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Breaking Bad – Madrigal

Live Free or Die wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t the strong opening that Breaking Bad‘s final season needed. It spent 45 minutes pottering about trying to deliver a grand, magnetic set piece, something that has never played into the show’s true strengths. It’s a good thing, then, that “Madrigal” completely addresses these issues and demonstrates how the season premiere should have been handled. It largely follows the same themes—our cast wringing their hands about whether the DEA have enough evidence to track them down—but deals with them in a far more subtle way. There’s no shouting, tipping cars or laptops flying across film sets, just the sort of tense character moments that the show has made its trademark.

The star of “Madrigal” is undoubtedly Mike. As the only surviving link to the Gustavo Fring empire, the writers use Mike in very clever ways in order to introduce us to a whole host of new characters and to flesh out the backstory behind Los Pollos Hermanos. “Madrigal” is written in very obvious terms, yet it’s so finely crafted that you won’t mind. We get introduced to Lydia, a frightened young mother who is desperately trying to escape any fallout from Los Pollos Hermanos’ collapse, and most of the episode follows Mike as he ensures his colleagues won’t give themselves away whilst simultaneously trying to avoid capture himself.

Breaking Bad has never been scared of weaving complex and meandering plot threads together, but in past seasons, that show has typically saved such multi-arc mayhem for the final moments. “Madrigal” shows Vince Gilligan’s team leaping straight into Face Off-esque scheming and parralel plotlines as early as episode two. Somehow the writers found time in between all the Mike stuff to show Walt and Jesse trying to get psyched up for going back into the meth trade. It’s in the Walt and Jesse scenes that the strength of the acting shines through, aided by some vivid directing from Michelle MacLaren. It was great to watch the camera lingering on Aaron Paul’s face as he broke into tears of relief when Walt found the missing ricin (even though of course, this was all a deception by Walt in the first place).

MacLaren also helps to give Walt fantastic characterisation. I noted last week how Walt has become markedly more assertive now the threat of imminent danger no longer looms over him, and this continues in full force this week. There’s a terrifying passive dominance to his interactions with Skyler now, and the camera helps convey their relationship. In one scene, the camera never acknowledges Walt as he “encourages” Skyler to get out of bed in the morning in a tone that could easily be described instead as “ordering.” It’s a stylistic homage to every movie and television mafia Don ever imagined—laid back, yet secure with absolute power. However, the difference between Walt and Don Corleone is that Walt’s arrogance is very much unfounded. Blinded by an urge to win that grows ever stronger, he can’t see the obvious dangers of going back into the meth business, and soon the net will fall around him.

There’s no such thing as a perfect episode, and if I was forced to pick one sore point of this season so far, it would be Anna Gunn. In both “Live Free or Die” and “Madrigal,” her performances have been less than outstanding, and although she doesn’t have much else to do other than sit there looking scared, her better performances have always come in episodes when Skyler is highly emotive (“No Mas”). With a script that is more suited to her particular strengths, Gunn will be up there in quality with the rest of the cast again. A highly reassuring episode that came just when it was needed, “Madrigal” leaves so much unanswered that it should be frustrating; however, the strength of the information and story it gives the viewer is so satisfying that I’m happy to have a week to digest it all.


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