Written by series creator Vince Gilligan and directed by Michelle MacLaren, "Madrigal" is a housekeeping episode, mainly concerned with setting up future events and clarifying old ones. While it checks in with Walt, Skyler, Jesse, and Saul, its spotlight is on a glorified supporting player, Jonathan Banks's security guy–hit man, Mike. But I'd still put it on a list of Breaking Bad's best episodes, because it's perfect, and because it underlines the show's distinguishing characteristic: a commitment to clarity.
"Madrigal" explains two important bits of narrative business: the stuff with the Ricin and the Lily of the Valley plant, and the fallout from the DEA's investigation of Los Pollos Hermanos. Both are central to "Madrigal," which is why I've built this recap around them.
Ricin and Lily of the Valley
In season four, Walt gave Jesse a cigarette containing a ricin capsule. Jesse was supposed to use the ricin to poison Gus Fring. Jesse did not go through with the act, and in fact found himself buckling under pressure from Mike and Gus, who were setting him up as a potential replacement for Walt. Walt came up with a diabolical "emergency" solution to get Jesse back on his side and make him mad enough to want to kill Gus: He conspired with Saul to surreptitiously steal the cigarette pack that contained the ricin and replace it with an identical pack with no ricin cigarette. Then Walt poisoned Jesse's girlfriend's son with a Lily of the Valley plant in his backyard.
Walt's gambit convinced Jesse that the boy had gotten somehow gotten hold of the ricin cigarette, then filled Jesse with murderous rage against Gus once he became convinced that Los Pollos Hermanos CEO was actually behind the poisoning. (Gus had used kids in his drug trade before, so in theory that made him a more likely candidate to poison a child than the infant-cuddling, family-idealizing Walt.)
The closing shot of the season four finale, "Face Off," confirms the presence of the Lily of the Valley plant in Walt's backyard. In this season's opener, "Live Free or Die," Walt remembers the plant while clearing his home of incriminating material and places it in the trunk of his car for disposal. Impressively, YouTube user jcham979 identified the precise moment when Walt decided to use the plant as poison, anticipated Walt's scheme days in advance of the finale's air date, and explored the whole thing in a video essay that I republished at Salon last year. It begins in the scene where Walt sits in his backyard, absentmindedly spinning a pistol on a table; when the scene ends, the pistol points at the Lily of the Valley plant in the background.
The show left the exact details of the cigarette-pack replacement vague, but eagle-eyed viewers spotted the moment when it happened: the scene in "End Times" where Jesse goes to Saul's office. Before giving Jesse a duffel bag filled with cash, Saul has Huell frisk him. In "Live Free or Die," Saul confirms what happened in his conversation with Walt: He presents Walt with the ricin capsule and jokes it was miracle that the fat-fingered henchman got the pack away from Jesse.
This week, Walt hides the ricin capsule behind an electrical socket plate (presumably saving it for later, in case he needs to poison someone?) then creates a replacement filed with salt and contrives to have Jesse "find" it while searching Jesse's house for the ricin cigarette. When Jesse "finds" the fake ricin capsule in the roving vacuum cleaner (Walt planted it there, natch), he breaks down in tears. He's so overcome by emotion that it never occurs to him that the capsule could have anything other than ricin in it. His catharsis likely amplifies his fear that he's ultimately just a hapless screw-up and apprentice-for-life while bonding him closer to Walt, who's been a surrogate Bad Dad to Jesse from the start. Now they're back together doing their Pinky and the Brain thing. It's just like the Winnebago days, only with exponentially greater stakes.
The DEA's investigation of Madrigal Elektromotoren
The episode starts with Herr Schuler, a top executive of the German food conglomerate Madrigal Elektromotoren — parent company of Los Pollos Hermanos — killing himself with heart paddles rather than face police interrogation over Madrigal's involvement with Gus's drug trade. By the end of the episode, we've learned that the scenario Gus put in place to ensure the loyalty of his workers (i.e., buying silence with money) is crumbling. All the Madrigal-related plot twists in this episode are about money, and the fear of losing it.
