Breaking Bad
Season 5.10
Treading Lightly and Staying Quiet: The Calm Before the Storm
Guest Writer: Lysa Rivera

Monday, August 19, 2013

posted under , , , , by Unit for Criticism

[The second in the Unit for Criticism's multi-authored series of posts on the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad]

"Treading Lightly and Staying Quiet: The Calm Before the Storm"

Written by: Lysa Rivera (Western Washington University)

If last week was all about treading “lightly,” this week’s episode was all about staying “quiet.” That, at least, was the advice Skyler, unwilling to rat out her husband, gave to Walt, who just before had offered to turn himself in. Even Hank, for now anyway, is keeping his secret to himself (with the exception of telling Marie), partly because it might cost him his job (or, at the very least, his reputation), but mostly because he doesn’t yet have the solid proof he needs to put Walt away for life. Or, if the cancer is actually back, “life.” And then there’s Jesse’s own brand of treading lightly and staying quiet: he spoke not a single word during the entire episode. But his wheels, like the merry-go-round in the park, are clearly spinning and it is only a matter of time before Jesse acts on his angst. Whether or not he cooperates with Hank for saying what Skyler will not, of course, remains to be seen. We’ll just have to wait for the merry-go-round ride to end.

Michelle MacLaren shooting a scene in Season 3's
 "Abiquiu" (2010) 
Directed by Michelle MacLaren and written by Thomas Schnauz (whose late father the show honors at the end), “Buried” is the second episode in the final season of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. Stylistically and narratively, it beautifully embodies the ethos and ‘look’ of our so-called “TV3” era. Known also as “the post-television” and “digital convergence” era, the TV3 period is marked by two main elements that set its shows apart from the “classic network” and “post-network eras”: the cinematization of television aesthetics and the rising influence of authorial input in television production.1 MacLaren, who has directed some of the show’s most visually stunning episodes, including last year’s midseason finale “Gliding All Over,” whose gore-fest of a prison montage is the stuff of television history to be sure, has herself said in multiple interviews the aesthetic imperative of the show is “to shoot Breaking Bad like a modern day Western.” We see this immediately in "Buried," when Hank and Walt engage in a brief and inexplicably tense face-off in front of Hank's garage: a shot clearly reminiscent of a duel in a Western, even if Hank's "pistol" is actually a garage door opener.

Certainly, the show’s wide-angle shots, vast desert backdrops, train heists, and shoot-outs have, over the seasons, rendered Breaking Bad a stunning visual appropriation of the Western. Directors like MacLaren and writers like Schnauz (who also penned “One Minute,” the episode that ends with Hank’s parking-lot Cartel nightmare), have enabled Breaking Bad to exemplify this so-called “TV3” generation. “AMC hires filmmakers and [lets] them be filmmakers,” insists MacLaren.

“Buried” is entirely in keeping with this trend towards the cinematization of television. Like all of the episodes that have come before it, “Buried” delectably foregrounds mise-en-scène components of setting, sound, and lighting and offers Michael Slovis’s signature embellished cinematography. It is also a fascinating study in reversals and parallels. Visually, textually, even texturally, the episode’s composition frequently parallels and reverses many threads and images from previous seasons. While Hank and Marie slowly begin to see Walt for the “monster” he has become, I couldn’t help but catch glimpses of Walt from the very first season, when he wore beige khakis and pale yellow sweaters, had humility and admitted to “screwing up,” and took to sleeping on the bathroom floor every now and then. With “Buried” it is as if Gilligan and his crew want us to remember Mr. White before he broke bad, black pork pie hat and all.

While some are busy unpacking the many possible meanings of the Finale’s title (“Felina”), there remains little question in my mind about the significance of the second episode’s title. “Buried” refers to the blood money Walt single-handedly buried in the desert, which has been, since the show’s pilot, a kind of geographical shorthand for lawlessness, criminality, and, well, buried items. But “Buried,” could also be said to invoke the idea of something that was once hidden from sight slowly beginning to surface – like a malignant tumor, a family secret, or (and this is my point) a conscience. For along with donning brighter clothes and dodging Lydia, Walter Hartwell White seems, for the moment, to have rediscovered something at least proximate to morality. When Saul reasonably asks if Walt has considered murdering Hank, an option that “has worked very well” for Walt “in the recent past,” Walt is visibly upset. “Hank is family,” he tells Saul. The same man who let Jane die, poisoned a child, and shot an associate has, at last, drawn the line.

