(Catch my write-up of the season premiere here.)
Even after last week’s season premiere, it was unclear what path Breaking Bad would take in its fifth and final season. “Live Free Or Die” was all about cleaning up Season Four’s messes, and “Madrigal” does a little of that before heading in an entirely new and surprising direction.
First off, a bit of housekeeping. (Literally.) This episode is not titled “Return Of The Roomba,” but it might as well be. I highly doubt Vince Gilligan was planning on reusing the Roomba in quite this manner back when it appeared in “38 Snub,” but he managed to give the little sucker a real narrative purpose, and a pretty clever one, to boot — Jesse’s still freaking out about that missing ricin cigarette, so Walt decides to help him “find” it, and lo and behold, it’s in the Roomba!
We the audience were probably ready to let the ricin cigarette storyline go by now. We didn’t necessarily need this closure. But it did allow for one haunting moment in which Jesse breaks down, wondering how he possibly could have suspected Walt of poisoning Brock. (Gut instinct’s a bitch.) Walt reassures him, but this lean lays pipe for this relationship to turn further sour once Jesse finds out Walt has been misleading him. He may never find out about Brock, but Walt can’t keep this up. Sooner or later, Jesse will catch on to Walt’s haphazard killing spree, as he gets rid of anyone who inconveniences him (or at least puts them in harm’s way). That includes Jane, Gale, Brock, and Gus, the last of whom obviously had it coming. But the others?
That little slice of drama is about all we get from Walt and Jesse — in fact, all the core characters take a backseat in “Madrigal.” This is Mike’s episode, filling in a lot of his mysterious backstory and finally cluing us in to exactly where he fits into Gus’ operation. “Madrigal” refers to the German corporation we heard referenced in Season Four as the financier for Fring’s lab (AKA “the crystal ship,” as Jesse calls it). The cold open, like last week’s, is a disorienting one, although I did figure it had something to do with Gus once I realized we were in Germany. But I certainly hadn’t expected Season Five to take us this route, even though I suppose I should have. Breaking Bad is not a show that would just idly namedrop a German corporation into the mix and then never follow up on that. I did assume Season Five would attempt an ever bigger, further-reaching enemy than Gus, but guessed it would be tied to the cartel. So Madrigal entering the picture is quite a shock indeed.
In “Madrigal,” Breaking Bad goes in a Michael Clayton-esque direction, introducing us to a ruthless (but also conspicuously nervous) corporate bitch (here, Laura Fraser, nicely channeling Tilda Swinton’s Oscar-winning role). Lydia sweeps into the Albuquerque diner in designer sunglasses, demanding an array of teas not made by Lipton. Covert she is not. Shen then gives Mike a list of eleven names to eliminate, to which he replies that she’s seen too many movies. But that only persuades her to add his name to the list.
Despite Mike’s claim that this isn’t a movie, “Madrigal” actually does feel awfully cinematic with a new corporate villain taking hits out on those who know too much. It confirms that Mike has known something Walt and Jesse don’t, and that killing Gus isn’t exactly the clean slate they imagine. Even though he’s now free to walk away from cooking, Walt instead decides to get the business up and running again, with Mike and Jesse as equal partners. (Walt apparently never even gives a moment’s consideration to heading down the straight and narrow.) Mike declines, but that’s before he learns that the “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!” shenanigans helped the police discover a pile of cash stashed away in the Cayman Islands. That’s the money that’s kept all these conspirators from talking, and likely the reason Mike’s been so loyal to Gus. But now Mike, like Walt, has money troubles, which means they’re back in business together. Hank, meanwhile, is pretty sure Mike (a former cop, we now learn) was in on Gus’ operation. And as we’ve seen, Hank doesn’t give up easily when he smells a rat.
And then there’s Lydia. In a masterfully tense sequence, Mike holds her at gunpoint while her daughter and nanny are in the next room. She’s not begging for her life, just begging not to be shot in the face, and for Mike to allow her daughter to find her so she won’t think Mommy just up and left. It’s harrowing stuff. Does Mike have a crisis of conscience? It looks that way, as he struggles to find a use for Lydia so justify not killing her. And he does. So Lydia shall return.
I enjoyed many things about “Madrigal” — Aaron Paul’s brief post-Roomba meltdown, Laura Fraser’s performance, and all the insight we got into Mike. But of all Breaking Bad episodes I’ve ever seen, this felt the least Breaking Bad-y. I’m a little uneasy with the Madrigal angle because it does feel so broad and movie-ish, and it takes away the intimacy of these characters in this place. Obviously we’ve always known big things are happening elsewhere, particularly with the cartel, but usually we’re just seeing it through Walt’s eyes, allowing it to maintain a relatable, human scale.
Now, suddenly, this tale has grown more sprawling than we ever imagined. I’m still on board, of course, as I’m sure next week will get back to Walt, Jesse, Skyler, Hank, and Marie. But I do have to admit I’m a little worried that Breaking Bad has bitten off more than it can chew with this storyline.
And I look forward to being proven dead wrong in the coming episodes.