This post discusses plot points from the August 18 episode of Breaking Bad.
“I. I don’t want to see,” Lydia told Todd towards the end of this episode of Breaking Bad, pausing at the top of the ladder that would lead her out from the bus that’s been buried underground to conceal its conversion into a meth lab, and into the light. For most of us, it might be an easy choice to emerge from the filth and wrongness of that vehicle into the light. But Lydia’s just ordered a massacre of the meth cooks who have disappointed her and her Czech buyers, and she’s not just unwilling to face the consequences: she can’t even stand to look at the bodies of the men she’s had killed in an operation that appears to have been masterminded by Todd, who’s all too willing to guide her through the carnage.
It’s a fascinating moment in an episode that, while ostensibly driven by the actions of men, be it through Hank’s investigation, Walt’s disposal of his money, or Jesse’s apprehension after his attempts to expiate his sins, is much more concerned with the women of Breaking Bad, and with the cultural conversation about them.
Lydia, more so than Skyler, has always seemed most concerned with her own survival, and with her awareness that she’s a small, crushable cog in the vast machine of the marketplace, saved only by her presence at the juncture where illicit and licit ventures meet. But when she alights from the car after being told she can remove her blindfold, a fine dust immediately settles on the patent leather of what are revealed to be low-heeled Christian Louboutin pumps when her climb down the ladder reveals the tell-tale red soles. Things are different out here in the desert than they are in the city, or in Madrigal Automotive’s gleaming headquarters: dirt creeps into everything, no matter how well you seal up your RV, or how clean you keep your modest home. And it accumulates faster when you punch holes in the borders that wall you off from the dust and moral corruption of everything that happens out there in the desert.
Lydia and Skyler have let that dust into their lives in different ways, and with different levels of awareness. Skyler was initially horrified when she became aware of Walt’s true profession, then titillated, and is deeply aware of what her flirtation with criminal daring has cost her and others. Lydia, by contrast, has embraced the idea of being a player, but she stays in the game by quite literally closing her eyes to the consequences of her own actions. Neither of them are admirable people. But where there’s something repulsive about Lydia’s simultaneously chilly willingness to have a large number of men executed and precious refusal to acknowledge what she’s wrought, Skyler’s desperation has a scalded, pathetic quality to it. Lydia is easy to stare at in disgust, while Skyler’s shame is so raw it’s hard to look at directly.
And it’s not just that these internal struggles are just as consequential as the impending results of Walt and Hank’s duel. Sometimes, while we get distracted by the Old West standoff underway, it turns out that the one who knocks can be your sister, rather than the law or the moustache-twirling villain, and that she can threaten you with agonies far more ordinary than the revelation that your husband is a meth kingpin. When Hank met Skyler at the restaurant, that palace of desert kitsch, he was so eager to be sensitive that he unwittingly offered her a narrative that would have allowed Skyler to finger Walt without accepting responsibility for her own actions. “So much makes sense to me now. you jumping in the pool, you sending us your kids. I get it. I just wish I’d seen it sooner. He’s a monster. Look, I don’t know what he did to you to force you to keep his secrets. If he threatened you, if there were mind games he played, I don’t know if there was abuse. But I want you to know you can be open with me,” Hank tells his sister-in-law. “That’s all behind you, starting now. You’re done being his victim.” If Skyler had taken advantage of the opportunity, she might have been the character that Breaking Bad viewers who despise Skyler as a castrating bitch unable to acknowledge her own complicity in Walt’s crimes make her out to be. But instead, Skyler takes her first step towards some sort of admission of guilt. She may not be yet have the words to acknowledge to Hank exactly what she’s done, but in asking for a lawyer and asking if Hank’s insistence that she move home means she’s under arrest, Skyler aligns herself with the truth rather than with the image Hank would like to have of her, the idea suggested by her white clothes.
By the time Marie arrives at Skyler’s front door, though, her sister has had time to get beyond panic to a kind of resolution. And when Marie puts it all together, asking Skyler, “The money. All that money that Walt made. When you bought your car wash. And your gambling story. That was all a lie. Did you know then? You had to. Skyler, did you know since before Hank was shot? Skyler?” Skyler admits at least part of the truth, telling her sister “Marie. I am so sorry.”
Breaking Bad‘s given us so many baroque horrors over the years: a bathtub full of human ooze crashing through a ceiling, a man choked to death with a bicycle lock, a child and his bike dissolved beyond recognition in industrial tubs, a massacre of cartel leaders, a man with his face blown away pausing to straighten his tie, asserting a tiny measure of control over his disfigurement in death. But what ensues between Skyler and Marie is on a more human scale, and more horrible for it. Marie, who’s been unable to have a child of her own, and who stepped in as Skyler’s surrogate when her sister appeared to be gravely mentally ill, seizes Holly and tries to remove her from Skyler’s house. It’s simultaneously a response to the terrible news that Skyler is complicit in her husband’s bad acts, and a Solomonic act of jealousy and attempt to even the perpetual imbalance that’s inevitable between sisters. I have no doubt that Marie loves Holly and wants to protect her, but it’s undeniable that she’s causing the child incredible trauma in an attempt to rescue her, exposing to Skyler’s growing horror. Skyler begins with a question, a “Marie. Marie, hey, what are you doing,” as Marie seizes Holly from a playpen, moves to an expression of authority, “You are not leaving this house with my daughter. Give her back to me,” threatening to call the police, and finally to hysteria, crying “Give me my baby!” There is a real cruelty in putting a child in a position to see her mother fall to pieces, especially when she’s coming undone at the hands of someone else she loves. And despite everything else that’s happened in the terrible year Breaking Bad‘s chronicled, Holly’s cries still registers with us, a visceral reminder that we ought to be operating by our own standards of decency, not by Walt’s.