This review contains spoilers.
5.3 Hazard Pay
I was reading a ‘Best of 2012’ round-up over at a rival pop culture website earlier this week (you’re fired – Ed.) and one of the commenters said that the first two episodes of Breaking Bad were good enough to merit the series as a whole a mention. A commenter who disagreed vehemently (I know, I was as surprised as you) said it was silly to include the series as this early stage as “the central villain of the series hasn’t even been revealed yet”; to which another, waggish commenter replied: “The central villain is Walt. Duh”.
Splendid snarky work from comment man/woman there, and while I suspect he was being a tiny bit facetious, he’s right – Walt is, probably for the first time in the series, unquestionably the out-and-out villain of the story. We got a little taste of what this last series, when the icy veneer of Gus was defrosted and humanized by his backstory just as Walt was metaphorically killing younglings – but this is the real deal now. No-one is scarier than Walt.
So who is to be Walt’s main antagonist in this half-series of Breaking Bad? On the basis of the first two episodes and Hazard Pay, it’s beginning to look a lot like Mike.
Mike’s an interesting foil for Walt, because while he’s exceptionally street-smart, he’s not really an intellectual match for Heisenberg – at heart, he’s not really an ideas man. He lacks the taste for the theatrical that leads Walt to pull a roach-killing-cum-meth-cooking-travelling roadshow out of his pork-pie Heisenberg hat after some more conventional avenues were exhausted.
Or were they? Walt did seemed to be nit-picking with some of the issues he had with Saul’s potential cooking venues, and Saul’s frustration at him (“You can’t head to CostCo and pick up a couple of de-humidifiers?”) seemed well justified – although there was a nice moment where his sheepish attempts to sell the Lazer Bowl venue to Walt and Jesse, where the fateful plan to dispatch Gale was feverishly hatched by the three of them, was unceremoniously shot down.
In the end, Walt’s plan worked out just fine, as they have had a habit of doing recently, and also resulted in a gorgeously directed cooking sequence so woozily seductive that it almost makes the meth business attractive enough to make the the bike-lock stranglings and box-cutter throat slicings all worth it. Despite that, all the smoke and mirrors still seemed a little unnecessary, when the other venues remain probably a little less risky overall.
Perhaps the truth is they just weren’t sexy enough for this current iteration of Walt/Heisenberg; a complex, cheeky magic trick on the other hand, that can simultaneously makes him feel clever while giving a fuck-you to both the cops and Gus (who didn’t think of it first), is a no-brainer. Turns out Walt’s still trying to outsmart the chicken man, even after the crude cosmetic surgery he administered via C4 a few weeks ago. Everything he does now has to be even more fiendish, more brilliant than Gus managed – apparently, just killing the guy isn’t enough for Walt.
And it isn’t enough for Mike either, who isn’t afraid to unload some uncomfortable truths to Walt at the most inopportune time – while a huge pile of cash is on the table.
After revealing the administration costs of the new business, Mike drops the bombshell that’s been lingering since a typically tense and funny opening scene – his ‘guys’, 11 incarcerated men who have had their ‘hazard pay’ suspended by the DEA, are going to have to be cut in on their earnings from now on to stop them from breaking.
Despite previously promising him he can handle the business side of things (while simultaneously telling Saul otherwise), Walt immediately objects, going so far as to slam his hand down on his share before Mike can grab it. It’s only when Poor Jesse selflessly offers up some of his that Walt relents, but not before Mike gets in a final body blow: “Just because you killed Jesse James, doesn’t make you Jesse James.”
Ouch. It’s the words that Mike pointedly doesn’t say – “The coward Robert Ford…” – that ring loudest here, and it’s likely what leads to Walt’s chilling final scene with Jesse, where he heavily intimates that Mike is stepping, potentially fatally, out of line. He just questioned Walt’s balls. Never question Walt’s balls.
And this is why Mike is an interesting rival for Walt – it’s a battle of two alpha males, both committing to opposing, competing disciplines of masculinity. To Mike, being a tough guy is done according to the old school: sticking to a code, being professional, having your word and your balls and breaking them for nobody (I know these recaps are increasingly balls-heavy, but so is the show dammit so bear with me). We saw this in evidence in the opening scene, where Mike’s word in and of itself was enough to stop a potential squealer from squealing.
