Breaking Bad, Season 5, Part 2

Hank Underestimates Skyler. Will He Underestimate Jesse?
Talking television.
Aug. 18 2013 10:00 PM

Breaking Bad, Season 5, Part 2

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Skyler takes charge.

Breaking Bad: Skyler White
Anna Gunn as Skyler White on Breaking Bad

Photo courtesy of Ursula Coyote/AMC

It is exactly right that this episode began with a cracking-up Jesse turning his bereft face to the night sky and ended with Walt smashing his tired, cut-up face on his bathroom floor. Two images of godless and desperate suburbia. They are mirroring each other, these characters. The difference between them, and the main event this week, was Skyler.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

I’ve never understood the Skyler haters among Breaking Bad fans. Sure, she has her shrewish moments. Anna Gunn, the actress who plays her, pointed out that in the pilot, Walt comes home after finding out about his cancer diagnosis, and Skyler says: “Walt, did you use this credit card? You know this is the wrong one to use.” Gunn said: “It’s this small thing, but it sets up the fact that Walt is this guy who, in every part of his life, is just being kicked around. And that’s not Skyler’s intention; she’s just trying to keep them afloat. But she’s not a happy person either. So there’s a low level of deep disappointment and unhappiness between the two of them, and in both of them.”

Yes. And in Skyler’s at once lowest and most fabulous moment, when she walked into her own swimming pool, the volume of disappointment rose and nearly overwhelmed her. She had our sympathy. We’ve watched her bend bad without breaking bad, as William Brennan put it in arguing that Skyler “is the best character on the show because she’s the one who reminds us that it’s necessary to loathe Walt. She is our moral grounding.”

No longer. For me, that was the central thrill of this episode. Skyler chose. She chose Walt over Hank and Marie. She chose asking for a lawyer over confessing like a good girl. She chose sin over remorse. Can she still be the show’s moral fulcrum? I don’t think so.

Hank assumed Skyler would cooperate; he also must have thought she would go to pieces. The genius of this scene is how much he underestimates her. He opens a door to innocence—“you’re done being his victim”—and fully expects her to walk through it, even turning on his tape recorder right there in the restaurant with a little paper lantern overhead. And Skyler refuses to play the role he has scripted for her. In earlier seasons, she has struggled against Walt’s expectations. Now it’s her brother-in-law whom she has to outsmart and push away. And in fact, she is a step ahead of him. She can see how little evidence he has and how much he needs her to build his case. She decides not to give him what he wants.

Maybe that’s what sets off the Skyler haters: She’s a master of withholding without ever being a brittle ice queen. That repeats in her scene with Marie, which Gunn plays with both pathos and white-faced control. At first Marie is sure she will get through to her sister, but then she turns angry. Her wheels are turning, too, and she realizes how far back Skyler’s deception reaches. Beyond the pool, the car wash, the tale of gambling, to before Hank was shot. Skyler becomes unforgivable. And Marie goes crazy-lady, grabbing the baby and refusing to let go. They are playing out the most primal of sister moments, and Skyler turns into the mama bear, as she must. Again we are on her side—not the side of her law-abiding sister and brother-in-law. Skyler’s at her most conniving and criminal, and we are rooting for her, or at least I was. It’s the genius of Breaking Bad—no show is more skilled at the art of sneaking up on us with our own complicity—this time with a satisfying and even feminist twist.

Because Skyler is right: She does need a lawyer. Not to protect Walt, but to protect herself. Consider this email I got from reader Drew Ryce, an attorney, about Hank’s prospects for nailing Walt on money laundering and tax evasion:

Plenty of physical evidence, tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars locked up in storage rooms. Except look at Walter's defense. Walter didn't launder anything. His wife did the laundering. Perhaps on behalf of Gustavo and/or the cartel. Think about it. She rents the storage areas. Not Walter. She fiddles the books. Not Walter. She runs the car wash. She ran a complex tax evasion scheme with Ted's company (which clearly had nothing to do with Walter).

It’s too late for Skyler to come clean. I didn’t know it till now, but she did.

Which brings me back to Jesse’s crack-up. He is the one Hank has in a holding cell. Could he be the one Hank gets to talk? Or will Hank blow it for a third time?

I’ll send you to Belize,

Emily

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