Monday, July 30, 2012

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 3: “Hazard Pay”

It’s been interesting to learn more about the scale of Gus’s operation in these past two episodes. We knew it was extensive, given the resources he was able to devote to it, and these past two episodes have explored both the corporate/supplier and enforcement/distribution sides of the enterprise. In this episode, we learn more about the men under Mike who distributed the meth, both as Mike visits a prison inmate in the opener, and then later as he parcels out the “hazard pay” for those who need to be “made whole.” Having Mike clean up the mess Walt created by killing Gus has provided a nice way filling out the details of Gus’s operation.

It’s always interesting to see Walt’s estimation of himself. As scary as he’s become, there’s always been an air of braggadocio to his demeanor. I suppose it’s to be expected that an egomaniac is blind to his own considerable shortcomings and to the considerable capabilities of others, but his own perception of himself has never quite meshed with how others see him, even for those who know the most about him. In this episode, Saul is surprised that Walt is okay with Mike’s laying down the ground rules for their division of labor. He asks Walt if he’s okay with it, and Walt responds, “Yes. He handles the business, and I handle him.” Now that he’s defeated Gus, Walt clearly thinks himself to be Mike’s superior, even if they’re evenly splitting the profits of the meth business. Walt always saw himself as Gus’s equal, and because Mike merely worked for Gus, Mike is therefore no match for Walt. Walt is okay with Mike having control of the business side of things because Walt thinks that when push comes to shove, he can get the better of Mike. Granted, Walt doesn’t realize that Mike has the combat prowess of Batman, but Walt seems to selectively forget that he’s repeatedly failed to manipulate Mike in the past: last season Mike punched out Walt in a bar when Walt clumsily tried to get Mike to turn on Gus, and Mike only stayed his execution of Walt at the end of season 3 because Walt was able to get Jesse to kill Gale. “I handle him” thus serves as a nice summary statement of Walt’s illusions about himself.

At the same time, we can also see things from Mike’s perspective. Gus never saw Walt as his equal, but as an irritant, an attitude that Mike adopted as well. Mike has learned that Walt can be dangerous, but Mike also knows the measure of his own meddle, which he rightfully estimates is more than able to match Walt’s. Walt and Mike’s conflicting estimations of each other clash near the end of the episode, when they divvy up the profits. Walt is resistant to Mike’s needing to pay his employees, and Mike makes it clear that despite his killing Gus, Walt is not the baddest man in town, telling Walt, “Just because you’ve shot Jesse James don’t make you Jesse James.” This seems to get to Walt, as evidenced shortly thereafter, when Walt raises with Jesse Gus’s killing of Victor at the start season 4. Why does Walt bring this up? We can read a lot of different things into Walt’s motivation here: it might be a warning to Jesse – don’t cook meth without me. As my roommate suggested, it could just be random musing. It could also be a veiled reference to what he’s thinking about Mike at the moment – in his own mind, Walt isn’t just Jesse James, but the sun itself, and in challenging his authority, Mike is flying too close. Given Walt's illusions about himself, this last interpretation wouldn't surprise me. Moreover, this interpretation nicely highlights some of Walt's shortcomings as a criminal mastermind: it never occurs to Walt that Gus killed Victor because Victor was spotted at the scene of Gale’s murder, instead thinking that it was a message to him from Gus. Oh Walt, killing people is probably not the most efficient form of communication.

Walt’s moving back into the White household finally gives Anna Gunn some material to play by indirectly causing Skyler’s outburst with Marie. This is a very cathartic scene, not only because Skyler really needed a means of venting her mounting terror over Walt, but also because I’m sure many of us have wanted to scream “Shut up!” at Marie at some point (and her dialogue in the scene at the carwash is as annoyingly incessant as it has ever been). Moreover, it leads to another nice scene where Walt is forced into some quick thinking. Walt’s ability to think on his feet is still one of his most admirable qualities, even if he uses it for ignoble, manipulative ends. He comes up with the perfect excuse for Skyler’s outburst when Marie demands an explanation: Skyler is upset about Ted. This, of course, is news to Marie, and it not only explains Skyler’s behavior and defuses the situation, but Walt also discredits Skyler and earns sympathy from Marie in the process, and he didn’t even have to fabricate anything to do it. I wonder if Walt realizes Skyler’s fear of him. If so, his using Ted as an excuse for Skyler’s outburst would seem to be a step in a precautionary direction. It’s pretty clear to us that Skyler is having difficulty dealing with who Walt has become (even if she only knows the half of it), so if Walt realizes it, it’s possible that Walt has started to think of her as a liability. On the other hand, Walt’s always been pretty dense regarding what’s going on in Skyler’s head, so maybe I’m reading too much into this at the moment.