That means Mike has no choice but to join Walt and Jesse as they try to jump-start a new distribution business to sell their meth. Mike's not happy about this because, as he tells Walt in the earlier scene with Walt and Jesse in Mike's kitchen, "You are trouble. I'm sorry the kid here doesn't see it. A time bomb. Tick-tick-ticking. And I have no intention of being around for the boom."
Mike has to join up with Walt and Jesse anyway because the DEA learned about the secret Cayman Islands bank accounts that Gus set up to buy the silence of his top employees. (The information was written on a piece of paper hidden inside a framed photograph; Walt's destruction of the police evidence room last week shattered a picture frame, revealing the account info.) The feds have frozen the hush funds. For all intents and purposes, the money is no longer available to any of the people whose silence it was supposed to buy. That means Mike is financially back to square one or worse — just like Walt and Skyler.
Lydia (Laura Fraser), a U.S.-based Madrigal executive, tries to hire Mike to murder a list of Madrigal employees that Lydia fears will turn state's witness. They're all freaking out for the same reason: because the DEA has frozen their hush money. Lydia seems to be under the impression that if nobody testifies about the Gus Fring/Madrigal business, they'll all walk away and get to keep their money. Mike, who's been around the proverbial block several thousand times, knows better. He seems to realize what Lydia does not: no matter what happens with the DEA, that money is unreachable now. That means Mike, Lydia, Chow and everyone else with money in the Caymans have lost, or are in danger of losing, their nest eggs.
Mike personally lost $2 million (stashed in his granddaughter's name). This is catastrophic for Mike. He said no to Lydia's ridiculous assassination scheme for the same reason he declined to join Walt's new organization: because he mistakenly believed that he'd already been provided for. At the start of the episode, Mike seems to think that if he just keeps a cool head and encourages others to do likewise, he can live off the $2 million for the rest of his natural life while playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos with his granddaughter. He learns otherwise in the scene where Hank and his partner Steve Gomez bring him in for questioning. The scene ends with Mike strolling out of the interrogation room with his head held high, only to blanch when Hank reveals that the DEA knows about his "secret" account. Because Mike's back is turned, Hank and Steve don't see what we see: Mike's stricken face as he realizes that that all bets are off. Lydia hires one of Mike's subordinates to carry out the hits instead. The younger man has Chow ask Mike to come out to his house to talk. Chow makes it sound as if he's considering talking to the feds, but this is really a setup for an ambush that Mike easily escapes.
Why does Mike spare Lydia's life near the end of "Madrigal"? There are two reasons: one emotional, the other practical. The emotional reason is that Mike, for all his ruthlessness, has a soft spot for his granddaughter. Lydia knowingly or unknowingly taps this. She asks that Mike not shoot her in the face and that he leave her body where her daughter could find it rather than making her disappear and encourage the kid to think her mother had abandoned her. Both these requests seemed to move the normally un-moveable Mike, and opened the door to another scenario: Lydia using her connections to provide Walt's new organization with methylamine, the chemical it needs to start cooking again.
Odds and ends
- This feels like Jonathan Banks' Emmy episode. It showcases all of his great strengths: icy menace, contemptuous wit and unexpected vulnerability. I hope he makes it all the way through to the very end of the series. I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he ended up being the last man standing. The interrogation room scene — which is so subtle and hilarious that it deserves its own column — fills in a lot of Mike's backstory, including his past as a police officer. He's a ronin figure, a fixer/killer wandering from job to job. This can't be the first time he's maneuvered his way into a situation that seemed like a sure thing, only to have to leave town in a hurry and start over again.
- Love the scene where Hank and Steve bid farewell to the boss who's been scapegoated for the Gus Fring fiasco. The monologue about Gus hiding in plain sight is one of the series' best bits of dialogue-writing, and that final closeup of Hank is brilliant. It's as if an epiphany is lurking just beneath the surface of his conscious mind. He's so close to a breakthrough. "He was somebody else completely. Right in front of me. Right under my nose."
- The coffee shop scene with Lydia and Mike is fantastic, too — drily funny but with an edge of terror. Mike: "You coming to me, or am I coming to you?" Lydia: "Face forward. We'll talk like this." Mike: (Long pause) "I guess I'm coming to you."
