Be warned: Spoilers for “Buried,” the latest episode of “Breaking Bad,” appear below.
“So much makes sense to me now. I get it. I just wish I’d seen it sooner. He’s a monster.”
Time and time again, “Breaking Bad” has focused on the notion of moral compromise. The entire series is built upon one such compromise: Walter White’s decision, made back in the pilot episode, to cook crystal meth in order to provide for his family. A succession of choices since that episode have seen him compromise further and further, peeling away at the Walter White we met in the pilot, until he was no longer a seemingly moral man making immoral choices but a monster racing to stay out of the light.
But we have also seen how the people around Walt have compromised — some willingly, others not so much — when confronted by the grotesqueness of his actions. And in “Buried,” the second of the series’ final eight episodes, we see how different people react to the concessions they have made and continue to make.
“Buried” quickly deals with the aftermath of last week’s premiere. Unlike last week, which began with a grim look at the future, “Buried” focused solely on the present. Jesse has flung his money onto driveways and yards, and ever the lost child, he follows this up by lying idly on a merry-go-round. Hank immediately calls Skyler after his showdown with Walt, and though Hank insists that she talk to him and get out ahead of his investigation, Skyler says nothing. Walt, knowing that Hank contacted Skyler, takes his money out to the desert and buries it.
Skyler has both Hank and Marie against her, but she rebuffs Walt’s offer to turn himself in, knowing that Hank must not have enough to arrest Walt already. But at the end of the episode, Hank walks into a police interrogation room to speak with a broken, empty Jesse, the former drug dealer having been taken in for tossing millions of dollars onto Albuquerque’s streets.
By the time the credits roll, we’ve already seen how Walt’s corrosive persona has infected the people around him. Walt himself is often an afterthought in “Buried,” at least in terms of screen presence. The episode focuses on Skyler — how she deals with Hank and Marie when confronted with Walt’s crimes, how she deals with Walt and how she chooses to proceed.
“I can’t remember the last time I was happy.”
Skyler has long been a divisive character among some fans of the show. This has been, in part, because her character was meant to be an obstacle to the show’s central player; Walt had to lie to her, had to dodge her questions and had to deal with her (clearly very sound) suspicions. But a part of this also stems from the fact that “Breaking Bad” is, like the other Great Dramas of the era (“The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” “The Wire,” et cetera), a male-dominated show. (Behind the camera as well as in front of it, I might add.) As “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan himself has said, some of the negative reaction can be chalked up to simple misogyny. But some of it can also be chalked up to the fact that the women on these shows, as supporting players, often just don’t get as much to do as the men.
“Buried” lets Skyler and her fascinating dilemma take center stage, giving the character a potential way out from what her life has become while giving two-time Emmy nominee Anna Gunn a chance to shine. The Skyler who sits down at the diner with Hank and is told to start confessing what she knows is not the same Skyler we met in the pilot. She has heard Walt give her some version or other of the truth for years, telling her what he has to do and what she has to do; she is too enmeshed in this world now to simply listen to another person telling her to do what’s best for her. The Skyler who faces her sister at home cannot lie to Marie, but she cannot bring herself to do much more than apologize.
Yet it’s through Skyler’s quiet talk with Walt on the bathroom floor, along with Hank’s conversation with Marie late in the episode, that we see how ostensibly good people can be thoroughly corrupted. Skyler — who has heard enough lies and enough manipulation from Walt over the show’s four-and-a-half seasons — knows that Hank is trying to get her to do what he wants and needs, not what’s necessarily best for her.
So she tells Walt not to give himself up, choosing the road she’s long traveled rather than the virtuous path of offering help to law enforcement. This is the same Skyler who threatened years earlier to turn Walt in, but who ultimately opted not to do so because of her family. Now, she’s choosing Walt and their children (and their financial future, as she points out) over the rest of her family, over Marie and Hank, choosing the world she knows rather than the uncertain world where her dying husband’s criminal enterprise (and her involvement therein) is exposed.
“Please don’t let me have done all this for nothing.”
Hank makes a similar moral compromise, a parallel choice to eschew following the law if that means giving up the only life he knows. He knows that telling his colleagues about Walt means the end of his career, but he also knows he doesn’t have all of the information he needs yet to bring down Walt in the process. As Marie points out, by withholding this information, Hank could wind up going to jail if Walt is caught. But Hank, the noble, goodhearted character who has become perhaps the most virtuous member of the show’s main cast, makes the same concession Skyler made long ago: He’ll keep Walt’s secret, at least for now, because he doesn’t want to lose his life just yet.
The key difference here is that Hank does intend to bring Walt to justice, whereas Skyler simply wants to keep her family safe as it is. But over the course of this particular hour, we see them both make the same decision.
At the beginning of the episode, we see a lovely, brief vignette that comments on Walt’s overall journey: An old man discovers a wad of the money that Jesse dropped on his driveway in the last episode. He could simply take the money and be grateful for this windfall from the sky. Instead, he looks and sees another wad of money, and follows that to another wad of cash and to another. It’s “Breaking Bad” boiled down to its most basic: A character gets an opportunity (whether it’s some money afforded from cooking meth or a lead about a drug kingpin) and, rather than simply appreciating it as it is, they follow it down the rabbit hole, seeking more and more, never accepting enough as enough.
Walter White personified that journey. He remains a toxic presence, one who defiles all around him, something nicely illustrated in the sequence where he heads into the desert to bury his money. We see a beautiful, Instagram-ready stretch of nature, only to see Walt trundle through it in his van and start tearing up the dirt to hide his meth earnings.
His trip to bury the money is also accompanied by the underground meth lab that Lydia visits while having her competitors, as it were, wiped out. We see her Christian Louboutins as she carefully climbs into the lab and again as she steps around the carnage wrought by Todd and his cohorts, a symbol of her wealth and with it a larger, better-connected world that may also be gunning for Walt.
The episode was directed by Michelle MacLaren (the exemplary director of “One Minute,” “Salud” and “Gliding Over All,” among other standout “Breaking Bad” episodes), who also gives us several other memorable shots and visuals: Jesse on the merry-go-round, his vacant eyes staring into nothing; Hank and Skyler at the diner, Hank draped in shadow while Skyler remains harshly lit, almost as if in an interrogation room; and the sequence where Marie slaps Skyler and, rather than cutting away, the camera follows Skyler as she heads into the living room and tries to keep Marie from taking away her screaming child.
In the end, the episode winds down with Hank heading in to confront Jesse, and we don’t know if the two men will find common cause in their desire to bring Walt to justice or if Jesse will just give Hank something that sends him somewhere else (or, you know, a third option). These two morally broken men both chose their own paths, but both were helped along the way by Walt. Skyler seems to have fully accepted Walt’s life and what that entails. Jesse, devastated by his association with Walt, may be Hank’s best (and only) bet for finding justice and redemption.