Breaking Bad S5E10: Buried

Buckeye: “Buried” began and ended with a wordless Jesse—and featured Walt’s best Steve-Buscemi-in-Fargo impression—but belonged, and this is rare for a show whose central character has a ceaseless desire to prove his masculinity and fulfill what American society has deemed is a man’s role, to three women: Skyler, Marie, and Lydia. One, Skyler, finds herself trapped between Scylla and Charybdis, between choosing to tell all she knows about her husband to Hank (who’s made his intentions regarding Walt—that he wants to throw the man in a penitentiary as soon as possible—quite clear) while tiptoeing around her own involvement in her husband’s misdeeds and doubling down on her current position by asking Walt to stay quiet so that he, and by extension she, might manage escape from any form of legal liability. A second, Marie, understands the implications of her sister’s chosen silence better than Hank, leaving her shocked by Skyler’s lies and stung by the residue of betrayal her discovery of those lies has exposed. The third, Lydia, opts like Skyler to double down on a floundering operation, with garishly bloody consequences that transition into the creation of a new and potentially dangerous union with, well, neo-Nazis. I’d like to start with Skyler, who is the first link in the investigatory chain to whom Hank turns (immediately) following his stand-off with Walt. Skyler is one of Walt’s victims, another in the long line of lives that Walt has ruined, to paraphrase Hank. But Skyler is not an unwitting partner; indeed, she’s an active co-conspirator with Walt, at least as far as the money’s concerned, a fact that complicates her victimhood. I think Skyler’s motivations for staying on Team Walt are two-fold and intertwined: First, she’s just been told (by Hank) that Walt’s cancer has returned; second, she needs to save her own ass. Hank’s eagerness and Marie’s incredulity understandably scare her off, and he offers up a piece of information (the return of the cancer) that sparks a measure of sympathy for the man she still, however irrationally, loves. Hunkering down with Walt meets both of those needs right now. What’d you make of Skyler’s actions, kyra? Any thoughts on how “Buried” might contribute to the “Why Skyler Is/Isn’t Likeable” debate?

 

kyra: Skyler is likely the most hated character on Breaking Bad despite the fact she is married to a monster. This is because the viewer is invested in the success of Walt’s meth empire, whereas Skyler is constantly the voice of complaint and criticism. No, you can’t buy that car because it’s too flashy. No, you can’t see your children because you are a danger to them. No, you can’t cook meth anymore because you have enough money already. She functions as an annoying obstruction to Walt’s badass ruthlessness.* This episode was a showcase for Anna Gunn to demonstrate just how far she has fallen, and in my opinion, she has finally ‘broken bad.’

*Full disclosure: I haven’t been on Walt’s side since the decision to murder Gale, possibly even earlier than that when he let Jane die, but I think I am representing what the majority of the viewership thinks. They root for Walt no matter what he does.

You argue that Skyler had two motivations for not turning on Walt: sympathy for him when she hears about the return of his cancer, and self-preservation. I have to say I disagree, which is why I now view her as just as bad as Walt. I think the cancer news does play a role, but perhaps an even bigger motivator is greed. Knowing Walt’s cancer is back means it could be only a few months before all the money is hers. Walt Jr.* is going off to college soon enough, which would allow her to move and start a whole new life with her baby far away from Albuquerque. Hank offered her, at least to my eyes, a very convincing way out: anything she did in furtherance of Walt’s drug empire was done under duress. Even if it amounts to a ‘he said, she said’ battle in court, one would think the battered wife has the jury’s sympathy. However, she chooses to side with the bad guy, and thus I have lost all support I once had for her.

*The fact that Walt Jr. wasn’t even in this episode, in which family played such an important role, underscores to me how worthless he has been to this show. I don’t understand generally why he had to have cerebral palsy (I guess to make Walt more sympathetic at the start), but even more basic, what is his value to the series at all

On a higher-level view, I didn’t think this episode was all that great. The initial scene between Skyler and Hank was played marvelously, with as you said, Hank’s eagerness possibly scaring Skyler away. The classic stereotype is that innocent people don’t need lawyers, and you can see Hank slowly come to realize how much Skyler must know. Additionally, Skyler lets her opponent do most of the talking in not only this scene, but also the one with Marie, as she must be running over in her head all her options and believes nothing good can come from saying anything. Besides the Skyler-Hank scene though, I felt like the episode mostly served to set up future events, and our time could’ve been better spent.

