Note: The following review, as you should probably expect, is filled to the brim with spoilers. If you care about that (though you probably shouldn’t), don’t read it. If you have seen the episode or don’t care about that, feel free to hit the jump and read on.
Last week, I said that Breaking Bad has always been master of the cold open. This week just added further support for that claim, with one of their best cold opens to date. It starts out with some of the show’s unique humor, as a man confusedly but ravenously picks up the wads of cash that Jesse had been lobbing out the window last episode, and then gradually shifts to some genuinely haunting images as Jesse is found slowly spinning in a deserted playground.
The cold open, however, is left on the floor as the rest of the episode sees battle lines being drawn. At the end of last week’s episode it was clear that the Walt vs. Hank showdown that the show has been teasing for five seasons had finally arrived; this week clearly demonstrates where characters fall on that spectrum. Like the confrontation last week, this happens much more quickly than we might expect, and in ways rather different than what we might expect.
Let’s start with Hank’s recruitment efforts. He immediately gets on the phone with Skyler, to the point that he’s got her on the phone as Walt is trying to contact her in Hank’s driveway (the knowing glance the two men share as they realize this is just dripping with contempt). They meet in a coffee shop, and Hank gives her the spiel we all expect him to give: we can protect you, give Walt up, you’ll be fine and this will all be over. What comes out of this speech that is perhaps a bit unexpected is a very interesting mentality. It’s the sort of mentality that dominated the actions of a lot of characters in that other widely praised cable drama, The Wire: Hank wants to capture Walt not out of some sort of altruism or morality – as his focus on the people Walt has killed in his “reason why you suck” speech last episode implies – but because he wants to beat him. There’s excitement in his voice, he speaks quickly and with purpose, and he tries to get Skyler to start her report immediately. He wants to beat Walt before “that bastard runs out the clock.” It’s a game to Hank, and although it’s been a game to him for quite a while – even back when Gus was alive – it hasn’t been a game with an end so near in sight, and Hank has never acted quite so willful. He’s playing to win – but why this renewed fervor? Because he’s been losing for the better part of five seasons. Walt has escaped his noticed for five seasons, and Hank is kicking himself for that. He later acknowledges that if he tells the department, it’ll be the end of his career (his career would be “Buried” – a recurring idea in this episode, naturally) because of just that fact. It’s still a game to Hank, but now it’s one that he needs to win for both his career and his pride.
Skyler, however, is having none of that. She refuses to tell Hank anything and runs away from him at first opportunity (“AM I UNDER ARREST” is the new “SHUT UP”). This is another somewhat surprising reaction, coming from Miss “Waiting for Cancer,” but it makes a lot more sense when given the context of Skyler’s later interaction with Marie. Her primary focus is now and always has been the safety of herself and her family – more specifically, her children. Though it appears that she doesn’t harbor the love for Walt that she once did, she loves her kids and will do whatever she can to keep them, and as she told Hank, there’s no guarantee that testifying against Walt will allow her to keep her kids rather than having them taken into social care. For Skyler, the best course is to stick with Walt, who thinks he can get out of this either by evading Hank or simply by dying. Walt’s out of the game, so their only threat is Hank building a case against them. Otherwise, Skyler gets to keep her kids and her business and continue her life.
So – Hank needs Walt to save his pride and his career, Skyler needs Walt to keep her kids. Outside of the Schrader-White families, we have a third party who needs Walt: Lydia and Todd’s nascent meth operation. In Walt’s absence, they’ve turned to Declan for their supply, but the paltry 68% purity is not satisfying the Czech buyers, so Lydia pays them a visit to investigate their meth lab – a buried school bus (hey look, the episode title again!). What follows is a bloody power play, as Declan refuses to switch to a better cook (Todd can apparently cook 74% pure, which is better but not Heisenberg standard). Lydia displays a darkly amusing weak stomach, and refuses to look at the carnage upon resurfacing from the school bus. She’s sort of a proto-Walt in this respect: she’s willing to kill and be generally cold-blooded, but she’s still averse to it. This compounds the scene last episode, where she visits Walt at the car wash, which echoed Walt’s visits to Gus’ Los Pollos Hermanos franchise. We’re seeing quite clearly the new up and comer entreating the help of the kingpin, just as Walt entreated the help of Gus. Given how that relationship ended, it’s a very bad sign for Walt.
Three factions, all of them vying for Walt. And yet, as all of this happens, Walt has never seemed more impotent and ineffectual. His big confrontation with Hank, which he went into swelling with hubristic pride, ended with Hank beating him to the punch (ha) and getting to Skyler first. Though it didn’t matter, it meant that Walt was unable to contact Skyler except in person afterward for fear of calling into a wiretap (the parallels between Breaking Bad and The Wire increased about tenfold this episode) and incriminating himself. Walt instead went to Saul, contracted Huell and Kuby to bring him the money in the storage unit, then went out into the desert and buried it (hey, there it is again) – no easy task, and upon returning to the White residence, he collapsed on the bathroom floor, wakening much later in a makeshift bed that Skyler had made for him.
The message is rather clear, and it’s very surprising: for the first time in the show’s history to date, Walt’s fate is entirely out of his hands. He can hardly do anything for himself right now, including climb into bed. Meanwhile, three factions are going to be vying for control over him to reach their own goals. It will be interesting to see how these factions fight and eventually win out over the others – because one side is clearly going to win.
There is a wrench in the works in this episode, however, and that wrench takes the form of Jesse Pinkman. He alone has the ability to dramatically help whatever faction employs him: he can cook meth up to the Heisenberg standard, so Lydia and Todd will covet him; he can provide incriminating evidence against Walt as well as be manipulated due to his heavy guilt, making him an invaluable asset for Hank; and his ability to do both of these things will make him a critical player to leave out of the hands of the other two groups for Skyler, else her tenuous hold on her family slip loose.
And, naturally, the episode ends on a tense note as Hank gets to Jesse first, walking into an interrogation room, alone with the show’s last remaining moral compass. A