“Just because you shot Jesse James don’t make you Jesse James”. This line, spoken by none other than gruff one-liner extraordinaire Mike, will certainly end up being one of the most telling pieces of dialogue in “Breaking Bad”. With each episode that passes this season, it becomes clear that Walt’s reign on top is destined to be even shorter than we may have anticipated. With every inspired decision he makes, his God Complex interferes in ways the audience can see will hurt him and those around him in the long run.
“Hazard Pay” is bookended with scenes showcasing Mike’s considerable efforts towards keeping his guys, who were on Gus’ payroll, in place. The episode starts with Mike (in a suit!) posing as a paralegal in order to visit Dennis, who managed the industrial laundry where Gus’ team did their cooking. He is there to reassure Dennis that the hazard pay will keeping coming, lest he feels compelled to talk. Not only does he have to convince everybody on the payroll that keeping quiet is in their best interests, but he then has to follow through by continuing to supply hazard pay, or ‘making them whole’, as Mike awesomely calls it. And he has to calm everybody down about Chow’s murder. Mike is the one holding all of this together. I only hope that Mike can get out of this okay because I have gotten to the point where Mike’s survival is almost as important to me as Jesse’s.
The Logistics of Building a Business:
The business logistics of “Hazard Pay’s” first half is captivating to watch unfold. We get some excellent location work (particularly the box factory, seen above) as Saul and company trek to various possible locations to house their meth lab. This gives us the chance to see Saul work his magic again (though Walt ends up coming up with the pesticide idea) and it shows all of the potential pitfalls that have to be taken into consideration when embarking on such an enterprise. I love the little touch of Saul bringing them to the Laser Tag location again. Their reactions:
Jesse: Hell no.
The hiding in plain sight plan that Walt comes up with is pretty ingenious. I do not see a ton of longevity in it, although that is more likely because of the various other internal cracks that are already starting to appear within Walt’s endeavors. But for now, it has a touch of the dry humor that this show always likes to inject into the minute plot details. There is the dichotomy of cooking meth within the innocence of people’s homes. Then there is the additional dichotomy of creating a different kind of poison than the kind that allows for bug extermination. There is a great shot where the camera focuses on the innocuous family photo as Walt and Jesse cook in the background.
We are introduced to Jesse Plemons who plays Todd, who will assumedly make his mark sometime this season. After being explicitly instructed by Mike not to speak to either Walt or Jesse, he makes sure they know that he found and disabled a Nanny-Cam for them.
A shout-out is in order for the lovely green and yellow color scheme of the tent colors. It feels intuitively right for this show. I enjoyed the way it changed the lighting in the interior house scenes, not to mention the added value on the visuals by having the tent within a tent set inside the house.
Walt and Brock Meet:
In one of the squirmiest scenes to date, Walt and Brock formally meet. The scene begins with Walt and Jesse brainstorming how to solve problems for the upcoming cook. Something that works really nicely here, and in this season in general, is that it shows that Jesse has grown into being a legitimate team member and not just a hanger-on. Walt may only need Jesse because he can mold him, but Jesse still understands enough and has enough experience to contribute ideas that actually morph into viable solutions. Walt and Jesse are collaborators. Adorable. Also; is he the one drawing these diagrams? Using his artistic interests? Double adorable.
Anyways, back to the creepiness of the Walt and Brock meeting. The scene somewhat prays on the fact that we still do not quite know how the poisoning went down, although it is clear that Saul was certainly involved. Also, I do not believe for a second that Walt would have taken the chance of being at Jesse’s house if he had been the one to carry it out, covert poisoning or not. What works about the scene is that it is not the ‘does Brock know’ quality, but the fact that we know that Walt poisoned Brock. It uses context as a means for single-handedly creating discomfort.
The meeting itself is short and minimalist. 3 shots. A close-up of Walt looking at Brock. A close-up of Brock looking at Walt. A long shot with the two sitting on opposite sides of the couch. The only sound we hear is of Brock’s video game. Cut to commercial. The audience can really project whatever we want to onto this visual exchange. Having watched the episode multiple times, the ambiguity here is enormous, which is why it’s so effective. For me it comes down to a deeply unsettling atmosphere. It also uses the fact that Brock is always uneasy around new people to add a level of instinctive ‘I don’t want to know you’ vibe that comes from the kid. On Walt’s end, to me, there was a humanistic moment of him being almost afraid to look at the child whose life he actively endangered. But then there was also the next moment where he seemingly has no real problem facing him. That breakdown at the end of “Face Off” when Jesse leaves and Walt lets out his relief has basically been supplanted with no real remorse. Brock is sitting on the opposite side of the couch playing video games. He’s fine! And to Walt, as long as he’s fine, why should he feel bad about what was done in the past? In the end, I took it as a moment where Walt finalizes his own validation towards the poisoning.
