by Alex Greenberger
The opening sequence of “Madrigal” presents us with one of “Breaking Bad’s” favorite visual puns—cooking in the culinary sense of the word, for once. The aesthetic of the laboratory of the episode’s start is completely different from the look of Albuquerque (it’s all hard lighting, as opposed to the soft, umber tones of Walt’s house), as is the language, which is German. Vince Gilligan’s writing slowly cues us into the fact that this is Madrigal Electronics GmbH, the site of a dipping sauce test, in which its sole participant is a chicken nugget-eating German, who, by the end of the sequence, ends up killing himself using a defibrillator upon noting that Pollos is closing and that federal agents are after Gus.
Gilligan’s pitch-black dark humor is particularly strong here—a few suggested sauce names include Cajun Kick-Ass, Franch (French and Ranch dressings combined), and Ketchup—particularly when this man’s suicide is punctuate by the flushing of a toilet. It’s a ridiculous scene, but it could only work here on “Breaking Bad.”
That sequence works largely thanks to the directorial efforts of Michelle MacLaren. She’s directed some of the show’s finest episodes, but “Madrigal” may just be the most finely directed one she, and the series as a whole, has produced yet. The striking opening is followed by a series of shots of Walt placing salt in a cigarette. MacLaren chooses to shopt this at a low height from underneath a glass table, a particularly effective directorial choice that makes the salt look like cocaine. It seems oddly feasible that Walt would be doing cocaine, or at least selling it—he’s certainly bad enough for it—but it’s also a strangely intense series of shots that do indeed characterize Walt as the drug lord that he is.
But Walt does not believe he’s only a drug lord; he sees himself as something of a lord, a deity of sorts. By the end of “Madrigal,” he’s completely broken Skyler in one (almost) violently sexual swoop and made Jesse trust him again. If last episode’s “I forgive you” wasn’t a chilling enough line, Walt’s final bit about doing “all of this for the family” is enough to mortify. And, even though the events surrounding him are mostly circumstantial, Walt has even pressured Mike into becoming a partner in a newfound three-way partnership between himself, Mike, and Jesse. Why, you may ask, is Walt still making meth if he has, as Saul says, “won the lottery by living?” Because he is broke, and because he owes Jesse $40,000, the former of which is almost surely false and a mere fabrication to control his subjects.
“Madrigal” truly revolves around Mike, however, which is a nice change of pace, considering how little we get to see of him. Mike’s arc in this episode is an intentional whirlwind of confusion in which he has to do battle with Hank and Gomie, a mysterious woman with methylene named Lydia, and the 11 people who know about Gus’ trade. At times, it’s really easy to get lost in Mike’s story, as it quickly jumps between the three of these groupings of people (Gilligan’s screenplay and MacLaren’s direction structurally and visually parallel this), but moments of great character development guide Mike through a downward spiral.
Lydia’s appearance may not last beyond “Madrigal,” but Gilligan’s addition of her character here is particularly interesting. Lydia is first introduced to us as an archetypical femme fatale—she walks into a diner garbed in sunglasses and business attire, sits in a booth behind Mike, and requests business with him. But the tables are quickly turned. Mike soon establishes himself as the power in this situation, and Lydia is soon established as a nervous brat who won’t settle for Lipton’s Tea when she can’t have English Chamomile. What’s even more interesting is Mike’s choice to spare her out of mere desperation. He needs her to supply ingredients, even if she sent a hit man to kill one of the 11 people who knew about Gus’ operation.
It’s great watching “Breaking Bad” reinvent noir tropes over and over and over again. It makes watching a show like this particularly unpredictable, because characters are never easily characterized, and everyone is particularly ambiguous. Saul, Jesse, Skyler, and Mike see major changes in this episode as they buckle under Walt’s pressure. Walt, on the other hand, seizes all the power he can. All hail the king.
Alex Greenberger is a staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.