- When you think about Walt's ricin/Lily of the Valley plan for more than five seconds, it seems ludicrous. It's one of those bad-guy schemes with a hell of a lot of moving parts, any one of which could jam and destroy the entire contraption. But that's fine: this isn't the kind of show where you think about real-world plausibility, only Rube Goldberg-style chains of action and reaction, cause and effect. Within the Spy-vs.-Spy context of Breaking Bad, it's brilliant — and it's ultimately smarter than the electromagnet scheme or the nursing-home bombing because it wrought its damage in private rather than in public.
- Walt always had a bit of a god complex, but the successful murder of Gus Fring seems to have made him even more arrogant. This is the second episode where Walt, supposedly a left-brained, math-and-science-and-rationality guy, has demanded that other people accept whatever he says simply because he said it. Following the electromagnet escapade in "Live Free or Die," Mike wanted reassurance that they weren't going to get caught, and Walt assured him they wouldn't, "Because I say so." This episode has a similar moment: during the meeting between Saul, Jesse and Walt in Saul's office, Walt says they have to obtain methylamine. Jesse insists that's impossible because none is available. "There is," Walt tells him. "Have faith."
- Before Walt and Jesse come over to Mike's house, Mike is watching The Caine Mutiny, wherein a U.S. Navy ship's crew revolts against its increasingly petty, paranoid and unhinged skipper, Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). This is a wonderful film reference because it refracts in so many different directions. "Madrigal" is itself about a corporate mutiny, with employees who were paid to be silent breaking their agreement when their money is frozen by the DEA. Walt, of course, led his own mutiny last season against his dictatorial boss, Gus Fring. Walt is now about to become the captain of his own meth manufacture/distribution cartel. I would not be terribly surprised if he ended up going out like Captain Queeg, succumbing to paranoia and arrogance and driving his men to turn against him. If it comes to that, Mike would be his deadliest adversary. There's a reason why every other name on tonight's hit list was valued at $10,000, while Mike's was valued at three times that amount.
- Michelle MacLaren's direction is a master class in moving the camera to reveal information. There are many functional yet beautiful shots in this episode. The closeup of the gunman realizing, too late, that Mike is behind him, pointing a gun at his skull; the wider shot of the gunman's back, and the camera moving to reveal Mike pointing a pistol at him; the slow pull-back revealing the murdered Chow on the couch, his bloodied head positioned center-frame; the tracking shot revealing Mike hiding in the rear of Lydia's house; the split-screen image showing Mike terrorizing Lydia screen-left and her daughter and nanny in the background, screen-right.
- Speaking of intelligent direction, the compositions in this episode go a long way toward making Walt seem like a monster by dehumanizing him, practically turning him to a horror movie stalker-figure. The scene where he tries to wake Skyler up is played entirely in a medium wide shot that cuts off the top of Walt's head. The closing scene where he crawls in bed with Skyler is similarly framed. The moment is truly unnerving. She's his captive now, a slave to his malevolence.
- Returning to the mutiny thing: On second thought, maybe it's Skyler who'll lead a mutiny against Captain White's ship of madness. As she once put it, "Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family."
- If TV's other great drama Mad Men is literary fiction, prizing ambivalence and ambiguity and fetishizing ellipses and question marks, Breaking Bad is high-level genre fiction: a character study that borrows from whodunits, heist stories, and cat-and-mouse crime thrillers in which clever antagonists try to outwit each other. It's not big on ambiguity, either as a moral/philosophical statement or as a cover-your-ass excuse for writing itself into corners. No character's motivation is a mystery: everybody's trying to hold onto their money and avoid death or jail (or in the DEA's case, catch whoever's making the blue meth and wreaking havoc in Albuquerque). Given the massive amount of data being hurled at you in any given hour, you watch Breaking Bad knowing that you'll be confused at certain points — either because Gilligan and company are withholding key facts until later, or because they haven't quite worked out all the details themselves. At the same time, however, you're reassured that confusion is not the show's go-to mode — that in time, all will be revealed and explained.