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July 22, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT

Before he was in Breaking Bad, Jonathan Banks’ most notable TV work was on Wiseguy, the frequently superb 1987-90 Stephen J. Cannell-Frank Lupo series in which Banks played Frank McPike, a cop who was the primarily handler for Ken Wahl’s undercover agent Vinnie Terranova. Banks’ McPike was a flinty law enforcement officer who tried to be deadpan and aloof, but who was so devoted to his wife, he ended up endangering his career and others’. You might say that in Breaking Bad, Banks is continuing his character, that Mike Ehrmantraut is the disgraced but still skilled version of what Wiseguy‘s McPike might have become after leaving law enforcement.

Certainly this week’s episode, “Madrigal,” was a Mike showcase; Banks in collaboration with Vince Gilligan turned the hour into a mini-thriller whose quiet menace and ceaseless tension reminded me of low-down feature films such as Don Siegel’s Charlie Varrick (1973), Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), and George Armitage’s Miami Blues (1990).

Mike spake truth unto Walt (“You are trouble … You are a time bomb — tick, tick, tick… “) in initially turning down a three-way partnership with Jesse. (How about that nifty bit of legerdemain Walt performed in switching out the ricin cigarette out with a salt-filled one, patiently tossing Jesse’s apartment with the kid?)

Mike’s coffee shop colloquy with Lydia had a fine comic tinge around its tense edges (Lydia’s jittery, spy-movie gestures; Mike’s weary impatience with her) while furthering the plot. The scene introduced the list of 11 names deemed potential leaks to the police, just as a later Lydia moment established this wonderfully irritating character’s reason for continued existence: Her access to methylmine, an ingredient Walt needs to recommence cooking.

And Mike’s interrogation by Hank was a scene of pure hard-boiled mastery, with Mike demonstrating both how stone-cold he can be (the silent push of his hands across the table, signaling that unless the cops were going to cuff him, he was walking) and how warm-hearted he is to at least one person in his life (his granddaughter Kaylee, whose multi-million-dollar off-shore bank account probably adjoins Mitt Romney’s).

One of the methods to Breaking Bad‘s endless fascination is the way it unfurls maps of inter-dependence. Certain characters may like to see themselves as independent agents, as lone wolves, but everyone is dependent upon someone else — someone else’s errors, or rare twinge of good conscience — and thus must remain part of a group. It’s a braided metaphor for the reasons we form societies.

Thus the Madrigal corporation, owner of the Los Pollos Hermanos chain, which suffered the loss of a key, corrupt executive in the opening moments and which now looms as the largest mechanism yet to threaten even the most grand ambitions of Walter White. The pre-credit sequence set in Madrigal Electromotive GmbH almost played like a Mad Men scene in German, with poker-faced product presentations, corporate dominance and fealty, and the spectacle of one businessman pushed to the limit for the professional error (the Fring thing) for which he was responsible.

The ending of the hour rested once again on Walt making a threat barely disguised as affection toward Skyler. The ominous message Walt delivered between kisses was effective — “When we do what we do for good reasons we’ve got nothing to worry about… and there’s no better reason than family” — and having clued us in to the larger corporate machinations that loom for Walter, his arrogance is increasingly being made to look like the hollow boasts of a man no longer aware of the tragedy he set in motion for himself now long ago.

I thought the episode might have concluded more forcefully, and been truer to its central narrative thrust, had it closed with Mike making that resigned, reluctant call to Walt telling him, “I’ve reconsidered … I’m in.” That’s where the greatest power of the hour resided, in securing poor, strong, wily but weary Grandpa Mike as part of the (doomed?) trio.

But, mild complaint. Terrific episode.

Twitter: @kentucker

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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