This review contains spoilers.
A humming laptop struggles to life on a scotch-bonnet hot day. While the media player chugs in to life a glance at a window provides an instant snapshot of over-exposed bright blues, oranges and greens, one nice enough to be filed away in the self-pitying folder of the weary reviewer for the foreseeable future. He knows, though: tired, disheveled and disoriented by the tail-end of a ten-minute coffee comedown, there’s nothing for him out there. All the same, he can’t help but allow a fleeting look of longing to flash across his fuzzy, squinting face, even if the sunny scene makes it feel like it’s on the receiving end of a metaphorical slap: here, finally, is a grant of meteorological clemency after being sentenced to unrelenting sogginess without trial for two months, and he has an episode of Breaking Bad to review.
This is what happens when I try and open my reviews as stylishly as Breaking Bad does. I sound like a pompous idiot. How do they do it?
Seriously, how do they do it? How are these ‘cold opens’ always so incredibly satisfying? Time and again, and as recently as last week, Breaking Bad will show a pre-credits so playfully weird and obtuse that the eventual credits splash comes as a relief, so you can finally turn to your BB companion and breathily say What. The. Hell.
Lots of other shows have done this. Lost used to do it all the time, but they grew so overtly “dun-dun-DERRRRRRR!” in their execution that the effect was numbed a little as the show went on – also, there was never any guarantee that it would lead anywhere. With Breaking Bad, they just seem to be getting better and better. Messing with our heads and keeping us on our toes is certainly a good way of keeping the show fresh. Then again, it might be a trust thing – Vince Gilligan and co. have proven so adept at manoeuvring their way out of seemingly narrative dead ends and paying off their promises that by this point, most of us viewers would follow them anywhere.
Even to Germany, which is where we find ourselves at the beginning of Madrigal. Deep in the bowels of the titular corporation, a dead-eyed suit dips anonymous nuggets into and assortment of condiments, while a lab technician enthusiastically relays all of the kooky names they have come up with for the American market. Said suit is told the police are paying him a visit – when he sees that the ‘Los Pollos Hermanos’ logo is being disposed of and that the Polizei are poring over photos of him cosying up to Gus and he walks to the bathroom and commits suicide via defibrillator.
It’s an engrossing little self-contained movie, with the trademark Breaking Bad contrast between the mundane and the grotesque mined expertly for none-more-black humour, while the scene’s languorous pace serves to wring the maximum amount of suspense and tension out of its peculiar scenario.
Kudos must go to director Michelle McLaren, who regularly makes television episodes that look better that most movies – her episodes of Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead count as some of the most visually striking examples of the medium.
After this brilliant opening, the rest of the episode largely centers around the hard-bitten hero with a heart of gold: Mike. Confirming what I suggested in last week’s recap, Mike has no interest in dealing with a volatile element like Walt, so Madrigal is all about how Mike will be forced into coming back into the fold – he’s too good a character to just cast aside.
One of the brilliant things about Madrigal’s plotting is that Mike’s re-introduction isn’t a result of one of Walt’s increasingly complex and Machiavellian schemes – when Mike refuses Walt, Walt stand up, shakes his hand, and leaves. While it’s obvious that Walt isn’t going to give up on the World’s Greatest Drug Enforcer that easy, it seems that Walt knows either consciously or sub-consciously he doesn’t have to do anything to force him: for one thing, Walt is on a ridiculous roll right now, and his self-belief is such that he believes things will just gravitate towards him – hence his assertion that the missing ingredient of the meth puzzle, methylene, will show up if they just have faith, which of course it eventually does.
Also, Walt knows that in this game you don’t just ‘get out’ when you’ve had enough – the loose ends have a way of entangling themselves into a web that prevents anyone from ever truly getting out.
And so it proves, in this wonderful showcase for Jonathan Banks’ Mike, a truly great anti-heroic gun-for-hire in the mold of Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. Mike is the definition of old-school – while a horrifyingly violent man by any standard he’s also got a strict code of ethics and a no-nonsense attitude.
It’s why we love him as a character, and it allows for some cracking noir set-pieces here, including his wonderful interrogation duel with Hank, another student of the old school, where they exchange probing grimly sardonic barbs (we also got a delicious tease of a potential Mike backstory episode here – please make this happen); and Mike’s weary, resigned execution of a fellow soldier that has betrayed him.
There’s also some wonderfully hard-boiled dialogue from Mike throughout, worthy of a Dashiell Hammett or James M Cain novel (“You are a time bomb, and I have no intention of being around for the boom” “I don’t know what movies you’ve been watching but in the real world we don’t kill 11 people as some kind of prophylactic measure”).
However, Mike’s commitment to the old school may prove to be his undoing. His decision to spare irritating go-between Lydia could be construed as a ‘half-measure’ – by not killing her and getting back into bed with Walt he is certainly going against his principles and instincts. Probably not as much as if he had killed her, though – we’ve seen throughout the series that Mike has a potential blind spot when it comes to young women (his own grand-daughter, and the woman in the memorable monologue he delivers in Half Measures), and it seems like he doesn’t have it in him to effectively destroy two women’s lives with one bullet.
Alternatively, maybe he realized that the faith he had in his men – the ones he personally selected for their fortitude – isn’t as strong as he thought it was, and they ultimately aren’t as invested in the same values of loyalty and stoicism that he is.
Or perhaps he just really wants to claw some of that $2 million back. There are enough notes of ambiguity in Banks’s brilliant performance to suggest it could be a combination of all three – either way, what isn’t in doubt is that Mike knows he’s just made a decision which will result in a whole heap of trouble for him personally, and he may have to become more ruthless than ever: certainly, his old-school values will count for absolutely nothing in Walt’s world, where poisoning a child is something that is eminently justifiable.
Walt is disgustingly creepy in this episode, and perhaps at his least sympathetic yet. His scene with poor Jesse early on illustrated beautifully how dysfunctional and predatory their dynamic has become- Jesse’s horrified reaction at discovering the ricin cigarette, and subsequent bout of self-loathing and recrimination was a good reminder of why he’s on a different moral plane to Walt (as well as being a reminder of what a great actor Aaron Paul is).
Meanwhile Walt literally stands behind his shoulders and whispers sweet nothings into his ear about loyalty and friendship without batting an eyelid. While by this point Walt’s heart has inarguably decayed to a bloodless husk, his balls are now big enough to see from space, which I’m pretty sure is a result of consecutive successful master-plans rather than being a side effect of the chemo drugs.
The final scene was also skin-crawling, even if it ended on essentially the exact same beat as last week’s episode. The sight of Walt trying to assuage Skylar’s guilt while also clearly also attempting to initiate sex is one I won’t scrub from my mind for a long time, and Skylar’s look of paralysed terror was well-earned (she’s seen his balls remember).
Walt’s downfall, if and when, it comes, will be so thoroughly earned that I am starting to wish it will involve all of the principle characters queuing up to stick the boot in, like in that scene from Airplane! But one character seems to be getting closer to bringing down Walt than any other – when Hank’s now ex-superior tells him a pointed story about how Gus acted as his friend yet was clearly in reality ‘a different person’, the camera stayed on Hank’s face, and he finished the scene with an enigmatic, thoughtful look. So many questions…will this information sink in? Will Hank put the final piece of the puzzle together? And will Walt Jr ever get to eat a meal other than breakfast?
Read Paul’s review of last week’s episode, here.
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