It is a safe bet to say that this cooking montage was the best “Breaking Bad” has done. It has been a while since we had one of these, right? The song choice, “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” by The Peddlers, had a laid-back cool to it with a wistfully nostalgic tone. The montage went full speed ahead in glorifying the art of the cook and turning it into a beautiful looking process. The yellow, blue and silver colors pop out and the music combined with the subtle use of slow-motion, the editing, and the ridiculously stunning effects work of close-up of chemical close-ups achieved one of the show’s best sequences to date. The dripping, the smoke, the translucence; all of it. I lost myself in this scene.
In the first half I will admit that two moments felt like a retread to me. Both are lines from Walt. The first is “Mike handles the business. And I handle him.” The second is “Why?” in response to Saul’s request that they take a vote on Walt’s idea. It was very easy to see both coming and I feel like we have already established these kinds of remarks out of Walt and that they did not really add anything to the proceedings. But they also did not take away, considering that character work is low on the priority list for the business-heavy first half.
The montage segues into the second half of the structurally succinct episode. What would an episode of “Breaking Bad” be at this point in the game without Walt blatantly manipulating Jesse? Nothing I say.
The Cruel Manipulation of Jesse Pinkman Continues:
The second half is all about the enormous chess game Walt is playing with everybody around him. The catch is that nobody else, except perhaps Mike, knows about this chess game. Walt continues to carefully maneuver those around him right where he wants them to be. He does it to Jesse here. He does it to Marie later. He does it to Skyler through the tale he spins for Marie. He has already done it to Saul. Again, Mike is the only one he cannot control.
What starts as a seemingly touching scene with the father/son dynamic that Jesse has always craved from Walt soon turns into something else. Everybody watching probably saw the turn the conversation takes coming. As they sit, drink beer and watch The Three Stooges in the temporary house/meth-lab, Walt expresses delight over Jesse’s relationship with Andrea. “And the way she looks at you…oh-ho.” Then he starts in on his ploy to get Andrea and Brock out of the picture while making it seem like Jesse’s ultimate decision. “Have you thought about what your plan is, vis a vis honesty?” I really truly hate you Walt. You are just the worst.
Basically Walt needs everyone else that would elicit loyalty from Jesse out of his life. Jesse cannot really have anything else going for him outside of Walt and the work they do. He proceeds by asking if Andrea knows anything. Jesse mutes the TV and immediately makes sure Walt knows without a doubt that he would never say anything to her, although she likely knows something is up (my favorite bit of acting from Aaron Paul in this episode). Walt then states that he has to decide how much Andrea knows, that “secrets create barriers”, and that he trusts that Jesse will make the right decision.
So basically, Walt implants this seed of uncertainty in Jesse. Walt knows that Jesse would not have the heart to tell anybody he loves what he has done. Let’s face it; Jesse’s committed some horrific crimes. So with that in mind, Walt is subtly saying, without actually saying, that nobody will ever accept Jesse as he truly is because “everything you’ve done is a part of you”. And he throws in an “everything we’ve been through, the two of us” in there for good measure.
What I love about Walt’s manipulations is the way he uses truth to create a lie. He uses truth to manipulate and in some ways, theses manipulations are the only time his human side comes out. It’s evil in one way and yet, at least a little of how much he reveals to others in service of manipulation feels genuine. This comes up again when Walt throws Skyler under the bus in order to save face with Marie.
Skyler and Marie:
Clearly Skyler is starting to crack in some big ways. If anyone could instigate a mental breakdown of sorts it would probably be Marie (in her first appearance this season). Anna Gunn was marvelous here. We are moving through the stages of trauma with her and I feel like something has to give very soon. We have gone from a catatonic kind of depression and paralyzing fear to frightening outbursts. Pretty soon I am assuming we will move to the next stage where Skyler will break out of this enough to see that something has to be done to, in her words, “protect the family from the person who protects his family”.
Walt plays selective truth-telling to Marie in a scene that goes down exactly as Walt would want it to. Marie’s presence forces Walt to think on his feet. While her immediate insistence is a challenge, Walt very easily slides into storytelling mode in yet another cruel masterstroke. He allows himself to be a cuckold and plays the victim by painting a picture of Skyler as the two-timing wife of a cancer-ridden husband. Yes, Skyler cheated on Walt. And yes, part of Skyler’s depression is induced by the harm she caused Ted. But it makes Skyler seem like somewhat of a villain to her sister, and it also paints a picture of Skyler that she has no control over. This harks back to Skyler’s gambling backstory that she simultaneously sprung on Walt and Marie, and seems like a dose of payback for that as well.
