I wonder how the almost complete lack of violent action (or even the threat of violent action) in the most recent Breaking Bad episode, “Open House,” played with viewers on the whole. Not that it matters much – the show’s ratings are all right and it doesn’t want to run more than five years, so as long as the episodes are good (and they are) it’s fine. The only thing that can stop it is AMC’s tightwad tendencies, revealed in the ongoing negotiations with Sony about the fifth season, but they will likely work out a deal for a fifth season, and Vince Gilligan has already said he doesn’t think the show can last far beyond that.
But this was not merely a non-violent episode, but a non-violent episode that gave the bulk of its screen time over to two female characters, Skyler and Marie, who are not universally loved among the show’s fan base. It’s an example of the show’s self-confidence that it would do an episode like this so early in the season, and it’s also an example of how it’s gotten more of a handle on writing female characters. It’s true that the characterization of Skyler and her business machinations can be a bit facile (the idea that the cut-throat world of business negotiations isn’t so different from crime is, while effectively presented, a familiar one). But at least she’s become a more fully realized character, with the great combination of good sense and vindictiveness she displayed.
An episode like this is particularly useful because it demonstrates how Walt can still function in something resembling “everyday” society. The ending – as well as the runner about his reaction to being under his boss’s surveillance – reminds us once again that he’s basically doomed, that every little mistake he makes brings him closer to his doom, and that Hank may finally (though maybe not next week) figure out what’s going on. And as always, he’s hyper-sensitive to any insult or implication that he’s not totally in command of the situation. But for most of the episode he’s in a supporting role to Skyler, dealing with the criminal equivalent of regular issues like how to invest his money, and giving Cranston another chance to do the bumbling-husband schtick he’s so good at. The fact that he lives in a violent world is sort of put on the back-burner for an hour. That’s helpful, I think, in the long run. If the show just had his life get more dangerous with every moment, it will pass the point where it seems ridiculous that he hasn’t been killed yet. The non-violent material probably makes the violent or ominous moments more plausible when they do show up, as they always do.