Nick Hanover: It's easy to forget that there are a lot of details that go into being a successful super villain. You have to recruit and train loyal henchpersons. You have to raise capital for all that expensive gadgetry. And, perhaps most importantly, you have to establish a base of operations, one that won't be easily infiltrated by do-gooders or rivals. Which brings us straight to the dilemma at the heart of "Hazard Pay," the third episode of Breaking Bad's fifth season and arguably one of the more business detail-oriented episodes in recent memory.
Paul Brian McCoy: This was one of the quietest episodes in recent memory. It was one of those chapters that I dread when I'm writing, but is absolutely necessary. It also is an episode that gets right to the heart of all of my anxieties about this final season.
The way last season ended was perfect. The series could have stopped there and we could have gone about our lives happy that we'd experienced one of the best series in television history.
But now the story goes on. For one more season.
I know it's nothing like the same sort of situation, but the last season of Babylon 5 did something similar. And not very well. Of course, that was born out of desperation. Here, it's all going according to plan.
Nick: I have faith in Vince Gilligan and co. And the reason why I have faith is both because of the consistent level of quality this show has maintained and because Gilligan has been equally consistent in his statements about the plan for the show. This show has always been about what happens when an otherwise good man essentially loses everything that matters to him and feels he is left with no options and how that erodes his soul. While Walt is eagerly supplying an addictive substance to untold numbers, he's also facing his own addiction, an addiction to control, to power, to taking charge.
Paul: That's another reason that this should play out much better than Babylon 5. It was all about the epic plot. This is about the characters and where they are going.
I can't believe I'm comparing Breaking Bad to Babylon 5.
Nick: I can't believe you are either. What's next, Stargate Atlantis?
Paul: Oh, that Stargate Atlantis crack is low, Hanover. So low.
Nick: I think the other thing to keep in mind is that with Breaking Bad, we have a show that has absolute faith in its viewers and is willing to move at its own pace as a result, trusting the fans to never waver in their own trust. In this episode, as you've pointed out, we took things slowly. We got a very clear, very methodical depiction of what Walt is doing with his addiction and how it's changing the way he operates on a commercial and personal level. This is Walt at the climax of his high, building towards a crescendo that can only lead to rock bottom. But right now he's savoring those more ordinary aspects of super villainy, the build-up of resources and materials, henchpeople and headquarters.
Paul: The search for a new lab was one of the things I was really looking forward to and I can honestly say it did not disappoint.
In fact, I may even suggest, if I've been drinking, that it was a work of genius.
Although I am a bit leery of the roaches.
If a fly was a horrible danger to the process, what are roaches going to do to the output?
Nick: I actually caught this episode at the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar down here in Ausitn (thanks guys! just go ahead and drop that check in the mail!) and spent a good two hours afterwards talking the episode out with James Pound, who hosted the viewing. And I'm going to go ahead and guesstimate that the roach shot took up a good 45 minutes of that conversation.
Nick: I know this because as we were talking about it in the Drafthouse parking lot (because that's how we roll), some Lord of the Rings "feast" got out and we got to watch five near crashes, all involving people backing up into each other. Anyway, the bulk of the conversation centered around whether that situation with the fly was ever actually about contamination, or if it was just Walt being a perfectionist dick going through a breakdown caused by stress and egotism.
The alternative theory was that the roach situation will come up soon, and Walt simply didn't notice the bugs this time. But considering he knows he's entering houses that are infested by some pest or another, I don't think it matters whether he noticed or not.
Paul: I'd buy that argument. They are setting up their lab in a containment tent, too, so there's an added layer of security there if the contamination fear was real.
I think my favorite thing about this season so far is how it's putting Mike in the foreground.
Nick: The interactions between Mike and Walt are pure gold. I was sure that the episodes was going to have them needlessly vetoing each other over every location Saul shopped around as HQs, but instead it went down a different route, illustrating the way they both considers themselves to be elite professionals at the top of their games. The problem is, only one of them is right about that belief.
Paul: I don't know. I think Walt is at the top of his game. Although reckless, he seems to really be operating at a high level of efficiency.
