‘Breaking Bad’ Season Five: “Buyout”

(Read about the previous episode here.)

One of the established tricks of screenwriting is, when stuck, put two characters who haven’t had any scenes together in a room and see what they say. I’ve never knowingly had to resort to this, because I never run short on material, and I doubt the writers of Breaking Bad were exactly “stuck,” either — surely the aftermath of last week’s devastating murder was rife with possibilities for where to take “Buyout.”

Still, this episode does something unexpected — it puts the two most important people in Walt’s life in a room together. And the truly surprising thing isn’t that it happens, but that it only highlights how strange it is that Skyler and Jesse have seen so little of each other throughout the series when we’ve seen so much of the two of them.

Lots of shows feature a protagonist with distinctly separate personal and professional lives. A prime example is The Sopranos, but even then, there were many social occasions that united the family with The Family. But Walter White really keeps his two lives separate, to the extent that his family isn’t even aware of the shady people he deals with on a day-to-day basis. Hank knows about Jesse and, as dealt with in this episode, he certainly knows about Mike, but he doesn’t know Walt has such close ties to them. And now Skyler may be complicit in Walt’s illegal activities, but she’s actually had very little face time with most of Walt’s associates (minus Saul, who she’s dealt with pretty regularly). When Skyler walks in on Walt and Jesse’s meeting, it’s a weird moment for everyone — especially the audience, who has to wonder: “Really? Really? Is a Skyler and Jesse scene such a rare thing?”

But of course it is. And so, to Skyler’s horror and our delight, we get a nice sit-down meal between Walt, Skyler, and Jesse. Which turns out to be not awkward. Not awkward at all.

Okay, so it’s super awkward.

“Buyout” is the prototypical Breaking Bad episode, which is to say, it doesn’t go where you think it will. It bides its time. Last week’s shocking climax left us wondering what the fallout would be — a child dies. Who takes the fall? The stakes were raised way up high — would the demise of an innocent cause Mike to defect? Jesse to turn on Walt? Walt, Jesse, and Mike to turn on Todd? Walt to become pure evil? Yes and no, to all these questions and more.

We might have expected “Buyout” to capitalize on what happened in the last episode in a big way, but instead, the consequences are pretty minimal, considering. The police are hunting for the boy, but there’s no reason to think they’ll connect the crime to Walt and his blue any time soon, if ever. Todd gets off scot-free, as far as these guys are concerned. And even though Mike and Jesse initially make some waves about quitting, of course it doesn’t look like that’s going to be such an easy out.

Or, if we’d like to continue Season Five’s preoccupation with Al Pacino movies, here’s a quote from another: “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in!”

Lydia and Madrigal don’t factor in to “Buyout” at all; surprisingly, even Todd only makes a fleeting appearance. Instead, a potential new enemy is established — a dealer from Phoenix who’s looking to wipe out the competition. As of yet, he doesn’t seem to be using force, but this doesn’t bode well. He nixes Jesse and Mike’s plans to sell their two-thirds of the stolen methylamine until he’s sure that their mysterious third partner is out of the business for good, too.

But is Walt interested in selling out? Of course not. We know full well the man doesn’t know when to say “when.” Season One’s Walt would have gladly taken the five million dollars — we think — because back then he didn’t know what he was capable of. But Walt’s in too deep now to just quit. What would he do? As he explains to Jesse, this gig has already cost him his wife and kids. If Walt stops cooking, what’s left?Then again, “Buyout” gets its title from an interesting glimpse into Walt’s backstory, something we learned a little about back in Season One, but never quite fully comprehended until now. Once upon a time, a meeker Walter White took a buyout to the tune of $5,000, which cost him a chance at being a billionaire. And suddenly, a big light bulb goes off in all of our brains. Now we understand so much more clearly what’s driving Walt, why he can’t just quit while he’s ahead. It takes quite a show to not reveal such a crucial motivation for its protagonist until the fifth season, but can we even pretend to be surprised at how clever Breaking Bad is anymore? Didn’t think so.

