'Breaking Bad' Recap: Heisenberg Uber Alles

In episode two, the world of Walter White expands - and Season Five truly begins

mike breaking bad
Frank Ockenfels/AMC
Jonathan Banks as Mike in 'Breaking Bad.'
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Anyone else feel like that made the season premiere look like a JAG rerun?

Nothing against the premiere, mind you—between the ominous cold open, the demonstration of Walt's cold-bloodedness, and the Magneto cameo, it had a lot to recommend it. But there's a reason most of the big quality dramas keep their climaxes in the second-to-last episode of any given season, rather than the finales. Look at the recently concluded seasons of Game of Thrones and Mad Men, for example: I won't spoil anything for those who haven't watched them, but either of them had saved the explosive events of their penultimate episode for their final hour instead, you'd really be left hanging till next season. (Cough, ahem.) Instead they followed the model established by David Chase and The Sopranos, got the shockers out of the way with a full hour to spare, and used their finales as epilogues, cleaning things up and tying up loose ends.

That's not what Breaking Bad did, to say the least. "Face Off" was maybe the loudest note a work of art has ended on this side of the final chord on "A Day in the Life," and it therefore fell to last week's "Live Free or Die" to tell us what happened next. Now the decks are cleared, and in "Madrigal," directed by Michelle MacLaren from a script by showrunner Vince Gilligan, Season Five can begin in earnest.

And holy scheisse, did it ever. We're in a whole 'nother place now—literally, as in Germany. Now the mysterious German conglomerate that bankrolled Gus's restaurant and his meth operation is no longer a mystery: It's a massive, antiseptic institution filled with signage for a slew of gross food-court  ethnic-restaurant chains, a place where men in suits can joylessly taste dipping sauces with names like Franch or Cajun Kick-Ass before using defibrillators to fry themselves on the toilet rather than face the polizei. It's able to send a phalanx of lawyers and officials—including the black-clad head honcho, obvious filling in during Udo Kier's sabbatical—on a private jet to "help" Hank and company's investigation. This does not seem like an organization that will quietly accept a bad return on its investments, nahmean?

Meanwhile, the episode's Mike-centric storyline introduced us to a new power player, Lydia, played by a memorably manic Laura Fraser. The Widow Fring, I presume?  (I've been hearing theories that Gus and Max, his slain Chicken Brother partner from back in the day, were romantically involved, but I don't think that would preclude Gus's need to project a square, family-man front here in the States. We did see children's toys in his house during Jesse's first visit there, too.) We learn that Lydia's one of a very small group of people with access to Gus's high-level guys, and that there's a checklist of eleven men who could bring her, and Mike, and by extension Walt, down. And we learn that Sherlock Hank has uncovered the secret Cayman Island bank accounts that were intended to keep Ehrmantraut's Eleven bought, paid for, and quiet in the event of an emergency. Between Lydia and the Germans, the show expanded its scope so dramatically I half expected Mike to discover a Dharma Initiative hatch.

But it'd all just be empty worldbuilding if it weren't still rooted in excruciating depictions of the emotional consequences of immoral acts, and Mike's aborted execution of Lydia was as excrutiating as they come. Vince Gilligan has an unfortunate tendency to oversell some of his women characters' priggishness—Season One Maria was a case in point—and Lydia's absurd chai-jinx in the diner made for an enormously unsympathetic introduction, though I blamed the writing as much as the character. That vanished when Mike put that gun to her head. Instead of a snobby, out-of-her-depth asshole blithely suggesting eleven murders, she became a panic- and grief-stricken mother about to lose her child forever, so devoid of hope that she begged not for her life but simply for her corpse to be dumped someplace it would eventually be found, so that her daughter would know she hadn't been voluntarily abandoned.

The scene worked because we had every reason to believe Mike would pull the trigger. He murders people for a living, as coldly and remorselessly as if he were delivering Edible Arrangements. His obvious love for his granddaughter extends to putting aside all his blood money for her future, but doesn't stop him from (repeatedly) using tchotchkes he's bought for her as decoys in his hits, so he clearly doesn't see the line between children and violence as brightly as, say, Jesse does. It's reasonable to believe that giving the kid and her nanny a chance to stay clear of the corpse about covers it for him. And of course there was his magnificent, despairing speech in season three about never again making the mistake of taking half measures when only the full measure will do. Even when he hesitated, Lydia's more fortunate fate wasn't clear: We've seen both Walt and Jesse hesitate before finally making the kill in the past, after all. As always, actor Jonathan Banks takes a character who could be a hitman cliché and turns him into someone likeable and terrible and believable, the gravel in his voice and the shifting faultlines around his eyes and mouth making his transitions between grandfatherly curmudgeon and ruthless murderer as seamless as they are impossible for his victims to predict. Fraser really got tossed into the deep end of the pool in what was only her second scene on the show, but she swam like a motherfucker, all her character's earlier narcissism wiped away in favor of a dying mother's love. It was only after the scene ended, after Mike enlisted Lydia for her chemical connections and let her live and the show cut away entirely, that I was able to calm down enough to realize I was literally shaking.

Lydia wasn't the only person made to suffer by what Walt hath wrought. "I don't know what's wrong with me, Mr. White," Jesse sobs as Walt allows him to believe he'd lost their ricin-packed cigarette and nearly killed his mentor over it. "I don't know how I could be so stupid." If you've ever been really low, really devastated by your inability to be the person you want to be or even imagine how to get there from here, Jesse's anguish was achingly familiar; it doesn't hurt that Aaron Paul is perhaps the best crier on television. And the whole time Walt's comforting Jesse, both we and Walt know it's his fault. What was truly unnerving about it was just how good Walt has gotten with this stuff. You can pinpoint the very moment he came up with a plan to dupe Jesse—it happened on the fly during the phone call that played as a voiceover, when Walt shifted from telling Jesse not to worry about it (i.e. trying to get him to stop looking) to suddenly saying stuff like "Well, did you check your car?" In the space of seconds he formulated a plan to replace the cigarette, put it some place Jesse could find it, and encourage him to look for it until he does.

Walt's ability to calmly dissemble like that also haunts the scene between Hank, Gomez, and their supervisor Merket, who's been canned due to his close relationship with slain entrepreneur/philanthropist/druglord Gus Fring. "He's somebody else completely," Merket murmurs with rueful awe as the camera cuts to Hank, just in case we'd missed the connection. "Right in front of me. Right under my nose." "It gets easier," Walt tells a bedridden Skyler at the end of the episode. For him, yeah. For everyone he touches, it's only going to get harder.

Last Episode: A Magnetic Personality

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