Now THAT is more like it. Breaking Bad is BACK. Those of us who grew a touch worried by this season’s slow pace and lack of obvious stakes needn’t have fretted. We’ve been proven wrong by “Fifty-One,” one of the strongest episodes of the series to date.
Rian Johnson (Brick) directed this episode, and he turned in one of the finest pieces of direction in television history. More than the writing or even the performances, the direction elevated this episode to sublime status — which is particularly rare given that television is known as a writer’s medium.
Johnson directed season three’s “The Fly,” another of Breaking Bad’s all-time great hours, and that fact helps explain why he was the perfect choice to direct “Fifty-One.” “The Fly” is the ultimate bottle episode, taking place almost entirely in the superlab with only Walt and Jesse as players. Even though “Fifty-One” features virtually the full cast and takes place across many different settings, Johnson brings the same spirit of crushing claustrophobia in his direction.
Almost every shot in this episode is gorgeously composed, with faces in particular being framed in ways we’re not quite used to seeing as TV viewers. Because we’re never properly acclimated, we feel on edge and uncomfortable for the entire episode, much like Skyler must feel, trapped in an increasingly emotionally abusive marriage with a murdering drug slinger.
Breaking Bad often gives its directors the freedom to make unconventional choices (everything from Roomba Cam to the shot in the season five premiere of the drug molecules cohering), which means the series is often visually inventive and interesting. But Johnson does the best job of tying his creativity to the narrative and tone at hand.
Throughout “Fifty-One’s” many scenes of crushing domestic horror, the sound of ticking clocks and watches could be heard. This was not only a reminder of the limited time Walt has left, but of the almost absolute silence filling the White household while Walt and Skyler interacted. That silence was more terrifying and more painful than a thousand-decibel screaming fight. It revealed that there’s nothing left between Walt and Skyler except a vacuum. And antagonism.
The ticking tells that we’re in the endgame of this show now, and of Walter White’s life. The first three episodes of this season were mere prelude, a setup to get us up to speed while Walt and Jesse got their operation up to speed. Now the story of Walter White’s demise (whether literal or figurative) begins in earnest. In his mind, this is the moment of Walter’s greatest triumph: he’s bested Gus, he’s earning cash again, he’s his own boss, and he holds sway over everyone who matters to him in his life. He is impotent no more.
In reality, the clock is ticking and the walls are closing in. The seeds for his destruction have been planted — Walter just doesn’t know it yet. All his relationships have begun ticking — Skyler is openly plotting against him, Hank will eventually figure out his secret identity, Jesse will uncover his betrayal, Mike will outmaneuver him, etc. Some combination of those dangers will be Walt’s undoing.
The clock motif is just one facet of Johnson’s brilliant direction. Think of Skyler standing at the edge of the pool in the background of the shot while Walter monologued about his early days with cancer. Think of Walt’s face framed against a pitch-black background as he dealt with Marie and Hank in the aftermath of Skyler’s swim. Think of the way we see Walt swimming up behind Skyler just for a split-second before cutting to break. Or of the similarly quick, brutal cut after Skyler tells Walt she’s waiting for the cancer to come back. This episode is airless, suffocating, and filled with dread. And it’s just the beginning.
Early this season, Breaking Bad seems to be headed in the same direction as Mad Men did in their most recent season, making their metaphors, allusions and themes more obvious. “Fifty-One” gave us…
- The watch Jesse gave “Mr. White” for his birthday, counting down until New Hampshire and Denny’s and the machine gun and…
- Mismatched shoes to show that a woman’s losing her grip? Really, guys? What is this, a Sorkin show?
- All those food metaphors, undercutting the idea of domestic normalcy
- The cars — always a favorite canard of this show
What’s Up With Hank’s Mineral Collection?
Gathering dust while he gets promoted through the ranks.
Is Skyler Still the Worst?
My God, yes.