Breaking Bad gives us a much more methodical episode this week, serving more as set-up for the rest of the season. But, thanks to some impressive cinematography and direction, we certainly get our fair share of suspense and intrigue.
Let’s take a close look after the jump.
The episode opens with an effective sequence where we meet the head honcho, Herr Schuler, of the titular “Madrigal” Elektromotoren, one of the many companies that Frig’s empire was funding. Hank (Dean Norris) found a connection between Madrigal and Los Pollos Hermanos last season, when he traced a serial number for industrial parts. We’re introduced to Schuler as he methodically samples new dipping sauces in a test kitchen. Stoically dipping hash browns into globs of sauces, one affectionately termed ‘Franch” (a hybrid of French and Ranch dressings – YUM!) his team of lab techs watch in trepidation. His secretary comes in and whispers “They’re here again”. It’s impossible to tap into what Schuler is thinking, but much like the befuddled lab techs, we can’t help but wonder what he’s thinking as he chomps away. Calmly, Schuler walks to greet the three police men waiting for him, on his way, seeing the Los Pollos Hermanos sign remove unceremoniously from the food court hallway. As I mentioned last week, one of Breaking Bad’s greatest achievements is its spectacular use of economy in its sequences. It employs just the right amount of dialogue and movement to convey powerful emotions. All Schuler has to do is see the police uniforms and the sign removal to know he’s done for. Immediately, I wondered if he knew this while chomping on hash browns, coming to grips with the fact that this would be his last meal. He manages to grab an emergency defibrillator (which apparently are just hanging around in Germany) to off himself in the bathroom. Again, we’re treated to such streamlined actions. Schuler is calmer than ever as he sets up his suicide, meanwhile his secretary and the police officers bang incessantly on the door. The juxtaposition is incredibly effective – adequately building tension for a character we’ve only just met. And this all happens in the cold open!
The rest of the episode primarily diverges into two paths – cleaning up the business with Jesse (Aaron Paul) and the missing ricin cigarette, and following Mike (Jonathan Banks) as he tries to clean up the mess that Walt (Bryan Cranston) has left for him with the killing of Gus (Giancarlo Esposito).
Turns out Jesse is still frantic about the missing cigarette, worried that it might wreak havoc on whomever finds it. Walt will never have Jesse’s full compliance unless he takes care of this loose end. We see Walt creating a mock ricin cigarette using table salt and hiding the real ricin behind an outlet just in case he needs the deadly poison again. While we are privy to this bait and switch, but I couldn’t help but wonder if Walt was absolutely sure that the ricin was hidden and the salt vile was what he planted in Jesse’s Roomba. (Walt just has a propensity for botching things I mentioned last week, so thought just had to cross my mind…) We see all of this accompanied by a voice over of the frantic phone conversation between Jesse and Walt recounting Jesse’s fears. Again, a wonderfully economic tactic used to convey the message – there’s nothing extraneous here.
Back in Jesse’s apartment, once he discovers the fake ricin cigarette he’s overcome with guilt and starts to weep at the thought of almost killing Walt when he thought Walt had initially stolen it. We see Walt’s hands massage Jesse shoulders to calm him down, the camera purposefully cutting off Walt’s head. “Whatever happened happened for the best. I wouldn’t change a thing,” Walt coaxes, and the fragile Jesse buys it. An effective means of showing Walt’s god complex almost acting like an omniscient being as he spouts off these didactic speeches. (Check out this clip from The Simpsons if you need clarification on what I’m talking about)
We see this again in Walt’s scenes with Skyler (Anna Gunn). The first when she can’t get out of bed, finally grasping the realities of her new world. The entire scene is presented to us in a medium wide shot, guided only by Walt’s disembodied voice. But more significantly, we see this again in the episode’s closing scene, as he gets ready for bed. Skyler terrifying clutches her pillow lying away from him, and we only hear Walt take off his clothes. The long take increases the uncomfortable tension. “When we do what we do for good reasons we’ve got nothing to worry about… and there’s no better reason than family,” he coos in her ear. The dimly lit shot means we can’t see much of Skyler’s face but the gleam of her eyes implicates the viewer. She mind as well be looking directly at us as the devil crawls in bed with her, stroking her arms and kissing her. I’ve never felt more creeped out. Director Michelle MacLaren deserves an Emmy nom for this episode, as she’s not afraid to really exploit the cinematography to further enhance the narrative elements.
Speaking of Emmy’s – we might as well give Jonathan Banks one as well, as this is clearly his episode to shine in. Mike is the definitive counterpoint to Walt. Make no mistake, Mike’s got plenty of blood on his hands, but the way he navigates through obstacles in comparison to Walt is what I believe this episode was trying to get at. Cool-headed and methodical, Mike represents everything Walt needs to be. Take the wonderful scene between him and Lydia (Laura Fraser), a US Madrigal executive, whose comical nervousness reminded me of Frankie the Squealer.
After suggesting that Mike dispose of the 11 co-conspirators in Gus’ crime circle who could name Lydia’s involvement, he matter-of-factly tells her, “I don’t know how many movies you’ve been watching, but in the real world, we don’t kill 11 people.” Brilliant. Although at this point he’s unaware that the feds have frozen the hush money, putting a hit on 11 people still seems unnecessarily excessive and likely to bring more unwanted attention. Considering Walt’s over-the-top magnet heist last episode, it’s likely that Walt would have reacted much differently.
Lydia, of course, doesn’t listen and hires one of Mike’s colleagues work down the list of 11. Ultimately, Mike’s spidey senses allow him to elude execution and return to Lydia’s apartment for revenge. Unfortunately, she has a five year-old daughter, which allows Lydia to tug on Mike’s heartstrings, allowing her to live another day. The direction of this sequence alone, with its slick use of shadows and reflections, is enough to have anyone on the edge of their seats. The camera work throughout this episode practically trumpets the television medium as being as cinematic as any film.
- The interrogation scene between Mike and Hank is also something to marvel at. The shifts in power throughout this short scene are incredibly fascinating. The equivalent of a ping-pong match of wits. I loved that final grimace that Mike made before exiting the room. Again, superb acting from all parties.
- Bob Odenkirk is killing it this season as Saul. I never would have thought Saul would be the voice of reason especially after starting in the series as such a caricature. I appreciated Odenkirk’s work back on his Mr. Show days, but this season he’s definitely giving us a truly layered and nuanced portrayal of Saul, bringing a refreshing authenticity to the part.
- I also admired how the scales of justice were continually visible in the foreground (and blurred) whenever we got a shot of Walt talking in Saul’s office. With a lucrative car wash business, Walt has the chance to walk away toward the path of redemption, but of course, is completely blind to it.
What did you think about this week’s offering viewers? How do you think Walt, Jesse and Mike will fare now that they’re “owners” and not “employees”? Do you think Lydia will fall into line? Let us know in the comments section below.
Breaking Bad airs 10:00pm EST, Sundays on AMC.