You know. For a lunatic.
Nick: What was especially effective in my eyes was the way the episode split the running time up between Walt and Mike going about their separate ends of the "business," as Mike took care of the titular hazard pay and Walt came up with the traveling HQ strategy and then went about returning to cooking.
Paul: The real problems are going to arise, as we saw this week, when the realities of doing business conflict with Walt's inexperience and ego.
For someone who sits around watching AMC's Mob Movie Marathons, Walt doesn't seem to get the idea of taking care of the people in the lower levels of the organization. It's kind of the same way Lydia reacted last week to the danger of exposure.
Walt's game is not the Total Game, I guess.
Not yet, anyway.
Nick: I think that stems
from Walt's views on loyalty. In his view, no one has ever shown him any professional loyalty, and so he's developed this reflexive response of rejecting it. It's also about ego, in that Walt doesn't feel that he needs anyone else and that everyone around him is expendable or merely a pawn.
That's partially why the Scarface "sampling" was so hilarious (the other part being the absurd/brilliant way AMC threw in Scarface adverts after each scene). Walt is so blind towards his own fate that he doesn't get the irony of him commenting on the way "everyone in this movie dies." The Scarface intertwining may not have been the most subtle moment in the show's history, but it was brutally effective, especially since we now know that the season opener is exactly a year in the future and like Scarface, that future ending also prominently features a machine gun.
Paul: I didn't really find it hilarious, just obvious. And a little bit easy.
Nick: The part that I didn't admit to is that I really just liked watching Walt desensitize his infant daughter to what her daddy does.
Paul: I mean, I get that Scarface— at least that particular scene– is a pop culture touchpoint. And I get that Scarface has become something weird in the way it signifies the excesses and success in the hip-hop community. And I get that Gilligan and Co. are doing some ironic meta referencing of how that is playing out in the White Household.
But it felt too cliche and ham fisted to me.
Nick: We still don't know how that will all actually play out, though. It could be a red herring.
Paul: Having Walt buy into that film was a shortcut to character development.
Nick: But more importantly: did you see the baby? Did you see that baby smiling at Scarface?
Paul: The baby WAS cute. But I find it hard to believe that Walt would have normally enjoyed Scarface the way he is here, and to have him do so is mostly so the viewer can see that he's doomed.
I would have preferred something more subtle.
It was especially ham fisted as every commercial was all about watching Scarface on AMC.
Nick: I agree that it could have been more subtle, but I'm hesitant to judge it without knowing what will actually happen. For me, there's a very real possibility (kidding aside) that this was a show he was putting on for his kids, trying to influence them towards looking at their father's criminal activities through a glamorous lens rather than a gritty one. Especially in the case of Walt Jr., who Walt knows was being pulled in Hank's direction not too long ago.
But I maintain that the Scarface advertising was secretly meta-commentary on product placement.
Paul: Okay, that's a good point. It is VERY Walt to try to manipulate Walt Jr.'s attitudes towards Drug Kingpins.
Much like he manipulated Jesse this week, with regards to relationships and honesty. That was some serious Super Villain level manipulation.
The only complaint I have about that scene between Jesse and Walt after the cook is that the direction of the scene made it clear to the viewer that Walt was being manipulative.
It's not a question of Cranston playing it too obvious; it's all about the direction.
Nick: Did it? Because I felt that was just business as usual, since we've essentially been trained by this point to view Walt as a compulsive liar. I mean, let's be real, has Walt had a single authentic moment yet this season?
Paul: But Cranston plays the scenes straight, regardless of what we know as viewers. That's what makes it so effective.
This is the first time we're getting reaction shots as Walt's eyes go cold and it's a little disconcerting. The subtlety wasn't there this week.
This week's director, Adam Bernstein, isn't necessarily a director of subtle work and I'm afraid it effected my enjoyment.
He does quality work. It's just not subtle.
Nick: I guess regardless of the situation, I now immediately distrust anything that comes out of Walt's mouth and so the direction didn't stand out to me as particularly unsubtle. I felt that the point was less to hide the manipulation and instead to make it clear to us just how much of a sociopath Walt has become (or, worse, perhaps always secretly was).