Buckeye: Skyler may indeed be motivated by greed, but I think that’s a function of her instinctual reaction to cover her tracks, and I think, if it exists, it’s a motivation that’s secondary to her instincts. She’s acting first and foremost, I still think, out of self-preservation, but beyond that it wouldn’t hurt, provided she gets out of this unscathed, to have a couple million stashed away. But Skyler has prioritized her clean criminal record over money before, which is why I don’t buy greed as the prime reason for what she chose in “Buried”: Skyler gave over $600,000 to Ted Beneke to avoid liability for helping cook his books. (She risked her neck in doing so, when she acted like an airhead in a meeting with the IRS, but her ultimate goal was to save Ted, and ultimately herself, from jail—with Walt’s money.) An earlier example: Skyler demanded Walt sacrifice some of his loot to pay Hank’s medical bills. On top of all of this, at this point I’d still be surprised if those barrels of money ever rise above the sand; I loved Walt’s clever lottery-ticket memory trick, but the burial* of all that cash smacks me as more haphazard than shrewd.

*Example fifty-six in why Breaking Bad probably has the best episode titles ever, here, with “Buried.” Of course, we suspect that the title refers to the barrels of money, but then there’s the matter of the submerged city bus-turned-meth lab. It doesn’t top “Face Off,” but the quiet wit behind each episode title is always a small batch of awesomeness. 

I hear your criticism that we didn’t learn much (at least White/Schrader-family-wise) after Hank’s diner meet-up where he scared off Skyler; we didn’t need to see Marie call her out or her talk Walt down to understand that Skyler’s future is at stake depending on what Hank and Walt do in the present. I do think Skyler’s scenes with Marie and Walt were instructive on other levels, though. For one thing, Marie understood the depth of her sister’s complicity much more than Hank did. You’re definitely right to hone in on the legal out that Hank has offered Skyler—the duress defense, one Skyler could plausibly claim. But in claiming duress, Skyler would be sugar-coating her own actions; Marie doesn’t know that Skyler launders Walt’s money, but realizes more than Hank does how much she’s lied. Hank sees only Walt at fault, even if Skyler had knowledge; Marie senses her sister bears some blame. The scene where Marie and Skyler fight over Holly shed a fascinating light on Marie’s character, too, one noticed by Alan Sepinwall: Marie, a kleptomaniac, is trying again to take something (here, a baby) that she has always coveted but does not belong to her, with the twist that Holly would benefit from growing up Schrader rather than growing up with her biological parents’ suffocating toxicity.

Skyler’s bathroom conversation with Walt is instructive for its insight into Skyler’s feelings for her husband and Walt’s diminishing ego. Walt, like Hank, is working with limited information; his confrontation with Hank (and Hank’s follow-up call to Skyler) convinced him that it was time to throw in the towel. Think about that for a second: Walter White, ready to turn himself in, and what’s more, recognizing that he himself caused Hank’s discovery. We’ve both remarked that Walt seems to be shouldering a renewed humility (for Walter White, humility is something to shoulder) in those flash-forwards, but the seeds of that humility were planted in what he said to Skyler. It’s a little surreal to hear Walt talk of giving up rather than of one more scheme. And so it was important that Skyler set the record straight, intuiting from Hank’s insistence on recording her vision of events that Hank’s informational cupboard isn’t fully stocked, at least before he interrogates Jesse. It was from this decision to tell Walt to not give up just yet that I think I can argue that sympathy is also one of Skyler’s motivations: She tells Walt to stay quiet after spending hours with him, unaware, passed out on the bathroom floor. Skyler could have gone back to bed or ignored him like she had while he was still cooking, but instead she gave his head something on which to rest.

