For newly minted Emmy nominee Anna Gunn, “Breaking Bad’s” still-evolving fifth season has been a study in contrasts. Her character, Skyler White, has more or less been imprisoned in her home since husband Walter White’s shocking triumph over drug kingpin Gus Fring last season. Early episodes found Skyler inert, completely at a loss, terrified by Walt’s complete transformation into his Hyde-like alter-ego, Heisenberg.
Then, as Gunn puts it, the “lid popped off” and, in an unforgettable meltdown, Skyler couldn’t stop telling her sister Marie to “shut up.” (Apparently, Gunn’s tirade has already become a popular ring tone. Gunn knows this and heartily approves.)
That warning sign of Skyler's impending implosion led to Sunday night’s episode, “Fifty-One,” and, if you haven’t watched it yet, stop reading and come back later, because Gunn is eager to discuss the episode, which, she can safely say, will be her Emmy submission next year. (And to this, we heartily approve.)
It’s not like there’s been a shortage of intense scenes between Skyler and Walt over the years. But this one went someplace even more devastating.
It’s the best scene I’ve ever played in the show. And I get a lot of good scenes. But this one, written by Sam Catlin, goes all over the map. Walt reveals the Heisenberg to Skyler. She may know that’s in him, but she hasn’t necessarily seen it too many times.
Most explicitly, Skyler witnessed it last year when Walt tells her “I am the one that knocks. I am the danger.” You throw that line back at him here.
Skyler’s in a place of giving up in terms of herself, but no mother gives up on her kids. Mothers never give up trying to make things better or OK. She’s grasping. She’s desperate. By the end of the episode, she’s at a place where we can really see that she’s capable of anything. You see something coming over her that’s interestingly Heisenberg-like in the same way Walt felt when he began to feel empowered and in control.
It must have been nice for you to be able to have that kind of release for Skyler.
Oh my gosh. I can’t even tell you. It really had felt to me that Skyler had been holding onto everything inside her so tightly for all these seasons that it was almost painful. I remember at the end of certain days, driving home, feeling like, “God, my body hurts. My muscles are so sore.” And it was simply because I was physically holding so much tension.
She’s never had a confidante. At the same time, excluding the first three episodes of this season, Skyler has always been a woman of action, which has made her something of a divisive figure for fans.
Skyler was never going to wring her hands or fall down on her knees and say, “Oh dear, oh dear.” She was drawn as such a smart, capable and pragmatic person that whenever she found out something terrible, the first thing she did was, “OK, now what are we going to do? How are we going to make this work?” And not everyone likes that, no, because her plans are often opposed to Walt getting his way.
But as you mentioned earlier, her pragmatism now is focused on saving the kids. That’s why she walks into the pool. It’s all a show for Hank and Marie so they’ll take them.
Skyler is a really skillful, adept liar, which is an interesting part of her character to play. The way she orchestrates this, there’s nothing Walt can do. If he objects, it makes him look bad. It makes him look suspicious.
And that leads to that confrontation in the bedroom. It’s a complex, intricately blocked scene. How long did you and Bryan Cranston spend filming it?
We thought we were going to complete it by the end of our work day, but it was one of those rare times when we had to come back and finish it a different day. It really brought us to our knees at a certain point.
There’s this great build-up where she’s tossing out half-baked plans to beat him and he’s just methodically shooting them down. And then Skyler breaks down and says she’ll just have to wait …
And Walt says, “Wait for what?” “Wait for the cancer to come back.” (Gunn sighs.) It’s just truly eviscerating. Bryan and I have this great, supportive relationship, so there were a lot of hugs while we were shooting that scene and lots of levity during the times they were doing different setups. Because you can’t live in that for 12 hours. It will just drive you nuts.
You’re now half-way through this truncated, eight-episode season. Safe to say it’s going to end with a bang?
Oh, it’s going to be torturous for people to realize they have to wait almost another year to see where it goes.
Now that it’s winding down, I imagine you’re pestered by people wanting to know how it all ends.
I do get asked a lot if there’s a way I want the show to end. No! I’d like it to end whatever way [show creator Vince Gilligan] and company want it to end. And I’m sure it’s going to be shocking and unexpected and … not peaceful, let’s put it that way.
Whereas the Anna Gunn version would be …
... this romantic ideal of "Gosh, I hope everyone's OK." [Laughs] And that's not going to happen.