Barker Chappell Daglas Roundtable: Breaking Bad, “Madrigal,” “Hazard Pay,” “Fifty-One”

It’s been a few weeks since the Barker Chappell Daglas reviewing agency has had a chance to catch up on the activities of the Heisenberg drug empire, but we’ve finally found a place to work and the house has been tented. And we’ve got a big batch to cook, with three episodes worth of scheming, emotional abuse, mismatched shoes, dips in the pool and condiment development. We’re short a member this week as Andy’s off handling our legacy costs, but Cory Barker and I have pulled the hazmat suits on and are ready to chart Walt’s next few steps towards hell in the trio of “Madrigal,” “Hazard Pay” and “Fifty-One.”

So, with our tray of Cajun Kick-Ass, Franch dressing, honey mustard (fine-tuned for the Midwest states) and ketchup (just ketchup), let us begin.

Les: We’re now four episodes through the final season of Breaking Bad, and while we still can’t see the endgame, I’d say by any estimation it’s been a fantastic first quarter. “Madrigal,” “Hazard Pay” and “Fifty-One” have delivered some terrific moments that have done little to dissuade my conviction that when it’s on Breaking Bad is the best show on television: none of the show’s terrific highs just yet, but the action-reaction of the series is building in trademark fashion. (Plus, two counts of Walter Jr. eating breakfast, getting us that much closer to a season bingo.)

Plenty to talk about in these three episodes, but let’s start with the birthday boy himself, Mr. White – now officially a full year from the start of the series, with one more to go before he picks up the M60 in a Denny’s parking lot. If ever there was a question that Walt was turning into the bad guy through the course of this series, these episodes have given us the answer. As the self-proclaimed kingpin of the Albuquerque meth market, Walt’s finally in a position of power, and more to the point he’s acting it with every gesture. He’s so arrogantly convinced of his own superiority he dismisses the idea of a vote to his idea of using the exterminator tents to cook, and willing to flaunt his newfound wealth by trading the Aztek for a brace of Dodge Challengers. He lies as easily as he breathes now, able to manipulate Jesse into breaking things off with Andrea and able to make Marie blame Skyler’s erratic behavior on her affair with Ted Beneke. And in a series of moments that make me curl up internally every time they happen, he completely ignores the fact that Skyler’s been reduced to a near-catatonic state of fear around him, and every move he intends as comforting or seductive feels like he’s just tightening a noose.

Cory, what’s your take on Heisenberg ascendent? For four seasons we’ve become used to seeing Walt’s plans fall apart, his success only due to some last-minute bit of inspiration or stroke of luck. Now, he’s large and in charge. Too much of an adjustment, or right where we need to be?

Cory: Walt’s ignited confidence, really cockiness, is equal parts compelling, disturbing and straight-up uncomfortable. Once he killed Gus, there was a lot of chatter about what kind of man he would be on a daily basis. What I love so much about these first four episodes is that Walt hasn’t been overtly terrifying, or in full-cackling villain mode. Instead, he’s almost been less traditionally evil this season, well, pretending to be so. Whereas last season he wanted to be the one who knocks, this season he seems more willing to be the one who washes the dishes. Indeed, Walt is certainly enjoying his time as the newly-crowned king, pretending that everything is “smooth sailing” in one breath and surreptitiously ruining everyone’s life in another.

The way that Bryan Cranston has been playing in these scenes is simply a delight. He’s strutting around the White home and throwing around his weight around with Jesse and Mike. The show is still quite dark, but Cranston’s performance in these episodes has brought me back to the more black comedy stylings we saw earlier in the show’s run. It’s like everyone is else is at their darkest points, scrambling around to make it right after all sorts of hellfire, and Walt is oh so high on his own power-plays. It’s created an odd but amazing tension between Walt and other characters, and given the season a distinct vibe.

The thing is, we know it’s all going to come crashing down. Walt’s high is starting to crack, with Skyler trying to take the kids away and Mike pushing back on the business end. The clock is ticking on this air of uncomfortable happiness. I don’t really want it to end because this version of the show is intriguing, but I’m ready for Breaking Bad to paint its lead character into yet another corner.

