Breaking Bad series 5, episode 10: Send him on a trip to Belize

Old grievances bubble up to the surface as the main players fall into line. But where does Jesse Pinkman's loyalty lie?

WARNING: This blog is for people currently watching Breaking Bad series 5, part 2. It contains spoilers.

Fittingly for an episode entitled “Buried”, yesterday’s Breaking Bad contained a number of descents. Walt, a man undergoing chemotherapy for terminal lung cancer, took up a shovel and an axe to bury his millions. When he returned from the desert, he stripped down to his underpants (the scene and the action recalling the series' prologue), then fell and cracked his head on the bathroom floor. He was nursed there by his wife, who had recently learned that his illness had returned. Back out in the desert, Walt’s former colleague Lydia climbs down into the filthy meth lab in which her new cook is failing to live up to Heisenbergian standards of purity, while at the top of the hour we saw a catatonic Jesse Pinkman spinning on a kids’ roundabout: a symbol his depleted innocence, and of the show's ever-shifting fortunes. Lydia and Walt are heading down - but what about Jesse?

Picking up after last week's showdown, Walt emerges from the garage and tries to call Skyler, only to find that Hank has beaten him to it. She meets with her brother-in-law in a roadside diner - where would American fiction be without the transience of those anonymous pit stops? - but seems unable, or unwilling, to talk. Hank tells her that catching Walt before he dies is his number one priority, at the same time revealing that he still lacks the necessary evidence to do it. He tries to paint her as a victim of abuse, to which Skyler responds with a fractious ambivalence, then flees. The narrative thread nurtured by this episode pits the Schraders against the Whites. Throughout the series they have been gracefully opposed: Hank’s law enforcement machismo against Walt’s high school impotence, Skyler White’s swollen motherliness against Marie’s sharp impulse to steal - taken to extremes in a difficult-to-watch tug of war over baby Holly. Now they are rivals. Marie’s slap mirrors Hank’s at the end of the previous episode. Like Hank, her husband, she had quickly moved from disbelief to yearning for rough justice. “You have to get him,” she says as the pair sit grimacing in the car.

Down, down, down and ... out? Walter digs a grave-shaped safe for his money. Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Amid the nausea room is made for a little comedy. Upon seeing the solid block of cash Skyler was unable to launder through the car wash, Saul’s bodyguard Huell announces “I gotta do it,” then lays - more comfortably than Jesse - on his back, cozying up to the cash. He turns to Kuby, the skinnier half of the double-act: “Mexico - all’s I’m sayin.” But the fear of Heisenberg runs deep. “Guy hit ten guys in jail within a two minute window - alls I’m sayin,” Kuby replies. Saul tells Walt things could be worse, but acknowledges the problem with Hank: “Can’t exactly see him turning the other cheek.” His suggestion that they “send him on a trip to Belize” - an addition to the gangster vernacular so thoroughly Saul Goodman it takes Walt time to figure out what it means means - provokes a fierce protectiveness of Hank, who remains “family” despite his personal mission to destroy Walt.

Lying on his bathroom floor after collapsing from either exhaustion or from his illness, Walt tells his wife that he will give himself up, if only she promises not to hand over the money. “Don’t let me have done this for nothing,” he says. Before the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad began last week, I felt one plot prediction could be made with certainty - that everything Walt’s compassionate side cherished would be ruined, and that he would know it before he died. I’m no less sure now. In episode ten we begin to root for the Whites - not least because the Schraders’ ugly vendetta seems to have little to do with Walter's victims, and a lot to do with their own grievances. The chance for some kind of bloodless resolution temporarily appears in Hank’s reluctance to talk to the DEA, but as the episode comes to a close and a tight-lipped Assistant Special Agent Schrader returns to work, a familiar face appears, turned to one side, in the interrogation room.

Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) guard their treasure. Photograph: AMC.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.