Five Essay Prompts for Breaking Bad 5×10: ‘Buried’

Marie's kleptomania returns. (AMC)

Marie’s kleptomania returns. (AMC)

These questions regard last night’s episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Please answer the prompts with specific examples from LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE, though supplementary material will be accepted as a secondary source. Please write legibly. No. 2 pencils only. You have an hour to finish this test. See below for questions and sample responses.

1. We go back to the middle of the desert yet again in this episode, this time to bury all of the money. In an episode whose catch phrase seems to be “keep silent”–not only are Walt and Skyler not talking, but Hank is keeping mum to save his career, and Jesse seems completely beyond words at this point–the silence of the desert is a particularly resonant metaphor. But how can we make this consistent with the way the deep desert is generally used in the show, in scenes like Jesse and Walt getting stranded in the RV, or the sequence at Tuco’s house?

One of the most interesting things about Breaking Bad isn’t what is said, but what’s left unsaid. Take Skyler this week: she’s always been a bit of a cipher, motivation-wise, and when she finally gets what we assume she’s wanted all these years–a way out–she balks. Afraid of implicating herself and losing everything, she clams up as soon as Hank turns on the recorder in the diner. Not even her own sister can get her to say anything incriminating. Vince Gilligan’s belief in the intelligence of his viewers is refreshing: no one needs to say the word “wire” for us to understand that Skyler assumes her sister is wearing one. As opposed to the show’s earlier use of sound and silence, Skyler and Walt–and Saul, for that matter–are only figuratively “not talking”: they speak words that are heavy with meaning but are too vague to ever be admissable in a courtroom.

Meanwhile, Jesse’s literal shell-shocked muteness brings to mind its polar opposite: the frustrated “Ding!” of Héctor “Tio” Salamanca out in the desert, who had plenty to say but was rendered unable to speak.

2. Considering that he has often been at the mercy of pure chance, and has now stumbled into what certainly seems to be a streak of bad luck, what is Walt thinking in putting the money’s GPS coordinates on a lottery ticket? Couldn’t he have just saved it in a secret file on his computer or something?
The visual metaphor not only harks back to the cover story of Walt’s gambling addiction, but it stands as a reminder that this money he’s buried isn’t for him. It’s for Skylar, who will need to know its coordinates when he’s dead and gone. Assuming that there will be an investigation and all his property will be seized and pored over, a lottery ticket is probably a pretty safe bet (no pun intended): unless displayed prominently as the only thing on the Whites’ fridge door, it’s likely to be overlooked by cops less thorough than Hank. (Who, of course, would be recused from the force by then.)

3. This past week, Stephen Bowie at the A.V. Club declared that Breaking Bad is a highly overrated show, arguing that aside from Bryan Cranston’s unassailable portrayal of Walt (and to a lesser extent those of Saul and Mike), the characters show no real development and are basically one-dimensional. Do the characterizations of Hank, Skyler and/or Marie in this episode bear out this argument? At all?

Exactly the opposite: this episode focused on three characters whose motivations we assumed we knew, only to show that they too have the ability to be as cold and calculating as Walter. We assumed Skyler stayed because she had no other options; now she is the one counseling Walt to “keep quiet” so she can keep the money. While initially it appears that Hank’s intentions at the diner are pure–to keep Skyler and the kids safe– he begins to use all those creepy cop tactics when he pulls out the tape recorder and tries to talk her out of a lawyer, cautioning her that early refusal will make her look guilty … not that he thinks she is, obviously. He just wants what’s best, right? We could always count on Hank and Marie to be beacons of transparent goodness; now we see that they have their own reasons for wanting to “get in front of the story” before going public. Hank will lose his career if he goes to his unit (though we’re not sure how much he realizes he’s implicated himself in the money laundering by taking Walt’s money), and Marie’s insistence that he do so is based less on her immediate concern about her sister or the kids and more on how much more trouble Hank could be in if Walt is caught without his help.
Walt’s mantra of “family first” has been empty sloganeering for so long that we might have forgotten that in this one issue, his dogmatism might be his one redeeming feature. He could easily get rid of Hank, but his anger at Saul’s suggestion shows that just when you think you know these characters, they still have the ability to surprise you.

4. Has erstwhile crazypants Marie finally somehow become the most rational member of the White-Schrader clan? Her reactions to her sister’s lies and her husband’s stonewalling, though extreme, do seem pretty appropriate under the circumstances. On the other hand, she does try to steal her sister’s baby, which, even if justified, has pretty terrible optics, considering she is a childless woman with a history of kleptomania. Could she become this show’s moral compass in the vacuum left by Jesse’s absence of a personality?

There’s a difference between “rational” and “moral”; arguably, Walter White is a rational person, which is why he’s so scary. Being pragmatic is a slippery slope in the world of Breaking Bad, and Marie’s immediate reaction to protect her nephew’s well-being is pure-intentioned, if irrational. The next time we see her, joining Hank at the coffee table the next morning, what’s unnerving is her composure: she’s already begun to think about how this revelation of her brother-in-law’s meth kingpin status will affect her and Hank, the desire for self-preservation apparently stronger than still saving the children. (Not that they are mutually exclusive.)

5. Based on the opening scene of Jesse lying on a playground merry-go-round, are we meant to think that he is somehow regressing to childhood? What else might this image conjure up?

That first scene is terrifying, because it appears for a moment that Jesse might be dead: the blinking car lights at the bottom of the hill, the open car door, the body lying on the spinning wheel. Especially in the cold opens, we’ve seen movement where there is no human life: the teddy bear floating in the pool, the tarantula crawling in the desert (which later comes to symbolize the death of Drew Sharp), the buzzing of a fly that Jesse and then Walt see as heralding the latter’s expiration date. Both Jesse and Walt have in some sense “given up the ghost” at this point; the symbolism of an empty playground at night brings to mind both spooky stories and the frequent habitat of drug dealers.