In a moment that registers as particularly callous coming from Walt, when Marie leaves, instead of checking up on his wife, he struts over to the kitchen table and takes a very self-satisfied bite out of an apple. It is a minute moment but it permeates with a passive maliciousness that counteracts the grander moments of Walt’s heartless persona.
The Scarface scene at first seemed a bit too on-the-nose for me, given how many times Vince Gilligan uses the “Mr. Chips to Scarface” line. But the way it unfolded and stayed so insistently in Skyler’s point-of-view made it work. There was something nightmarish and surreal about it. She cannot get away from her mindset to the point where she is living in her own personal hell. The “everybody dies in this movie, don’t they” line that happens off-screen is like the cherry on top.
Walt and Mike Have Their First Dispute (aka well that didn’t take long, did it?):
To reiterate, Mike is under more pressure than anybody else on this show right now, by a long shot. That he is working with Walt should make that evident enough. But he’s got every single person on the payroll to worry about, the business end of the partnership to deal with and his new corroborations with Walt and Lydia, who each present their own set of problems. This coupled with the fact that Mike is now the only character on this show willing to cross Walt makes him a major player we root for, but also a major character we have to most immediately worry about.
As Walt and Jesse watch their cuts dwindle away, Walt has his first breaking point as he witnesses just how much money is taken away when Mike is the one conducting business. The legacy cost is what does the trick. That Walt cannot see why taking a major pay cut for the hazard money is the right call is downright imbecilic. I get that the blunt visual of your money being taken away for others who do not even work for you might be upsetting, but Walt’s increasing inability to look at the big picture is very quickly getting out of hand. He sees himself on Gus’ level, not least because he was able to take him out. But he is not on Gus’ level. Walt has no experience and yet he expects to be hauling ridiculous amounts of money from the get-go and conveniently ignores how many other people are necessary in order for him to continue cooking meth. I love that Mike reminds him of this when Walt asks him how much Gus paid his mules. “Gustavo Fring didn’t use mules. He didn’t need them. He spent 20 years building his own distribution network.”
Walt is very quickly starting to see Mike as a nuisance. They are already butting heads. Most of their money is going towards paying off other people he doesn’t know. To Walt, it is becoming increasingly clear that Mike really isn’t worth all this. The catch is that, yes, Mike is indeed worth all this but Walt cannot see it.
In these Walt/Mike scenes, the editors do a consistently great job in strategically cutting to Jesse, the awkward middle man in all of this. The cuts of just Walt, just Mike, just Jesse and of Walt and Mike with Jesse lingering in the background are always immaculately juggled. Jesse tries to alleviate the situation by emphatically offering up his money. Walt declines and tells Mike to take the share. By the end of the episode Walt is already to the point of rethinking his partnership with Mike and I would assume that Mike knows Walt will likely pull something in the future because he is not stupid.
The last scene is a particularly complex one (in a show chockfull of complex scenes) and features a new interpretation of a major event by Walt that I do not quite buy. Whether I am supposed to buy it or not does not really matter, because this is delusional Walt we are talking about. We learn that Jesse broke it off with Andrea, which is too depressing for me to entirely process right now. “Instant family” indeed. And then we get the sucker punch of Walt not giving a shit and interrupting Jesse mid-sentence. “I meant this—how are you feeling about the money”. Jesse is looking at it the smart way. It may look like less money, but in reality they are clearing a bigger piece of the pie in addition to being owners and not employees.
Not good enough for Walt though. He’s been thinking about Victor and now thinks that perhaps Gus killed Victor not only to teach them a lesson but because he cooked the batch on his own; taking liberties he was not supposed to take. “Maybe he flew too close to the sun; got his throat cut”. We then cut to Jesse, whose face pretty much mirrored my own at that point, a face of immense confusion, concern and fear. The eyebrow crunching was in full effect from both Jesse and myself and likely many other fellow viewers.
Walt walks away and we are left with Jesse looking on with astonishment. With each passing episode even though he continues to not realize that Walt manipulates him constantly, he is beginning to see that being this inextricably tied to Walt may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Jesse’s loyalty to Mike will be a problem if Walt wants to do try and remove Mike from the partnership. It will be very interesting to see how that plays out.
I have written way more than I planned on. Next week is “Fifty-One”, an episode that not only marks the one year point from where the show started in its pilot, but marks the halfway point between the pilot and the cold open in the season premiere. Rian Johnson, director of Brick, the upcoming Looper and “Fly”, arguably this show’s best episode, directs next week. It looks like Heisenberg is back. I cannot wait.
Please feel free to comment on your thoughts of “Hazard Pay”. I would love to hear what fellow fans thought of the episode!