Instead of dispensing the final 16 episodes of “Breaking Bad" at once, Vince Gilligan and co. decided it would be better to split them up over 2 shorter mini-seasons to give the writers the best chance at finishing the story in a satisfying way. So far, that decision seems to be paying off as you can feel an urgency in the first two episodes of Season 5, as they race through the hanging story threads from last season so they can begin laying the groundwork for the story to come. Two episodes down and we’re already ¼ through the 2012 episodes. Thankfully they’re every bit as good as we’d hoped they would be.
While we didn’t get another glimpse at the older, improved version of Walt, “Walt 52” (as we’ll refer to him from here on out), we do open with another disorienting tease: this time in a brightly lit German lab. A silent very creepy German man, Mr. Schuler, is tasting a variety of new sauces cooked up by a team of flavor engineers. These are the offices of Madrigal Electromotive, a conglomerate that owns a number of various fast food joints including Los Pollos Hermanos. At the top of the episode its sign is being removed from the hallowed halls of the Madrigal offices in light of the owner’s recent meth ring being uncovered. So it looks like Hank will have to go elsewhere for delicious fried chicken.
The Polizei have arrived to question Mr. Schuler, whose offices shows a few too many pictures of him bro’ing down with recently departed drug kingpin Gus Fring to leave without inquiry. Rather than face interrogation, Schuler decides to rig himself a suicide machine, placing a live wire in his mouth before sending a blast of electricity through it, killing himself instantly. Yep, welcome to "Breaking Bad." Eagle-eyed fans will remember Madrigal’s first appearance was during Season 3’s "Kafkaesque" and it looks like Pollos’ parent company is going to play a larger role this season.
As for when we might get another glimpse at Walt 52, it seems like that might be a ways off yet though a few details that slipped through the cracks last week are probably worth mentioning here. A commenter pointed out, Walt 52 is not wearing a wedding ring, which the episode goes out of its way later to point out that he still is. And though he has a full head of hair, the coughing and pills show that his cancer is back. According to the “Breaking Bad” Insider Podcast, the writers had toyed with the idea of jumping ahead in time for the remainder of the series but realized there were too many unresolved story threads to attend to.
Speaking of which, Walt reconfigures a faux Ricin cigarette to plant in Jesse's apartment tying up what may be the final loose end from last season. The original — which he had lifted off of Jesse last season by Saul's bodyguard — had been given back to him by Saul last episode but rather than trust Jesse with the poison-filled original, he recreates the cigarette with table salt and conveniently finds it in the Roomba after a long and exhausting search. Instead of dumping the real ricin, Walt leaves it for safekeeping behind a power outlet in his bedroom. You never know when a little untraceable poison might come in handy.
After their falling out last year, there's something nice about seeing Walt and Jesse working together again as partners, even if it's all built on Walt's lies and manipulations. Poor Jesse blames himself for pulling a gun on Walt last season but Walt assures him, "You and I working together, having each other's back is what saved our lives," before dropping the next phase of his plan, "I want you to think about that as we go forward." Walt explains that there's a hole in the meth market that needs to be filled so the duo decide to step up to the task and approach Mike to be a part of their new venture as owners, no longer employees. Mike initially refuses, calling Walt a "ticking time bomb" but we know this probably won’t be the last word on the subject.
At the DEA, the head of Madrigal pledges full cooperation with an investigation citing Schuler's actions as his own and not part of any larger illegal operation going on within the company. Hank finally get's the "you were right" he had sorely lacked all last season when he alone suspected upstanding local business owner Gus for being a meth kingpin while his boss reminisces about a family cookout where Gus taught him how to cook sea bass."The whole night we were laughing, telling stories, drinking wine… and he was somebody else completely. Right in front of me, right under my nose." Unfortunately for Hank, his superior isn’t the only one oblivious to the betrayal right in front of him.
In the funniest scene of a fairly grim episode, Mike meets with Madrigal executive Lydia (Scottish actress Laura Fraser) at a diner to discuss some business. She's tightly wound, very particular (bordering on OCD) and extremely paranoid about meeting in public. It seems that Madrigal isn’t quite as oblivious to Gus’ activities as they would’ve had us believe and that shipping large quantities of condiments to the U.S. would be a perfect cover for slipping in some other materials as well. Her attempts at discretion fail completely when she discovers Mike and the waitress are on a first name basis. Lydia gives Mike a list of names of the 11 men on Gus' payroll who could be trouble for them if they get picked up by the police, warning that "there's always a weak link somewhere." Mike assures her the men were hired and vetted by him and "they've been paid to stand up to the heat and keep their mouth shut.” Once he feels she's gotten the point, he leaves.
