The first scene in “Hazard Pay” only looks like a prison visit. Like the rest of this muted, surprising episode, and like so much of Breaking Bad, it’s really about the details of running a business: product and profit versus overhead and expenses. What’s happening in this opening scene is due diligence.
Mike, the most hard-nosed member of the new Walt-Mike-Jesse meth consortium, is posing as a paralegal. He’s visiting all the incarcerated Madrigal/Los Pollos Hermanos people whose Cayman Islands hush money, i.e., “hazard pay,” was frozen by the DEA’s investigation of Gus Fring. Ostensibly, Mike is there to warn ex-Fring associate Dennis Markowski that even though the money has been frozen, everybody is still obligated to keep their mouths shut. But during that first meeting with Dennis, it becomes clear to Mike that even if “a deal’s a deal,” reality is also reality.
Mike assures Dennis that the death of Chow was not payback or “a message” but “a mistake.” Still, Dennis has concerns. “The wife asks me where the money is coming from, I got nothing to tell her,” the guy tells Mike. “I knew the risks. We all did … It’s not gonna be me [who talks to the DEA], but sooner or later, absent the hazard pay, someone’s gonna flip.” Mike counters that the new business he’s “starting up” with Walt and Jesse is “gonna make you whole.” For emphasis’s sake, he repeats himself: “You will … be … made … whole.” In other words, Mike is going to keep his word to all these former Fring associates, for survival’s sake as well as out of a sense of personal honor. He’s going to do that by forcing the new business to assume some the old business’s debts — debts that, as far as Mike’s concerned, Walt and Jesse incurred when they killed Gus and destroyed his lab.
The final scene in “Hazard Pay” brings the opening scene full circle. Mike has totaled up the cost of keeping the Fring associates silent and added a line item to the new meth consortium’s books. Walt and Jesse and Mike gather around a table piled high with cash, looking and feeling triumphant, and rightly so: They devised a bold new scheme for hiding in plain sight; they cooked their first batch of meth as a new consortium and sold it. But then Mike steps in and does what Walt supposedly hoped he would do when he brought him into the business: He grounds them in reality. Out comes one stack of cash, then another, then another. They have to pay the termite contractors whose business is a front for their meth manufacturing. They have to pay for security and delivery. They have to pay for this and that and this and that. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. The piles get smaller and smaller.
Walt, as usual, is petulant when informed that he’s living in a certain harsh reality and has no choice to accept it. It’s only when Jesse offers to cover Walt’s cut with his own that Walt acts properly ashamed of himself (even though he’s probably feeling macho pride rather than actual shame) and ponies up. Afterward, Walt is so sullen that he can barely process the silver lining that Jesse describes to him: Even after subtracting all those expenses, their profit margin per cook is better than when they were day laborers on Gus’s payroll. But it seems to really bug Walt that their profit margin would be much higher if Mike hadn’t pressured him and Jesse into paying off the people on the Cayman Islands list on the installment plan.
When Walt asked Mike to go into business with him and Jesse, he didn’t just get Mike: He got all of Mike’s obligations from Mike’s previous employer, a man whom Walt murdered with a bomb. This is what’s known as a hidden expense.
If Breaking Bad isn’t part of the curriculum in business schools, it should be.
Odds and Ends
- For all the talk of Breaking Bad as a drama in the Sopranos antihero-as-hero mode, it sure is going out of its way to make Walt a horribly entitled bully with a strong and ever-growing God complex. He seems to resent even having to consider what anyone else wants before acting. He doesn’t ask Skyler for permission to move back in, he just does it; she finds out about it when she walks into the bedroom and sees him taking his things out of a box. “It’s time,” he says, with a smile in his voice. What a piece of slime.
- Nearly as puke-acious: Walt sitting on the couch with Jesse after the cook and playing Father Figure, encouraging him to settle down and marry Andrea. “If it feels right, it feels right. Sometimes you just gotta listen to your gut.” Like he’s the dad from Happy Days. That this is really just a conversational route into asking Jesse if Andrea knows that her boyfriend is a drug manufacturer makes it worse. “Secrets breed barriers between people,” he says. I bet he’s hoping that Jesse will marry Andrea (“spend the rest of your life with this person”) so that he can tell her everything and be assured that she can’t be compelled to testify against him in court.
