We’re officially halfway through the first set of episodes in “Breaking Bad”’s bifurcated final season and episode 4 has really been the first opportunity for the audience to catch their collective breath. Directed by Rian Johnson (“Brick,” the upcoming “Looper”) -- who was responsible for the love-it-or-hate-it bottle episode “Fly” from Season 3 -- “Fifty-One” may be the calmest episode this season, but you can feel the storm coming (Bryan Cranston has said that the next episode will also be “the biggest episode we’ve ever done as far as scope and cost.”). But before they blow it up, they’re bringing it in and letting us focus on just how disconnected the characters have become from one another.
Yes, it’s been one year since we first met the White family and wow, how things have changed. In the pilot episode we saw Walt turn 50 years old, celebrating the milestone surrounded by friends and family, shortly before being diagnosed with lung cancer. One year later and the cancer is gone (for now) but he’s still rotting out from the inside even if he doesn’t realize it. Another year from now, as we saw from the season premiere, he'll be completely alone.
Despite having a heavy influx of cash, Walt has never been able to spend his earnings for anything other than paying his hospital bills. The one time he tried to do something with it, buying a nice car for Walter Jr., Skyler forced him to return it. So instead, he just blew it up. But he’s not taking orders from Skyler anymore and the episode opens with Walt doing just what he pleases. He practically gives away his SUV to the repair shop in order to shed his old skin and leases himself and Walter Jr. a pair of brand new cars. He also recovers his Heisenberg hat (which, if we’re not mistaken was used in the sketch artists’ rendering of him, so might not be the best idea to wear around.)
For the first time in a long time, Walt seems lighter, unburdened. In his mind, Gus was the threat to him, he’s dead and it’s all smooth sailing from here on out. (It appears he didn’t exactly learn anything from “Scarface” last week.) But for the time being, he seems to genuinely be enjoying his family and for once, his behavior is not an act. He might be deluded but he’s enjoying the spoils and still believes he is doing this for his family. Now that his business is up and running he believes his family life should settle down again too. If he keeps pretending things are normal, he figures eventually Skyler will relent.
Instead of the big 50th birthday bash he got back when he was a nebbish, now he gets a no-frills birthday dinner thrown by his wife, who obliges his requests for chocolate cake like she’s following orders from her kidnapper. But Skyler, who has looked nearly catatonic for most of this season, finally breaks down and wades into the swimming pool in the middle of dinner. Once the house is clear she confronts Walt in a great scene that the season has been building to. She feels trapped, which of course she is legally and otherwise, and Walt backs her even further into a corner until she realizes she doesn’t really have a plan. She knows that she will do anything to keep her children safe and anything beyond that is up in the air. In the most devastating moment of the season, she tells her husband that she's waiting. "For what?" he asks. "For the cancer to come back."