancer, but we are reminded of Tuco, Gus, the Cousins, even Crazy 8. As he speaks, Skylar slowly walks into the pool. She cannot bear his sentimental take on the past year. A truly proactive and brilliant scene that demonstrates that Skylar, while not quite up to Heisenberg’s strategic skillset, she has the chops to win a battle—the kids are out of the house, at least for now. One day at a time.

In many ways, the episode served as a reminder of all the crazy shit that has happened in the past year, which birthdays often compel folks to do. The opening scene, for example, does precisely this. The Pontiac Aztec, Walt’s former vehicle, (Heisenberg can’t drive an Aztec) has been repaired again. As the mechanic reviews all the repairs, we too are reminded of all the nefarious activities the car has been through from slamming into oncoming traffic to running down two of Gus’s dealers.

The episode also catches up with Lydia. She sits in her office listening to a conference call in German. She’s a strong salesperson the award on the office door says. The scene pays homage to Gale, too. On the office windows MADRIGAL is spelled out, but a curious E is added underneath the L—the last window pane spells out GALE. Interesting.

Lydia’s nervousness is quite well conveyed, especially with Jesse. As she walks Jesse to the methylamine, she garrulously carries about a range of concerns including being sexually assaulted by prison guards if they are caught. Somehow her stream-of-consciousness blabbering effects Jesse. What else could explain his defense for her life later in the episode?

When Mike figures out that she is being duplicitous and decides to “leave her in a ditch,” Jesse essentially saves her. Mike says that Lydia “deserves to die as much as any man I’ve meet” as Jesse blocks Mike’s path. We believe Mike when he says this and frankly he is a good as any arbiter in this manner. But when Heisenberg sides with Jesse to keep the methylamine coming, we don’t see Mike’s response. Mike tells Jesse that Lydia is a “lunatic” and therefore a serious threat. Of course, Mike has already rejected his instincts with Heisenberg, as he essentially conveyed the same sentiment about him—“you’re a ticking bomb.” Why would Mike go along again?

The final scene certainly foreshadows Mike’s “ticking bomb” reference. The watch ticks. It reminds us of that time’s advancing to an inevitable boom. Will “everyone die” in the blast? As time ticks toward Heisenberg’s fifty second birthday, when he spells out 52 with his bacon, takes his wife’s last name as an alias and purchases M60 machine gun. Best episode of the season and each one has gotten better this season. What fun!

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