How. Creepy. Was. That? Walter White slurping on "sleeping" Skyler's shoulder at the end of "Madrigal" was a huge step. Not necessarily for Breaking Bad, but for my relationship with Walter White. See, I've been a staunch defender of Mr. White ever since the pilot, viewing the character as someone to admire for his intelligence and craftiness, willingness to do whatever it takes for his family, and ability to transform into a totally unexpected badass when he should be grading the chemistry exams of failing students.
There have been times I wasn't fully behind what he was doing (most notably letting Jane choke to death on her undigested heroin lunch), but the reasons behind his actions are always about protection. Protecting his family, protecting his business, and protecting his own life. These are all reasonable motivations for me.
We all know that Breaking Bad is about turning a normal guy into Scarface over the course of the series, as creator Vince Gilligan is fond of saying, and as of late, especially during my roundtable discussions at Comic-Con, the word "sociopath" has been thrown around to describe Walter, which I don't agree with. But as recently as this week, my friends and I have been discussing the possibility of hating Walter White. Perhaps some of you more straight-laced button-ups were already headed in that direction, but as wicked and evil Walter would become, I never thought I wouldn't like the guy or at least root for him as the anti-hero.
Then "Madrigal" happened, and I'm cowering in front of him. After last week's "Live Free Or Die," we talked about how Walter was becoming more Heisenberg than Walter White, even bringing Heisenberg home, where he was previously off limits. This continued in tonight's episode in smaller doses, but those bits were much harder to swallow than Walter telling Saul "We're done when I say we're done."
Jesse had been freaking out about the missing ricin cigarette and living with the guilt that it could kill an innocent bystander, so Walt took action and planted a dummy cigarette in Jesse's Roomba to get Jesse focused on the task at hand and put the question of what happened to the cigarette behind him. It was Jesse's teary reaction to finding the cigarette—another Emmy-worthy performance by Aaron Paul, what else is new?—that put Walter in such a horrible light. "You and I working together, having each other's back," Walter says. "It's what saved our lives. I want you to think about that as we go forward." Here's Walter, rubbing Jesse's shoulders and telling him it's okay and putting Jesse through this incredibly difficult set of emotions, when it's all lies designed to convince Jesse to bury his suspicions and start cooking again. It was so difficult to watch, and maybe it's because I heart Jesse so much, but I felt hatred toward Walter White.
Skyler has turned into a shut-in bed squatter with all the stress from the Gus situation and seeing Ted Beneke a prisoner of headgear. But mostly she's frightened of Walt, and the way director Michelle MacLaren and cinematographer Michael Clovis are visualizing her fear is something to behold. Though she was the centerpiece of two important scenes, Skyler only had one line of dialogue this week. And in those scenes, the camera framing actually cut off Walter's head until he was crawling all over, tongue flapping back and forth on her back like a Dothraki warlord come to claim his prize. Breaking Bad is painting Walter White in a different light, and the mostly innocent lines he says—"It gets easier. I promise you that it does. What you're feeling right now, about Ted, everything. It'll pass. So when we do what we do it's for good reasons. And we've got nothing to worry about. And there's no better reason than family."—come off just disgusting. And Walter throwing "family" around still? That's like Saul using the word "ethical." He still thinks he's crusading for his family, when he's actually out for himself.
But for me—and this is with regard to my personal journey through Breaking Bad—it's staggering to think that I do not like Walter right now. I was floored when I said, "Oh fuck you, Walt" at the end of the episode, my skin crawling from feeling betrayed. But that's the exact reaction the show wanted to elicit. The most painful part of this transformation from Walter to Heisenberg is the moment you realize that Walter has definitively stepped over the line, never to return. For some of you that may have already happened. For me, he's right on top of that line, foot raised and ready to cross it, and giving me a wry look while he does it. It's amazing series-long writing for one character, the likes of which I have never seen before.
That's a lot of talk about a guy who wasn't even the centerpiece of tonight's episode. This week it was good old Mike the Cleaner who got the bulk of the story. In fact, "Madrigal" was some sick take on getting the band back together, except instead of a bass player there was a degenerate meth cook, and instead of a drummer there was a guy who is really good at killing people. It was obviously going to be a challenge for the writers to get Mike to team up with Walt and Jesse given Mike's past with both of them, especially given the beatdown he put on Walter in the bar and the fact that Walter killed his boss. Mike is the most practical character on this show; he's not going to agree to any endeavor unless it's a sure thing or he has to. Last week he helped Walt and Jesse out because the alternative was getting busted by the police. This week he grudgingly signed into the partnership because he had no other choice. He needs the money to keep Gus's other employees quiet and provide a cushy life for his granddaughter.
And adding Mike to the team means adding Mike's connections. Funny how having a solid connect to some methylamine will forgive an assassination attempt, but that's exactly how Lydia, the paranoid ex-work associate of Gus, avoided taking one between the eyes from Mike. All the pieces for a business are coming together, but I don't think any business school teaches the rule that great organizations are founded on fear. With each new employee added the chances of failure increase, and having the skittish Lydia on the payroll doesn't look good.
And in fact, nothing Walter is doing feels rock solid. He's building an empire all right, but he's doing it with a dangerous sense of overconfidence. He wants a lab in the city because he doesn't want to drive 50 miles outside of town? Laziness gets you visits from the cops, Walter! We're just two episodes into Walter's big breakout season as a bad dude, and already there's a feeling that so many things are about to go wrong. Adding the skittish Lydia and her direct ties to Gus is just more trouble waiting to happen.
– How awesome was the opening sequence? Just a gorgeous, self-electrocuting opening. Great work all around visually in this episode.
– Steven Spielberg was able to make a statement about the power of nerds in Jaws by making the heroes bespectacled old guys who weren't in the mold of the typical cinema hero. Vince Gilligan appears to be doing something similar with older, balding men in Breaking Bad. Walter, Hank, and Mike are all bald badasses. Let that chrome dome shine, people!
– Do you think Hank took his boss's words to heart when he said, "It was somebody else completely. Right in front of me. Right under my nose..." They focused on Hank in thought, but he couldn't have possibly been thinking about Walter, could he?
– Now we know that Gus's operation was globally funded all the way from Germany! So it seems like a good time to cut all ties with Gus's former associates. Ahem, Lydia.
– Though Lydia may be untrustworthy and more likely to do harm than good, she was damn funny in the scene with Mike at the diner.
– I'm guessing Jesse Plemons, who is joining the cast this season, is Lydia's connection to methylamine. Vince Gilligan said he would be "the weak link."
– R.I.P. Chow. You were one of the good ones.