By contrast, what’s Walt’s word worth exactly? Just ask Jesse. To Walt, what it means to be a tough guy is simple – beat the guy in front of you, by whatever means necessary. It’s this win-at-all costs mentality that blinds him to the reality of his current situation, which is that if he doesn’t pay up, he’ll suddenly have eleven loose ends on his hands. But at this point you suspect he’d be happy to tidy up that particular problem via the route suggested by Lydia in last week’s episode. Eleven drug murders? You’d think that’d seem more reasonable to Walt at this point than being made to look weak in a brief moment.
Let’s not forget that the entire premise of Breaking Bad is essentially a revenge of the nerd on an epic scale; a put-upon schmoe labelled as a test-tube loving dweeb his whole life uses his potential death sentence to become the ultimate in tough guys: a gangster kingpin. It’s all about proving how much of a badass he is: this means more to him than money, more than family, anything. It’s his revenge on the world that mistreated him for 50 years. It’s about proving that Walter White is a man to be reckoned with.
As a quick aside, it’s interesting how Breaking Bad has, along with the other big ‘quality’ TV shows of the past decade – Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Wire, even Lost at a push – male protagonists who on the surface are hardcore alpha males, but beneath the veneer are big tortured mushes of insecurities, flaws and daddy issues. Before shows like these came along and changed the television game, Mike would probably have been the main character in Breaking Bad, not Walt, and as great as he is the show as a whole would have beeen far less interesting. Vince Gilligan, David Chase, Matthew Weiner etc all realized that tough guys have far less interesting dramatic potential that guys who are pretending to be tough.
So if Mike is forcibly removed, who is Walt going to get to replace him? At the moment, the options aren’t looking much better than the hapless duo of Badger and Skinny Pete – who, as it turns out, is a remarkably talented pianist, in one of the best non-sequiturs the show has done since Walt threw the pizza on the roof.
That said, the arrival of half-pest-controller, half-burglar Todd, who handily points out and disables a nanny-cam set up in the would-be meth lab, seems to interest the talent-spotter in Walt, who unironically gives him the whole ‘What’s-your-name-kid’ routine. Todd certainly interests me, as he is played by Jesse Plemons, a fantastic actor who should be familiar to all Friday Night Lights fans as that guy…what’s his name? Lance?
Elsewhere, Skylar is finally melting down, telling Marie to shut up about whatever she was taking about while she attempts to arrange salad leaves into a smiley face and forget about the sociopathic murderer who has just forcibly moved himself back into her bedroom, then adding a few hundred ‘shut-ups’ more for good measure.
She then has to watch a perverse kind-of grooming session where Walt quarterbacks the movie Scarface with Walt Jr. After mentioning the film so many times in these reviews it’s a little shocking to see it appear in the show itself, but it was a nice bit of dark, dark comedy all the same.
Hazard Pay was maybe my favourite Breaking Bad so far of this new batch because the molasses-black humour that has become a trademark was at its strongest and most subtle: Walt’s get-out-of-jail manoeuvre to Marie, where he blames Skylar’s erratic behaviour on her own infidelity was so perversely twisted that it couldn’t help but elicit chuckles and a shake of the head from me; ditto his attempts to appear kind and empathetic to Jesse while secretly manipulating him into dumping his girlfriend, before brutally cutting him off when he tried to discuss it with him after Mike’s scathing put-down.
It seems the more reprehensible and outrageous Walt’s behaviour gets, the funnier it gets. I can’t help but keep going back to the scene in the crawl space at the end of (erm) Crawl Space, where we saw the anguished screams of Walt, at his lowest ebb, turning imperceptibly into huge, cackling guffaws. Thinking back, Walt hasn’t been the same since that moment – perhaps that’s when the absurdity of his situation finally dawned on him. He’s a meth lord, for God’s sake. His life’s a joke, and with his crazy schemes and ironic revenges, he’s beginning to treat it as such. However, for Walt, one thing is for certain: it’ll only stay funny if he gets the last laugh.
Read Paul’s review of last week’s episode, Madrigal, here.
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