If the first two episodes of “Breaking Bad”’s thus far excellent fifth season were mostly concerned with tying up loose ends from last season while setting the stage for the next phase of the story, episode 3 titled “Hazard Pay,” begins moving forward in earnest. The breakneck pacing is likely a result of creator Vince Gilligan and co. realizing exactly how much story they have left and how few episodes they have to tell it. And while we, as an audience, know that the journey of these final episodes will probably involve Walt undergoing the final phases of his transformation from family man to drug kingpin before he (or those closest to him) suffer for his sins, the trajectory will still surprise. Just as Walt has grown accustomed to outsmarting his opponents by thinking several steps ahead of them, the writers too, play on our expectations, sometimes giving us what we think might be coming but never quite in the ways we expect.
In episode 2, we saw Walt and Jesse forming a partnership with Mike to be owners, no longer employees, in a new meth-selling venture. Walt and Jesse will make the product, Mike will handle “the business” and profits will be split evenly three ways. To get this new business up and running, they’ll need to find a place to cook. Since they don’t plan on returning to the RV and Gus’ million dollar lab is in ashes, they turn to Saul to help find a new space, sizing up box factories, tortilla factories and abandoned lazer tag outlets before inspiration strikes Walt. By using the cover of Vamanos Pest Control, their now-mobile operation will be able to stage a new cook in a different house each week while the owners clear out for the fumigation. It may be a lot of work to set up and break down but it’s kind of an ingenious plan and one that requires the fewest liabilities required to look the other way (in this case just a few exterminators).
Jesse and Walt plot out how to move their supplies — carrying the motor alongside the condenser is kinda brilliant, Jesse! — but are interrupted by Andrea and Brock, who enter with groceries. Walt shows no signs of remorse when confronted with officially meeting the child he had poisoned only recently and even agrees to stay for dinner. The scene of Walt and Brock seated alongside each other on the couch silently is presented almost as an empty vessel for the audience to fill up. We know the subtext and so any text on the writer’s part becomes irrelevant.
After a long absence, we see the return of Jesse’s deadbeat friends Skinny Pete and Badger, who are called upon to gather supplies for Jesse. Their appearance, buying cabinets from a music store, seems innocuous enough, but Mike shoots them a glance that seems to read “get the fuck out of here” and you have to wonder how they’ll be stirring up trouble for him in the episodes to come. Mike handles the orientation with his new employees, telling them they’re no longer going to be stealing from these houses, instead they’ll be paid off just to look the other way, treating Walt and Jesse like “ghosts.” But during their first job, protocol is broken as exterminator Todd (Jesse Plemons from “Friday Night Lights”) informs them of a nanny cam he had disabled. Right away, we’re reminded of how easily this seemingly foolproof plan could go awry with the smallest unforeseen detail. Whether Todd will be an aid or hindrance to them in the future is still unknown but the fact that he’s being portrayed by a capable actor like Plemons (who will soon be seen in “The Master”), we don’t imagine Todd receding back into the background for too long.
After a successful cook, Walt and Jesse settle down with a few beers in front of the TV and begin to talk. Walt says how seeing Jesse together with Andrea was “nice” and for a moment, we believe that he actually cares. Seeing his protégée, a former addict, settle into a more domestic life like his own would’ve been something that the old Walt might have admired. But quickly we see the ruse, although Jesse doesn’t, that Walt only cares about protecting himself. He wants to find out how much Andrea knows, to see if she could be a liability, and manipulates Jesse into thinking it’s “his decision” to breakup with her. “Secrets create barriers between people,” he says. “Speaking from experience, believe me. All that you’ve done is a part of you now.” Not only has Walt become a master liar but also a master puppeteer.
Meanwhile at the car wash, Marie asks Skyler what she plans to do for Walt’s upcoming birthday — after all, it was during the pilot that he celebrated his 50th — and she begins to Freak. Out. The cadence of her manic “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” recalls Philip Seymour Hoffman’s similar rant in “Punch-Drunk Love.” Next week’s episode is titled “Fifty-One,” indicating we’ll see some kind of celebration for Walt regardless of Skyler’s approval, perhaps setting the stage for a more public meltdown. When Marie confronts Walt about Skyler’s breakdown, he smoothly shifting the attention away from himself and onto his wife’s extramarital activities with now-hospitalized Ted Beneke. This is partially true — she does feel guilty about Ted’s accident and did technically have an affair with him — but these facts probably rank pretty low on the scale of “things currently worrying Skyler” at the moment, making this a masterful bit of improv from Walt.
Skyler awakes to find her family gathered around the television watching the finale of Brian DePalma’s “Scarface,” another ultraviolent tale of one man’s rise to becoming a drug kingpin, and reacts with silent horror. It’s a scene that’s so on-the-nose it probably shouldn’t work — particularly given Vince Gilligan’s oft-used byline for the show about turning “Mr. Chips” into “Scarface” — but it absolutely does. Walt recites dialogue holding their young baby, with his teenage son who idolizes him at his side. “Hey, why don’t you join us…if you feel better,” he offers with popcorn and pizza consolations. “Everyone dies in this movie,” Walt says, painting the picture of a grim future for his own family without even realizing it. Truly horrifying.
Despite an “excellent yield,” they’ve made just under 50 lbs, a fraction of the 200 lbs a week they used to cook for Gus. Mike handles the business, beginning with $367,000 each in large cash piles, but by the time they’ve paid their various operating costs, they end up with just $137,000 each and Walt is not happy. “Listen Walter, just because you shot Jesse James, doesn’t make you Jesse James,” Mike says to him. But he won’t listen. He may have a bigger piece of the pie, but there are still too many fingers in it. He’s so disappointed with his paycheck for the week that he can hardly pretend to be sympathetic when Jesse tells him he broke it off with Andrea.
Then Walt begins plotting something still unclear, planting the seeds of doubt that maybe Victor, the lab assistant who had memorably had his throat slit by Gus in the Season 4 premiere, “flew too close to the sun.” Perhaps his murder wasn’t to teach Walt and Jesse a lesson but instead because he tampered with the formula. Though it’s not clear how the Icarus myth relates yet, Walt probably figures he needs to make sure Jesse is aligned with him for when he and Mike inevitably can no longer see eye-to-eye. By this point in the season, most of the pieces have been placed on the board and even if we have an idea where things might end up — the self appointed king losing his throne — we have no clue how the game will play out. [B+]