One of the strangest aspects of last week’s Breaking Bad season premiere, “Live Free or Die,” was the extent to which it didn’t really feel like a season premiere. Continuing directly after the events of “Face Off,” the episode spent the majority of its time sprinting towards a resolution to a problem it had only just introduced. There wasn’t any real need for the evidence room plotline, and as a direct result of it, the episode did very little to set up the season’s overarching direction. Think back to season four’s brilliant opener, “Box Cutter.” Like “Live Free or Die,” “Box Cutter” opened mere moments after its previous season’s end, but it did so in a way that immediately established the season’s primary narrative – the power struggle between Walter White and Gus Fring. “Live Free or Die” felt like seasons four’s epilogue – its fourteenth episode as opposed to season five’s first. And while that didn’t make it a bad episode, it did inspire some cause for concern. Aside from a brilliant opening and an equally brilliant close, “Live Free or Die,” in many instances, felt a bit aimless.
Thankfully, “Madrigal” eases any concerns that Breaking Bad’s writing staff is entering season five with little to no idea of where things are headed. Beginning its hour with our first actual glimpse at the multi-national conglomerate that funded Gus Fring’s meth empire, “Madrigal” spends the majority of its runtime laying the groundwork for the season at large. The DEA’s investigation of the Fring empire has led them to Madrigal, and as a consequence, the powers that be at the company are looking deeper into their operation stateside. This leads to the introduction of Lydia (Laura Fraser), an American Madrigal executive that was actively involved with the company’s seedier dealings. Naturally, the deepest remaining connective tissue between Madrigal and Fring is Mike, who meets with Lydia to discuss handling possible loose ends.
It is in this plotline that the show really regains its footing, and highlights another element that was noticeably absent from last week’s premiere. “Live Free or Die” was a bit too celebratory – a victory lap that was missing that unmistakable sense of dread that has become a hallmark of the show. “Madrigal,” on the other hand, is overflowing with it, and as we follow Mike through multiple attempts at dissolving the remaining strands of the Fring operation, we realize how deep the hole truly goes. By the end of the hour, Mike is left with the realization that none of the options before him lead anywhere but further downward, and in that moment, the season’s direction becomes clear. There’s no escaping the hole these characters have dug for themselves, and as time goes on, it’s only getting deeper. Here, Mike chooses to delay the inevitable, hoping to soften the blow.
Walt, on the other hand, continues his descent in a way that remains unclear. The episode again closes with a moment between him and Skyler, and what Walt undoubtedly interprets as a moment of intimacy is, in reality, anything but. Assuring Skyler that her paralyzing fear stemming from the events that lead to Fring’s demise is something that will pass, there’s a question of whether or not Walt fails to realize Skyler’s fear predominately stems from the monster he’s become. Cranston plays the scene in a masterfully ambiguous way, never once leaning enough in either direction to definitively say whether this assurance was a veiled threat or an honest attempt at consoling her. Walt’s intentions behind the Ricin cover-up are similarly ambiguous. On the one hand, Walt’s act comes across as vile manipulation – a ploy to stop Jesse from thinking about the circumstances of Brock’s poisoning any further. On the other hand, it’s obvious Jesse is losing sleep over it, and while Walt’s actions bring Jesse closer to him, they also alleviate the stress and the guilt Jesse has been having since the Ricin seemingly vanished into thin air.
What we have here in the parallel between Mike and Walter are two people dealing with their respective declines in very different ways. More so than he ever has before, Mike has slowly become Walter’s exact opposite – able to see that he’s traveled too far down the path to ever successfully turn back, and at peace enough with it that he’s able to take actions that, in his mind, might soften the inevitable downfall. Walter, on the other hand, continues to operate in free-fall – tumbling downward with such speed and powerlessness that by the time it’s all over, the end can’t be anything less than nightmarish.