Breaking Bad never skips a step, and never cuts a corner. That’s never been the show’s style; from the beginning, much of what makes its narrative so riveting is how creator Vince Gilligan and the show’s writers insist on thinking through every possible consequence, every potential loose end, and every beat for every character. After the long-awaited Walt/Hank showdown that ended last week’s half-season premiere, some (less patient) shows might drop us in a few beats later, the characters presumably all up brought up to speed. But after the customary slightly-tangential prologue, this week’s episode, “Buried,” begins mere seconds after last week’s ended, and deals merely with the fallout of Walt and Hank’s confrontation. This is a careful show, and “Buried’ is an episode mostly about getting the show’s ducks all in a row—though, obviously, it’s more exciting than all that.
If last week’s final scene had the feel of a Western showdown, this week begins with the iconography of one; the two men exchange glares in the driveway one more time, Hank’s garage door opener like a pistol in his twitchy hand. The jittery sequence that follows puts Skylar into play, and the complexity of her character is such that her allegiances seem up for grabs—she takes off to meet Hank without so much as a strategic word with Walt, and when she arrives, his embrace accompanies the assumption that she’s somehow unsafe, and certainly not voluntarily complicit. But even when she turns on him, it’s still hard to know much of her hysterical reaction is genuine, and how much she’s putting on for him. The enigma of Skylar only grows more complicated in this episode, particularly when her and Walt finally discuss this turn of events, and it is she who lays to rest his high-minded notion of turning himself in. Her face hardens, and she gets practical, reasoning that “maybe our best move here is to stay quiet.”
The idea of the wife providing the genuine backbone and stubbornness is mirrored by Hank and Marie’s scene later in the hour, and the way she pushes him to press hard on this thing. She’s speaking out of her anger at Skylar, her prodding an extension of her stern pronouncement as they left the White home: “We have to get him.” Betsy Brandt does some of her finest acting to date in this episode, particularly in that remarkable scene with Skylar in the bedroom; director Michelle MacLaren (one of the show’s best, and that’s saying something) wisely lets her camera linger on Marie here, studying her faces as Skylar fesses up, the full depth of the betrayal coming to her in waves before she hauls off and just smashes her sister across the face. And while there have been more nerve-jangling scenes in this show than Marie trying (and failing) to take Holly away, any that leap to mind had the advantage of guns, explosions, or box cutters.
Some may complain that the back half of this season has begun with what amounts to two episodes of table-setting, and perhaps there’s something to that. But part of the show’s intrinsic fascination is in its attentiveness to detail, so we want to know exactly how Hank arrives at his conclusions, or what factors are going to lead Skylar to whatever tack she takes, or precisely what Walt is going to do with all of that money. And, bonus, dealing with that element prompts the welcome return of Bill Burr’s Kuby, along with Lavell Crawford’s Huell (who remarks, before his swan-dive onto the money pile, “I gotta do it, man”). Their brief but funny appearance is another reminder, after Badger’s Star Trek monologue last week, that the show has accumulated quite a deep bench of memorable supporting players in a relatively brief run. And one more reappeared by the end of the episode: good ol’ polite, hard-working, child-killing Todd, whose family connections help him take control of what’s left of the meth-cooking operation, with Lydia’s help. Where exactly this is going remains to be seen, but suffice it to say that if the conclusion of the show were solely about Hank and Walt, they wouldn’t be spending this kind of time on the business associates Walt left behind.
Which brings us to Jesse. Aaron Paul utters not one word of dialogue in the entire episode, and he’s only seen in two scenes—the first that prologue, with its striking image, shot from above, of Jesse spinning away on the playground merry-go-round. When he’s brought back in for questioning about his cash distribution (by the same jovial cops who thought they had him for poisoning Brock back in season four), he greets their inquiries with a total deadpan. But the arrival of Hank, right on the verge of unveiling Heisenberg’s identity (and presumably ending his career), is a giant fire-breathing monster of a moment, because Jesse is so off the rails by this point that their conversation could go in any number of directions.
And that, of course, is where this episode ends, because the world is a cruel place and a week is a very long time.