Episode three of Breaking Bad’s final season takes us on a winding journey through the dark annals of its lead character’s destroyed soul, pretty much unequivocally sealing Walt’s gradual transition from a fumbling and ethically ambiguous anti-hero to a calculating and soulless terror vehicle with no ethics or conscience at all. Narratively, it marks Walt and Jesse’s triumphant return to meth cooking, with their nobler objectives now stripped fittingly away, and replaced by a simple, businesslike desire to overtake the competition and establish themselves long-term in the market.
“Hazard Pay” opens with Mike making the rounds of the Albuquerque prison system, laying some pressure on former Fring associates to keep their silence in the face of the unexpected bank account seizures. Posing as a tertiary legal advisor, Mike grills Dennis Markowski, the former laundry operator, about his intentions to roll or not roll on the now defunct Fring operation. Dennis insists he’s loyal, but he seems twitchy, and admits he’s anxious and bitter about the withdrawal of his hazard pay. Mike tells him calmly that the money will be forthcoming and Dennis just needs to remain patient.
Setting the stage for the bizarre and chilling portrait of his newly debased self that will coalesce throughout the rest of the episode, Walt whistlingly unpacks a box in his and Skyler’s bedroom, chuckling glibly to himself at the Walt Whitman book Gale gave to him before being shot brutally in the face for emotionally detached business reasons. Skyler enters and tries stutteringly to assert herself, but Walt steamrolls her – he’s moving back in, and there’s nothing Skyler can do about it. He babbles cheerfully about keeping the condo – “Selling it in this market, I’d get killed,” – clearly getting off on briskly marginalizing her fear and discomfort, while Skyler stands behind him mutely, looking terrified. The thickness of meaning in this relatively superficial expository scene is really impressive, displaying a total reversal of the character dynamic that’s been established and reinforced throughout the first four seasons. Walt is finally in control of the marriage, and seems smugly gleeful about it.
In Saul Goodman’s office, Jesse and Walt explain that they are embarking on a new leg of their meth production adventure, with Mike in tow to handle the business side. Saul is borderline hysterical and doesn’t trust Mike or want him involved, but Jesse and Walt insist. The four of them traipse through several potential cooking locations – a box factory, a tortilla factory, and finally a pest control warehouse – but none are sufficient. Saul hilariously tries to sell Walt on the Lazer Tag business again, this time as a cooking space. With typical ostentatious fervor, Walt finally lands on the idea of a mobile lab setup, using the pest control business as a front. The people running the business are already corrupt and in league with a network of small-time burglars, so Walt’s plan is to choose a fresh location each week, tent it, set up a smaller plastic hazard tent on the inside, and cook a batch of meth before bombing the building out with insecticide.
Skinny Pete and Badger make an adorable cameo in a music store, dorking around with two-headed electric guitars and amplifiers before purchasing some roadie cases from a skeptical, vest-wearing employee in order to store and transport Walt and Jesse’s cooking equipment. Regrettably, upon delivery, their excitable offers to involve themselves long-term in Jesse and Walt’s business are gently rebuffed, dashing my hopes that they’ll start popping up in every episode again.
Mike debriefs the pest control crew while Walt and Jesse glower at them in the background. Afterward, Jesse and Walt go to Jesse’s house to bang out some last minute logistical problems. Walt meets Andrea and Brock on his way out and awkwardly tries to befriend Brock, who’s not interested. Walt makes a reference to his own kids and sadly watches Jesse and Andrea retreat into the kitchen without him, while Brock sits on the sofa, playing his DS and ignoring Walt. Walt stares stonily forward, mulling the situation darkly.
Jesse, Walt and the pest control crew roll up in front of a large suburban kitsch mansion and the crew starts tenting it off, giving the homeowner a review lecture about all the requisite prep work – bagging and sealing food, removing medication, plants and pets, etc. Once the family has ridden off in its minivan, Walt and Jesse appear out of a separate vehicle and waltz like suave crime lords up the sidewalk to commence the cook. There’s a general, pervasive mood of awe amongst the roach control crew – weirdly and yet somehow perfectly, Jesse and Walt have finally arrived at the groveling, unquestioning respect they’ve both striven for since the start of the series. It’s a bizarrely beautiful, absurd moment.
Jesse and Walt cruise into the house and suit up to the tune of some languid, jazzy lounge funk, and we launch into a rhythmic, increasingly pseudo-psychedelic montage of unpacking, setup, and execution of the cook. The editors even bust out some expressionistic CGI craziness to illustrate the alchemic glory of the chemical combinations. The montages on this show are so good, you guys. Every time they do a montage it makes me want to cry because it’s so beautiful. This montage is almost as good as that montage from season two that ended with Skinny Pete getting mugged by those two meth heads.
