Note: Do not read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 2 of AMC's "Breaking Bad," entitled "Madrigal."
Free will is something that "Breaking Bad" likes to examine under its microscope (i.e., its unblinking camera eye). The show has a spooky ability to quietly observe the most heinous acts of violence and greed, and silently dissect the rationales that people use to justify those actions. And it's hard to escape the conclusion that these characters have often had choices available to them. They've just, for various reasons, made bad choices.
But the point is, they could have done something else. At the very least, they could have told themselves the truth about the choices they did make.
Mike, in the first two episodes of this season, continually tells Jesse just what an idiot he's being by sticking with Walt. Once Skyler knew the full extent of Walt's operation, she could have taken her kids and run. She did sort of try to do that once, but she came back. Walt himself is reminded by Saul in this episode that he was lucky to escape his showdown with Gus alive -- and that he should just take that good fortune and get the hell out of Dodge.
Given the opportunity to cut their losses and go forward with what they have, the characters time and again choose another path, one that, more or less, revolves around a need. For Jesse, it's the need to have the acceptance of a father figure. For Skyler, it's the need for money for her family's future and at least one parent who wasn't in jail or dead. Walt's choices are motivated, of course, by pure greed and ego; his speech about "gold" in Saul's office was yet another reminder that any pretense of nobly salting away money for his family is long gone.
Both Mike and the Madrigal executive in the opening scenes made choices as well, ones that either are or probably will be fatal. At least the Madrigal executive got to choose the manner of his exit. (Trust "Breaking Bad" to make the dilemmas of a German man we'd never met and who said almost nothing instantly compelling. Nothing like the mindless consumption of "Franch" to communicate existential dread.)
Mike made a choice too, and the reason we like this guy is because he's one of the few characters on this show who is not deluding himself. He's got nervous Lydia and her kill list on one side of him and the cops -- who have the same list, apparently -- on the other. He knows allying himself with Walt and Jesse is probably a terrible idea, but it's the best of a very bad set of options, and it might give him a temporary chance to evade prison and avoid a hit man's bullet.
Free will, fate, good and evil -- these are the themes that season "Breaking Bad" like a tangy B.B.Q. sauce. But the detail that resonated with me most when it came to the Big Ideas was this: There were 12 names on the police's list of Gus Fring's associates -- and Lydia had a list that was 11 names long, 12 if you counted Mike himself.
Gus Fring and his 12 disciples? Surely that number can't be an accident; very little is in the universe of "Breaking Bad."
If you want to play around with Christian analogies, you could say that these men -- not to mention Jesse and Walt -- long ago chose to damn themselves to Hell. Yet I can't detect a whiff of determinism in this show. Every character could have extricated him or herself from any number of challenging situations and difficult paths -- but doing so would have required a sacrifice of some kind, a price to be paid. Inactivity, greed or the easier, less painful path were always more powerful lures. Choosing the expedient option shouldn't "get easier," as Walt chillingly promised Skyler it would. The fact that these choices are hard reminds us that we have consciences, and every word Walt said reminded her that he no longer listens to his conscience -- if he even has one these days.
Mike seems fairly sure of the price he will eventually pay, but he already has a long list of sins on his moral roster, and getting into business with Walt and Jesse might be the only way he can ensure the future of the little girl in his life -- and the one in Lydia's. Walt might be done looking out for his family -- and unaware how much the mother of his little girl despises and fears him -- but Mike and Lydia are united by the fact that loving other people sometimes restricts your options.
So Walt is choosing to act as if he's unfettered, while Lydia and Mike are willing to sacrifice themselves for others. Using free will for those kinds of actions -- not for the collection of the gold that litters the streets -- doesn't make them good people; it makes them compromised people who are, at least, trying to limit the damage they do to others.
Cosmic justice, free will and destiny are big ideas, and it was especially smart of "Breaking Bad" to use Mike as the vehicle for this hour. Jonathan Banks' Mike -- how I love that hangdog face -- is a man with few illusions about who he is or what he wants, and the dry wit with which he delivered his lines was especially enjoyable here.
Mike isn't just likable because he's trying to protect his little girl, or because he feels compassion for Lydia's daughter, or because he gave the hit man who came after him a moment to compose himself ("Are you ready?") before killing him. Mike's someone we root for because he's at least aware of the price that others are paying.
And unlike the men who work for him, he really is solid.
A few more notes and notable lines:
- Anyone else half-expect Don Draper to start yelling at Peggy Olson in the test-kitchen scene?
- Anyone know where I can get some "Franch"?
- RIP Pollos Hermanos: The busy Germans at Madrigal were taking down the Chicken Man's sign as the company's executive prepared to electrocute himself.
- One way to think about "Breaking Bad": A long con of Jesse. Jane's death, the poison, the Season 4 showdown in which Jesse almost shot Walt, and now Walt placing the poison cigarette inside the Roomba -- the deceptions that Walt has perpetrated are epic. And I wonder -- how important is it for Jesse to know the full extent of Walt's lies before the show is over for good?
- Follow-up question: Is the Roomba really orchestrating this whole thing?
- "How many Krauts we got?" "Enough to invade Poland."
- So was Schuler really "an anomaly" within the Madrigal corporation? Or does the chain of illegality go much, much higher? Lydia's presence seems to indicate that we haven't seen the last of the Madrigal executive roster.
- The gleaming perfection of the German test kitchen, the array of flavors and colors, the beautiful control and economy used in those opening scenes -- that whole sequence by director Michelle McLaren was a distillation of everything the show does well, and another analogy for the ideas at its heart: What if all the good things around you turned tasteless and meaningless because of the choices you've made?
- "You are a time bomb. Tick, tick, tick."
- "He was somebody else completely, right in front of me." Another question for the rest of the season: How important is it for us to see Hank begin to suspect Walt? So far his dogged police work has kept him on Heisenberg's trail, but how long will Walt continue to fool his brother-in-law -- and again, how important is it for Hank to know the full extent of Walt's actions before the show ends for good? These are things I think about after watching the show.
- I was completely distracted in the diner scene not just by Lydia's giant shades and her comical attempts at espionage, but by the sign on the table advertising "Funnel cake fries." I would very much like to know if these actually exist.
- As if he's making award-winning B.B.Q. sauce or Franch dressing, Walt indignantly reacts to the idea of changing the formulation of his product. He's fine with murder, theft, lying and violence. But my God, don't make him dilute the product!
- The sequence in which Mike hung the rotating toy on the door was another mini-master class in the creation of suspense. I love that "Breaking Bad" never resorts to the obvious when coming up with those sequences.
- "There's no better reason than family." Creepiest -- and most false -- thing Walt's ever said?