It’s hard not to find “Buyout” at least a little bit of a letdown after the tension in last week’s final few minutes. A lot happens, and yet it feels curiously muted. Jesse stands up to Mr. White and wants to quit the business, Skyler comes closer than ever to spilling to the beans to Marie, and Mike (AKA “Icarus”) ties Walt up and then nearly shoots him in the head (and we know how Heisenberg hates being undermined). And yet, the death of a child is only the quiet catalyst for Jesse’s flirtation with going straight — Mike’s reasons seem to be linked more to his constant surveillance by the DEA. (Amusing moment — his tails witness a “dead drop” that ends up just being a “fuck you” to the DEA — literally.)

While Walt isn’t exactly pleased with Todd’s rash problem-solving skills from ‘Dead Freight,” he isn’t entirely disappointed in the kid’s initiative, either. It stopped him from having to clean up the mess himself (except in a literal sense, as we see in the eerie, melancholy opening). Despite the apparent insomnia he confesses to Jesse, Walt’s creepy “whistle while you work” moment betrays that he probably isn’t actually losing any sleep over the death of young Drew Sharp. Even Jesse is coping reasonably well, compared to his breakdown over killing Gale last season.

Maybe that’s the point. In the Breaking Bad universe, unscrupulous drug dealers can and do get away with murder, over and over, even when the victim is a total innocent. (Or, especially when the victim is innocent. The more innocuous they are, the fewer the consequences.) I doubt we’ve seen the last of the aftermath of this poor kid’s untimely end, but for now, things are chugging right along, with Walt again using science to escape from a sticky situation (fashioning a do-it-yourself blowtorch). I half-expected Mike to bite it at the hands of Walt before episode’s end, but instead, Walt has an idea so ingenious we have to wait until next week to even hear what it is.

All this is compelling enough, yet with only two episodes to go until the show goes on hiatus for a year, we definitely haven’t reached the heights of Season Four’s crackling, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension. (By comparison, the phenomenal, stakes-heightening “Crawl Space” was two episodes away from last season’s finale.) Yes, I know, this isn’t technically a full season on its own, but surely the first half of Season Five is going out with at least a mini-bang to hold us over until next summer. So where is it? Last season, we were pretty damn sure that the Walt and Gus showdown would provide a fitting denouement, and we were right. But we have no idea where the next two episodes of Season Five will take us. Is that a good thing, and a credit to Vince Gilligan and everyone else who works on this ingenious series? Yes. Is it frustrating as hell for the time being? Yes, that also.

But as I mentioned above, “Buyout” does contain one deliciously uncomfortable meal between Skyler, Walt, and Jesse. Mrs. White is apparently done cowering, enraged that Walt told Marie about the affair while leaving out his own, more serious transgressions. Skyler has no idea that Jesse is, at the end of the day, pretty much just a big ol’ softie, so maybe we can forgive her for being so hostile. (The Whites, they like their wine — particularly as a tool of self-destruction.) It’s a lot of fun to see Skyler and Jesse in a room together at long last, neither of them too happy with Walt at this moment in time. Once Skyler leaves (taking the wine bottle with her), Walt launches into another self-pity monologue about how mean ol’ Skyler cheated on him and wants him dead (after the one about his would-be billions). Laying it on pretty thick these days, aren’t we, Walt?

So where are we going from here? Was the death of the ill-fated arachnid collector just a blip on the radar, or are consequences a-comin’? Will Walt’s master plan be their downfall? How serious are the Phoenix competitors about eliminating their rivals? Walt’s last line of “Buyout” is “Everybody wins,” an echo of his final line from last season — “I won.” But we know Walt doesn’t really want everybody to win. He wants to win. He’s in “the empire business.”

And when Walter White is in an empire state of mind? Well… watch out.

Grade: B

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