Another manipulative moment for Walt this episode: deliberately planting the seeds of Jesse’s break up with Andrea in Jesse’s head by broaching the topic of how much Andrea knows about what Jesse does. Walt’s motivation: Jesse dating Andrea keeps Brock around, and that’s a loose end Walt doesn’t want to have to deal with. The boy is a reminder of what a foul person Walt has become, and his presence creates the potential for Walt to let slip something about Brock’s poisoning. I assume the former motivated Walt in this instance, as he isn’t really self-conscious enough to realize that he has a tendency to let slip things he shouldn’t (especially when in an altered state: last season, too much wine and a wounded pride leads Walt to reinvigorate Hank’s interest in Heisenberg; surgical anesthesia makes Walt reveal his second phone to Skyler a few seasons ago, and delirium over trying to catch a fly last season makes him almost reveal to Jesse that Walt let Jane die). Nevertheless, it was a pretty ruthless and well-calculated move (and Walt doesn’t even know that Andrea is a recovering meth addict and that Jesse’s occupation absolutely will not fly with her). Maybe one of these days Jesse will realize that none of Walt’s advice has ever led to an improvement in Jesse’s life.

Other thoughts:

- Walt’s idea for cooking meth in homes tented for fumigation is pretty creative, but also pretty terrible. It works without a hitch in this episode, but there are simply too many loose ends for it to go problem-free for long: what if one of the homeowners returns home randomly, bypassing the warnings to stay out? The actual fumigators know way too much, and have too large a responsibility for the success of a cook. New locations for every cook mean unforeseeable variables every time. There’s no way this doesn’t go south one way or another.

- Jesse’s hideous friend who always wears a stocking cap is a piano virtuoso. Who knew? I liked the moment when Jesse’s friends ask Jesse to get in on the action. Hot on the heels of the scene where Walt lays out his plan for where they’ll cook, I was already full of ideas for the many ways in which Walt’s plan will get screwed up. Adding these two knuckleheads to the mix would certainly only destabilize the situation further. Thus it was a mild relief when Mike appears in the doorway, quickly dispelling any ideas Jesse might have had about trusting these two with anything more than buying storage equipment.

- It seems like the DEA should have placed Mike under surveillance at this point. I wonder how he’s managing to elude it. The show usually relishes details like these, rather than leaving them out.

- Huel can sleep on his feet, and with his eyes open, no less! Between this and picking Jesse’s pocket last season, the man is treasure trove of hidden talents.

- As usual, Saul provides some comic relief. His general skittishness about Mike was pretty great, especially his description of Mike as looking at Saul with “dead, mackerel eyes.”

- So, Landry from Friday Night Lights dropped out of college, moved to New Mexico, changed his name to Todd, and got a job fumigating homes. I wonder if he still plays in Crucifictorious.

- The show often makes the work of cooking meth beautiful, and this episode is no different, aided this time by some nice lighting (motivated by the yellow and green tent covering the house), both slow motion and time lapse cinematography, and by some fun music.

- Some nice dialogue from Walt about the cost of keeping secrets, something about which he knows even more than others think he does.

- Vince Gilligan has made many references to Scarface in interviews over the years, specifically regarding how Walt is meant to turn from Mr. Chips into Scarface over the course of the series, so it was a nice touch that the show finally referenced the Brian De Palma version directly, by having Walt and Walter Jr. watch the bloody climax in the living room. I especially liked the context of the reference: a representation of Skyler’s worst nightmare about who Walt has become. The strong contrast provided by Walt’s actual presence in the scene was also a nice touch. He happily holds the baby in his lap, caringly offers Skyler pizza, and nonchalantly responds to the film with statements like, “Boy, everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?” I also liked that this last line occurs over a close shot of Skyler’s dismayed face.

- Another nice touch: the sounds of Pacino’s machine gun fire dissolve into the sound of the money counter rifling through dollar bills in the next scene.

- Near the end of the episode, when Walt asks about how Jesse is feeling, and Jesse responds with news of his relationship status, Walt quickly cuts him off and says, “I meant this,” and gestures toward the money. Walt listens to Jesse long enough to confirm that he’s successfully manipulated Jesse into doing what he wanted, and then quickly diverts the conversation to something he actually cares about. Poor Jesse doesn’t realize Walt’s “affection” for him is nothing but a self-interested ruse.

UPDATE: Sepinwall has some good insights into this episode, particularly regarding Walt's motivation for breaking up Andrea and Jesse. He also convincingly gives Walt's affection for Jesse more credence than I have here, and is also less skeptical of Walt's awareness of the effect he's having on Skyler. I like this interpretation, as it makes Walt more ruthless, even if it means Walt has become a better actor. Sepinwall thinks he has, but I maintain my skepticism.

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