The cooking montage transitions abruptly into a close-up shot of a TV screen with a cheesy 1940s gorilla on it, firing a machine gun at the Three Stooges. Walt and Jesse are kicking back and enjoying a beer in full yellow cooking regalia following the completion of the batch. Walt ribs Jesse jovially about his relationship with Andrea, then roundaboutly asks how much she knows about the cooking operation. Jesse has no intention of telling her anything. Walt sips his beer thoughtfully and starts bringing up his own marriage, claiming he respects Jesse’s ability to make his own decision, but aggressively implying that keeping Andrea out of the loop indefinitely won’t be viable. “If she loves you, she’ll understand,” Walt concludes, with odd and inexplicable blitheness.
Right on cue, Skyler tensely picks apart a salad in her office at the car wash, while Marie stands next to her, snitting through a window at an employee about the correct way to wipe down a car without leaving any streaks. With bubbly glee, Marie turns and informs Skyler that Hank is going back to work, kvetching about the Bureau not taking him seriously enough. She brings up Walt’s birthday and Skylar tries to avoid the issue, but Marie won’t stop talking. Skyler stumbles dazedly across the room and fumbles a cigarette out of her purse. Marie’s jaw drops and she starts railing a mile a minute against the cigarette until Skyler finally explodes at her, screaming over and over again for her to shut up before collapsing into her swivel chair in a hysterical fit of tears. Marie looks dumbfounded and vaguely suspicious.
After packing up and bombing the temporarily cook location, Walt arrives home to find Marie sitting on his sofa intensely, demanding to know why Skyler is acting so insane. Grimacing and feigning fretful discomfort, Walt stiltingly explains about Ted Beneke’s accident, pretending not to realize that Marie didn’t already know about the affair. Marie seems horrified and chastened and rushes out of the house. Walt glowers after her, dead-eyed, then glares down the hallway to the bedroom where Skyler is sleeping.
Later, Skyler wakes up to the sound of incessant machine gun fire. She walks into the living room and sees Walt with Walter, Jr. and the baby, sitting in front of the TV crunching popcorn and watching Scarface. She watches with blank, existential helplessness as Al Pacino’s drug empire implodes in a bloody hailstorm of howling gunfire. Walt chortles, “Wow, everyone dies in this movie.”
Dividing up the money, Mike and Walt lock horns over Mike’s executive decision to issue large percentage cuts to hired mules, methylamine suppliers, and to the jailed former Fring associates whose cooperation he’s been struggling to maintain since the bust. Walt is livid and calls it a shakedown, but Mike levels him – “Just because you shot Jesse James don’t make you Jesse James,” he snarls.
Walt and Jesse stare after Mike as he leaves the pest control office. Jesse hangs his head and says he broke it off with Andrea. Walt cuts him off and asks what he thinks about the cash breakdown. Jesse doesn’t think there’s a problem, but Walt’s face is twisted into a look of angry resignation as he idly recalls the box cutter incident. Of the slain Victor, he opines, with an eerie expression, that he was “taking liberties that weren’t his to take,” concluding that, “Maybe he flew too close to the sun, got his throat cut.” Jesse frowns helplessly after Walt as he saunters deliberately away.
The first few episodes of the new season have urgently expanded on the series’ emerging central theme, which is the slow self-imposed desecration of Walt’s soul as a result of his quest for personal autonomy and actualization. The previous season ended with a wrap-up of practical loose ends that promised a possibility for renewal, but Walt’s dogged determination to continually pursue the same avenues despite the collapse of real hope for redemption has led to a strange, dark inversion of Breaking Bad’s entire value system.
Walt began the series as a misunderstood protagonist caught up in the glamour and adrenaline rush of covert, self-destructive law breaking, and has transformed over the course of four seasons into a person fueled by something far more blind, hopeless and methodical. This episode’s pronounced focus on Walt as a person totally lacking any remaining vestige of moral ambiguity shifts the focus of identification to Jesse, and oddly enough, to Skyler, a character who, up to this point, has typically remained peripheral and somewhat alienating. Interestingly, the shift in character dynamic also brings Mike to the foreground as a newly sympathetic character, with his personal motivations, and the full reach of his professional influence, both freshly clarified and intensified. Walt’s callously self-indulgent manipulation of Jesse’s personal relationships, his dismissive smearing of Skyler, and his closing implications about casual business-related murder combine to form an understated but gripping portrait of his radically altered, coldly volatile new psychological makeup.