Review: ‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Hazard Pay’

A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I run down to Costco to get a couple of dehumidifiers…

“Yes, he handles the business. And I handle him.” -Walt

One of the things we’ve learned through four-plus seasons of “Breaking Bad” is that Vince Gilligan has a firm grasp of the show’s pace. He knows how much time certain developments need to build, and he knows how much patience his audience will have along the way.

Of course, he’s mastered that sense of pace within the format of a traditional 13-episode cable season. Season 1 was just getting warmed up when the writers strike ended it with the seventh episode, and now we have this unusual, bifurcated 16-episode final “season,” where we don’t know exactly how Gilligan intends to structure it. Will this summer’s episodes build up to a traditionally insane “Breaking Bad” finale cliffhanger in episode 8? Or will these 16 episodes be treated as a single unit, and this summer’s last episode won’t be that much different from any other eighth episode(*) of a “Breaking Bad” season.

(*) For comparison’s sake, season 2’s eighth installment was “Better Call Saul,” season 3’s was “I See You” and season 4’s was “Hermanos.”

We don’t know, though, and Gilligan understandably isn’t saying. And because of that uncertainty, I’m of two minds on “Hazard Pay.”

Taken in isolation, it’s a very good episode, and an atypical one for the series, in that an idea of Walt’s goes entirely according to plan. He figures out a new business model for their cooking(**), everyone plays their part, and it works. But there’s enough ongoing tension between Walt and Mike, and from Walt manipulating Jesse to break up with Andrea, and from the painful nervous breakdown Skyler is suffering as Walt’s emotional prisoner, that even in an hour where the business is running smoothly, we know bad things are coming.

(**) Two thoughts on this approach from a production standpoint: 1)It saves the show the cost of building another huge set like the superlab, while also not chaining them to a single location (which became an issue when the real-life owners of Jesse’s house sold it after season 1), and 2)The colorful tent and the way it’s unfurled over each house fits very much into the visual aesthetic of this show, while also being a little nod to one of the more famous episodes of “The X-Files,” “Post-Modern Prometheus.”

As the third hour of a 13-episode season of “Breaking Bad,” “Hazard Pay” would be terrific. As the third hour of what’s going to be presented to viewers as an 8-episode group – in which at least 2 of these first 3 have been somewhat relaxed in nature as the series resets itself post-Gus – I’m not sure. Vince Gilligan has my faith until proven otherwise, but he’s doing something the show hasn’t really done before.

But as I said, it was intriguing, exciting and times simply a lot of fun to watch Walt, Jesse and Mike rebuild the business from scratch. If anything, the rapid individual pace of “Hazard Pay” – in which we saw the guys deal with a lot of issues that might have been dealt with one or two at a time in other seasons – suggests that Gilligan is, in fact, very aware of the overall pacing issue and wanted to get as much out of the way as he could before moving into the part where things inevitably start going wrong. I particularly enjoyed Mike addressing the exterminators, sounding like a cross between a Marine drill sergeant and Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

And as things were humming along under the pest tent, we got to see lots of signs of tension elsewhere. Mike is convinced he can control Walter White. Walt is convinced he can outsmart this thug and steal the whole operation out from under him when the time is right. And Jesse doesn’t know what’s going on, other than that Mr. White is finally treating him with respect and kindness and sincerity.

It’s that last part that’s fascinating, and perhaps troubling if you like Jesse. Walt has known Jesse long enough, and been through enough things with him, that I think there’s some degree of genuine affection in the way he relates to him now. But we’ve also seen in his dealings with Mike and Saul and Skyler and, here, Marie, that Walt is at a stage where he will use anyone, and do and say anything to manipulate them into giving him exactly what he wants. And Walt doesn’t want this little boy in Jesse’s life, either because he fears Brock may one day figure out and tell someone how he got poisoned(***), or because he simply doesn’t want his overly-emotional partner to be distracted by the relationship that nearly got the both of them murdered by Gus Fring.

(***) We still don’t know the method of delivery, but I have to assume that putting Brock in a room with Walt was the show’s way of letting us know that Walt didn’t give it to the kid directly. That said, I wasn’t wild about us seeing Jesse and Andrea back together, like nothing strange had happened between them in the episode where a frantic Jesse told Andrea that her son might have been poisoned in a very, very specific way. As with the poisoning itself, it feels like the show has skipped a few steps with this story, and in this case there’s not even the excuse of them having to maintain suspense and surprise.  

