A review of tonight's "Breaking Bad" coming up just as soon as I discuss your potato-mashing technique...

"He changed his mind about me, Skyler. And so will you." -Walt

"Breaking Bad" the series began as Walter White was turning 50, and this season began with him turning 52(*). There's still a birthday in between, and "Fifty-One" uses that occasion to look back over the past year in show time (which, in a meta touch, feels longer than that to Marie) and see who Walter White used to be, what he's been through, and what he's become.

(*) Assuming Mr. Lambert and Mr. White have the same birthday, of course. But I can't see Walt bothering with the bacon ritual otherwise.

Or maybe a better way to put that is that we reflect back on Walter White's 50th birthday as Heisenberg celebrates his 51st.

Walt used to wear the Heisenberg hat as a disguise, only donning it in his work life. When he finds it inside the repaired Aztek (which he wrecked trying to keep Hank from getting to Gus's distribution center), he dons it not as a disguise, but an accessory. Walter White is now a man who would wear this hat in broad daylight, in front of his son, his trusted mechanic Benny, or anyone who knows his true identity. Walter White drove an Aztek; Heisenberg drives a muscle car.

"Fifty-One" doesn't bother with flashbacks, but there are enough visual and dialogue references to past events — to the hat, the car, the huge surprise party Walt didn't want (as compared to the tiny birthday dinner that disappoints him here), his early struggles with cancer — to make us very aware of his journey, and how close we are in real time (if not show time, which has a year to go before Walt has a machine gun) to the end of it.

Now he's a man convinced he can control everyone in his life, whether it's Jesse, Mike or Skyler. He boasts to Skyler that his new watch came from a man who once wanted him dead, and now considers him a friend. What he omits is the way he manipulated and hustled Jesse into feeling both emotions, where Skyler has arrived at her fear and hatred of her husband with her eyes wide open.

At that dinner party on the back patio, Walt launches into a mesmerizing, uncomfortable speech to rival the one he gave at the school assembly in the season 3 premiere, talking about all the times he thought he was done for, "But then someone, or something, would come through for me." Marie and Hank think he's talking about the cancer; Skyler and the audience know Walt's thinking back on his many brushes with death, from Krazy-8 to Tuco to the Cousins to Gus. That others — Hank in particular, since he got PTSD after shooting Tuco, and was nearly murdered by the Cousins — suffered greatly in the process of rescuing him doesn't even occur to Walt as he keeps talking and talking and talking...

... until Marie notices what he can't — because his back is literally turned to the action, but also because he's deluded himself about the effect his actions are having on his wife — and he has to dive into the pool to pull Skyler out of it.

Skyler in the pool is among the most beautiful and yet horrifying images the show has ever presented us with.(**) You don't think she's going to drown, but as her skirt billows and the light from above the water puts a halo around her, she looks far more at peace down there than she has up above in quite some time. And she floats there serenely until Walt pops into frame for a few brief seconds before the scene ends — in much the same way that Spielberg used the shark in "Jaws." Skyler is not without guilt in this situation, which she readily admits to Walt in a later scene, but her husband is the monster she's trying to escape, and it makes sense that he would be filmed in that way, even for a few seconds.

(**) Rian Johnson, who directed season 3's "Fly," came back for this one, and it's filled with one gorgeously-composed shot after another. Tremendous work.

And that later discussion not only illustrates the dark place the White marriage is in now, but evokes many earlier scenes in the series, where Walt would tear apart some thin plan Jesse had proposed, like buying a gun to kill Tuco. But there is, unsurprisingly, a nastiness to Walt's cross-examination of Skyler that was only sometimes there when he'd do the same to Jesse. After all, Skyler has threatened to separate Walt from his children, and Walt is convinced in his mind that they are in no danger because of him. So he attacks and attacks and attacks, until finally Skyler reveals her ultimate plan is simply to wait.

Wait for what?

"For the cancer to come back."

That's how far gone this all is: Skyler's only real escape from this comes as a result of her husband dying a brutal, if natural, death.

And the thing is, we have evidence that her prediction isn't far off the mark. The 52-year-old Walt is coughing, and he's taking pills of some kind. It could be misdirection, but we all, sadly, know how cancer works, and how rare it is for someone with an advanced kind like Walt's to stay in remission forever.


To celebrate the birthday, Jesse buys his partner a very nice wristwatch, an old-school gift for an old-school man. At episode's end, Walt places the watch on his nightstand and we listen to it tick-tick-ticking, sounding very much like the timebomb Mike suggested Walt was a few episodes ago, but also counting down the time Walt has between this moment of control and hubris and celebration to that day when he'll be sitting in a Denny's, waiting for Jim Beaver to give him a machine gun.

Fantastic, fantastic episode.

Some other thoughts:

* Hank takes the promotion to run the Albuquerque field office, because he knows he should, but he clearly doesn't want it. Over/under on how many episodes before he starts clashing with Gomez or whoever is placed in charge of the Fring investigation?

* Oh, Lydia. So crazy. So, so crazy, with her mismatched shoes, her screaming into pillows and her transparent attempt to scare Mike and Jesse away from using her to get the methylamine. Mike's insistence that the other two are being sexist by dismissing Lydia as simply nervous is an interesting one, if only because (as Fienberg noted in our season-opening podcast discussion), "Breaking Bad" has a spotty track record when it comes to introducing female characters. (Skyler in particular still has an uphill battle with many viewers based on how she was portrayed in the series' early days.) Mike's argument that the others are judging Lydia based on her sex suggests at least an awareness of assumptions about gender, but as we have yet to see her as anything but twitchy and panicked, it's hard to say what else is there.

* The opening scene at the garage also brought back echoes of the season-opening flash-forward, with Benny the mechanic echoing the Denny's waitress by saying, "Nothing beats free." Coincidence, or foreshadowing some sort of decision that involves turning down something that comes for free?

* This episode features the most quintessential (and funny) Walter Jr. moment in quite some time, as he looks understandably dismayed when Skyler takes the bacon off his plate and puts it on Walt's. Doesn't Skyler understand that eating breakfast is Walter Jr.'s whole bit? Take away the bacon, and what does he have?

* Marie notes that Holly's the easiest baby ever, and even by the standards of TV babies — who never cry, or wake up, or become a distraction, unless the plot (or a joke) absolutely demands it — that little girl may have the crown. Never even a peep from her.

* Lydia's comment about Jesse being an undercover cop sent into high schools has me very much wanting to see Aaron Paul in the "21 Jump Street" sequel.

* That shot of the river of blood flowing down Walt's head after he nicked himself shaving it evoked, intentionally or not, the "Dexter" opening credits.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com