‘Breaking Bad’ Season Five: “Hazard Pay”

Hmm.

As I’ve stated before, I grade Breaking Bad on a curve. Even a “bad” episode of Breaking Bad is a million times better than any episode of Two And A Half Men, or 99% of other shows on TV. There is no “bad” episode of Breaking Bad, anyway. There are only episodes ranging from “good” to “holy fucking shit, that was incredible.”

“Hazard Pay” is at the low end of the spectrum. It is merely “good.”

Complaining about Breaking Bad never makes me feel good. In fact, it makes me feel ungrateful, because even in “Hazard Pay” there is so much to admire. The performances, the direction, the cinematography — all top-notch. And I know Breaking Bad well enough to realize that some elements that don’t feel particularly momentous now can pay off in a big way later.

That said, I found parts of “Hazard Pay” a little boring. After Season Five has dealt with the Gus Fring aftermath thus far, in this episode it is finally time to move forward, and that it does. “Hazard Pay” gets our guys back in business, and by the end of the hour, they’ve cooked their first batch. I, for one, wouldn’t have asked many questions if they’d merely purchased a new lab and got cooking right away, but Breaking Bad likes to agonize over the details and make things particularly hard for its antiheroes, so we get a lot of locations that aren’t right before Walt comes up with one of his brilliant solutions. (And after working in Gus’ state-of-the-art Super Lab, wouldn’t pretty much anything be shabby in comparison?) Walt’s idea is pretty ingenious — they’ll set up shop in houses that need to be fumigated for pests, in and out within a few days, leaving no trace. It’s not an idea I’d have thought of in a million years and I bet you wouldn’t have either, which is why I’m glad Vince Gilligan is running this show instead of anybody else.

However, I can’t say I actually loved the process of watching Walt, Mike, and Jesse put their business back together. It’s a lot of setup with little payoff, in this episode anyway, with nothing that rivals the magnetic pull of the season premiere or Lydia’s nerve-wracking near-death experience at the hands of Mike last week. No show can have a water cooler moment in every episode, though Breaking Bad manages to get pretty close. But beyond getting Walt and Jesse cooking again, not a whole lot of consequence really happens in “Hazard Pay,” either on a plot or character level. Yes, there are a few intriguing developments, but nothing that left me on the edge of my seat… or anywhere near it. Walt’s still a greedy, pompous jerk, Skyler’s still afraid of him, and Jesse is still playing puppet with no clue that Walt’s hand has been up his ass the whole time.

But enough complaining. The most surprising and captivating moment of “Hazard Pay,” arguably, is Skyler’s “breakdown” (that’s what Marie calls it). Is that what it is? I didn’t think so at first, but perhaps it is. It’s completely unexpected. First, Skyler snaps at Marie and says what a majority of the Breaking Bad audience probably want to say to her, which is: “Shut up.” Repeatedly, and at an increased volume. (It’s very similar to a Julianne Moore moment from Magnolia, although she got to pepper it with F-word because it wasn’t TV.) Personally, I like Marie and have a lot of sympathy for her and want to see more of her on the show, but she was truly annoying in this episode, which is why Skyler was pretty justified in telling her to “shut up” at least a few times.

Well-meaning Marie tries to talk to Walt about the incident, wondering what provoked it. The sneaky bastard uses the opportunity to inform Marie about the “IFT” incident and Ted’s subsequent “accident,” pretending he thought she already knew. It’s Walt’s clever way of getting back at Skyler for using his “gambling” saga to engender sympathy for her own plight. Leave it to Walt to deflect all the blame for telling his wife he’s killed at least three people, which is the actual reason Skyler is a nervous wreck these days, of course, and make Skyler look like the bitch who cheated on her cancer patient husband in the process. Walt has done a lot of unsavory things on this show by now, some quite severe, but these are the moments that make him particularly hard to like. When he poisoned Brock it was an act of self-preservation in the literal sense, but he doesn’t have to let Skyler take the fall here. He just does it because he has no integrity.

Back to that in a moment — but first, while we’re on the topic of Brock, “Hazard Pay” puts Walt face-to-face with the child he nearly killed. It’s a big tease that gives us one piece of information — Brock doesn’t seem to recognize Walt, which means he didn’t just pull up in a van and give Brock a piece of lily-of-the-valley candy — while still withholding the truth about how he did manage to poison the boy. Will we ever fully know, or will Breaking Bad just continue to put the puzzle together so agonizingly slow, one piece at a time?

