My wife does not watch “Breaking Bad.” At least, she doesn’t watch it regularly. She saw fragments of last season over the edge of her laptop, sitting next to me on the couch while I wrestled with Heisenberg and she mostly watched British sitcoms on Netflix. She’s seen enough to be somewhat caught up, though, and she couldn’t help but watch when Gustavo Fring met his end. She even watched most of last week’s premiere, after which she was prompted by Walt’s actions to ask: “Maybe I shouldn’t say this since I haven’t seen the whole show yet, but it’s like he’s not trying to provide for his family anymore. What’s he doing?”
This is not an unreasonable question to ask, and it’s one that’s clearly been on creator Vince Gilligan’s mind. So many of Walt’s decisions, especially the little ones, led him irrevocably down a path of danger and evil that his original goal of providing money his family can use after his death has been clouded by layers of intrigue, lust, and greed. For a while there, Walt’s journey wasn’t about making money or even managing it, but about winning a power contest with Gus. Accordingly, this week’s episode, “Madrigal,” brought the focus back to Walt’s simple quest for cash. After the fallout from Pollos, the car wash, and the money Skylar funneled to Ted, he’s down to the felt, which means he needs to start cooking again. This is a great way to bring Walt’s initial goals back into focus for the show’s final season, but it’s also a subtle reminder that everyone in the game is doomed to suffer the same fate: murder or bankruptcy. After a year of crawling to the top of the heap, Walt’s essentially back where he started.
That theme of walking in circles showed up everywhere. The laptop that Walt and Jesse went to great expense to destroying with a giant magnet was encrypted anyway, so who knows if the DEA would’ve been able to use it. Instead, for their efforts, they left another few clues for law enforcement, from Mike’s phone call to APD to the Cayman bank info secreted behind one of Gus’s photos. Walt spoke of moving forward, but he could just as well have said “starting over.” Even Mike saw the inevitability in it, and not just because he needs a way to keep earning cash for his granddaughter. It’s because really, what else is there to do?
“Madrigal” was packed with so many amazing moments, too, especially the little ones that make “Breaking Bad” so magnetic. For instance, I loved watching Hank walk and talk with Gomez in their lobby before actually asking for help as they moved toward the elevator. That’s a minor thing, but a huge change from the brash, self-centered Hank that started the series and the depressed, defiant one who spent most of last season confined to his bed. I keep reminding myself that, narratively, it hasn’t even been a year since this whole thing got going. Everyone’s changed in big ways, but Hank seems to be the one doing the most positive growth. It’s fantastic to see him reasserting himself as law enforcement, too, and his interrogation scene with Mike was a reminder that he’s real police, and determined to get his man. Gilligan’s been milking the cat-and-mouse of Hank getting closer to Walt for years now — Hank wasn’t far from him when he took down Tuco Salamanca in the desert, and he almost had him in the junkyard one time, when Walt and Jesse were hiding in the RV — and I’ve got a feeling things will only get hairier as we close in on the end.
I found myself again marveling at the depths of Walt’s calculation: consoling an utterly heartbroken Jesse as if he didn’t know the truth, planting a new cigarette, and making sexual moves on Skylar in a horrifyingly calm and quiet way. Walt may be broke, but he’s never had this much power or drive before. He answers to no one, and he’s more determined than ever to reclaim his crown as meth king of the Southwest. “There’s a market to be filled, and no one to currently fill it,” he says, as if talking about opening up a restaurant. It was a nice touch having Mike watching The Caine Mutiny when Walt and Jesse came to call: this episode, and the current story, are all about murky leadership, and uneasy trust, and grabbing power while you can. He’s determined to win, even if he can’t remember why he started fighting.