There’s a great deal of palpable desperation across the board in ‘Buried'; it’s the kind of desperation that is heightened by the knowledge that these are the final episodes of Breaking Bad, so whatever transpires or springs from any fraught situation or act cannot and will not be undone. Moreover, this sense of extreme anxiety (which is worn brilliantly on Anna Gunn‘s face in nearly every scene, by the way) is only magnified by the decision to afford the audience a glimpse of where this will all end up. That lonely, desolate house which will soon play host to a gaggle of skateboarders and be visited by its former resident with a machine gun in the trunk of his car is a surefire sign that things from this point on will refuse to go smoothly.

But while last week’s premiere, ‘Blood Money,’ was tasked with establishing the frantic mood of these final eight episodes, ‘Buried’ is on hand to extend the situation without resorting to any sort of hasty or misguided one-upmanship. Instead, the show brings in virtuoso Breaking Bad director Michelle MacLaren (‘Gliding Over All,’ among others) to take the elements that the midseason premiere brought to a heady boil and settle them into to a steady simmering stew of character desperation.

This is a familiar place; it’s a place where the series (as well as MacLaren) excels in terms of storytelling – which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since the entire conceit of the program was born of one man’s despair in the face of death – and ‘Buried’ showcases desperation by bringing nearly all the key players into the fold, just to ask the question: How does a family deal with this kind of overwhelming implosion? And the reactions appear in many forms; namely, Walt’s sudden and inevitable preservation instinct, Marie’s disbelief and even Hank’s eagerness to shore things up and avoid the indignity of bringing a mere theory to the DEA over hard, incontrovertible evidence that would debilitate his career far greater than any assassin’s bullet.

It’s also more than that; it’s something that Hank and Skyler share in the understanding that if Walt is held responsible for his crimes as Heisenberg, the ensuing maelstrom of criminal charges will effectively be the end of the White family (something we know to be true inasmuch as Walt’s taken Skyler’s maiden name in the future sequences). And although he doesn’t say it outright, Hank’s insistence that Walt Jr. and Holly be brought back to stately Schrader Manor, while he pursues a devastating course of action, suggests that, even in this position of heightened apprehension and life-altering consequences, ultimately, it is the safety of the family that’s of utmost concern – a sentiment reiterated by Walt when Saul suggests Hank be sent to Belize to visit the permanently vacationing Mike Ehrmantraut.

And while one side of Hank is troubled with limiting the extent of the damage to the White children and, to a certain degree, his sister-in-law, there’s another side to the lawman that has far more in common with Walter than either of them would like to admit. There’s an excitement in what’s happening that goes beyond what the audience is experiencing and it shows on Hank’s face and in the way he embraces Skyler when she meets him at the diner. Similarly, despite the ramifications, the inevitable events that have yet to unfold, is there a small part of Walt that relishes this release from his pine-scented prison of days spent dressed in beige behind a cash register, hoping to break the monotony by suggesting he and Skyler launder the dirty money faster by building a car wash empire? There sure seems to be a glint of that in Hank’s eye, especially when he learns of Jesse’s failed attempt to redistribute his ill-gotten gains.

All of this points to Vince Gilligan’s understanding of just how much more interesting it is to watch a character gain or lose an empire than it is to watch him try and maintain one. Sure, there’s still plenty of excitement to be had in preserving territory, but as far as Breaking Bad is concerned, that’s the sort of thing best left to characters like Lydia and Todd, people tied only tangentially to the real drama at hand. That narrative decision is also a sign that Vince Gilligan has standards of quality at least as high, if not higher, than Heisenberg’s.

Breaking Bad continues next Sunday with ‘Confessions’ @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:

Photos: Ursula Coyote/AMC