- Even more vomit-tastic, amazingly enough: Walt sitting on the couch next to the little boy he poisoned and treating it as little more than an awkward moment. I’m not quite sure how to interpret that exchange of looks between him and Brock. Walt’s expression seems to say, “I wonder if he knows.” Brock’s close-up doesn’t quite say that he knows about the poisoning specifically, but there’s something in his eyes that says, “I know you’re bad news, mister.”
- Skyler’s “Shut up SHUT UP SHUT UP!” scene was terrifying and marvelous. She’s buckling under the pressure of living with a monster. In my fantasy, it’s Skyler who finally brings Walt down, not by informing, but by killing him. Like Janice Soprano dealing with Richie Aprile in season two of The Sopranos, preferably.
- Speaking of gunfire, the cut from Walt and
JesseWalter Jr. watching Scarface to the money-counting machine rat-a-tatting through stack of cash was wonderful. And I love the look on Skyler’s face as Al Pacino mows down his enemies, like she’s picturing where all of this is headed. At the same time, though, I can’t believe that series creator Vince Gilligan would set up a series as “Mr. Chips becomes Scarface” and then deliver on it quite so literally. That M-60 machine gun we glimpsed in Walt’s trunk at the start of “Live Free or Die” must be for someone, or something, else.
- The scene between Marie and Walt was tense, funny, and precisely acted by Bryan Cranston and Betsy Brandt, but I’m not a fan of these sorts of scenes because they make me reactivate the disbelief that the rest of the show causes me to suspend. How many times has Walt almost been found out by somebody in his family? But it has seemed faintly ridiculous for several seasons now, so I’ve decided to accept it as the cost of loving the show, like believing that Superman can put on a suit and a pair of sunglasses and pass for Clark Kent.
- Saul’s needless and often clueless pop-culture analogies are one of the show’s funniest running gags. I love him objecting to the addition of Mike by invoking The Three Amigos. “We don’t need a fourth amigo!” he exclaims, then admits that he’s uncomfortable around Mike because he once threatened to break his legs. “Mike threatened me,” Walt says. “He threatened Jesse. He probably threatened someone before breakfast. It’s what he does. Grow a pair.”
- “Grow a pair” is a great insight into Walt’s current mentality. After living most of his life as a nebbish, he has become, in his own mind at least, the One Who Knocks. “Grow a pair” is not something Walt would have barked at another man in season one.
- The search for a new meth-cooking space is another potential bit of basic-cable-drama-as-B-school curriculum. When you’re opening a new business, the location has to be just right for your needs, and if it isn’t, you probably shouldn’t move in. Walt’s end-run around the location problem — moving from one fumigated house to another while posing as part of an extermination crew — is one of the only business-practical ideas he’s ever come up with. He’s much more useful as a Big Idea guy, with somebody like Mike (or earlier, Gus) checking his math and keeping him practical.
- I think there’s going to be trouble from the termite crew. Even though Mike warned them not to steal from the houses or tip off any outside thieves to do the same, career thieves like to steal, and I bet at least one of these guys is going to give into temptation and either give the game away or get his legs broken by Mike. One harbinger of future trouble: When Mike is laying out the ground rules for working with them, he tells them, “You do not speak unless you are spoken to,” yet one of the crew almost instantly breaks that rule.
- Notwithstanding the trauma of Brock’s poisoning and the psychological fallout from the Gus Fring affair, Jesse seems pretty centered right now. I like that he keeps devising workable solutions to problems. The magnet scheme in “Live Free or Die” was his idea, and in this episode he solves an equipment mobility-and-disguise problem so sensibly that Walt graciously accepts his suggestion.
- I’m not convinced that moving the chemicals around in roadie cases is all that brilliant — it seems just odd enough to counteract the camouflage value of moving from house to house with the exterminators — but it’s a funny sight gag.
- The climactic cash-counting sequence is a tense, in some ways unpleasant scene, but when I thought about it later, I laughed out loud, because it makes a dangerous business, the manufacture and sale of illegal drugs, look as glamorous as opening a coffee shop.
- I was struck by Walt’s closing invocation of Icarus to Jesse, in reference to the murder of Victor in “Box Cutter” — “maybe he flew too close to the sun.” It suggests a dawning self-awareness on Walt’s part that he’s in over his head. Maybe the cash-subtraction exercise shook his complacency. But if this is evidence of Walt thinking clearly about his predicament, is there any chance that it’ll sink in? Walt invokes the story of Icarus, but in his mind, what’s the takeaway? That sooner or later Walt’s own wax wings will melt and send him plunging to earth, or that Icarus was a fool who deserved what he got because he didn’t know how hot the sun was?