Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 2
Things are, as always, more complicated than they may appear. In the mind of Walter White, the puzzle that was Gustavo Fring has been solved. The man is dead, the computer that held the video evidence destroyed (I'm still not convinced of that, but for now let's assume that to be the case). But Walter is, in fact, deeply, disturbingly unaware of just how far afield Gus' operation stretched, and just how many loose ends he has left blowing in the breeze. The chilling and darkly hilarious cold open, which features Herr Schuler at Madrigal's central office sampling some of the new dipping sauce creations (including sweeter honey mustard for the Midwest, Franch, Cajun Kick-Ass and...just ketchup) before committing suicide in the bathroom with an emergency defibrillator, likely leaving behind further evidence of his connections to the Fring Meth Empire.

Beyond that, there is a new player in Lydia, Gus' former methylamine supplier, who is so terrified that everything is about to go up in smoke, she decides she'll be safer killing eleven men than worrying over whether they will talk. "Here in the real world," Mike tells her with the world weariness Jonathan Banks does so well, "we don't kill eleven people as some kind of prophylactic measure." Where Walt seems to be living in dangerous ignorance, Mike is, as always, calm and coolly professional. He knows that killing eleven people tied to the Fring organization will just convince the DEA there is more to investigate (not to mention giving them eleven crime scenes to pour over, looking for any mistakes the killers might make), and even if it wasn't a colossally stupid plan, Mike tells her, "these are my guys." Mike is loyal to a fault, trusting that his well-compensated, well-vetted employees will hold up under pressure, even after it becomes clear that the DEA will get all of their money.

Lydia betrays Mike's trust, of course, but we all know that Mike is pretty much Batman, and it doesn't take much for him to get the jump on the hitter she offers $30,000 to take Mike out. When Mike arrives at Lydia's house, it is to exact bloody revenge for her attempt on his life, but in a moment he himself would likely advise is a half-measure when a full-measure is needed, he decides to let her live, and to throw his lot in with Walter White in the process.

It was pretty clear after last week that Mike would become the third wheel of Walt and Jesse's newly forming meth empire, and while I questioned the realism of the development, I could never nitpick for too long. Jonathan Banks has always been excellent as Mike, and while on other shows I might be concerned about pushing a fan-favorite recurring character to center stage (a development that often indicates a show is moving past its prime), here I never doubted that Vince Gilligan knew what he was doing, and "Madrigal" vindicates my faith. Acting as a spiritual sequel to season three's "Mas," the episode functions largely as the story of how a man who thinks he is getting out of the business can get pulled back in, to the detriment of his soul. Make no mistake: Mike was smart to refuse Walter's offer and get away from him before his inevitable fall, and throwing his lot in with the increasingly unstable Walt has doomed Mike in ways that will probably be very painful to watch.

For Mike is throwing himself into the pit with a man who has ceased to care about what the most important people in his life feel, so long as they serve as means to the ends he strives for. He ignores Skyler's clear depression (if not the even more serious PTSD-type disorder that what Skyler has learned and seen might realistically bring on), forcing his traumatized wife to get out of bed and go run his money laundering business, and supplying her with the faulty logic he thinks will rouse her from her stupor: "When we do what we so for good reasons, then we've got nothing to worry about. And there's no better reason than family." Bryan Cranston unsurprisingly plays this moment perfectly. Walt is seducing his wife into further coercion in his criminal empire, but he is also, subtly reminding her that she is closer to the monster at its center than anyone else. The rest of his cohort are employees after all; Skyler is family.

As for Jesse, Walt is content to continue his relentless campaign of heartless manipulation, staging an endless search for the ricin cigarette in Jesse's apartment before engineering the discovery of a fake replacement in Jesse's Roomba (the real ricin, like Chekov's gun, is hidden behind an outler in Walt's bedroom, to return at a later date). In one of the episode's greatest moments, a long close-up of Aaron Paul displays Jesse's crumbling realization that he almost killed his partner/mentor for absolutely no reason. Of course, Jesse was perfectly right to be pointing the gun at Walt that night, he just had the wrong reasons for doing so. But now he is tied ever closer to Walt, who again lays on the subtle manipulation, comforting Jesse with the idea that, "You and I, working together, having each other's backs, it's what saved our lives. I want you to remember that going forward." Walt doesn't want Jesse to keep that lie in mind as a sort of comfort, though. He wants Jesse to feel indebted to him for a perceived betrayal, and to remember why he is still alive if ever he considers pointing a gun at Walt again.

Walter White is increasingly comfortable in the guise of a criminal overlord, a man who uses manipulation when he can't use fear or brute force to get the job done. He provides a pat answer when Saul suggests he should count himself lucky to be alive and get out of the business while he can, indicating he is currently $40,000 in debt to Jesse (a debt Jesse hasn't ever mentioned and probably would be happy to forget for a chance at getting out of this mess clean), but we all know why Walt wants to continue. He has found a reason to live. He has gained power where before he was powerless. He has wrested control out of a terminal diagnosis that was completely out of his hands. He has become something he can be proud of, and we all know that pride is the sin that will lead to the downfall of Walter White. For as Walter White stands arrogant at the center of a newly minted criminal empire, looking forward at what he perceives as a bright tomorrow, there are things he doesn't see just past the horizon. And what he doesn't know is very likely to hurt him.

Grade: B+


-"You are trouble. I'm sorry the kid here doesn't see it, but I sure as hell do. You are a time bomb. Tick tick tick. And I have no intention of being around for the boom."

-"How many krauts we got?" "Enough to invade Poland."

-Hank and Gomie's interrogation of Mike indicates he left the police force in Philly "somewhat...dramatically." Here is hoping we learn more about that, although it may, like Gus' background, remain something for us to mull over and decide for ourselves.

-Jesse named the RV The Crystal Ship. When something terrible inevitably happens to him, I will be damaged for life. Vince Gilligan spared the character (who was supposed to die in the show's first season) once before, here's hoping he decides to give Jesse a happy ending instead of killing him horribly and ripping out my heart. I'm hoping for the former, but frankly counting on the latter.

-"I've reconsidered. I'm in." With those four words, Mike has doomed himself.
Tags: Breaking Bad
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