Of course, I also take umbrage at your insinuation that the director of It's Pat! and the "Loveshack" video isn't a director of subtle work. I mean, come on, have you seen his IMDB photo? It screams subtlety!
Paul: The point is made, though, by having Walt do his thing and then watching how it plays out, knowing that was his intention.
We don't need him twirling his mustache.
That scene where he sits on the couch with the little boy he poisoned and goes into "I'm an evil bastard" mode was too much.
Bernstein has done outstanding work on this series. "Box Cutter," for instance, was a fantastic episode. This one was just a little heavy handed.
Nick: See, I actually thought the scene with the little boy was perfect, because it made me wonder if the boy knows Walt poisoned him. To me, it was less about Walt in "evil bastard mode" and more about forcing you to wonder if the flashier, more distracting elements are hiding an even nastier truth. If that boy DOES know that Walt poisoned him, that could be an epic disaster and may force the inevitable conflict between Walt and Jesse sooner than anticipated.
Something about Walt's behavior there was even more awkward and discomforting than it otherwise would have been. And given how telegraphed everything else in the episode was, it made me seriously frightened for what Walt's behavior might mean.
Paul: I can see where the scene was orchestrated that way, but it didn't work for me at all. And even if that was the c
ase, having Cranston make his evil soulless face and stare at the kid was just overkill.
Again, no subtlety.
I think it was just to telegraph to the viewer that Walt is a bad man. Telling us he's supposed to be scary, rather than showing us that he's scary.
Nick: Time will tell, I suppose. But since we're talking about scary things, how about that Skyler/Marie showdown?
Paul: Also very disappointing. And kind of stupid.
Although I have wanted to shout "Shut up!" at Marie since she was first introduced to the show.
Nick: Maybe being in a crowd made it more enjoyable for me, since everyone erupted in cheers the instant that happened. I'm wondering if Walt's use of the atomic bomb that was the disclosure of Skyler's affair will have any kind of fallout or if Skyler is so traumatized now that she'll be completely numb to it. I'm not a huge fan of Skyler, or Anna Gunn's performances in general, but seeing her walk out of the bedroom to the Scarface silliness was kind of heartbreaking, and I'm more than a little curious to see how she responds to Walt's revelation.
Paul: I guess a lot of people have wanted to shout "Shut up!" at Marie, then.
Nick: The Drafthouse was sold out and literally every single person cheered. No joke.
Paul: I was never a big fan of Skyler or Gunn, but last season really changed things for me. She was independent, strong, smart, and did amazing things to find solutions to Walt's problems.
This season has been a huge Skyler disappointment. She was poised for greatness and instead is just turning into a black cloud that lays around doing nothing every episode.
I'm really hoping for a change.
Nick: I miss the independent Skyler, because she offered an entirely different kind of competition for Walt. One that he couldn't dispose of so easily. I'm not sure we've seen the last of independent Skyler and maybe this breakdown will be just what she needs to regrow a spine, but so far, that has been the most disappointing aspect of the season for me.
Paul: I just think her reaction to what happened with Ted should have been the exact opposite.
It could also have given us a really strong woman character on the show. None of the other female roles are really much to write home about.
Nick: Well, you have to remember how traumatized Walt was the first time he killed someone. And now he more or less does it on a weekly basis.
Paul: True, but I just don't like how they're letting this play out.
Having her retreat to her bedroom and have emotional shouting moments is pretty cliche for a show that does its best to break from cliche.
I suppose the best parallel is with Jesse's numbness from last season. But in that case, he had actually shot a man in the face and was still able to go about his daily routine. He was just all fucked up in his off-time.
Skyler didn't kill anyone. She just arranged a situation that couldn't be avoided and Ted did the rest himself. He might not walk again, but he was a reckless dick who could have sent them all to prison. A strong, confident Skyler would be a much more interesting Skyler.
I really didn't have this negative a reaction while watching, to be quite honest. This is all coming out now, as I look back over it.