And that’s just it. “Buried” brings us back to the nucleus of Walt’s life before he broke bad: his family, his home. Everything about the rambler on 308 Negra Arroyo Lane is different than last year and different from what we know it will eventually become: a squatter’s den. Whereas last season the White family home was devoid of children, dimly lit and decidedly ominous, this season its rooms are sunny, open, and bright. This is now a house where babies are safe and spouses communicate. In a scene that seemed at once to foreshadow a future deathbed moment while simultaneously recalling a much earlier season, Walt, weak with regret and cancer, reminds Skyler of
the end that (in Walt’s mind) still justifies the means. “Keep the money,” he says. “Please don’t let me have done all of this for nothing.” It remains to be seen whether or not Skyler’s decision to stand by her man is motivated by love and loyalty and not long-term financial security. After all, she tells Walt how his own game “works” by reminding him that in turning himself in, he’d have to turn in the money, and this is why, she insists, their best move is to keep their mouths shut and their eyes open.

We have heard versions of this bathroom conversation before, so it should not surprise us too much to hear it again. The parallels between “Buried” and the show’s earliest seasons remind us that on some level Breaking Bad is still very much about two things: the relationship between moral ambiguity and economic vulnerability in middle-class (white) America.

What I mean is this.

If, as some have argued, Vince Gilligan is in fact “TV’s first true red-state auteur,” and if Breaking Bad is at heart a show about “middle-American lives in a middle-American place…beset with middle-American problems,” then it makes perfect sense that we would return to the hearth and home of the show’s iconographic White family. In order for us to reap the full benefits of a show that has, from the start, been nothing but unsettling, we first need to feel, care about, and thoroughly invest in what is fundamentally at stake in this final showdown between Walt and The State: the coherence of the White family and, by extension, any “middle-American” family saddled by crushing debt and facing an uncertain future in a country whose income gap is widening as quickly as its middle-class is collapsing. The crew of Breaking Bad toyed with us in “Buried.” It’s as if they want us to feel for Walt and Skyler in a way we have not been invited to feel in a long, long time. Whereas the first half of this final season seemed almost hell bent on demonizing Walter– a/k/a He Who Knocks – the moral compass in “Buried” seems to have shifted, even if only slightly, as Gilligan gently leads us to the precarious and knotty position of having to choose between the Whites and the Schraders. From the beginning Breaking Bad has dared its viewers to excuse evil. It perpetually asks us to find our own moral line and breaking point, our own point of return. Last night’s episode was no exception to this rule. If you think you’ve drawn your line, “Buried” says, think again.

1 See Ari Purnama’s Cinematizing the Bad-Land: Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad and the Visual Stylistic Eclecticism of Contemporary American Basic Cable Television Drama (University of Groningen, 2011).


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Lauren said...

Wonderful commentary! Thanks so much.

Character-wise I think the show is walking an interesting fine line here. Hank calls Walt a monster but Sky calls Hank on his Ahab like fixation (as though W.W. is White Whale rather than Walt Whitman!)

I have to wonder if this return to the Walt who did "all of this" to help his family will last when so much of the show's last few seasons (almost since the middle of season 1) have suggested that the transition of teacher underachiever to Ruthless Alpha Druglord has been an end BB most shares with Mad Men. For the most part it's also what's made me less interested in the show up to this point, because (like many BB viewers), I find that the female characters are placed in an unwinnable situation--that their inability to win the viewer's sympathy is overdetermined by their structural role as characters who put the breaks on male will to transcendence. But this season seems to be doing things with Sky that have not been done before which this post illuminates very nicely.

Thanks again!