Les: Cory, I agree that this season has been fantastic for Cranston – so much so that you can clearly hear Jon Hamm weeping off-screen for his Emmy chances*. Last week’s episode in particular was a masterwork for Walt, as he delivers that monologue about how many times he’s come close to death over the last twelve months, and fully converts his reassurances to Skyler into challenges and threats. Walt used to be convinced there were “certain words in a certain specific order” to rationalize everything, now he’s just convinced they have to be his words. It’s cold and creepy in a way they’ve approached but never embraced so fully, and I find myself watching many of his scenes through my fingers.

*Awards-related aside, If Hamm winds up getting an Emmy for his 30 Rock guest appearance when he couldn’t score one for five seasons of Mad Men, I don’t know what that says about the universe. Except maybe “BANJO!”

And given the old saying that pride comes before the fall – plus four seasons of evidence that things always get worse in this universe – we’re both in agreement that something’s going to come up and knock Walt off his perch before too long. The question then is what’ll do it, and to me it looks like the most immediate threat is Mr. Ehrmantraut. Mike’s proving to be essential to the operation of the Heisenberg machine, but unlike Jesse and Saul he’s the one part that isn’t controllable, much as Walt may say “He handles the business. I handle him.” The move at the end of their first deal to carve out the expenses brick by brick was obviously a power play on Mike’s part, as were the cutting reminders of just how much work Gus had done to keep the lights on. Neither Walt nor Mike like each other, and despite acknowledging each others’ valuable skills neither respects the other – without Jesse maintaining the peace Walt would likely have lashed out already. And given Walt’s arrogance (and the cryptic speech he made about Victor at the end of “Hazard Pay”) I can’t see it as a lasting one.

On that note, I do need to say that while I miss Gus Fring something fierce this season, Mike has done a terrific job of filling that void. Every season Jonathan Banks justifies why Gilligan and company give him more material, and he continually fleshes out this character with seemingly minimal effort. His work in “Madrigal” in particular was fantastic, as we get not only a great acting showcase in his interrogation with Hank but some moments of badassery reminiscent of his work in season three’s “Full Measure” – right down to once again using one of his granddaughter’s toys as a distraction. And of course, with his thoughts on Jesse James, keys and Miller Time, he’s been a font of some of the season’s best lines.

Cory: I actually don’t miss Gus that much at all, honestly. I expected to and I will admit that his absence gives the show a lot less palpable tension. However, bringing Mike into the limelight as paid off handsomely. Vince Gilligan is a process-oriented guy and nowhere is that ideology more evident than it is with Mike. “Madrigal” is one of the series’ finest hours even though it is one of those Gilligan-scripted process-heavy scripts. The way that Mike moved from problem to problem with his awesome combination of indignation and expertise opened us up to a new side of the show we had never seen before, and one that is necessary for us to see because it’s where Walt is going to infect or destroy next.

What impresses me so much about the characterization of Mike and really the whole show, is how expertly it convinces us to care about characters who are not, remotely, good people. This season, Mike has killed people, even people that he really liked and respected. Before, he killed a whole bunch of people. But here I am, already dreading the moment that Walt figures out how to kill or at least incapacitate Mike. And we don’t even know that much about him! He’s a good grandpa, and he has a “code” if you will. That’s pretty much it. But Jonathan Banks and this writing is so good that Mike has become almost important to me as Jesse.

To be fair though, a lot of this stems from how well the show has built up Walt’s evil nature. Characters, like Mike, who we used to view as deadly antagonists who could prevent Walt from saving himself or Jesse are suddenly sympathetic figures whose deaths we now dread. The sliding scale of good and evil on display here is wild, right?

But we’re missing the third person in this wonky three-person business venture: One Jesse Pinkman. So far, Jesse hasn’t had too much to do, particularly in comparison to the emotional catharsis we saw in the first half-dozen episodes of season four. Still though, I’ve really enjoyed Aaron Paul’s work as the doting son trapped between the two dads he loves. What do you think about Jesse in season five?

Les: As you say, Jesse hasn’t had as much to do this season. His competencies in the lab and in the business are now well-established, and he’s been far more controlled personally. And I think a large part of it is intentional on his part – after the horrors that have been visited upon him through four seasons, he’s tired of it all and just wants things to go smoothly for a change. See how quickly he passes over his cut of the money to pay Mike’s “legacy costs” when it looks like Walt’s about to pop in response, or his pleas to Mike that Lydia shouldn’t be killed. In the words of Stringer Bell, Jesse just wants to sell the shit, make a profit, and later for that gangsta bullshit.