Now, back to Walt’s integrity — or lack thereof. He does all kinds of shitty things in “Hazard Pay,” but perhaps the shittiest is persuading Jesse to break up with Andrea by insinuating that Jesse’s livelihood will end up destroying their relationship. Of course, Walt accomplishes this in a roundabout way, playing Iago to Jesse’s Othello and pretending to have his best interests at heart: “Secrets create barriers between people,” Walt says, adding that he’s speaking from experience. (What Jesse doesn’t know is that the secrets Walt’s hiding from him are the biggest of them all.) Again, getting Andrea and Brock out of Jesse’s life isn’t something Walt needs to do, it’s probably just slightly more convenient for Walt if Jesse isn’t tied down to a wife and kid. So, in conclusion, Walt’s a creep.

I do wish we saw a bit more of Brock and Andrea first so that we were actually emotionally invested in Jesse having to get rid of her, but it happens off screen. Curiously, Jesse doesn’t seem too broken up about it, though in another nice display of Walt shittiness, he interrupts Jesse as he’s pouring his heart out about this to complain about money. So much for feigning sympathy. The true colors emerge.

Which brings us down to the predictable beef between Mike “the business” and Walt “the cook.” There was never any chance in hell that Walt would actually let Mike handle the business end of the business without interference. We all know what happens when someone tries to tell Walt what to do, even when they clearly know better. Breaking Bad has done a wonderful job of setting up what a professional Mike is (like Gus was, except with some kind of moral compass still intact). Walt is exactly the opposite, constantly letting his ego get in the way of making smart decisions — in small ways, like with the expensive bottle of champagne and Walter Jr.’s car last season, and in some more obvious larger ones. Clearly, this will be his downfall.

Walt can’t just leave well enough alone — he won’t accept a smaller fee for his services (though over 100 grand should be plenty for a couple days’ work), he won’t let Mike run the business the slow, steady, smart way that Gus had so much success with for so long. Mike’s words from last week about Walt being a time bomb have rarely felt truer than they do now, because the somewhat ambiguous end of the episode implies that Walt is already ready to get rid of Mike. (Which in a way seems even trickier than killing Gus.) That’s a bad idea for innumerable reasons, the worst of which might be Jesse’s relationship with Mike. Any way you cut it, Jesse will be torn about which pseudo-father figure he wants to stand behind. And even if he chooses Mr. White, surely Walt’s bloodlust will raise questions in Jesse’s mind about just how much he can be trusted with Jesse’s own life.

Last season, Gus and Mike praised Jesse for his loyalty, and in “Madrigal” we saw just how important that loyalty is to Mike. (And again here, as Mike plays the world’s least convincing “paralegal” in a jailhouse visit to one of his guys.) Walt, on the other hand, doesn’t have a drop of it. Mike knows that the “hazard pay” in question is a valuable insurance against being ratted out, but Walt is unwilling to proceed with such caution, even when the cost is relatively small. The final shot is ominous, with a lowering door shutting Jesse out of our view. A door shutting on what? His relationship with Walt? His life? Walt says secrets create barriers between people, but in this case, the truth will create an even less surmountable one.

In “Hazard Pay,” Walt skates on some very thin ice, wantonly betraying just about everybody at the drop of a hat — Skyler, Jesse, Mike. He can’t keep this up forever. They’re going to wise up. I expected Season Five would find Skyler becoming a ruthless She-Walt of sorts, a Lady Macbeth character. So far, Breaking Bad has surprised me by doing just the opposite — reducing her to almost nothing. (Though I found that Scarface scene a bit too on-the-nose — or was it meant to be an advertisement for AMC’s Mob Week?) It won’t be long before there’s no one left who’s loyal to Walt, and that’s going to be a problem.

So, as a showcase for Walt’s sure-to-be-fatal flaws, “Hazard Pay” does a lot to prove once and for all that Walt is looking out for Number One even when he doesn’t have to. Now that Gus is gone, we’re not really rooting for Walt anymore — in most scenes, we cringe and wish we could intervene and save him from himself. But with Jesse blind to Walt’s conniving ways (until the end?) and Skyler in breakdown mode, it’s hard to feel that good about any of these people. Not that Breaking Bad has ever really been an “up with people” show, but even by its own standards, “Hazard Pay” felt a bit lugubrious and dour.

I would never advise Breaking Bad to “lighten up,” but can’t Marie have another kleptomania spree or something? Even Saul has been pretty mopey lately. Surely one of these people will do something we can feel good about soon… right?

Grade: B- 

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