Monday, 23 July 2012

Television - Breaking Bad 'Madrigal' review

Walter White is a man with a lot of knowledge, but a complete lack of wisdom. He can restart a broken RV with a homebrew chemical reaction, blow up a car with a windscreen wiper, and cook meth purer than almost anyone on the American continent... set him a practical task and he will accomplish it without batting an eyelid. In the real world, though, Walt just doesn't learn his lessons. He's a petty egomaniac, bitter, insecure and constantly compromising his moral boundaries, what few he has left, by telling himself he has no choice. Even as the excuses dry up, with his cancer in remission, his treatment paid for, his family safe from harm following the death of Gus Fring, he keeps on coming up with new ones. Or at least, he did. Perhaps the scariest thing about the first two episodes in Breaking Bad's fifth and final season is that Walter White isn't making excuses anymore. He's lying to everyone around him, but stopped lying to himself.

He knows what he's doing, and he's proud of it.
Pride has long been one of the man's many weaknesses, mitigated only by his survival instinct. When his life is under threat, Walter White goes full measures. It's his pride which has taken him to that point so many times, though, because so long as there's any kind of safety net, he will continue to delude himself that he's still a good man, that the world owes him a debt for living in it. Walt spent much of last season complaining rather than doing, and had Gus' victory over the cartel not brought on a moment of pride - issuing a death sentence to the White family, thereby stripping away the crucial safety net upon which Walt's delusions of self-importance were based - things could have turned out very differently. Had Gus not issued those threats in the desert against the White family and instead continued to quietly turn Jesse against his former teacher, Walt would have continued to stew in righteousness and anger instead of act, until it was finally safe for the Pollos Hermanos operation to free itself from its rebellious chemist.

Walt's ego makes his vulnerability directly proportionate to his belief in his own safety. Fortunately for him, there has barely been a moment since he first decided to break bad four years ago that he hasn't been in some sort of danger. This is perhaps the first time we've seen him able to make decisions without looking over his shoulder or the motivation of having to weasel his way out of some life-threatening situation, and his pride has never looked more swollen. As far as he's concerned, his battle has been won and apart from having to tidy up a few pieces of dangerous debris from the battlefield, it's his time to start building the empire he has always wanted. He'll tell Skylar it's for family, and Saul and Jesse it's to repay his debts and build capitol, but we know as well as he does that his plans to return to the meth trade exist for no other reason than to recapture the thrill of power that first drew him in.

Walt's vision is as blinkered as ever, though. Last year, he was too busy feeling sorry for himself to notice how Gus had stacked the board against him. Now, he's so convinced of his greatness that while he'll make token efforts to destroy the last pieces of evidence linking him to the Fring operation - destroying the laptop in the police evidence locker last week - he's happily forgotten how Hank has been getting closer and closer to the truth, and convinced himself the investigations will end with Fring's demise.

No such luck, though: the destruction of the laptop only led the police to discover a set of Cayman Islands bank accounts, revealing the names of eleven men who appear all too ready to talk now their assets are under threat. Sure, only Mike has seen Walt's face and knows his name, but despite his signing up to the nascent White empire at the end of the episode, he's none too fond of his new employer. Meanwhile, with George having been fired from the police due to his closeness to Gus, his reminiscence over the man he believed to be a friend might just cause Hank to think about who else might be hiding their true face and strangely linked to the Heisenberg investigation at almost every turn.

Walt may feel assured of his invulnerability, but even at this early stage, cracks are starting to appear everywhere. Even the ever-professional Mike can't bring himself to kill a woman whose pleading for her daughter's wellbeing appeals to his own love for his granddaughter, whose name is listed on the account Hank has been questioning him about. As far as Walt's concerned, he ends the episode with Mike and a new supplier on board. What he doesn't know is that Mike has been severely compromised and only joining for short-term practicality, while Lydia, the woman set to supply the much-needed methylamine, is not someone who holds up well to pressure of any kind. If there's any part of this episode which rings false, it's that her shakiness is overplayed for comedic effect, making it unlikely someone as cautious as Gus Fring would go into business with her.

It's unlikely Walt will have such qualms, though. When he was still worrying about living long enough to provide for his family, Lydia's neuroses might have triggered alarms. Now, to his eyes, he's the kingpin, better than Gus because he defeated Gus, regardless of the often fortuitous circumstances which made that victory possible. He just wants the gold in the streets for no-one but his own benefit, a dream blinding him to how the danger surrounding him hasn't been vanquished at all, merely gone quiet. We know it is all destined to end badly, because our glimpse into the future revealed a man with the need for a machine gun in the boot of his car - seemingly the kind of donkeywork hardly befitting an omnipotent drug lord.

Among the many lovely touches in this episode were the small actions revealing how completely Walt has discarded any plan of returning to an honest life: where the ricin was once an emergency measure, he now opts to conceal it for future use. Where he once might have tried to console Skylar by underplaying the risk of her involvement, he know tells her that her guilt will pass, then uses their family connection as a tool of manipulation as he gropes her breast, wanting sex even as she lies in terror beside him.

Then there's Jesse, to whom Walt continues to lie and twist to his will. Walt may still see him as nothing more than a dimwit sidekick, but as Gus quickly realised, he poses a greater threat than anyone should his allegiances turn, and between Jane's death and Brock's poisoning (the explanation for which still rings false to me, but hey ho), it will only take one revelation to upset a balance that has become increasingly precarious over the years. He knows everything about how Walt operates and is increasingly in two minds about the cost of working with his former teacher. Will his redemption be the cause of Walt's downfall? With only fourteen episodes left, time is running out for Walter White, and his web of lies, compromises and delusions is starting to break apart.


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