“Just because you shot Jesse James,” Mike tells Walt, “doesn’t make you Jesse James.” He’s right in so many ways: Killing Gus may have temporarily gotten Walt out of trouble, but it didn’t solve all his problems, nor did it simply put him on the throne with Gus’s dynasty intact. “Hazard Pay” was all about the cost of doing business, especially those nagging hidden costs that you always forget about. But it was also, more importantly, the latest in the escalating series of pissing matches between Walt and Mike for emotional and logistical control of their cartel.
I’m not going long on this episode, either, because while it was a strong, expertly paced hour of TV, it was also one of those hours that makes big-picture analysis futile. This is, after all, just one chapter in the story, and though it had plenty of strong thematic moments, it worked more as connective tissue than anything else. That doesn’t make the episode a failure, either, despite the YouTube-level comments from some corners of the Internet about episodes like this where “nothing happens.” Rather, all we can do is watch more of the pieces take their places on the board.
When Mike announced at the beginning of the episode that he’d be running the business side of things, Walt shrugged and said, “Sure.” But Walt doesn’t compromise, and he sure doesn’t let himself get pushed around anymore. So he decided to raise his complaints when Mike was splitting up the cash from their first cook and showing Walt how much of their profit was being siphoned away by infrastructure. The presentation and execution of the scene were a little stagey — it would’ve been a lot easier and more understandable for Mike to simply hand Walt a small pile and walk him through the numbers, or really to address them a lot sooner — but it was also one of those moments where the fiction was amped up to serve a larger goal. In this case, it was watching Mike and Walt go another few rounds over money, choices, and power. Jesse’s intervention stopped things from getting out of hand, but it didn’t mollify Walt at all. In fact, Walt looked pissed that Jesse wrecked his flow. He’s not at all done with Mike, either. Walt’s reference to Victor — who met his end at the business end of a box cutter — felt like one more way Walt is preparing to rationalize greater evils on a bigger scale. His supposition that Victor was killed for “taking liberties” he shouldn’t have taken sounds like the lie he’s telling himself about why Mike might need to be dealt with, sooner or later.
It’s that business that makes the show so hypnotic, so real. Walt is basically relearning all of Stringer Bell’s old lessons from the corners and community college, putting together a commercial empire one step at a time. Walt and Jesse have to start cooking again, but it takes work and planning to find a location, and even then they can only mix a quarter of what they could with Gus. (The decision to use houses under bug-bomb tents is inspired, and a nice mix of the mobile kitchen they had in the RV and the technically superior set-up they had at the laundry.) This is a real grind, and it’s different than what you see in the movies. For all its on-the-nose hinting at how badly this could all end for Walt, the scene where he and Walter Jr. watch Scarface shows just how radically different his operation is from the heightened version of a Hollywood kingpin. The scene works on another level, too. “Breaking Bad” is, after all, not real. The moment is a way for the series to show how much more mileage there is in telling a good story, not making a cartoon.
• Best comic moment: Jesse grabbing a tortilla off the assembly line.
• Most unsettling callback: Saul’s brief attempt to sell the guys on using the laser tag arena as a cook shop. I believe that was the location Saul met Walt and Jesse when they were conspiring to off Gale.
• Creepiest Walt moment: His scuzzy pep talk to Jesse about relationships, a day or two after sitting next to the boy he tried to kill. “Secrets create barriers between people.” Ugh.
• The pest control crew is gonna be trouble. The boss had a couple lines, and the two burlier guys were silent. But Todd is played by Jesse Plemons, aka Landry/Lance/the lead singer of Crucifictorious from “Friday Night Lights.” You don’t cast a supporting actor at his level in a throwaway role. He might save Walt and Jesse’s ass, or he could be bad news (the fact that he spoke to them after being instructed not to makes me thing it’ll be the latter), but either way, I bet he shows up again.
• Awesome transition from director Adam Bernstein: the machine guns from Scarface turning into the blast of cash through the counting machine.
• I guess we’ve got a clear answer to the timeline question. It’s almost Walt’s 51st birthday, meaning we’ve come just about a year, narratively, since the pilot episode. This season’s cold open is another year in the story’s future.
• God bless Badger and Skinny Pete, wherever they may lay their heads.