Nobody tells a story like Vince Gilligan and his team. This week’s Breaking Bad, titled “Hazard Pay” for reasons obvious to anyone who holds attention past the first scene, is an especially proficient example of the show’s consistent triumph in furthering plot, building character, and establishing reality — something you won’t find to this same degree on any other program on television.
“Hazard Pay” offers progress to a few different plot structures. On the forefront — Walt, Jesse, and Mike in their new operation: the post-Gus crystal meth creation/distribution business. Via Saul, the team goes on a house-hunting expedition for the perfect venue for their illegal entrepreneurship. Fully armed with excuses on behalf of each, Saul takes his clients through factories and warehouses, even a laser tag emporium (director Andrew Bernstein does not forego his comedy background in this episode), until Walt has the brilliant idea to cook in fumigated houses… working in line with the exterminating company, and getting in and out of the tented homes before the poison is pumped in. Inconvenient, but feasible, and their best option.
But nothing can be simple smooth sailing for this team. Another standing issue is the line of former Gus employees who Mike now has to make sure won’t spill the beans on the dead boss’ secret operation. To do this, he has to continue their “hazard pay” — the profits Gus supplied in return for silence. Walt is none too pleased with this, as some of the money comes out of his shares; more than this, he’s never thrilled with being shifted back in the line of authority. This jar to Walt’s pride even commands a lapse in strategic poise from the chess master: at the end of the episode, Walt, beady eyes and all, implies to Jesse that Mike needs to be killed. Whereas most of Walt’s words are very carefully crafted and placed, he seems to be forgetting just how much Jesse cares for and looks up to Mike, and just how recently he escaped Jesse’s wrath in regards to the near death of Brock. But Walt’s pride often makes him blind. It makes him blind to the sick horror on Skyler’s face whenever he walks in a room — let alone when he tells her he’s moving back in at the beginning of this episode.
We see Walt take a few new plunges, in fact, this week. We see Walt betray Skyler’s secret affair to Marie in an effort to keep his own secrets more firmly hid: Marie wonders why Skyler breaks down and throws a fit at work — Walt credits the episode to Ted Beneke’s hospitalization, revealing that Skyler had an affair with him a few seasons back (he obviously doesn’t say “a few seasons back,” although that’d be pretty funny if he did), and swearing Marie to secrecy. We see Walt in his first interaction with Brock: Andrea and Brock drop by Jesse’s while Walt is over; the quiet young boy is duly ill at ease around the strange man, who unbeknownst to him, almost killed him. Walt telling Brock how brave he was in the hospital, sitting side by side with the boy on the couch, and calmly explaining that he has “two of his own,” reassures the viewer that we’re dealing with a monster. Still, there seems to be some discomfort in Walt when Brock is around. So much so that it might even contribute to his wry manipulation of Jesse that leads him to break up with Andrea — although, this could be fueled entirely by the interest of keeping Jesse’s loyalties dedicated to the job.
The show drops a few other hints in the episode that Walt’s darkness is all-encompassing. He chuckles when he comes across a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass — a nod to his victory over Gale Boetticher and the law enforcement’s pursuit of “Heisenberg”… and also a nod to one half of Bryan Cranston’s character’s namesake, (with the other being Mr. White from Reservoir Dogs). Also in the meta-references department, a late scene has Skyler walking in, grief-stricken, to Walt and Walter, Jr. (when is he going to start going by Flynn again? Does anyone else miss that?) heartily enjoying a viewing of Scarface. Fans know that Vince Gilligan’s M.O. for the character arc of Walter White was to turn him “from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Obviously, this is a nod to the end game being right around the corner.
And that’s apparent by Marie’s mention of Walt’s upcoming birthday. The opening scene of this season’s premiere episode depicted Walt as a lone drifter, scruffy beard and full head of hair with a fake ID in tow, eating in a Denny’s on his 52nd birthday, just before purchasing a gigantic gun from a shifty character. Granted, Walt is presently 50, making the Denny’s scene over a year away — a fact I hadn’t truly recognized until Marie’s comment about his upcoming birthday. Seems to me that Denny’s felt much closer to the present action.
As mentioned above, “Hazard Pay” is an extraordinary case of the establishment of Breaking Bad’s world, both tangibly and in the realm of mood. The illustration of this interconnected world, wherein Saul knows all of these crooked businessmen, wherein hired muscles like Mike and Huell cross silent paths, wherein the people we haven’t seen in ages are still proven to exist — the triumphant return of Skinny Pete and Badger earns this episode so many points — proves just how much Breaking Bad cares about its reality. Furthermore, “Hazard Pay,” and every Season 5 episode so far, proves that Breaking Bad is invested in making its story feel as much like real life as possible. Even in a world of deceit, drug theft, and murder, there can be laughs. The show is never exclusively dedicated to one mood or another. It’s not a strict thriller or a strict drama insofar as being unwilling to become something else entirely for a line, a scene, or even an episode. The show knows that life is extremely versatile, and so it becomes such.
“Hazard Pay” is a near perfect episode of television. With the exception of some of the dialogue delivered by the inmate visited by Mike (a little hokey), and the heavy-handed delivery of the Scarface scene, everything feels organic, emotionally dense, and exquisitely enjoyable.
[Photo Credit: AMC]