Picture this: It’s a beautiful day in Albuquerque. A quiet, sunny block is slowly waking up to the promise of a new day. Suddenly, two idiots speed down the street, one after the other, in their horrible new sports cars. One of them is wearing the absolute dumbest hat you’ve ever seen in your life.
This beautiful day is now ruined as the father-and-son team peel into their driveway and pause for a moment. They briefly exchange smug glances—and then they start revving the engines of their cars in a competition to see who can be the loudest and worst person. Regrettably, this isn’t merely some nightmarish non-fantasy but something forever documented in “Fifty-One,” the fourth episode of the fifth season of Breaking Bad and a YouTube video I sometimes watch just to make myself angry.
The episode, directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), occurs at a critical point in the series. Walt has ousted his meth magnate predecessor and taken over the mantle (more or less). But things still aren’t great at home. Walt’s wife, Skyler, is terrified of his secret life and what it could mean for their family. Meanwhile, Walt isn’t thrilled with his take-home pay after learning a significant portion of it will be regularly divvied out to other imprisoned members of the crew. So he capitalizes on one of the few things he can still control: He uses his drug money to buy his son’s love in the form of the lamest car on the planet.
One of the most impressive things about Breaking Bad is the momentum of creativity and entertainment it maintained through five seasons. Perhaps that’s what made the intro to “Fifty-One” so jarring. The unfortunate moment brought the show’s inertia to an abrupt halt, like a locomotive stopped in its tracks and stripped of valuable methylamine cargo. Eventually the train picked up speed and continued on its way, but not before rolling over us in a way that forced us to briefly consider we might not make it out alive. And rather than leaving us feeling exhilarated, it served as an anti-adrenaline—it was a heist of the soul.
Of the many details that make the car scene the worst scene in the show (and the history of television), perhaps none are as glaring as the music. The entire travesty is “scored” by a dreadful “song” titled “Bonfire” by Knife Party (who?) in the same way agonizing dental surgery is scored by the music of teeth being drilled. The song’s excruciating four and a half minutes feel like an eternity, seamlessly transitioning from muddled glitchy gibberish to sputtering digital drivel with ease. And even in its condensed form in the show (just over a minute), the song still manages to punish viewers with sonic efficiency in a way few recordings ever could.
In the end, their performances fall just short of discounting every word of praise the show has spent five seasons earning.
“Bonfire” is so bad, in fact, one would think it’d be nearly impossible to produce a visual accompaniment that’s equally embarrassing. And yet, Johnson rises to the challenge tenfold. As the bile of Knife Party (again, who?) spews forth relentlessly, the camera moves violently back and forth from one car’s grill to the other in a nauseating and unnecessary fish-eyed fashion. Our only relief from this disgrace to the artform is during brief cuts that prominently and proudly feature Walt and Walt Jr.’s asinine grimaces of pleasure. Our last painful glimpse of Walt shows him enthusiastically banging his hands on the steering wheel, full of an energy I’ll never achieve again thanks to my hope in humanity being forever destroyed by the perversion of this scene. In the end, their performances fall just short of discounting every word of praise the show has spent five seasons earning.
Of course the series had other flaws. The pratfall goofiness of Ted Beneke’s slip-on-the-rug head injury is similarly frustrating (“An act of God,” Huell tells Saul, breaking the fourth wall to reassure viewers that the show realizes the moment is incredibly stupid but asking them to please just roll with it). And, as far as cold opens go, the strange music video for “Negro y Azul” is its own brand of bizarre (yet far more endearing) non sequitur and could at least partially be chalked up to the series still getting its bearings in its second season. Even “The Fly,” a bottle episode that sparked more debate than maybe any other aspect of the show, serves a specific purpose and has identifiable (albeit arguable) merit regardless of which side you take.
But “Fifty-One” is different. The inexcusable affront occurs in the final season, one in which the same director responsible would later get credit for crafting arguably the best episode of the series (“Ozymandias”). The scene serves no purpose whatsoever beyond singlehandedly proving that the concept of a Golden Age of Television was a farce. Its existence is indefensible and merely agitates. If absolutely forced to search for meaning among the tangle of rubbish, one might wonder if inflicting this suffering on viewers was intentional. Is it foreshadowing the harrowing ordeal the characters will later experience? Are we being forced to sit through this unpleasantness to further our empathy with those who have had to tolerate similar unspeakable tortures?
I’ve rewatched the series since it aired and stubbornly refused to skip the opening of “Fifty-One.” The decision is somewhat sadistic; there’s gratification in refueling a supply of hatred unmatched anywhere else in my consumption of culture. And I guess I also like to be reminded of the show’s imperfection. It’s somewhat comforting to periodically ground our fandom in clinical evaluations, lest our judgment be clouded by the kind of fawning approval that makes us unbearable at parties. I rewatch and hate and rewatch again because there’s comfort in knowing that while I’ll never contribute to anything even a fraction as important or meaningful to society as Breaking Bad, I’ll also never create anything as egregious as the scene that undermined it entirely.