I mentioned at the outset that this was a female-heavy episode, and at times it felt self-consciously so—the Breaking Bad writers do seem cognizant of the criticism their female characters have received. Part of this, at least where Skyler is concerned, has to do with the viewers discomfort with rooting for anybody other than Walt, based on the sheer fact that he’s the main character and was sympathetic at the series’ outset. I’m don’t know if there are a lot of people rooting for Walt, per se, but I confess that the man has a near-comical “What the fuck did this horrible guy just say/do NOW?” or “There he goes again…” quality that causes a lot of perverse enjoyment—that’s kinda the whole point of the show right there, to expose humanity’s inner evil. (I don’t root for Walt, I root for Jesse and Hank, but Jesus Walt is entertaining, from a distance.) To return to Skyler, you’re right that she’s forced to play the bad cop, and I’d add that she’s the loser in the relationship: people don’t like rooting for a loser, in this case someone who couldn’t stop her husband and did just enough to deserve paying some kind of price. I suspect Skyler’s new advisory role to Walt might, paradoxically, make others like her more. Personally, I’d argue Skyler turned the likability corner last year in “Fifty One,” when she told Walt she was waiting for his cancer to come back. Now that it’s here and her husband is out of the game and she’s in trouble, she’s singing a different tune.*

*Here’s a vigorous defense of Skyler from Slate.

A woman who’s still unlikeable, at least for me (I’ve talked to at least one person who’s a fan), is Lydia, as skittish and messily incoherent as ever. If I had a criticism of the episode this week, I’d have argued that the Lydia-Todd axis comes across as a definite(ly subordinate) B story. With Walt not cooking, the importance of Lydia’s decision to massacre Declan & Associates was minimal in my book (though I liked the touch that Todd wasn’t the man responsible for the sub-70% meth, even if his wasn’t up to Mr. White’s perfectionist but uneconomic standards, and I admired the artistic decision to remain down below with Lydia while the shots rang out). What’d you make of this scene? Any predictions for how Lydia, Todd and Co. might catch Walt (or somebody else) in their web?

kyra: I take the points on Skyler. I guess my general problem with her is the one you outlined in the criticism of female characters: she was never in control. It’s hard rooting for someone, to borrow a phrase from The Departed, who is controlled by their environment rather than controlling their environment like Walt is.

Not only do I agree that the meth cook showdown was lame (who had Declan in the death pool?), but basically every scene not involving Skyler was boring. They drag out the opening, in which an old man finding Jesse’s cash, but I don’t think it added to the levity of the scene at all. Maybe if a meth-head next door found money too, and they came face to face resulting in one killing the other, that would have been an interesting scene, as it would show how despite Jesse’s best attempts he still leaves a path of destruction in his wake. However watching Jesse twirl around on that children’s ride didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

Then let me turn for a minute to the next scene, where Walt realizes Hank is on the phone with Skyler. The “music” in this scene is great–basically consisting of a pounding heartbeat. However, unlike the final 10-15 minutes of “Crawl Space,” the episode doesn’t continue to build tension and speed following the scene. While Walt is rushing to hide the money as soon as possible, I didn’t feel the same sort of rush.

Another dragged out scene was Huell and Bill Burr packing up Walt’s money. I get that it was comic relief for them to lie on the bed of cash, but this took far too long. The only valuable line is Burr citing the 10 executions in 2 minutes as reason #1 why they shouldn’t steal the money.

Onto the part you identified, Buckeye. I want to highlight something our buddy G-Ross pointed out to me. While she’s stuck in the hole, Lydia checks her cell phone constantly. Then when the shooting is over Todd calls her out as if he knows she’s there. Is it possible she sent a signal to Todd when Declan refused to try cooking with him again? Something to think about. Then her refusal to look at the bodies just seems absurd–an ostrich in the sand type situation. To get heavily involved in the meth distribution business and not understand that the bodies pile up is beyond Machiavellian; she’s looking at A–>B–>C and trying to ignore that B exists. Why on earth is she involved in this business when she’s already a successful executive at a huge conglomerate?

At the end of the day this episode is important for 2 reasons: Skyler protects Walt, and it sets up Hank’s interrogation of Jesse. For me, that’s too much fat for a normally very lean and juicy show.

Random Observations

kyra: I find it very hard to believe a cancer-stricken middle-aged man could handle the physical task of digging the hole and burying the barrels, which Walt performed by himself in this episode. [Buckeye: At least they made it clear that the digging was quite the laborious task. Walt could barely stick the pickaxe in the dirt, and he collapsed after zoning out back at home.]

Buckeye: kyra brought this up above, but seriously, why wasn’t Walter Jr. in this episode? You’d think the show would have wanted to establish that he was actually at home at some point during this 24-hour period, one in which there was much wrangling by his elders over what should be done with him and his sister. A counter-argument, I guess, would be that Walter Jr.’s absence is symbolic of his parents’ failures as parents—maybe they just don’t know where he’s at (he sure goes on a lot of sleepovers).

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