Review: ‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Madrigal’

A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I guard the special sauce…

“You are a timebomb, tick-tick-ticking, and I have no intention of being around for the boom.” -Mike

“Breaking Bad” season 4 opened at a much more frenzied pace than we’ve gotten in these first two episodes, but that’s felt right. Season 4 began in the middle of the Walt/Gus war, while this new season is starting a new phase of the story. We’re ramping up to things, just as we did at the start of the first three seasons, and because we know these characters so well – and because some of them are very different from how we used to know them – it feels intense in its own way.

The order of the day is still cleaning up the mess that was made when Walter White destroyed a business that, as he told Skyler in the “I am the one who knocks” speech, was big enough to be listed on the NASDAQ. Hank’s air filter lead from Gale’s apartment takes the investigation to the German headquarters of Madrigal Electromotive. Walt and Jesse want to keep cooking meth, but with the superlab burned and Gus dead, they need a whole new infrastructure. Walt also has to resolve the matter of the missing ricin cigarette to Jesse’s satisfaction(*), while his caper last week with the magnet causes all kinds of trouble for Mike and his “guys” – particularly once Madrigal executive Lydia turns up in Albuquerque desperate to erase any connection between Gus’ operation and herself.

(*) Two thoughts on this sequence. First, it took me a couple of viewings to feel reasonably confident that what Walt does is to hide the real Chekhov’s Ricin behind an electrical socket (in case he ever needs it again without having the time or resources to make a new batch of ricin), while the one he and Jesse find inside the Roomba is a fake one to give Jesse peace of mind. Second, while Aaron Paul hasn’t had a ton to do in these first couple of episodes, he was his expected fantastic self in that scene, as Jesse beats himself up over what he thinks are his own mistakes, rather than the manipulations of Mr. White. So good, and Walt offering him paternal reassurance was such an expert, if disgusting, bit of manipulation.

Throughout “Madrigal,” we see characters forced by desperate circumstances into doing what they don’t want to do. Herr Schuler knows what the presence of law-enforcement in his office, studying a photo of himself with Gus, has to mean, and rather than suffer the humiliation and loss of freedom that’s coming, he goes out on his own terms, using the office First Aid kit in a manner for which it wasn’t intended. We don’t know what Lydia(**) is like when things are going well, but in these circumstances, she is a jittery mess, embarrassing herself in her attempt to play spy with Mike at the diner, then underestimating how much more capable Mike is than any local man she could possibly hire to take him out.

(**) Played by Scottish actress Laura Fraser, and your mileage will vary on how convincing her American accent is. Given that Madrigal is an international conglomerate, I think this is a situation where Lydia could have just been Scottish with minimal explanation, though.

Mike gets to be Batman, as usual, first in getting the better of Hank and Gomez in an interview, then in taking out Chris quietly and efficiently, not even letting Chris get more than a few words into his attempt to plead for his life. (And yet in a sign of what kind of man he is, and the affection he has for one of his guys – even one who tried to kill him – Mike first stops to ask Chris if he’s ready.) But he’s just so tired of all of this, and the enormous level of weariness and gravity that Jonathan Banks is able to convey throughout the hour always makes Mike seem incredibly human, no matter how many men he kills with ease.

Mike didn’t think he would wind up being one of these desperate people. Even with Gus dead, he had his money set aside in the Caymans for his granddaughter, and he knew his guys wouldn’t roll on him. Even if he thought Walter White wasn’t the loosest of cannons, he would be entirely justified in walking away from the meth business and doing some low-risk PI and security work to keep busy and pay the bills. But the broken picture frame dramatically changes the equation for him, and Lydia’s loud refusal to be a question mark for the rest of her daughter’s life (a daughter not far in age from Mike’s granddaughter) gives him pause, and at that point Mike unfortunately realizes that he’s stuck with these two jokers, and with this woman who appears to be almost as much of a wild card as Walt. Mike knows this will likely go wrong, but he has no other choice.

Though Walt participates in this post-Gus clean-up as well, he’s the one member of the operation who seems entirely comfortable with his position. He won. He is the master of all he surveys, and is ready, willing and able to scoop up that gold from the streets. He doesn’t know the reasons behind Mike’s change of heart, but that phone call is yet more confirmation that at this moment in time, what Walter White wants, Walter White gets.

But we’ve already seen a glimpse of a later moment in time for Walt. We know that a year from now, he won’t be the king of Albuquerque, but a man who needs a machine gun in his trunk.

And we know that Hank is enjoying his own moment of triumph right now, and doggedly pursuing this case. And we watched Hank as his boss talked about his friendship with Gus Fring, saying, “He was somebody else completely. Right in front of me. Right under my nose.”

That scene closes with a long, lingering look at Hank’s face. Time and again throughout the series, we’ve waited for Hank to put the pieces together and realize his geeky brother-in-law isn’t what he seems. Because he knows Walt from before the cancer, before Krazy-8 and Tuco and Jane and Gus, before he was Heisenberg, it’s understandable that the thought might never occur to him on his own. But when he hears the situation framed in that way, his subconscious can’t help but dwelling on some of the pieces that haven’t quite fit in Walt’s life story over the past year. Sooner or later, it seems, Hank is going to see who and what is right in front of him, right under his nose.

And then how desperate will Walter White be?

Some other thoughts:

* Not a lot of Skyler this week, but that last scene in the White bedroom was even more uncomfortable than Walt forgiving Skyler at the end of the season premiere. Skyler’s no innocent, but in some ways, I feel like she’s worse off emotionally than Jesse. Jesse doesn’t know the worst things Walt has done to him, while Skyler by now knows exactly what kind of relationship she’s trapped herself in.

* For those of you playing the “Breaking Bad” drinking game, I hope you had your glass handy for when we saw Walter Jr. eating breakfast.

* Loved the production design on the very European, very red, bathroom where Herr Schuler electrocuted himself.

* The song for the clean-up montage (sadly, not played by the Roomba itself) is “Stay on the Outside” by Whitey.

* Note that Mike is watching “The Caine Mutiny” – a film about a captain consumed by his own megalomania (much like Walt is becoming?) – when Walt and Jesse visit him with their offer.

* You knew somebody at the DEA was going to take the fall for being chummy with Gus, and it wasn’t going to be Hank. Adios, George.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at