Review: Breaking Bad “Madrigal”
by John Johnson
The best drama on television is Breaking Bad, and this past Sunday’s episode, “Madrigal“, gave us a tight hour that did little more than move the chess pieces around the board for the rest of the season. There was little tension, even less humor, but there were many fine moments to be found–almost all of them concerning Jonathan Bank’s stoic cleanup man, Mike Ehrmantraut. It had all the trademarks of a classic Breaking Bad episode: strong use of color and silence, outstanding production design and photography, incredible performances, and a firm handle on the storytelling. This second episode of the fifth season in many ways felt more like a pilot for the final 14 episodes than last week’s season premiere; it set the board for the future by laying the tracks for the final character arcs.
The teaser set in Germany, and using only a smattering of English (most notably “Cajun Kick Ass” and “Franch”), put in perspective the global ramifications of Walt’s actions from last season. The death and subsequent outing of Gus Fring’s criminal activities led a seemingly nice if worn German to use an AED in a totally inappropriate way. In a wordless scene set in Madrigal Elektromotoren’s lobby we got to see that Los Pollos Hermanos–the seething pit of pain, destruction and malice in New Mexico in previous seasons–was merely a tiny cog in a much bigger picture, and one easily removed and dismissed. My favorite of the other eateries on display in the lobby: Whiskerstay’s–my guess is they serve catfish and hydrocodone.
Act one opens with a resplendent King Walt, dressed in a royal purple shirt cleaning up the last bit of old business, by replacing the poison, ricin cigarette with one filled with salt. He’s promised Jesse that he will help Jesse tear up his place to find the poison. The scene set to Whitey’s “Stay on the Outside” lets us see just how much red is in Pinkman’s house and leads to portrayer Aaron Paul’s second best scene of the night. He breaks down at the thought of almost killing Walt. He had correctly believed that Walt had poisoned his girlfriend’s son, but Walt has created a web of subterfuge to lead Jesse to a different erroneous conclusion: that it was all happenstance. Bryan Cranston, our “hero” Walt, was so good in this scene as he just rubbed Jesse’s shoulders, allowing him to jump to his own conclusions and beat himself up? Because if you can win their hearts and minds…. The course for Jesse seems set, and it doesn’t look good for him.
After the obligatory White breakfast scene (Drink!), we get a chance to see what’s up with Walt’s wife Skyler, played with a growing sense of desperation and unease by Anna Gunn. She has retreated to bed. In only two brief scenes, this one and the final one, Gunn is able to portray so much with so little, and in this first one she’s doing it with literally the back of her head. I love the way both scenes were shot, with no emphasis whatsoever on Walt who is doing all the talking, but on the lifeless form of Skyler, who can now see no escape.
The first partnership meeting of Walt’s hopeful, new meth cartel in Mike’s kitchen was a great scene, and gave us Paul’s best work of the night. As Jesse silently sat there between his two now-divorced fathers, his facial expressions were a perfect mirror of the underlying tensions and fears between the two older men.They never masked Jesse’s kid-like glee that this partnership might work out and they could all be together again. As a side note, how great was the picture on the fridge that Kaylee drew of her Pop-pop, Mike; he even wears all black around her.
The DEA has brought the Germans over for questioning, and they are claiming to give their full support to any investigation, hoping to ferret out any other corporate impropriety. The DEA is also giving the old heave-ho to ASAC Merkert, who is to be replaced by a now-unseen good guy, Raimi. But before Merkert can even finish his final rye with the guys, he plants the seed in Hank’s mind that anyone can fool you–even someone under your own nose. Hank’s final arc is set.
While the DEA conference scene gives us our first glimpse of this season’s new character, Lydia, we really get to know her in her diner scene with Mike, when she tries to trick him into killing all of his men. She has eleven names on a list that she feels will ultimately betray their organization in the wake of Fring being taken off the board. But Mike is Mike; he understands what she’s doing and he’s not going to fall for it. Lydia, here, comes off as a woman who’s scared and backed into a corner, but there’s so many elements of deception and subterfuge initiated by her character throughout the scene that I believe there is more to her than meets the eye.
The best scene of the night has to be the one where Mike is interviewed by Hank. First we get to learn a lot of new info on Mike; most importantly, he’s a former cop from Philadelphia who left the force under some sort of cloud. Then, we get to see Mike be The Man. Mike doesn’t even flinch at Hank’s classic Columbo gotcha moment with Mike’s granddaughter’s account in the Caymans. Jonathan Banks has been an undersung hero of this show. He’s so solid and so good in every scene that he’s in; he deserves wider recognition.
Meanwhile, Walt is conducting a second business meeting, this time with his underling Saul. The scene is Saul’s office is noteworthy because we now can see Walt’s level of need. He feels he is at least $40,000 in debt. He started in meth to get money; he’s certainly not going to leave it broke, even though he dodged a bullet (or as Saul says won the lottery) by not getting caught up in the Gus Fring fall. More and more pieces are being set.
Mike, being Mike, makes short work of the other guy that Lydia offered to pay to kill the eleven names on the list, now including Mike’s. The bonus for us is that we learn Mike is worth $30,000, not just the $10,000 of everybody else on the list. The would be hit man is only successful in offing Chow before Mike kills him, which is fine because Chow probably wouldn’t be able to hold out under intense DEA scrutiny.
The following scene where Mike holds Lydia at gunpoint as the nanny and her daughter, Kira, walk up and down the hall was appropriately tense. The stakes would have been higher if we knew or cared more about Lydia. As it stands here, it merely gives Mike the upper hand in their relationship (which he always had) and shows that Lydia, like Mike and Jesse and ultimately Walt, will do anything for family. It’s as Walt says in the terrifying final scene, bringing us full circle to the start of the series, “When we do what we do for good reasons, then we’ve got nothing to worry about, and there’s no better reason than family.”
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Breaking Bad Color Wheel (or An Examination of Better Storytelling Through Color):
–The teaser is very sterile (whites, silvers) except for the hyper colors of the “food”–adding to their other-worldliness and making Herr Schuler’s last supper all that much sadder.
–The other prominent color in the teaser is red (Schuler’s tie, the sink, the toilet, the toilet paper, the wires on the AED). Is red now the color of death, and what does that mean for Jesse who is almost always swaddled in the color?
–King Walt wears purple in his opening scene, only to change to Mike’s black with a softer blue shirt for their business meeting in Mike’s kitchen. Walt’s definitely feeling a Marie-level of self-importance, that he knows he must soften and mask for the business meeting with the only man he can’t intimidate.
–In the DEA conference room, the Germans are all business in all black, while the American/DEA side of the table is awash in the dusty browns and grays of the meth-ridden Albuquerque.
–Hank’s wearing black in the Mike interrogation scene. It’s all business for those boys.
–Saul has a bright blue carpet and a matching ribbon pin. I don’t have a handle on blue, unless it shows weakness. Saul also wears a self-important purple shirt.
–Mike’s granddaughter, Kaylee, is awash in the pink of innocence, from her shirt to the pig rolling on the floor to the color of one of her Hungry Hungry Hippos. Her other hippo’s color: green, the color of money. Both Mike’s hippos are yellow, pulling attention to Kaylee’s odd colored ones. Lydia’s daughter, Kira, wears a pink nightgown, as well.
–There’s a lot of blue (in the curtains, in the throw on the couch) in Mike’s scene where he’s playing with Kaylee. She is his weakness, adding further fuel to blue equaling weakness.
–Chow’s house: green walls for his need for money and of course the red throw pillows of death.
–Lydia’s house is beautiful with floor to vaulted ceiling windows that show off the warm yellow wood walls. Definitely a house that meth built.