The cold opens of “Breaking Bad” are the series’ stylistic sandbox, the place in which it makes its wildest and most distinctive gestures — time slips forward or backward, we get a narcocorrido inspired by our protagonist’s career choices or peek into the miserable day-to-day of a minor character like streetwalker Wendy. Episodes have kicked off with the enigmatic portents of doom in season two that turned out to be glimpses of the aftermath of an airplane crash; a Los Pollos Hermanos commercial giving way to an overview of how the restaurant chain shields meth transports; the Cousins getting out of a Benz and onto their knees to join a crawling procession toward an altar to Santa Muerte. Sometimes they contain flashbacks that bring an added and always painful twist to the show’s present day, with an optimistic Walt (Bryan Cranston) and a pregnant Skyler (Anna Gunn) looking at houses early in their marriage or a cheery and already murdered Gale (David Costabile) setting up the superlab, giddy as a kid on Christmas as he opens the high-end equipment.
The opening sequence to “Madrigal,” written by Vince Gilligan and directed by Michelle MacLaren, takes us farther afield than the series has ever gone, to the distant flourescent-lit headquarters of Los Pollos Hermanos’ German parent corporation Madrigal Electromotive GmbH, where an executive (Norbert Weisser) robotically dabs fried blobs into bright smears of sauce (among them the combo dressing “Franch” and regular ketchup) while anxious food science technicians look on.
Sure, Walt’s blue meth may be a highly addictive, dangerous, life-destroying illicit drug, but the parallel being presented is hard to miss — people cook up all kinds of carefully tailored awful substances in the cool confines of a lab. While “Cajun Kick-ass” dipping goo may have caused gastric distress in its original formulation, it’s still a legal product that can be sold out in the open. The Pollos secret side business, on the other hand, was not part of Madrigal’s plan, as we can garner from the removal of the logo in the building’s lobby, the presence of law enforcement in the office and the executive’s eventual suicide by defibrillator in the bathroom.
So Walt’s past actions have reverberated as far as Europe, though he doesn’t know that, and his recent ones using the magnet to destroy the laptop in evidence have turned out to have serious consequences for Mike (Jonathan Banks), who otherwise just wanted to distance himself from Heisenberg and his new venture. (Ironically, we learn that the laptop was encrypted and the DEA probably wouldn’t have gotten anything off of it anyway — even in death, Gus is meticulous.) But thanks to the shattering of the photo, the DEA found and froze the offshore bank accounts into which Mike and his 11 men were paid, and Mike finds himself without the leverage and security he thought he had, his “solid” guys no longer so firm. He isn’t actually free to walk away from Walt, despite knowing better.
And Mike has always known better. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) had a weakness for Walt that had its roots in his need to do everything well, to have his chicken chain restaurant cover biz be stand-alone successful and carefully managed and to have his meth be the best it could possibly be, even in an industry in which perfect quality probably wasn’t that necessary.
Mike sees that Walt is “a time bomb. tick tick ticking,” but without the two million he saved up, his years of work for Gus have come to nothing. Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) spent last week’s episode taking care of clean-up, but Mike’s personal taking out of the trash is messier and more dangerous. Without the money they were paid, the only thing keeping his 11 men from flipping is fear, which is why when Lydia (Laura Fraser), Gus’ apparent Madrigal contact, checks in with Mike, what she really wants is for the problem to vanish.
There’s such a divide between the career criminals in “Breaking Bad” and the ones who think they’re just dabbling. When he discovers the missing ricin cigarette that Walt arranged for him to find, Jesse breaks down into tears thinking that he ever (rightly) doubted Walt. Terrified of having her organic, non-dairy life disrupted, Lydia suggests to Mike that he put out hits on the men he hired, leading him to snarl “I dont know what kind of movies you’ve been watching, but here in the real world we don’t kill 11 people as some kind of prophylactic measure.”
From what we’ve seen of Lydia so far, she’s a match to Walt, an upright citizen who has turned out to be much less predictable and more dangerous in her criminal activities than the pros. Thanks to her, at least, we get to see Mike in action again, and his quiet competence and the matter-of-fact exchange he has with the guy who’s arrange to kill him are a contrast with Lydia’s scattershot nervousness.
“Breaking Bad” has managed to make the concept of protecting your family sound monstrous. Walt is especially skin-crawly this episode, first in how he yet again manipulates a distraught Jesse, and then in how he caresses an even more upset Skyler (Anna Gunn) as he tells her that the feelings of guilt will fade — “When we do what we do for good reasons, then we’ve got nothing to worry about, and there’s no better reason than family.”
It’s a breathtaking twist on an old platitude — making personal sacrifices for loved ones is one thing, but Walt’s talked himself into being justified sacrificing other people for the sake of his wife and kids. It’s ego masquerading as protectiveness, something we see in Lydia as well, when she begs Mike not to hide her body from her little girl because “my daughter’s not thinking I abandoned her.” A child finding her mother’s bloody corpse versus growing up not knowing if the woman fled and left her is hardly a win-win situation, but the latter choice seems obviousy guided by what Lydia wants versus what’s best for the kid.
At least Walt — frightening, sure of himself Walt — has his people together and all the streets of Albuquerque now his to scoop up gold from. Unless he somehow discovers what Walt did to Brock, Jesse’s firmly on his side, and wary Mike will bring his savvy along with his doubts.
There are hints at where trouble will come calling — will Skyler really be able to beat down her better instincts? is Hank going to let his investigation go? what about the Germans? — but right now Walt’s in as good a place as he’s ever been in his terrible second career. And isn’t that a troubling prospect?