The lone bit of comic relief in "Buried," tonight's grim episode of Breaking Bad, came when Saul Goodman's henchmen Huell and Kuby settled in for a little quality time with the millions and millions of dollars Walter White has amassed through his meth empire. When Huell laid down on the massive pile of money, Kuby snapped, "We're here to do a job, not channel Scrooge McDuck," before giving in to temptation and jumping onto the pile himself.
The sad truth is that Huell and Kuby's DuckTales routine represented the most action that money has ever seen. When they finally returned the stash to Walt, he couldn't even be sure it was the right amount, because he's never even counted it. Instead, he spent a day transferring it from an anonymous storage locker to an even more anonymous hole in the desert, where it can serve as an Ozymandias-like tribute to his rapidly disintegrating empire.
Walt sealed up his blood money in plastic barrels before he buried it, just as he's sealed up most of bodies that have piled up in his furious wake. Of course, Walt didn't dissolve the money in hydrofluoric acid, as he did with various bodies. Instead, he buried it intact, preserving its coordinates on a lottery ticket he tacked to the refrigerator in the desperate hope that it can someday be recovered and passed on to Walter, Jr. and Holly. (For the record: 34, 59, 20, 106, 36, and 52 — the numbers that make up the coordinates where Walt stashed the cash — are also the atomic numbers for selenium, prasedodymium, calcium, seaborgium, krypton, and tellurium. I'll leave it to any chemistry whizzes out there to weigh in on whether or not that means anything.)
But aside from Walt's burying, "Buried" largely pushed him to the sidelines in favor of Hank, Marie, and Skyler. At this point in the story, that's not a terribly surprising choice; while Walt is at the tail end of his arc, the rest of the show's characters still have plenty of time to consider what they'll do about his actions in the decades after Walt's (presumptive) death.
After a cold open that showed the aftermath of Jesse's desperate attempt to get rid of his own blood money, the show offered a détente in the diner between Hank and Skyler. It was just as riveting as last week's confrontation between Walt and Hank (and equally due, in no small part, to the strengths of the actors involved). Hank, as dogged as a bloodhound on the trail, played the conversation all wrong: He assumed that Skyler is a passive victim, and not an active participant in Walt's crimes. When Hank dismissed Walt as "a monster," it was obvious that Skyler was faltering; when he mentioned that Walt's cancer had returned, he failed to register the shock and pain she was obviously feeling. If he'd approached Skyler differently, Hank might have been able to convince her to turn on her husband (and had the star witness he needs to make his case). Instead, her own Heisenbergian survival instincts took over.
Last week's episode ended with Walt suggesting that Hank's best move might be to tread lightly. But in "Buried," it's Skyler deciding that's what Walt's next tactic will be. "Maybe our best move here is to stay quiet," she suggested as Walt laid feebly on the bathroom floor after his taxing burial.
As effective as these developments are — and as much as they offer much-needed forward momentum for a show that has just six episodes left — they don't quite jibe with everything else we've seen Skyler do since discovering Walt's dark secrets. When Walt asked Skyler if she's happy his cancer has returned, she doesn't say yes, and she doesn't look like the answer is yes. Yet it wasn't too long ago that Skyler was desperately looking for any way to get their children out of the house, and admitting that she was just waiting for Walt's cancer to come back.
When did she flip, however reluctantly, to guarding Walt's secrets again? It was presumably sometime during the time the show skipped over last year — after Walt retired, and before we rejoined them at the backyard barbecue, where they were discussing taking a romantic European vacation together. Whatever transpired between Walt and Skyler over that lost time is pivotal to understanding her full motivations in "Buried" — and for a character that's often been unfairly dismissed by Breaking Bad fans as inconsistent or inconsequential, it's frustrating to see the show eliding over it.
It's no great surprise that "Buried" is an accomplished hour of television — this is Breaking Bad we're talking about, after all. But for all its strengths, "Buried" also illustrated the biggest problem I've had with Breaking Bad's otherwise airtight plotting: The denouement to last year's midseason finale, which offered an uncharacteristically rushed version of Walter's decision to retire from the meth empire that he'd told Jesse was his end goal just two episodes earlier.
The writer's strike of 2007-2008 meant that Breaking Bad's first season was abbreviated to seven episodes, but every season after the first clocked in at 13 episodes — until last year's fifth season, when the show took a break after eight episodes. (Technically, the episodes that are airing now are the "second half" of the fifth season. But the gap between last year's "midseason finale" and last week's "midseason premiere" was long enough that each "half" has essentially served as its own mini-season.) In last year's "Gliding Over All," Breaking Bad elided over a wealth of potential storylines set during Walt's reign as the king of a meth empire with a brief montage set to "Crystal Blue Persuasion." The goal was clear: The writers wanted to move the story along quickly enough that the half-season could end with Hank discovering that Walt was the Heisenberg he'd been looking for all along.
For a show that's normally so focused and precise, the change in tempo was a little jarring, but the actual events of "Gliding Over All" were riveting enough that the gambit worked. But I couldn't help but think about those five hypothetical extra episodes Breaking Bad could have had last year as I watched "Buried" tonight, which saw Skyler stoutly refusing to join Hank and Marie as they encouraged her to abandon Walt — an option that it seems like she might have leapt at just a few episodes ago.
But while Skyler has cast her lot with Walt, there's a weak link left in Heisenberg's chain: Jesse Pinkman, who's sequestered in an interrogation room with Hank at the episode's end. Though Jesse's two appearances book-ended "Buried," he didn't say a single word in the entire episode. We'll see if Hank has any more luck getting him to talk in next week's "Confessions."