SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, fix yourself some hot water with a slice of lemon and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.
“Corporate security.” “What’s that? Guarding the special sauce?”
In a manner of speaking, yes.
We begin “Madrigal” in the company of a man who is about to die, whom we presumably will never see again. But let’s talk for a minute about Herr Schuler anyway. We meet our German friend, at the conglomerate that lately owned Pollos Hermanos, glumly sampling chicken nuggets with new lab-designed sauces. “Kick-ass Cajun.” “Franch.” “Honey mustard… our sweeter formulation for the American Midwest.” In a few moments, he hears that the authorities want to speak with him, and he repairs to the bathroom to electrocute himself to death.
There’s something essentially Breaking Bad about that cold open. This is a show darkly and geekily fascinated with science: magnets that destroy police evidence, electrodes as suicide devices. But also, it’s love with the artificial, from Jesse’s Roomba to a child’s acrylic toy to crystal meth, described in loving chemical detail.
And it’s the kind of irony Breaking Bad loves that Schuler’s legitimate job is another one that—as Walter White does on a more extreme level—profits by isolating chemical combinations that stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains. It may not be criminal—and I’m not saying that the show is giving a Michael Bloombergian indictment of the fast-food industry—but there’s more than a little parallel between the tense, pristine setting of the Madrigal lab and Gus Fring’s late superlab. Just as “Cap’n Cook” Jesse once laced his meth with chile pepper, so do Schuler’s cooks pride themselves on creating a purer, more intensely stimulative product. There’s money in them thar neural receptors.
This seems to be way season five is expanding its world, showing the level upon levels of the drug trade, beyond Albuquerque, beyond Gus’ old empire, beyond the cartels. It builds up to this multinational conglomerate, whose labs may be cleaner and its menace more abstracted, but which is not immune from violence. Walter White may think he’s king, having defeated Gus, but there’s always a king beyond the king, and as Walt gets back into the business, we now have to wonder whose attention he’s going to draw to himself.
The way “Madrigal” gets Walt back into the business is with a classically taut, suspenseful episode, focused on Mike Ehrmantraut. Whenever Jonathan Banks takes the screen, Breaking Bad shifts into noir-Western mode, and he’s magnificent here: in his ice-cold staredown with Hank in the interrogation room, his hilarious (but also tense) meeting with Lydia, in his badass escape from assassination, and in the resigned way he decides to let the untrustworthy Lydia live, and to bring her on as a partner.
(MORE: Breaking Bad Watch: Mag-neato)
Mike is one bad mother. Mike is a wit: “Now I don’t know what kind of movies you’ve been watching, but here in the real world, we don’t kill 11 people as some kind of prophylactic measure.” But Mike is also a grandpa—a grandpa who, perhaps leaving himself open to the law, has been stashing away drug money for the future of his beloved granddaughter. (Or, at least, stashing it in her name.)
This, in a roundabout way, is what gets him back in business with Walter White, a prospect that every part of his gut and every moment of his professional instinct tells him is a bad idea. (“No. You are trouble. You are a time bomb. Tick, tick, tick. And I have no intention of being around for ‘boom.'”) He doesn’t trust Walt, he doesn’t have faith in Walt, and he doesn’t much like Walt.
On that score, it’s hard to blame him, since “Madrigal” makes clear that Walt is by now an unmitigated asshole, and one now unchecked by any superior authority or self-doubt. Not only that, but he seems to have acquired the belief that he’s bulletproof; Saul likens him to the guy who wins the lottery and buys another ticket, but he’s more like the guy who just won at Russian Roulette and asks for another spin.
Moreover, he’s become morally arrogant. We’ve seen Walt do a lot of terrible things and seen him in a lot of questionable positions, but I think his last scene with Skyler is the most rawly, stomach-churningly reprehensible he’s ever been. Lying in bed next to Skyler—depressed, worried, guilt-ridden—he snuggles up and starts kissing her, seeing her trauma as something to smugly kiss away while he tries to get some action: “When we do what we do for good reasons, we have nothing to worry about. And there’s no better reason than family.”
Ugh. Yet maybe it’s family, at some level, that drives Mike to realize that he can’t kill Lydia and disappear her, even after she tried to do the same to him—if not for her sake, for the sake of her daughter (in whom, maybe, he sees his own granddaughter). He sighs, wearily—no one on TV, maybe on this Earth, does weary like Mike Ehrmantraut—and asks her if she knows where to get methylene. They’re back in business.
Lydia will get to live. Walt will get what he wants. And Mike, good fast-food employee that he is, has procured the special ingredient.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Breaking Bad Visual of the week: More of a sequence than a single visual, but:the fantastic segment in which Mike’s assassin looks out the peephole—something flits in front of it, which turns out to be a toy on a string—we hear Mike’s voice (“Chris?”), and see that Mike’s gotten the drop on him as Chris’ eye, in tight shot, closes in frustration. (In general, this was just a fabulously directed episode, a shining example of how this show constructs stories through sequences that gradually reveal information with each subsequent shot.)
* “We don’t have soy milk or any sort of bergamot. … We have Lipton.” Very amusing scene, introducing a very different sort of character for Breaking Bad.
* I’m hoping that in its final season of eligibility, we might finally see a Best Guest Actor nomination for the Roomba. (Does it get angry when it shows up for auditions and find itself up against DJ Roomba from Parks and Rec, yet again?)
* “How many Krauts we got?” “Enough to invade Poland.” WWII humor! Never gets old!
* Finally, I’m traveling today (Monday) to the Television Critics’ Association press tour in Los Angeles, so I probably won’t be active in comments for a while—but have at it below.