Stars:  Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn
Writer: Peter Gould
Director:  Adam Bernstein
Network: AMC, airs Sunday Nights
Original Telecast: July 29, 2012

Having convinced Mike to handle the business side of their new drug operation, Walt and Jesse begin to cook meth again, and they begin to fill the void left in the underworld by Gus’s death.  But Walt’s ego is already creating fissures in the new partnership.

Again this week on BREAKING BAD, Mike (Jonathan Banks) gets the best line, as he tells Walt (Bryan Cranston) “Just because you shot Jesse James – don’t make you Jesse James.”  In previous episodes you’d defer to Mike’s expertise on this point because he’s clearly a guy who knows criminals.  Walt’s been on the wrong side of the law for only a year and clearly he doesn’t have the experience, patience, business acumen, or cool head that made the guy he “shot” a 20-year success story in the criminal underworld.  Mike sees right through Walt’s vanity and pettiness and unearned confidence and knows he’s looking at a guy who got lucky over and over again.  And we know this about Walt too.

But as of “Hazard Pay,” I’m not so sure that matters anymore. Walt increasingly seems capable of sinking to depths that Mike and Jesse (Aaron Paul) are not.  In which case, maybe it’s not the most prudent, cautious criminal who will best be able to step into the Jesse James role?  Maybe it’s the guy with no soul?

In a typical gangster movie that kind of thing happens all the time, but it’s short-lived.  The most ruthless, power-mad gangster protagonists usually go down in a hail of bullets at the end, because that’s what the audience expects and deems appropriate.  But is that what BREAKING BAD’s audience should expect?  This is an episode where the writers perhaps make a statement that they understand this convention all to well, but that they intend to take Walter White somewhere else.

In any event, here are some of the awful things Walt does this week:

1. He continues to manipulate Jesse.  Walt butters up Jesse by talking about how happy he looks together with Andrea and her son Brock, and then asks him what his plan is “vis a vis honesty” with her.  This gives Walt an opportunity to bring the recent past, and Jesse’s killing of Gayle, into their conversation, and plant a seed of doubt in Jesse’s head about whether he’s worthy of happiness with Andrea, and whether he can keep her safe.  This has the desired effect.  Jesse breaks it off with her at the end of the episode.  This is one more lose end Walt won’t have to deal with.  And you could search that scene where Walt and Brock sit on the couch alone together for any indication that Walt feels remorse about having poisoned the kid at the end of last season and come away not seeing anything you’d swear to one way or the other.  It’s possible Walt’s still capable of warm feelings for Jesse, and has some respect for innocent life, but it’s more likely that the thrill he now gets from bending people to his will feels better to him than anything else.

2. He throws Skyler under the bus.  When put on the spot by his sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt) to explain what led to the complete meltdown Skyler (Anna Gunn) suffered at the carwash earlier, Walt blames Skyler for her state of mind, and reveals her affair with Ted Beneke as a cause, instead of taking any responsibility for her condition himself.

3.  He gets into it with Mike over “legacy costs.”   With nine of Gus’s former employees in prison or looking at prison, Gus’s assets frozen, and no other way to continue to buy their silence, Mike takes $351,000 out of the profit pool from their first batch of crystal meth to settle his debt to them, which makes Walt furious.  He compares the situation to a shakedown and doesn’t want his money to go to these guys.  Jesse acts as a peacemaker and puts his share towards the legacy costs, which makes Walt relent as well, but he’s still not happy about it.  Clearly a showdown with Mike is brewing and we get the sense Walt will want to kill these guys rather than pay them.

4.  He tips his hand about what kind of person he’s become.  Last season, Gus killed his employee, Victor, with a box cutter in front of Walt and Jesse to show them who was boss and what their boss was capable of.  At the end of the episode, Walt explains to Jesse that he thinks that Victor’s killing was less about sending a message to “me”, and more about punishing Victor for “taking liberties where he shouldn’t.”  The implication is that Walt wants Jesse to know he’s also capable of that kind of action in the event someone “flies too close to the sun.”  Jesse ends the episode looking stunned and confused that this just came out of Walt’s mouth.

So these actions and intentions are reflective of an awful person.  Walt seems almost giddy that he no longer has to hide his awfulness around the people close to him.  And while Mike operates under a code of ethics, and sees their drug business as a means to make money to support his granddaughter and reward the loyalty of his former associates, Walt wants something different from the business entirely.  He wants an identity.

But this episode started to lose me when it got too literal about what the identity Walt actually wants is.  Having Walt literally watching the climactic scene in SCARFACE with his son and baby daughter while Skyler looks on in horror, and then having him say things like “Everybody dies in this movie,” broke the fourth wall in a way I didn’t find helpful. It also seemed too on-the-nose as a means of externalizing Skyler’s worst fears right in front of her.

Still, watching Tony Montana go out in a haze of gunfire and catchphrases did get me wondering again about what kind of ending BREAKING BAD’s creators actually have in mind for Walt.  Having shown us SCARFACE means they know they can’t actually give us a SCARFACE-ending without it landing with a big thud.  But given what’s happening with their protagonist, what other ending could we really be comfortable with?

What I admire so much about this show is that I don’t have any idea what a satisfying resolution to Walt’s story would look like.  Rooting for Walt’s success is problematic because his goals are now egotistical and immoral.  Rooting for his failure is problematic because I don’t think of BREAKING BAD as a typical gangster story, and I would find a typical gangster ending way beneath its creators.  But I respect this show enough to have confidence that a creative, satisfying ending is coming, and that it will probably make us all feel a little awful inside as well.

Related: TV Review – BREAKING BAD – Season 5  – “Fifty-One”

Related: TV Review – BREAKING BAD – Season 5  – “Madrigal”

Related: TV Review – BREAKING BAD – Season 5 premiere – “Live Free or Die”


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Article: TV Review – BREAKING BAD – Season 5  – “Hazard Pay”

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