Breaking Bad has been unsurprisingly very, very good this year. But it’s also felt a bit off from past seasons — not worse, just different — and I think it’s because for the first time in a while, most of the show’s current drama is being mined from internal pressures squeezing Walt rather than outside forces. There’s no Tuco. No cousins. No Gus. There’s just a wife who’s had enough, a snooping brother-in-law-slash-DEA-agent, a pseudo-son who no longer shares his father’s vision and a business partner who realizes nothing good can come from their union so it might be best to call it a day. I thought the show might go this way following the de-face-ification of Gus. The other option would have been to bring in a bigger bad — the full might of the Mexican cartel or whatever — but being that Breaking Bad was entering its final season, it made sense to avoid that temptation and instead turn inward. And, for the most part, it’s worked, although with no outside force bearing down, the show has felt a little more fragmented this season, with each episode (especially the pair of heist eps) almost serving as a standalone story rather than integral pieces of a whole. “Buyout,” however, could be another turning point for the series, as a lot of the personal drama comes to a boil and a potential new outside antagonist is introduced.

The highlight, no doubt, was the newest addition to TV’s all-time most awkward dinner scenes, as Walt, Skyler and Jesse break bread together at the White home. How great was it? Let us count the ways. For starters, it gave Aaron Paul the kind of showcase scene he’s been largely lacking this year. I was in stitches as he raved about the green beans while Skyler seethed and Walt silently dared her to make a fuss. It also was a return to the show’s roots. These are the characters at Breaking Bad‘s core, and had the show’s writers picked a slightly different route, this was a scene that could have easily taken place in season two or three. But the fact that it happened now made it all the richer, considering how much shit has gone down and come into the open in the time since. Skyler and Jesse don’t really know each other, but they know plenty well what each other represents. On top of that was the additional dynamic of Jesse being caught in the middle of a White family squabble, what with Skyler being miffed that Walt was loose-lipped about her affair with Ted. The whole scene was hilariously interminable, thanks in no small part to the tremendous work by Paul, Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn.

The rest of “Buyout” mostly deals with the imminent dissolution of Walt’s new meth operation. As Saul says, everyone’s “pulling ripcords.” The episode opens in chilling fashion with Walt, Jesse, Mike and Todd eliminating all traces of evidence from last week’s episode-ending child murder. (The whole scene utilizes no sound but for the eerie throb of the soundtrack music.) By now, using buckets of hydrofluoric acid to “correct mistakes” is old hat for Walt and Jesse, but here the process isn’t meant to be shocking or grossly amusing, as the show has presented it in the past. It’s just part of the job, and, as thus, serves as the first part of a wake-up call to Jesse that the meth trade isn’t a business he’s much interested in anymore. The second part comes later when, after Jesse feels his insides being torn out during a news report about the missing kid, he hears Walt just happily whistling away the work day, clearly caring about nothing or no one other than his precious empire. (And that whistling was so damn creepy. Walt seriously may be dead inside.)

Meanwhile, Mike — under constant surveillance by the DEA — is coming to a similar conclusion. Mike can take a lot of heat, but maybe not this much. They even stalk him while he’s playing with his granddaughter at the park, forcing him to leave a literal “fuck you” for them tucked under a public garbage can. (That little bit, with its blurred-out note, also serves as a reminder that while you can shoot a kid and insinuate his melting via acid on cable TV, you still can’t show the word “fuck.” ‘Cause that would be too disturbing for some people, apparently.)

So Mike and Jesse come up with a retirement plan. They’re going to take their two-thirds of the methylamine and sell it to a big-time Phoenix drug-pusher named Declan. There’s a snag, though, as Declan is more interested in getting Heisenberg’s blue off the streets than he is in the methylamine. He wants the full 1,000 gallons and will pay $15 million for it. Jesse begs Walt to take the deal, reminding him that when he first started cooking, before Heisenberg was even born, his goal was a mere $737,000 to take care of his family once the cancer claimed him. Five million is more than the two of them had ever dreamed.

It sounds like a hard-to-pass-up offer, but “Buyout” does a great job selling Walt’s refusal to take it, first by reminding us of the billions Walt lost out on when he left Gray Matter, the tech start-up he had co-founded years earlier, and then by pointing out that, with his kids gone and his wife against him, the meth empire is all he has left. At an impasse, both Walt and Mike make a play for the methylamine, with Mike first coming out on top, but Walt eventually gaining the upper hand thanks to some nifty electrical work and a high tolerance for pain. (Damn, those burns on his wrist look like they hurt.) The episode ends with Mike pointing a gun to Walt’s head, demanding to know where the chemical is, but it seems Walt has concocted one more scheme — one where Mike and Jesse get paid and Walt gets to keep his methylamine.

Whatever this plan entails, I think it’s safe to say it (and its aftermath) will drive the show through the two episodes left before the long mid-season break. And if this Declan guy is on the receiving end of it, which appears likely, and manages to survive, he could materialize into Skyler’s worst fear realized — a brand new threat to show up at Walt’s house with intent to kill. On top of that, it’s hard to imagine Mike and Walt working together again in any capacity after the dust settles from this last-ditch effort to make something of their partnership. (Although, quite frankly, I’m starting to wonder if Mike ends up either in the ground or in custody sometime over the next two weeks.) Regardless, it’s not hard to see that outside forces could again start to become a very big problem for Walter White.

Some extra thoughts about “Buyout”:

— Jesse Plemons was featured heavily in the beginning of the episode as Todd tries to convince his bosses he didn’t have any choice but to kill the kid. I’ve seen some chatter, including in the forums here at CHUD, that Todd keeping the dead kid’s tarantula could prove to be everyone’s downfall, although I’m more inclined to believe that it was there just to be a little character beat for a guy we don’t know all that well.

— I could see Jesse sucker-punching Todd coming from a mile away, but it was still welcome as Plemons has a face seemingly made for punching.

— “Ricky Hitler” made me laugh, though my favorite dialogue of the night belonged to Mike: “I would never come to the headquarters of our illegal meth operation dragging a bunch of cops, Walter. It would be unwise.” Not laugh-out-loud funny, but just the way Jonathan Banks delivers the line is the definition of cool.

— During Saul’s brief appearance this week, he informs Hank that he’s filing a restraining order against the DEA for stalking Mike. That’s clever in a TV-show kind of way, but I can’t imagine it working in real life. At least Saul admits that, even in the Breaking Bad universe, the ploy won’t work for long.

— The big scene with Skyler and Marie is interesting, as at first it’s designed to make the viewer feel tense over whether Skyler’s going to spill everything. (“Marie, there are things you just don’t know that, if you knew, you’d never speak to me again.”) But then the whole thing turns comical once Marie assumes that the extent of all these dark secrets is Skyler’s affair with Ted. The “if only” look Skyler throws is fantastic.

— Another episode with no appearance of future Walt and his giant gun. I’m guessing we’ll get a second glimpse in the mid-season finale.