“Breaking Bad” Review: “Hazard Pay”

Everyone writes about “Breaking Bad,” which is precisely the reason why I generally don’t write about the show. It’s too crowded a marketplace, and there’s not much variety. There are, of course, differing levels of skill with which people deploy their analyses, to be sure. But there are only so many ways to say, “Yea, ‘Breaking Bad’, bitch!” (Well, but in critical verbiage, not Jesse platitudes.)

However, since I managed to see this one early (something that will rarely happen), I thought I’d offer up five quick, disjointed thoughts on “Hazard Pay” specifically and season five of the show more generally.

1) Over on HBO, “The Newsroom” currently airs opposite “Breaking Bad.” One of the things Aaron Sorkin has said to the press is how much he enjoys watching hyper-competent people do their jobs well. In “Breaking Bad”, people are also hyper-competent, but also hyper-paranoid as well. There’s a joy (if that’s the right word) in watching Walt concoct his new scheme for putting labs into homes being fumigated by a corrupt group of exterminators. But while he’s the man with the plan, he’s not exactly the man with the business plan, either. Mike offers up a separate of “church” and “state” through his arrangement with Walt and Jesse, but it’s not in Walt’s nature to admit he doesn’t know everything about everything. He knows about the composition of cardboard, but doesn’t know the going rate of payola to those moving his product. Walter hates feeling either stupid or underappreciated, and it’s that Achilles heel that will eventually undo him.

bb_503_uc_0424_0050.jpg2) Jesse’s Achilles heel, of course, is his inability to see just how much Walt has manipulated him into an emotionally abusive relationship. The first third of tonight’s episode was almost calm, eerily so, and featured a Walt/Jesse pairing so calm and mutually understanding that we ourselves forgot just how unnatural this pairing is. Just then, Brock walks into Jesse’s house, Walter comes face-to-face with the child he nearly killed, and we recognize the façade that is the Walt/Jesse friendship. It’s a brilliant turn, one the show does almost effortlessly at this point. So when Jesse confesses to Walt later in the episode that he’s broken things off with Andrea, it’s all the more heartbreaking when Walt has already moved onto the money side of their mutual arrangement. For Jesse, it actually IS all about family. And for him to have to break things off with Andrea while Walt seemingly gets to have everything…well, that’s just one more thing for Jesse to have to deal with. Will there ever be anything that breaks Walt’s hold over Jesse? I imagine the only thing that could is sitting inside an electrical outlet in Walt’s house.

3) In some ways, having a series of episodes dedicated to rebuilding the meth empire burned down at the end of season four seems like a lot of narrative work for a final season that is now almost a quarter over. The demise of Gus Fring also meant the demise of seasons’ worth of build-up. While Gus’ demise felt organic, it means the show has the burden of summing up Walt’s overall arc at a time in which he’s attempting to start things from scratch. I’m not saying the show won’t reveal its intentions down the line, and that those intentions won’t be thematically rich and surprising. But right now, it feels a little bit like the story is restarting at a place where it really should be starting to crescendo. Still, I understand this is the difference between a season-long narrative and a series-long narrative.

4) Most of that thematic resonance will undoubtedly come out of the realization that being free of Gus does not mean freedom in any way, shape, or form. Surely, Walt won’t witness Mike won’t systemically remove stacks of cash from their three-way business arrangement each week. But Mike showed him this once in order to assert some kind of control in a life that seems increasingly without it.  Walt’s cut of $167K is less than his usual haul, but his desire for greater cash will inevitably lead him to the same fate as Tony Montano. (Speaking of “Scarface,” that was a bit too on-the-nose for my tastes. The show isn’t always the most subtle of pop-culture entities, but that was a little too much even by this show’s standards.)

5) Walt’s scene with Marie was a masterclass in manipulation. At some point, Walt is going to run out of ways to worm himself out of situations like this. (I assume this will happen in front of Hank, who was sadly absent this week.) But the best lies have kernals of truth, and his ability to use Skyler’s infedlity against her is something that was both smart and gave him a primal thrill. He still takes that transgression against him as somehow more monstrous than anything he himself has done, and knowing Skyler couldn’t give her side of the story to counter Marie’s opinion made that all the more delicious for him. He claims to want to move back into the house, but really what he wants to do is re-impose his will upon that domestic sphere.

What did you all think of tonight’s episode?