So Jesse dumps Andrea (off-camera), but remains blissfully ignorant as to how Walt continues to manipulate him. Skyler, on the other hand, has her eyes wide open, but she’s too terrified of her husband to resist him in any way – a squirm-inducing state of affairs that Walt recognizes well enough to move his stuff out of the condo and back into the house. Anna Gunn continues to do an incredible job of playing a frightened, shattered Skyler, who wants to get The One Who Knocks to be The One Who Leaves, but who’s too afraid to do anything but shut down emotionally, and redirect her anger with Walt onto Marie.

And remember how I said once upon a time that Bryan Cranston may be a great actor, but Walter White isn’t? Well, Walt’s been taking acting classes in the theater of life, and he’s gotten pretty damn good at it. He snowed Jesse last season about Brock, and here he tells Marie a story about Ted Beneke – and the genius of it is that the spine of this tale is true. Skyler did sleep with Ted, and Skyler is upset about Ted’s injury. But her anger and depression goes much deeper than that, while Walt gets a little revenge for Skyler’s adultery by telling Marie about it (and exaggerating it into much more than it actually was).

Skyler has her breakdown at the car wash, and when she finally emerges from the bedroom, what movie are Walt, Walter Jr. and little Holly watching?

They’re watching “Scarface.”

Of course.

The one-line pitch for the show, which Vince Gilligan has repeated early and often, is, “We’re gonna take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” I don’t know that Walt is quite at the Tony Montana stage just yet, but we know that a year from now, he’s going to need Jim Beaver to get him a “little friend” of his own, and we have a bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come when Walt asks this question:

“Everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?”

Even in an episode where things are going well, there is that. Very bad things are coming. We just don’t know how long it will take them to get here, or whether we may have to wait another calendar year for Walt to start shooting at the cock-uh-roaches.

Some other thoughts:

* Speaking of “Scarface,” I talked briefly to Gilligan at the TCA Awards last night, and he said they had to get permission from both the movie studio and Al Pacino himself to get the rights to show that clip, and while Pacino could have made some exorbitant demands, “He couldn’t have been nicer about the whole thing.” 

* I am so glad to have Jesse Plemons on the show (as exterminator Todd) for two reasons: 1)As he showed on “Friday Night Lights,” he’s excellent at both drama and comedy, which is an essential balance an actor needs on a show like this, and 2)His presence on a show like this will take all the usual Landry mass murder jokes to the next level.

* While Badger is just goofing around in the music store, it’s clear Skinny Pete has real musical talent, which he’s of course left behind in favor of other pursuits.

* While unpacking his belongings at the house, Walt comes across a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” which contains Gale’s favorite poem, “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” Some Whitman scholars might also find parallels between this arrogant version of Walt and the narrator of another of the collection’s poems, “Song of Myself.”

* Among Huell’s skills: intimidation, pick-pocketing, and being able to sleep while standing up. The man is versatile.

* Saul’s tour of possible lab locations included a quick, amusing glimpse of Lazer Base (which Saul wanted to be the place where Walt laundered his money, and where Jesse hid out during “Full Measures”) as well as a stop at a box factory that had me doing my best Homer Simpson impression from “Bart Gets Famous.”

* The show keeps finding new, visually gorgeous ways to shoot the cooking process, here not only with the new equipment, but in the way we get to watch the chemicals bonding together.

* Hank doesn’t appear in this one, but Marie notes that, off-camera, Hank’s physical therapy is going well enough that he won’t need the cane anymore, which has to be a relief for Dean Norris. (Hugh Laurie and Laura Innes both dealt with a lot of physical problems from playing characters who leaned on canes all the time.)

UPDATE: As many of you noted, I did not comment on the final scene between Walt and Jesse, and I should have. So a few thoughts. First, because Walt and Jesse were being isolated in the superlab away from much of the action during the events of “Box Cutter,” I don’t think they have a full picture of Victor’s murder, which was as much about removing a link between Gus and Gale’s murder (Victor was seen by witnesses; Jesse was not), if not more, as it was about sending a message to Walt and Jesse. So whatever interpretation of that event Walt makes is going to be heavy speculation. But he’s furious at Mike at this point, who has just taken hundreds of thousands of dollars away from Walt – some of it for expenses Walt expected, some of it not – and, even worse from Walt’s perspective, has left him feeling emasculated again, in the way that Skyler did at the start of the series and Gus did during much of the superlab era. He boasts earlier in the episode that he’ll be able to handle Mike, but he’s beginning to realize how difficult it is to handle a man like this. Walt and Jesse and Mike are all allegedly bosses of this venture, but in Walter White’s mind, there’s only the one boss: himself. So he’s trying to plant seeds with Jesse that Mike is taking too many liberties, and overstepping his role by taking the hazard pay on top of the money for the exterminators, Jesse, Saul, etc. As happened last season, there’s a definite battle for the soul of Jesse Pinkman going on, and at the moment I think Walt is winning. But we’ll see going forward.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at