Spoilers for this week's Breaking Bad after the jump:
When one thinks of Michelle MacLaren and her tremendous work on Breaking Bad, two or three scenes immediately come to mind: the end of "One Minute", the concluding scenes of "Salud", and perhaps the pair of world-class montages in "Gliding Over All". When this show wants to induce serious amounts of dread or break out one of its signature montages, she tends to be their director of choice. "Buried", however, recalls none of those classic moments. Rather, the MacLaren episode I kept thinking about during this installment—another extraordinary one, but that kind of goes without saying at this point—was the more intimate and relationship-focused but no less intense "I.F.T.". There, MacLaren used a number of deep space compositions (usually filmed using a shallow focus lens, so that only one character was in focus at a given time) to chart the power shifts in the struggle between Skyler and Walt. Never have interactions—without the threat of shots being fired or punches exchanged—between two people felt as much like a pair of armies doing battle. Until now, perhaps.
"Buried" isn't quite as concerned with questions of power as "I.F.T.", although right now the power still lies with the Whites, as evidenced by Hank telling Marie not to attempt to take Holly. Hank has nothing, at least until (unless?) Jesse Pinkman decides to talk. But from the second Skyler and Hank begin to talk, battle lines are being drawn. To a certain degree, we expect this. Skyler is complicit in Walt's money laundering, and while I expect Hank would have tried to find a way to keep her out of jail, her mistrust is not entirely without merit. As Marie points out, once Hank hands in the evidence, his career is likely over, and he might not have the pull to do anything for her once her statement is on the record. She needs a guarantee in writing. Plus, she still doesn't want the kids to find out. That these two characters would wind up at odds (for the moment, at least) is not particularly surprising, although it's still an absolute gut punch to witness.
The real gut punch, however, comes courtesy not of Gunn and Norris (though both are great in this scene, and Norris continues to do probably the best work of his Breaking Bad career this season), but of Gunn and Betsy Brandt a bit later in the episode. MacLaren films this with astonishing simplicity and devastating beauty: most notably in several shots where Skyler's somewhat blurry face is foregrounded while Marie (the one in focus) keeps asking her when exactly she knew, going backwards in time and constantly getting no answer from her sister. It's a beautiful way of visually conveying Marie's state of mind, as she's looking at her sister in a new, terrifying, and eventually anger-inducing way. Not that Brandt really needs any help doing that. Often overlooked due to her character not usually being as directly involved in the narrative as the other members of the main cast, here she reminds us that she's as good as any member of this ensemble. Disbelief, horror, and finally rage appear on her face, before she can take no more and slaps her sister right across the face (and not lightly, either) before castigating her for her refusal to talk. Emotionally draining doesn't begin to describe it.
Its focus on intimate domestic drama means that "Buried" largely puts the question of how Walt comes to be breaking into his abandoned house on the back burner for a week. That's something I'm totally fine with, as the series of powerful emotional blows the episode delivers is every bit as riveting as that terrifying flash-forward last week. That said, we do get some riveting movement on that front courtesy of Lydia, who (along with Todd and his uncle) engineers a violent takeover of Declan's operation. It speaks to how remarkable the familial interactions are this week that this is arguably the least interesting part of the episode, because it's plenty extraordinary: especially those haunting shots of Lydia being led in between the bodies by Todd. And from a plot perspective, it's excellent, moving the narrative—which we assume will eventually be part of the reason for that graffiti on the wall, as well as Walt's machine gun and ricin—forward while still keeping open many different potential avenues by which the story can reach the end point we know it eventually must.
But mostly, "Buried" focuses—in intimate and visually understated (though emotionally explosive) fashion—squarely on its core relationships and the implications Hank's discovery has on them, which is a very good thing. Through two episodes, what's impressed me most about this last stretch is just how small-scale the drama has been. Season four saw the show widening its scope, with the rise and fall of Gus Fring (and Walt's coinciding transformation) ultimately feeling like the grand epic it was. It was an amazing season, as was the first half of season five, which saw Heisenberg build the empire he's always desired. Heck, that season featured a train robbery.
But so far, the latter half of the season has been built around a series of tense, emotional, beautifully written, and brilliantly acted conversations between pairs of characters. Based on that last image, it seems like next week's will at the very least start with more of the same, as Jesse Pinkman—whose attempts to give the money away have landed him in FBI custody—and Hank come face to face once again. We're building to something big here; the flash-forwards leave little doubt about that. But early on, Breaking Bad has been content to keep things small as it heads towards its conclusion. That's not exactly what I expected a couple of weeks ago, but so far I'm thrilled about it.
- This is not to say that "Buried" completely lacks the grand visuals that we've come to expect from this show (and from MacLaren-directed episodes especially). Walt's trip out into the middle of nowhere to bury the money gives her ample opportunity to deliver some gorgeously lit desert landscapes.
- Jesse on the carousel: what a powerful, visually striking image, and one that says so much about his state of mind.
- Another great, innovative piece of camerawork: the shot from the POV of the barrel. It doesn't really serve much of a purpose (unlike the carousel image), but flows perfectly into the next image, and is just plain cool.