But as the end of season three proved, Jesse’s not very good at keeping the peace when he sees an injustice, and as his emotional breakdown at the start of “Hazard Pay” when the “ricin” cigarette was discovered in the bowels of not-DJ Roomba* proved, he’s nowhere near as dead inside as Walt or Mike just yet. Right now, Jesse’s dancing on Walt’s strings – taking his relationship advice, giving him an expensive watch as a birthday present – but that’s all because he doesn’t know just what Walt’s done to ensure his loyalty. If Walt’s a time bomb, Jesse’s a grenade waiting for someone to pull the pin – neither one of them has been defused, no matter how comfortable they look watching The Three Stooges.

*Following of course a terrific montage of Walt and Jesse tearing the house apart looking for it, set to Whitey’s “Stay On The Outside.” Of the many, many, many things Breaking Bad does well visually, its montages are a personal favorite, and with both this and the initial tented cook to The Peddlers’ “On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever),” it’s keeping the bar at a nice high level.

Side note to that: I do wonder about the show’s decision to show Jesse’ breakup with Andrea off-screen. Not that I missed it terribly given how much I enjoyed that episode’s process of Walt and company setting up the new operation, but it seemed weirdly dismissed. Thoughts?

Since I mentioned her above, one thing I do want to talk about is the new outside factor of Madrigal Electronics executive Lydia. I can’t say I like the character too much given my overwhelming affection for the established cast, but I am interested by the new element she introduces to the show. After so many characters who are supremely competent (Gus, Mike) or resourceful enough to fake it (Walt, Jesse), we’ve now got someone who’s panicky and borderline crazy, prone to doing stupid things that range from putting on two different shoes to hiring Mike to kill eleven people. And in this show’s universe, stupid things always ignite the best chain reactions. What’s your initial reaction been to Lydia in her first two episodes?

Cory: Choosing to play out the Jesse-Andrea break-up off-screen was indeed odd. The show’s never been hesitant to take Jesse to dark or uncomfortable places, perhaps even sometimes going too far, so brushing that off in such a nonchalant way is weird, and intriguing. I would say that maybe Jesse picked up on Walt’s manipulative signals (like you said, he’s certainly more competent now) and he decided to lie. But there isn’t really any reason for that, unless Jesse somehow knows even more than he’s letting on – which I don’t think is true. He wouldn’t give Walt the watch* if he had more nefarious plans in mind. Perhaps the writers thought Andrea was simply a non-entity, or at least a small enough one to forgo any scene? It was probably cut, honestly.

*I want to put this out there: Jesse giving Walt the Rolex almost made me cry. Then, I thought about it a few times today and I almost cried again. Jesse Pinkman and Aaron Paul can pretty much make me cry doing anything, but sappy, gift-giving Jesse does it quite quickly.

Lydia’s integration into the show’s narrative has been pretty seamless. Again, like Mike, she projects an entirely different vibe than Gus did, further injecting less menace and more unexpected novice behavior into the story. At this juncture, she’s less of a character and more of a device but I like how she’s yet another person deeply, deeply effected by Walt’s big kill at the end of S4. Walt views his actions as just, smart and ignorantly, as an end. Unfortunately for him, Gus kept him so far out of the loop that he was unaware of how big and organized this operation was. While Lydia isn’t someone I really want to root for – particularly when she’s threatening Mike – it’s clear that she’s just doing what she can to survive. Walt won’t care, hell Mike already doesn’t, but with her lack of skill, Walt’s over-bloated ego and Jesse perhaps blinded by his affection to his dueling father figures, there’s a lot of dysfunctional elements at play here. Mike is sort of trapped in the middle of it all, just trying to make money for his granddaughter and his guys. I guess that’s admirable.

What do you think about Lydia, and we might as well make a turn towards the big, controversial elephant in the room: Skyler. Many of our friends and peers have written great pieces about the character and the reaction to her but how do you view her dip in the pool and her “plan” to save the kids?

