Breaking Bad Review: "Hazard Pay" (Episode 5.03)
“Just because you shot Jesse James, doesn’t make you Jesse James.”
Walter White has to face this fact when the profit from their first cook under the new business dwindles. If it wasn’t enough that a large portion of the cuts are being made to pay the cogs in the machine, they also have to pay all of Gus’s ex-employees that have been arrested “hazard pay." Mike calls it the “legacy cut," the money they have to pay to make sure that none of their ex-associates roll on them when the DEA offers them a deal that will free up their money for family and legal expenses. Seeing his $300,000 cut drop to around $100,000, Walt becomes enraged. In his mind, none of the ex-employees have any concern to him; he never worked directly with them, and they never worked for him. As far as he’s concerned, they are Gus’ responsibility, and Gus is dead. This would be true, if it weren’t for the fact that it was Walt’s decision to kill Gustavo Fring that led the DEA to investigate his empire, including all the people who worked for him.
It’s not that Walt’s decision to kill Gus wasn’t understandable. It was. Walt really had no other choice. Either he had to go, or Gus had to. But it’s his unwillingness to accept the consequences of those actions that makes him dangerous. This has always been a big theme of the show. Walt never faces the consequences for anything he does, and always has one foot out the door to escape. This is even true of his cancer.
All of this is important to understanding Walt in his current state. Walt killed Gus and thinks he should be Gus. The problem with this is that Gus took over 15 years to build his empire. Walt is trying to replicate what Gus had on a smaller scale, and he wants to enjoy the same amount of reward. But when you do the math, even at a $100,000 cut each cook, that’s still adequate compared to what Gus was paying them, when you figure the size of their cook has substantially dropped down and that they are getting that much per cook. As Jesse puts it, “We may have cleared less money, but we got a bigger piece of the pie." But the money isn’t the real issue for Walt. It’s the idea that he doesn’t get to keep all the fruits of his labor, that less deserving people are getting cuts of his work. Mike is right; Walter White is not Jesse James or Gustavo Fring—he’s Tony Montana. His quick climb to the top has gone to his head, and he’s setting himself up for his own downfall.
Given how much the show has gone beyond cooking meth, it’s easy to forget that Breaking Bad hasn’t had an episode in a while where the characters are actually cooking. "Hazard Pay” focuses on Walt, Jesse and Mike establishing their new business, which they will use as a cover for their meth operation. After Saul shows them various places (including that laser tag center he’s so damn stubborn about), Walt gets the idea that their lab should be portable again. Their new business is a pest extermination company called Vamonos Pest. Seeing as it takes a couple days to fumigate a house, they set up their lab in the house to cook for a day and then bug bomb the place after they are done and take all the equipment down. This takes care of the odor, as well as concealment, as no one would ever go into a house when it’s being fumigated. Keeping the lab constantly moving, and under a business that is common in suburban cities, means they are able to hide in plain sight without a high risk of being caught. It’s pretty damn genius.
The problem, then, is that they aren’t able to cook the same batch sizes that Gus’ super lab afforded them. This really wouldn’t be a problem if Walt’s ambitions were kept in check. But given that Walt is a man who always settled for what barely gets by, it’s understandable in his evolution of character that this would piss him off. But considering that the new business has a lot of overhead to pay, and the actual pest extermination isn’t offsetting the cost like Gus’ restaurant chains were for his setup, it’s more than reasonable that their cut of the profit would sit around the current numbers. And again, Gus spent more than a decade carefully building up this business as a cover for his drug dealings. That is what made Gus so brilliant. He made sure to establish a profitable business first that could not only act as a cover but could also offset the cost and provide mass shipping.
“Hazard Pay” had a lot of scenes that were rich with subtext. In particular, there was a scene where Walt and Jesse kick back on the couch and drink beers while taking a break from their cook. The scene revolves around Walt giving Jesse a “father-son” talk, the only way Breaking Bad could. It’s filled with sincerity and calculation from Walt, when he tells Jesse how extremely happy he is to see him with Andrea and Brock. But then he goes on to tell Jesse that if he does plan to share the rest of his life with her, she might deserve to know what he’s doing. After all, look at where secrets got Walt with his marriage to Skyler. The scene reflected Walt’s corrupted relationship with his family, while also seeming like a feeler on Jesse. Walt was making it clear to Jesse that they are both connected in this venture, and what one does affects the other. The scene later has a great payoff, when Jesse reveals to Walt that he broke it off with Andrea because he couldn’t put her through what his lifestyle might demand later down the road. Walt snaps at Jesse for misunderstanding his question, as he was asking how he felt about the money situation, not his personal life. This is the thin line that Cranston has to constantly walk when playing Walter. It’s the constant pull between Walt doing things for genuine reasons and having a calculated motivation. The scene was also another great contrast, as we see what Walt is doing to his family and what Jesse could never do to the ones he loves.
Walter continues to terrorize Skyler, as he begins to move all of his stuff from his condo back into the house without telling her. Anna Gunn again has done a wonderful job playing her role this season. The scene where she breaks down at the car wash and starts screaming at Marie to “shut up” was really moving. We see how desperate and confused Skyler has become and the suffocation she feels as everything is crushing down on her. When Marie confronts Walt about Skyler’s behavior, Walt quickly diverts his guilt by telling her it’s because she was having an affair with Ted, and Ted has become severely injured in a recent accident.
Walt throwing Skyler under the bus and damaging her image to her sister was despicable. But it again is also why this show is so twistedly brilliant. When Skyler first slept with Ted in season three, it elicited a deep reaction from the audience. How dare she! Walt is cooking and doing all these terrible things for the family because he’s dying, and she cheats on him? But now that we’ve seen what Walt’s become, and have a greater understanding of what his real motivations are, it makes it hard to have any sympathy for the man. It might even make you feel guilty for ever hating Skyler. Granted, she was obnoxious at times, and she was supposed to be an obstacle to the protagonist’s end goal. But now that we are nearing the end of the show and seeing the results of this terrifying experiment, it’s in a way implicated the audience in the crime as well for ever rooting for Walter. Later in the night Skyler wakes up to gunshots and walks into a room where Walt is watching Scarface with Jr. and the baby and having a great time. This is the reality of what her family has become. It’s a reminder that Walt has had to murder someone just to stay alive. What kind of future does this family really have, when he’s working in such a dangerous industry?
The episode ends with Walter recalling to Jesse when Gus killed Victor: “All this time, I thought Gus did what he did to send me a message. But maybe there is another reason. Victor trying to cook that batch on his own, taking liberties that weren’t his to take. Maybe he flew too close to the sun, got his throat cut." This is aimed at Mike and the baggage that he’s brought with him by becoming a partner—the “Hazard Pay” that Walt didn’t know he would have to pay out of his cut. But it’s also a consequence of the decision he made to kill Gus and the price that has to be paid to continue their business. Walt’s arrogant belief that he can just kill someone like Gus and not have anything carry over is extremely telling of how far gone he is. But this is where Walter is at mentally; his mind is already thinking of a way to cut Mike out of the equation. And what if there are no ties to Walt or Jesse with Gus’ ex-employees? That would make Mike the last loose end that could tie them back to the investigation. Finding someone else to deal with the business end might be the only thing he needs to decide to take Mike out. Given how far Walt has come, it’s not that far out of the equation. Walt has one thing right: Gus knew how to assert dominance, and that is what Walt is trying to do.