Nick Hanover: Last week's season premier took Breaking Bad across a distance of at least a few months, but this week's episode did a different kind of traveling. The episode opens up with a taste testing session in the sterile white underbelly of a monolithic corporation that is revealed to be Madrigal, the German company that provided Gus Fring with his high tech lab equipment while also serving as the parent company for his fast food front. Where the premier focused on the down and dirty criminal activity Walter White engages in on his 52nd birthday, its follow-up pulled back– way back– to reveal the kind of mega connections Walt likely has no idea Fring possessed.
It's a handy way of showing us viewers just how high the odds are stacked against Walt and his associates, ramping up the tension as we head down the final stretch and making it explicitly clear that no matter how much Walt thinks he's the "king," his opposition is innumerable and in possession of vast resources. As someone who's rooting for Walt's super villainy, how did you feel about this new "enemy" that Walt doesn't even know is after him, Paul?
Paul Brian McCoy: Well, if you want to set up your super villain as the lesser of two evils, it can't hurt to throw a bunch of rich Germans at him.
Nick: Shades of HYDRA, perhaps?
Paul: I'm still wondering though, if the lead German is actually in on the whole drug-dealing operation. The way Lydia (Laura Fraser) reacted, searching out Mike and "suggesting" that maybe an entire football team-worth of employees needed to be bumped off, makes me think that the Germans aren't all bad.
So maybe Walt isn't up against as big a threat as we may first think. Especially by the end of this episode.
Nick: I think what we're about to see is a civil war of sorts, with Walt and co. in the middle. I agree that the Germans aren't all bad, or more specifically I agree that the main organization potentially isn't all bad. But there's clearly dissent within the ranks and we know there were at least 13 employees misusing the company at large. Obviously there's Lydia, and then three others who we have seen but who are now dead– Chow, Herr Schuler and Mike's would-be assassin, who seriously lowballed the cost of taking on Mike– leaving nine others from Lydia's list of eleven targets.. My prediction is that this half of the final season will unfold like the climactic shoot out scene in True Romance— Walt and Jesse surrounded on all sides by forces they were mostly entirely unaware of, with the DEA, Madrigal and the Madrigal rebels all firing at them and each other. Which means the second half of the final season will see Walt and whoever survives stuck in the rubble, trying to make a break for a metaphorical (or perhaps literal?) Mexico.
Paul: I hope it's more like True Romance, but I'm starting to think we may be going all Wild Bunch before things are said and done.
I'm also curious to see if the others from Madrigal step in line once Mike has reestablished himself with Walt and Jesse. With Lydia on board, they may actually be able to accomplish something.
And by "something," I mean make and sell a shitload of meth.
Nick: Mike is the wildcard here. Even though he has ostensibly thrown in with Walt, I suspect that he's going to play all sides, like the drug war equivalent of the Man with No Name. The DEA has him in a bind and I don't think they're done with him just yet. At the same time, he knows about Madrigal and the shitstorm that's about to go down, which Walt isn't yet privy too. Even if the Madrigal top brass are innocent in regards to Fring's operation, I don't doubt they'd be very eager to learn more about how he died and by whose hand.
Paul: That's true to an extent. But Mike is, above all else, a pragmatic man. And he's a man who knows when to duck and when to cover. If he has a weak spot at all it's going to be his granddaughter.
I really enjoyed how Banks played that scene with Fraser as he threatened to kill her and make her disappear. I thought she was going to be fairly one-note after her earlier introduction, but the way she reacted to the idea of her daughter possibly growing up thinking she'd abandoned her was some good stuff.
And Mike buying into it opened up a horrifying weak spot in his armor.
A weak spot that causes him to throw in with Walt, who he knows is a disaster waiting to happen.
All this family stuff. Must mean something, eh?
Nick: That may have been the most powerful moment of the episode especially since, as you pointed out, it showed the extent to which Mike is susceptible to the family card. That weakness has hurt him in the past, as Walt so ably proves week after week, but it's never been so directly illuminated as it was throughout this episode. I suspect that's also why he continues to have a soft spot for Jesse, who has a similar weakness for sentimentality and familial loyalty, albeit in a less genetic fashion.
Paul: All of which makes that final moment of the episode even more disturbing than it would have been had it only shown Walt grinding on Skyler with no subtext and overt rape allusions.
You kind of get the feeling that Walt has a secret stash of Mob movies somewhere.
Do you think that Walt is really still able to rationalize all of this as protecting his family or do you think he's got the bug to be a super villain?
I mean he IS broke.
