SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, turn off that Three Stooges movie and watch last night’s Breaking Bad.
“Hazard Pay” broke almost neatly into two halves. The first was a kind of getting-the-band-back-together logistics story, as Walt and company found a new place, or places, to cook (and, it seems, planted the seeds for conflict over the spoils of their operation). The second was a more interior, yet more frightening, story about secrets, and what a destructive thing it can be to keep them–especially alone.
That first half is, like the magnet caper of the season premiere, Breaking Bad in business mode, showing both a wry sense of humor and a love for its technical details. This is a show that loves machines and the mechanical, but the sequence of Walt, Jesse and Mike rejecting site after site with Saul is not just about banter and showing off what the writers have learned about corrugated box manufacture. It’s also a reminder of the many, many things that can go wrong with this operation.
When the gang finally hits upon a cover–literally, a big yellow-and-green cover–for their operation, it’s another example of Breaking Bad’s perverse touch for hiding the sinister in the innocuous. The Pollos Hermanos chickens have now been replaced by the cute fleeing cucaracha of Vamanos Pest. (A different way of selling chemical death.) Which–naturally–was a front for a burglary operation before Walt and Jesse came across it.
The cook goes successfully–along the way introducing Jesse Plemons as an enterprising young burglar/exterminator who disables a nannycam–and, after a hard day’s cook, the episode shifts gears. Walt—who earlier met Brock, with a chilling lack of discomfort—has a fatherly talk with Jesse about his relationship. And as any kindly father would, he begins it: “Have you thought about what your plan is, vis a vis honesty?”
Jesse has no big plans, vis a vis honesty, as that honesty would entail among other things his having shot an unarmed man in the face. And Walt–who I would have expected to ask, or manipulate, Jesse into keeping quiet–instead goes the other direction. Maybe it’s his newfound sense of invincibility–maybe he believes that nothing can take him down now–but he gently counsels the opposite: “Secrets create barriers between people. Speaking from experience, believe me. All that you’ve done is part of you. And if you choose to spend the rest of your life with this person, then you’ll have to decide how much you’ll share with her.”
Which: hardy har har, coming from this guy. Yes, Walt came clean with Skyler, eventually, sort of. And maybe in his mind his openness has made their marriage stronger. But the burden of the secret Skyler now has to keep–essentially by herself, since she seems scarcely able to speak two sentences to Walt now–is ripping her apart: the guilt, the terror, the loneliness.
And even now Walt’s relationship with Skyler is not quite a model of honesty, nor is their openness policy an equitable one. When Marie is concerned by Skyler’s breakdown, Walt throws her under the bus, explaining it through the story (true, but only partly, and thus a deeper lie) of Skyler’s affair with Ted. Walt has lied to Skyler, manipulated her, endangered her and terrified her. Now he’s essentially gaslighting her, making her seem, in her sister’s eyes, unstable and the villain in this situation, unable even to celebrate the birthday of the decent husband she nearly lost to cancer.
And Skyler, of course, can say nothing. This is where we see the true destructive power of secrets. It’s easy for fans of a show like this to get frustrated with a wife like Skyler, whose role, by necessity of the plot, is largely passive. But Anna Gunn gives a great performance here, and shows that there is indeed a struggle and a story going on here.
Gunn’s Skyler seems almost physically ill, weighed down and drained by all that she can’t say, forced to go through her life in an entirely private misery—the one person who might know what she’s going through, Walt, is seemingly too full of himself to see how she’s suffering, and she can barely speak to him anyway. She’s terribly, palpably alone. And when she comes on Walt literally watching Scarface (“Mr. Chips becomes Scarface,” Vince Gilligan has described this story) with her son and baby, it’s as horrific a scene as any murder anyone has come across on this show.
It may be—or maybe this is wishful thinking—that we are seeing the beginnings of a woman pushed too far. That something (maybe Walt’s betrayal of her to Marie, who can’t possibly keep mum about the affair for long) will finally make her lash out. At the same time, we have to be seeing the stirrings of trouble between Walt and Mike over the business arrangements and divvying of resources. Gilligan loves a good Western/noir trope, and the criminals whose downfall comes from fighting over the spoils is one of the finest.
Mike and Walt, I’m guessing are bound to butt bald heads before long. For now, Walt confides his feelings in a sinister Icarus parable to Jesse (who, for once the sensible one, wants them to calm down and not spoil a good thing). His feelings are secret for now. But secrets have a way of getting out.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Breaking Bad visual of the week: the entire cooking sequence was striking–Walt and Jesse seen fuzzily through a translucent screen, the fumes venting next to an inflatable wading pool, the molecules fusing together inside the cook.
* I’ve said it before, but I love this show’s fascination with the mechanisms behind the ordinary things of our lives—the grinding metal hulks that bake tortillas and press together cardboard.
* “Absent the hazard pay, somebody’s going to flip.” Number one, love that locution. Number two, was can see the tension being set up here: Mike, needing to pay off his guys for practical reasons and because “it’s what you do,” Walt seeing it as blackmail, both of them behaving high-handedly as they knock antlers together.
* Just in case you were unclear on the timeline, we’re coming up on Walt’s 51st birthday— year since the action of the series started and a year until the events of the flash-forward from the season-opener.
* Walt, digging through his things, comes across Leaves of Grass, recalling Gayle reciting “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” in better, more alive days.
* Speaking of callbacks, anyone for Lazer Tag? Weren’t you wishing, just a bit, that they’d set up there?
* “He threatened me. He threatened Jesse. He probably threatened somebody before breakfast this morning. It’s what he does. Come on. Grow a pair.”