Breaking Bad: "Hazard Pay"
On the surface, “Hazard Pay” is another workmanlike episode of “Breaking Bad’, setting the table for intrigues to come. The terms of the imminent power struggle between Walt and Mike are now abundantly clear. The key line of the episode comes in Saul’s office, when Walt tells Saul, as an aside after a business meeting, that he’s okay with the three-way arrangement because it’s anything but: "Mike handles the business, and I handle Mike”. The trouble being, Mike has already left the room. Perhaps “the pair” Walt has recently grown aren’t as big as he thinks. Later on, the trouble breaks out when Mike distributes the million-plus in cash their first cook has earned them. Walt’s not really in control, it turns out, and there’s no longer any doubt that Mike has already made himself a liability. “Just because you shoot Jesse James, doesn’t make you Jesse James”, he tells Walt. By now we’re pretty sure of the rejoinder in Walt’s mind: “Yet”. From start to finish, Walt is scheming big, and it’s fun to watch him thinking, fun to listen to him plant the seeds of his poisonous blooms. What sort of harvest will they bring?
But “Hazard Pay” is also a prime example of how the plotting in “Breaking Bad” is so tight that even the smaller parts of the story– a line, a gesture, a call-back– can cause the whole to reverberate deeply, like plucked guitar strings. There are at least two minor religious/mythical allusions in “Hazard Pay” which are obviously placed and thematically related. The first is Walt eating an apple, right after speaking to Marie about Skyler’s infidelity. The allusion is to “Paradise Lost”. By eating the forbidden fruit, Eve was in part persuaded by Satan’s claim that in eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil she and Adam could become like God. Walt, of course, is attempting to raise his station to a godly one. The next allusion, at the end of the episode, is to Icarus, who also learned the hard way that man should not presume to soar as high as the gods. The amusing twist here is that both instances demonstrate Walt’s myopia. In his eyes, he isn’t the duped Adam, he’s the clever Satan (recall that in the poem Satan eats the fruit in Eve’s dream); not the doomed Icarus, but the crafty Daedelus, who manages to fly away to safety long after the rash boy has fallen to his death.
These allusions are hardly a case of the show taking itself too seriously. Gilligan isn’t packing the show with pretentious symbolism. These are really fainter echoes of the episode’s central scene, a beautifully put-together joke interlacing black humor with icy dread in a brilliant distillation of the theme of the episode and, perhaps, of Season 5. Toward the end of “Hazard Pay” we’re treated to a third, bigger, wickedly funny allusion to a much more recent myth: “Scarface”. Walt, Walter Jr. and baby Holly– placidly perched on Walt’s lap, blissfully unaware of what she’s watching– take in a cable TV showing of De Palma’s classic, not long after Walt has completed his first cook. The scene is magnificent. Skyler wakes in her bed, after her “breakdown”, to the sound of Hollywood machine gun fire in the other room. As if waking from one nightmare only to find herself in another, she walks out of the bedroom to find her family watching “Scarface”. The irony is a sucker punch. Skyler knows full well that Walt’s secret life may one day bring a storm of bullets down on her loved ones not so different from the ones onscreen. Fact and fiction, dreams and reality, are becoming scarily interchangeable. Meanwhile, Walt seems delighted by the film, and it’s acidly funny to watch his reaction to Scarface’s rampage. He doesn’t see the same irony Skyler does. Either Walt doesn’t see himself as a drug kingpin, or– this is my guess– Walt gets a kick out of watching Scarface’s bloody demise because he does see himself as a kingpin and arrogantly believes that his superior intellect will help him avoid the same fate.
The footage from “Scarface”, in which the cornered crimelord introduces “his little friend” to a horde of assassins, is a vital clue about where Walt is headed. Montana has gone crazy from paranoia and megalomania, fueled by a mountain of coke, at last becoming the pathetic epitome of the isolated king who can trust nobody. But did Gilligan choose that scene for a reason? Wouldn’t any scene from “Scarface” have sufficed? In De Palma’s film, the last scene sizzles partly because of Tony Montana’s weaponry. The finale is incredible to watch because Montana’s paranoia is embodied in the gadgetry and guns he’s stockpiled in his fortress-slash-prison. Gilligan specifically chose the end of “Scarface” to remind us of the opening teaser of Season 5: Walt nervously buying a giant machine gun. And not just any machine gun, but what looks like an older, heavier, clunkier type of gun, perhaps purchased from an Army surplus enthusiast, not the high-tech, grenade-launching, platoon-slaying, penis substitute Montana boasted. Purchased in the back of a beat-up car, in a Denny’s parking lot, from Ellsworth, for crying out loud. The gun is not, as Will Smith put it in “Men In Black”, “the new hotness”.
The contrast is telling, and I think this is going to be the final, pulverizing humiliation Gilligan has in store for Walt. It’s not hard to see that Walt has broken bad, permanently; it’s not hard to see that, of course, his eggheaded, overeducated arrogance is going to lead him into a tight corner he won’t escape. We know he’ll fall back to earth. The pleasure is in the plunge. What’s so funny– or what will be so funny, several episodes from now– is precisely the contrast between the mild-mannered science teacher and the cut-throat criminal mastermind. In other words, it’s the same joke the pilot episode was built on. Mr. White’s Adventures in the Meth Trade. To their immense credit, the writers are getting great mileage out of the series’ foundational dramatic situation. They’re still twisting and turning it around, looking at it from all angles. Best of all, they’re doing it with supreme wit. The structural ironies are deliciously comic. Walt has infested his own home with crime, and now he’s going to infest numerous Albuquerque homes with criminal activity under the guise of a bug exterminator. And in his new mobile drug lab, with his adopted criminal family (Jesse), what does he watch? Wholesome family entertainment, “The Three Stooges”. But in his real home, with his real family, darling daughter on his knee and son at his side with a bowl of popcorn– a picture of a happy family alive with parodic energy– what does he watch? The bloodiest crime film ever made. The birth of a sociopath has never been funnier to witness.
As in previous episodes, the human cost of Walt’s evil is beginning to verge on the tragic. Skyler’s enraged shouting at Marie was deeply affecting; for me, the most poignant aspect of the scene is how tidy and tasteful is the decor of her car wash office. Her office clues us into the fact that Skyler made peace with her situation and was making the best of things before Walt went all Don Corleone on her. “Shut up!”, she shrieks at Marie like a shattered woman who literally cannot listen any longer. Then there’s Jesse, neck and neck with Skyler as the tragic victim in the series. With his suggestion to use the magnet, in “Live Free or Die”, his workaround for the portable lab equipment, and his sensible explanation of the profit-sharing to Walt at the end of the episode, Jesse is showing how far he’s come, how much he’s grown. His loser days seem behind him. Though for an illegal purpose, he may have turned his life around. He’s on solid footing. But his mistake is his trust in Walt. Earlier, when Mike talks to the “good guy” inmate, the defense lawyer throws on a pair of headphones and drowns out the criminal talk. Smart move: hear no evil. Jesse, manipulated by Walt into trusting him again, is defenseless, visually underscored by the t-shirt he’s wearing in the final scene. A pair of white headphones stand out on a black t-shirt, and the suggestion, as Jesse watches Walt walk away from him, is that his ears are uncovered, an open invitation for whatever evils the suddenly Iago-like Walt wants to pour into them. The loser who never listened is now in peril for listening. Here’s hoping he shuts out Walt in time.