Meanwhile, Walt sits with Walter Jr. at the breakfast table, playing the part of the loving father though it's nearly impossible to tell at this point how much of Walter White is left in his current state. We've become so used to him as a master manipulator, cold, calculating, seeing him make time for his son feels foreign and false. In an interesting contrast we see Mike — also a criminal and murderer (when the situation calls for it) — playing Hungry Hungry Hippos with his granddaughter but there is genuine warmth between them. As Walt goes to wake Skyler, who's been sleeping in, no doubt to avoid her nightmare-ish reality, he looms threateningly overhead. His voice is gentle, asking her to get up for work (don't forget, the Whites own a car wash to launder money through) but the camera frames only his midsection. With his lying face removed, he is purely a figure of menace.
On the way to the DEA, Mike passes Mr. Chow, owner of the laundry that housed the meth lab underneath, and asks how he's holding up. Chow looks nervous and Mike maybe isn't quite as convinced but goes on his way. Hank interrogates Mike in a great back and forth as the two try to outsmart each other in a verbal chess match. Unluckily for Mike, Hank has the ace up his sleeve, revealing he knows about the 2 million dollars sitting in a bank account in Mike's granddaughter's name. The DEA discovered the account after going through the wreckage left from the break-in last episode and is further proof that Walt can make Mike's life miserable without even trying. Mike is usually pretty unflappable but he’s clearly pissed now having little choice but to join Walt and Jesse's new venture.
Walt and Jesse meet with Saul to discuss how exactly they're going to get their new operation up and running. The "where" they're going to cook meth is still very much in the air but they're already trying to crack the "how." Methylamine (the organic compound the duo had worked so hard to acquire during a heist back in season 1) is in short supply but Walt is undeterred. Saul tries to reason with them, saying getting away with their crimes (thus far) is equivalent to "winning the lottery" even if they are basically broke at this point. But "quitting now while we're ahead" isn't an option for Walt.
Chow calls Mike desperately, saying that the DEA has taken all his money and he needs to talk in person but it's a setup. There is a gunman, Chris, in the room. One of Mike's team, he's been hired by Lydia to clean up the mess that Mike wouldn’t, which includes the 11 names and now Mike himself. The scene that follows is "Breaking Bad" at its best. You might expect the close up on Chris' eye peering through the keyhole to result in a grisly headshot but instead Mike calmly disarms him from behind. The two have a history together and the would-be assassin says he's sorry, Mike says he understands, then he shoots him. It's tragic, surprising and wrings unexpected emotion out of a scene that might've been a standard shoot-em-up.
This leads Mike directly to Lydia's home where we expect another tragic outcome. Mike holds Lydia at gunpoint and she begs not to be shot in the face so her daughter doesn't have to see the aftermath but he assures her that nobody will find her. She pleads with him pathetically, tragically, asking, "Promise I don't disappear," and in what would be her final moments Mike has second thoughts. He asks if she can still get Methylamine, revealing the role that Madrigal plays in the entire operation and also that Mike has reconsidered Walt’s offer. Walt couldn't have planned this better himself.
At home, Walt settles into bed next to Skyler and tries to assure her, "You know it gets easier, I promise you that." But she takes no comfort. Her husband is a monster and she's terrified of him. He kisses her shoulders and neck all we can do is hold our breath hoping he doesn't assert himself on her. He doesn't (for now) but the effect is chilling anyway. It’s a fascinating development between Walt and Skyler and we’re really not sure where it might lead. But judging from the wedding ring free Walt 52, we’d be worried if we were her. Actress Anna Gunn told TVLine that she wasn’t sure where her character might go from here. “It wouldn’t surprise me if she didn’t make it out. It wouldn’t surprise me if she did somehow rise above it. Like I say, you can never predict where they’re going to take these characters, and I’m as fascinated as anybody to find out!” So are we. [A-]