Nick: Here's hoping we still get that kind of Skyler, then. On the confidence note, what did you think of that interaction between Walt and Todd (Jesse Plemons), that young guy on the exterminator crew?
Paul: I don't know. That was strange.
Suddenly, somebody's sucking up to Walt.
Nothing good can come of that.
Nick: The theory I have is that Todd is a potential candidate for Mike's replacement.
Jesse, maybe. But Mike?
Nick: He's younger and not as experienced, but he'd be a hell of a lot easier to manipulate and keep in line. Because I am almost certain that Walt is going to get rid of Mike soon, either violently or in a less dramatic fashion.
Admittedly, part of why I think that is because Jesse Plemons was announced as being a regular for this season.
And I doubt they'd just keep him for what was essentially a speaking extra role.
Paul: Could be.
Nick: We know Jesse can't replace Mike, because Jesse lacks that killer edge. Something about the way Plemons plays Todd makes me think the guy has some darkness.
Paul: I'd need to see more.
But speaking of Mike, that opening scene was beautiful.
Nick: I think you have a crush on Mike.
Paul: THERE'S NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!
There's maybe something wrong with that.
Nick: Who said anything about there being something wrong with that?
Paul: The voices.
Nick: If God watched Breaking Bad, God would have a crush on Mike.
Paul: God would be all, "Yeah, Mike. Punch that asshole!"
Not in a gay way.
God's not gay.
Or maybe TOTALLY in a gay way.
And God's TOTALLY gay.
All I know is that Mike is awesome.
Nick: This conversation is starting to remind me of that episode of Louie from the second season, when Louie is publicly
defending masturbation and wonders out loud whether we humans are porn for God.
Paul: Louie is the only show rivaling Breaking Bad for BEST SHOW ON TELEVISION.
Nick: While you're drooling over Mike, though, I want to take a second to shout FUCK YEAH!!! for the return of Skinny Pete and Badger. Who woulda thunk Skinny Pete was a classically trained pianist?
Paul: That's what I'm talking about.
That was fucking fantastic.
Nick: The rest of this episode could have been a Rickroll and I still would have loved it for that scene alone.
Paul: For the same episode that has Skinny Pete showing off his keyboarding skills to include Depressed Skyler and Scarface Loving Walt was tragic.
I can't help but think that grew out of an improv.
Nick: I hope Jesse ignores Uncle Mike and reinstates Skinny Pete. Because Skinny Pete was decidedly savvy in that one scene he had. Badger, of course, is a fucking moron, but Skinny Pete has some depth, he just needs direction. Like my brother.
Paul: Damn, this review is getting out of control!
Is there anything we haven't mentioned that you wanted to bring up?
Nick: Well, we didn't mention the single best line of the season: "Just because you shot Jesse James don't make you Jesse James."
Grammar issues aside.
Paul: That quote could be the slogan for the season.
I kind of loved how the divvying up of the cash was essentially just like looking at your paycheck and seeing just how much is taken out for taxes, retirement, etc.
Nick: See folks, even if you get rid of the government, your money's gonna get cut.
Paul: Somebody's gotta deliver your shit.
Nick: But I agree, that quote is this season (so far) in a nutshell. Walt is riding high on his victory over Gus, but he's already getting frustrated with all the little details that go into being king. And I suspect the next episode will especially fixate on that, as Walt stupidly convinces himself that those details will disappear if he can just oust Mike. But that's something to discuss next Sunday. Overall, what are you giving this episode, Paul?
Paul: I'm afraid I'm going low. 3.5 for me.
I'm sure that once the season is over and I look back I'll reevaluate, but for now, that's how I'm seeing it.
Nick: I enjoyed it more than you. Probably because I saw it in a public setting and a drinking game was involved. So I'm going 4. Not quite as good as the first couple episodes, but still enjoyable and full of tense, necessary moments.
Paul: Of course, "low" for Breaking Bad is still above average.
Nick: Most shows would be lucky to have their high points reach a "low" Breaking Bad episode.
Paul: No doubt.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot,Streaming Pile O' Wha?, and Classic Film/New Blu, all here at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.