Les: I actually was not a huge fan of the way Lydia was introduced, if only because the whole Madrigal arc felt rather out of place when it came in. Much as I enjoyed the bizarre cold open with the short happy life of Herr Schueler, Franch dressing and all, it was almost too alien for the show’s universe. (Though let’s be honest, I’ll forgive it entirely if the home office comes after Walt so in his hubris he can have a moment like this.) As I said, I enjoy the element of mania she introduces to the show, and I enjoy how the much more seasoned Mike and Jesse are at times bemused and annoyed at her lack of experience in this business. I’m also really looking forward to seeing her reaction to Walt – unlike most every character in the show, she’s never seen him pre-Heisenberg and has no reason not to fear him unequivocally.

But then again, the one character who saw him the most pre-Heisenberg was his wife, and she’s more terrified of him than anything. We discussed Skyler’s motivations and our feelings about the character back in our season premiere discussion, and if anything I’ve grown more and more fascinated by her. She hasn’t broken bad the way Walt did, she’s simply broken, not able to much more than lay in a state of shock* or give into the audience’s long-held desires by yelling “Shut up!” at Marie approximately 80 times. And it’s been pretty fantastic to watch – I still don’t know if I like the character very much, but the work Anna Gunn is doing is enough to justify consecutive Emmy nominations.

*The decision in “Madrigal” not to show either her or Walt’s face during that first talk was a brilliant piece of cinematography. Porkpie hats off to Michelle MacLaren.

The corrosion of the Walt/Skyler relationship is turning out to be even more damning than the uneasy White/Pinkman/Ehrmentraut alliance. Whether consciously or not, Walt’s been emotionally abusing her all season: those horrifying attempts at seduction and reassurance, buying two Dodge Challengers* and offering a smug explanation for it, and throwing down 20 grand to launder through the car wash. I see her immersion (in the words of Marla Singer) as not a real suicide attempt but more one of those “cry for help things,” and the same with trying to get the kids out of the house. I think she knows that if there was a door open – telling her attorney, running to the Four Corners – it’s closed forever, and she’s in too deep to a game she’s not emotionally geared to play. Her only card is to appeal to Walt’s stated goal to protect his family, and that’s turned into an empty statement if ever there was one.

*RIP to the Aztek: ugly car, murder weapon and serial shattered windshield victim.

And truthfully, this is more interesting to me than if she’d continued to embrace illegalities and become a Lady Macbeth type, say in the vein of Carmela Soprano or Gemma Teller. Breaking Bad is all about how Walt’s choices have eaten away at everyone around him, and what happened in the climactic fight of “Fifty-One” (in addition to being a masterfully shot and acted scene) was the natural escalation of this emotional toll. She’s certainly complicit, but at this point, first and foremost, she’s trapped.

Cory: I’ve always been a big fan of Skyler. She’s been in a tough spot within the show’s diegetic world and with fans who want to celebrate the antics of the morally corrupt anti-hero. With that said, it doesn’t surprise me that there’s been A LOT of contention about this season and her place within it. You have to imagine that most people assumed that the show would focus on the aftermath of Gus’ death and Walt’s choices in a business or cooking context. Gilligan and company have definitely done that, but the spotlight has still been on Walt’s home life and his relationship with Sky more than anything else. It’s sort of like what happened at the beginning of season three. That pisses off fans who just want the show to be about cooking and Walt being a badass. I’m not saying that people have to watch the show in one certain way, though I get a kick out of those frustrations.

In any event, her actions in recent episodes have been powerful and compelling. Walt wants so bad for things to be smooth sailing and he’s just delusional. I like that Skyler is taking some action to protect the kids and not simply letting Walt run the whole show – though he’s probably going to end up doing so anyway – and these scenes further reflect just how far into the darkness Walt has plunged. His manipulation of Jesse makes me sad. The way he treats Skyler makes me sick.

Les: I as well Cory – and what makes me even more nervous is that there’s still four
episodes left in this half-season. Plenty of room for him to go even darker, but also plenty of room for the repercussions of his actions to catch up to him. And if these three episodes are any indication, it’s simmering in just the right way that either way it’s going to be fantastic. Looking forward to discussing this again once it starts to boil.

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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One Response to Barker Chappell Daglas Roundtable: Breaking Bad, “Madrigal,” “Hazard Pay,” “Fifty-One”

  1. Pingback: Pilot Review: Revolution | A Helpless Compiler

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