Breaking Bad, Ep. 5.10: “Buried” Puts the Female Cast in the Spotlight
Let’s talk about Anna Gunn and Betsy Brandt.
Since the very beginning of Breaking Bad, these actresses have been tasked with the most thankless roles on one of the most celebrated dramas in TV history. In the case of Gunn, it’s a repeat performance in a sense: she had a similarly unglamorous gig as Sheriff Bullock’s beleagured-but-upstanding wife Martha. TV historians and prognosticators will be quick to extol the virtues of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, along with Dean Norris and Bob Odenkirk (and rightfully so) but in a very real sense, Brandt and Gunn have long provided Breaking Bad with a moral dimension that would otherwise be absent.
“Buried” addresses the monumental developments of “Blood Money” in a straightforward fashion – picking up after the cold open only moments after Hank and Walt’s climactic showdown – but it does so in a way that honors its more underappreciated players, which in turn acknowledges the human wreckage that lies in the wake of Walter White’s devious actions.
Television, much like film (though not to quite as egregious a degree) under-employs female writers and directors, so as long as we’re on the subject, it’s more than worth acknowledging that Michelle MacLaren is one of the very best directors working in the medium right now. In “Buried,” she leans heavily on Breaking Bad‘s most beloved visual hooks, especially the fixed-camera shot (most memorably employed while Walt buries), as well as a brief bit of time-lapse photography, but she also manages to liven up a rather drab cold open: an old man discovering Jesse’s discarded bundles of cash. The overhead shot of Jesse half-heartedly driving a merry-go-round, with the shifting shadows clockworking the frame, ensures that a rather banal event registers as a potent visual. Let’s not forget that she also helmed key episodes of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.
Back to Gunn and Brandt. With the proverbial cat out of the bag, Hank shrewdly calls Skyler immediately, resulting in one of the episode’s best sequences. Hank and Skyler’s diner meeting is typically unsexy material for Skyler – she doesn’t get a big speech or a tearful confession – but it’s entirely in keeping with her character. Character memory and recall is a huge part of what makes “Buried” work. Many other series, even great ones, have let this factor slide somewhat in order to allow for key plot developments to flourish. Not so with Breaking Bad, where the writers’ room has clearly pulled overtime in order to make sure that every character move is solidly in continuity. That’s why Skyler takes her sweet time to consider her options before bailing on Hank in the diner, and that’s also why Marie’s first consideration upon learning of Walt’s true profession is to inquire about the timeline, in conjunction with Hank’s shooting. It seems obvious when you’re watching those scenes transpire, but these are the details other series frequently get wrong. In every one of their scenes, together and apart, Gunn and Brandt carry with them that series and character memory without missing a beat.
The Big Questions surrounding the end of Breaking Bad are clear – what becomes of Walt and Jesse? Does Hank get his man? Does the world learn of Walt’s “accomplishments”? Those considerations are all well and good, but it’s the well-being of the people in Walt, Jesse, and Hank’s immediate circles that has me the most curious, and “Buried” does well to hone in on them before whatever carnage is to come rises to the fore. In particular, Skyler’s complicity with respect to Walt’s crimes makes her a particularly interesting case. Vince Gilligan has expressed horror and disbelief at the fact that viewers associate with and even root for Walter White, so in a strange way – despite the fact that she’s easily the most widely reviled character in the series’ history – Skyler is actually a kind of audience surrogate, initially horrified by Walt’s actions but eventually seduced by their rewards. Walt even gives her an out this week – though she, and we, would be foolish to take it as an earnest one – and she chooses to walk the line. “Never the DEA,” she said, a couple of seasons back. It’s to Breaking Bad‘s credit that Skyler White remains so elaborately loathsome.