Nick: I really and truly believe that Walt is only interested in "protecting" his family as an expression of power, at this point. If we extend "family" to also include Jesse and Saul, then the scene with Skyler is just the tip of the iceberg. He's now threatening everyone he tried to "protect" before, either overtly, as is the case with Saul, or indirectly– the aforementioned Skyler ickiness– or some mix of the two, which is the situation Jesse is perennially stuck in.
Paul: Poor Jesse. Walt is manipulating him so perfectly, it was hard to watch him break down this week. And in that moment of comforting him, Cranston played it straight, total concern. It really made me wonder how far over the edge Walt really is.
But if last season has taught us anything, it's that Walt is a sonofabitch. Especially when he feels superior to you.
Nick: I believe Walt stopped truly worrying about his family the instant Skyler found out what he was up to. Since then, he's been on a power trip, drunk on the freedom that comes from not only having your dirtiest laundry aired semi-publicly, but also from being able to take credit for your heinous acts.
Paul: I don't know if I agree with Walt not truly worrying about his family. The last couple of episodes of last season were almost constant anxiety up to the point of self-sacrifice.
Until an idea formed in his head.
Nick: Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston have emphasized in interviews that this season is all about showing how far Walt has plummeted as a human being, with Cranston even telling the AV Club that he feels Walt's cancer has now spread to his soul. And I completely agree with that, so far, but I think it's important to point how integral Jesse is to that concept, since he, more than anyone, is the recipient of Walt's newfound darkness.
As you've pointed out, Jesse functions as a kind of barometer of the depths Walt has fallen to. How he treats Jesse is the best way for us to figure out where he's at, mentally and ethically. And right now, he's in a bad way.
Paul: I think the turning point was poisoning the child– even if he thought the kid wouldn't die (which I'm still kind of clinging to), that was the moment that he really stepped up and owned his fate.
Nick: I agree with you about the self-sacrifice, but I think you're seeing self-sacrifice as something Walt would want to avoid, and I don't think that's how he sees it. Walt is, if nothing else, an absolute egomaniac and what he wants more than anything is to go out in some big blaze of glory that will redeem him and prove to his family that he was a good guy after all, and deserves respect. That's why Walt is so fearless in situations where he's heading into death knowingly, but is such a coward when he doesn't have control over his fate, which was ultimately the essence of his conflict with Gus. After all, the entire narrative of this show is built around Walt trying to take control of his fate, using his cancer prognosis as a springboard.
Paul: Once that line was crossed, there was no going back, but I think there are still glimmers of hope for him. I don't think he expected Jesse to react the way he did when they found the "ricin" and we got a glimpse of the real Walt there.
That blaze of glory thing goes back to my Wild Bunch fear. And you're right. It's about respect and being recognized as something other than a failure and a victim. All last season was about living in fear and having no control.
Now that he's got a semblance of control and a version of respect, I think we're going to see some horrible things happen. I'd like to see these horrible things happen as side effects of successful super-villainy though.
Paul: There's an interesting paper that could be written about Breaking Bad and contemporary concepts of masculinity.
Nick: I'd read the shit out of that.
But yes, terrible things are on the horizon and what excites me most is how little Walt knows what's coming. Walt has always been the man with the plan, somehow rising above impossible odds, whether those odds relate to his cancer or his drug running. And we've always known that he's massively out of his element, and Gilligan and his staff have done an excellent job doling out just enough details to remind us of that. But now we're finally beginning to see the full picture and oh fuck is it colossal.
Paul: I'm looking at the episode titles for the first half of the season, and I'm getting the feeling things are going to get better before they get worse.
Argh! I shouldn't have even done that!
I don't want to know.
I want this show to kick my ass week in and week out and I don't want to even try to guess what's coming.
But I'm guessing that Walt is a huge success. For a while at least. He's going to end up destroying his own family somehow. Then it'll be up to Jesse to put him down.
Nick: Well, every Greek tragedy features its protagonist winning at one point, before they fuck it all up.
As long as Walt doesn't accidentally sleep with his yet-unseen mother, we should be good.
Paul: True. I just hope we keep getting episodes of this quality. I'm going with again this week, because while it was a little quiet at times, when it made noise it was a glorious noise.
Nick: I suspect a lot of scores are in store for us. And yes, I too am issuing the same rating.
Paul: It's so hard to wait for each week to go by. I'm tempted to just give up watching until the season is over and then just marathoning the damned thing.
But I'm not going to do it.
Nick: STAY STRONG, PAUL.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot,Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.