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Skyler White is a prisoner, but she has an escape plan. It's just not a very good plan.
Let's just take a breath first.
"Fifty-one" may be one of the most emotionally intense episodes Breaking Bad has ever shown (and that's saying something). It's just a messy, uncompromising hour that puts us right into Skyler White's terror-fraught mindspace. She spent the first three episodes of the season an emotional prisoner of her supervillain husband. Paralyzed by her fear, she hasn't been able to summon the energy to do much more than this, at Marie's expense:
She couldn't stay in bed quivering with fear forever, though. Skyler has always been a pretty proactive and resourceful woman, so it stands to reason that she'd start to stand up a little bit. Her first bit of defiance: suggesting the they send Walt Jr. to boarding school, to get them out of "this environment." Her second: half-assing her way through her traditional forming of Walt's age in his birthday breakfast bacon. The third: not planning a big, loud surprise party for him, opting instead to invite Hank and Marie over for a quiet dinner of roasted chicken and whipped potatoes (and the chocolate birthday cake Walt requested). It's clearly not what Walt was expecting (or wanted), but he takes it all in stride. It isn't until Skyler makes a big show of trying to drown herself in the pool while Walt recounts all the times he was in pain and thought about ending it all during his cancer year that Walt finally confronts her about what she's thinking. While up to this point, he was acting oblivious, or at least insouciant, now he's getting in her face about what she's thinking. Skyler's fear has grown into hate for Walt, sparked by her finding out that Walt was right back in the meth game. The argument that ensues is one for the ages. Director Rian Johnson (who helmed the high school noir feature Brick, as well as this summer's upcoming Looper) blocks and shoots this wonderfully, as he does the swimming pool scene. At the pool, he has the camera slowly track closer and closer to Walt's face as he eloquently and lovingly details the way his family, especially Skyler, was there for him while he was suffering from the effects of chemotherapy and surgery. With this going on, he positions Skyler behind him, viewed over his shoulder, standing still at the edge of the pool. Walt turns to say something to her, and the camera switches to the reverse shot, with Skyler's face in a closeup and Walt and the dinner table over her shoulder. As Walt talks, the scene cuts from this shot of Skyler's face to the deep end of the swimming pool. While Walt talks about wanting to give up due to his suffering, Skyler calmly walks into the pool, into the deep end, and attempts to drown herself. For a show whose plot is driven forward largely by pages and pages of dialogue, Breaking Bad truly is one of the most visually inventive and impressive shows on television (for more evidence, the scene of Walt shaving his head and cutting his scalp – literally, that's all that happens – is also hauntingly arresting).
Back to the argument scene, the second centerpiece of the episode, Skyler reveals that all she can think about is getting the kids out of that house, and away from them. She even blames herself and says that she has blood on her hands, referring to Ted Beneke. That said, the kids are innocent, and so should not be in the house with them (Hank and Marie take the kids for a few days, and Skyler says that " I count every minute they are out of this house is a victory). Walt starts out talking to Skyler in a comforting, coddling tone, but eventually, Heisenberg takes over, and he challenges her with "what are you going to do to stop it? What specifically?" He points out that Skyler doesn't have any plans that can't be short-circuited by him, so finally she blurts out that all she can do is wait...wait for Walt's cancer to come back.
Fear has turned to hate for Skyer White. Walt isn't too concerned. After receiving a watch as a belated birthday present from Jesse, he approaches Skyler, silent and chain-smoking on the couch, and tells her that "the person who gave me this watch wanted me dead. He changed his mind about me, and so will you."
Skyler isn't the only imprisoned woman in Breaking Bad this season. Lydia, the executive at Madrigal, who is tasked by Mike to provide methylamine to Walt's operation, is freaking out, figuring that soon, she will be arrested (and gang raped by prison guards). Hank and the DEA show up at Madrigal to arrest Ron, a warehouse foreman who is also one of Mike's "guys," specifically the guy who drives the methylamine to Albuquerque in a delivery truck, and Lydia figures that she is next. Freaked out, she tries to extricate herself from the situation by planting a GPS device on a barrel of methylamine and intimating that the feds must have put it there. Mike sees through the ruse and decides to go through with his original plan to kill her. He doesn't trust her to keep quiet, considering her mental state right now, so "she's dead...she thinks we'll leave her alone and take our business elsewhere. She's right, we will be taking our business elsewhere, after I leave her alone in a ditch." Jesse, who was sent to pick up the shipment, objects, and Mike lets him know that he's already let her off the hook once ("that's what I get for being sexist"). Still, Jesse doesn't want Lydia killed, and Walt, sitting quietly and picking at a loose thread in his Heisenberg hat, finally speaks up in favor of keeping Lydia alive so she can continue providing the methylamine ("We're just getting started. Nothing stops this train").
Some of the visual metaphors in "Fifty-one" are pretty on-the-nose (Walt's hat unraveling, the close-up of the watch ticking away on Walt, which actually portend everything falling apart for Walt, thus reminding us how close to the end this show is) but it was still a damn beautiful episode. Frankly, it pretty much had to be, considering the heavy emotion running throughout. Skyler's life is hell right now, and she's taking drastic measures to do something about it. It's heartrending, and crushing to see her go through this. Still, we remember how strong she is, and we got a glimpse of that now. Skyler doesn't have a plan to stop Walt...yet. Who knows? Maybe the secondhand smoke he's going to breathe in from Skyler's chain smoking will do him in.
Another great tragedy of Breaking Bad right now is embodied by Walt Jr. He is absolutely over the moon over his father, especially now that his father gave him a sports car. The two of them have never been closer, but Junior has absolutely no clue who his father really is. Odds are, he's going to find out. What is that going to do to him?