“Just because you shot Jesse James don’t make you Jesse James.”
–Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks)
Look out, Albuquerque, there’s a new front organization in town. In “Madrigal” last week, we saw the Los Pollos Hermanos logo being removed from the corporate headquarters of the franchise’s parent company, and this week we’re introduced to the new business under which the city’s replacement druglords are going to operate. Using the exterminators Vaminos Pest is Walt’s (Bryan Cranston) stroke of genius — like the RV, the ol’ “Crystal Ship,” this is a mobile operation with no fixed base of command to be discovered by law enforcement. They’re operating right under the noses of the city’s unsuspecting citizenry, with an ideal cover for strange smells and a promise of toxicity that’s bound to keep away prying eyes. It’s more logistically complicated — there’s a lot of equipment to move in and out — but as far as starting drug fronts go, it’s pretty solid.
But from the perspective of basic humanity — Christ, Walter White, what a bastard you are. (That could be a refrain for this episode.) Doing a hazardous meth cook in someone’s house? Dumping exhaust into their back yard with its kiddie pool and into the neighborhood, in that dreamy montage set to “On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever)”? Walt and Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) process has to be cleaner than what goes on in the average meth house, but it still can’t be something you want where you live, around your kids. But Walt’s made it clear he’s long past needing to even rationalize doing harm to people he doesn’t know. Hell, he’s busy doing harm to people he does know.
Like Skyler (Anna Gunn), who’s not making an easy transition into Carmela Soprano. When her family’s venture into crime was a white-collar question of money laundering, she was able to focus on the more comfortable lawbreaking of balancing the books and hiding income in a legitimate business. But after permanently maiming Ted Beneke and growing legitimately scared of her husband, Skyler’s close to breaking under the pressure and Walt doesn’t seem all that interested in her well-being anymore. First he moves back into the house (“It’s time”) without asking and knowing she doesn’t feel like she has the power to say no, and then he tells Marie (Betsy Brandt) that the reason for her sister’s nervous breakdown is her affair. It’s a signature Walt move, one he’ll absolutely claim was his only choice to Skyler later but that he takes such passive aggressive pleasure in — consider the way he chomps into that apple afterward.
As a character, Skyler’s takes a lot of crap from a certain portion of the “Breaking Bad” fandom for being “strident,” for being “annoying,” for being a buzzkill when Walt’s trying to provide for his family. It’s an assessment that’s always struck me as unfair and not a little misogynistic, and I wonder how much it can be kept up now that Walt’s come into his true, smug, ruthless self, and now that Skyler is the traumatized representation of a shattered conscience in his world. She hasn’t always made great choices, though like Walt, some of the bad ones have been well-intentioned, done out of a desire to protect her children. But as Mike once pointed out, it’s doing things halfway that will get you in trouble. She didn’t walk away and turn Walt in when she had the opportunity, and now she’s in much deeper than she ever planned.
“Hazard Pay,” which was helmed by Adam Bernstein (a longtime TV and music video director who also worked on, it must be said, “It’s Pat”) and written by Peter Gould, shows us that Walt’s not going to work well with Mike despite their agreement on the division of labor. It also shows us the current solidity of Walt’s partnership with Jesse. Walt’s an oblivious, selfish guy a lot of the time, but whether through calculation or out of sincere respect he shows some appreciation of Jesse in this episode, letting him take the lead on setting up the new mobile lab, sharing a smirk when Mike tells the Vamanos Pest employees that they’ll refer to the two only as “yes sir” and “no sir.”
Maybe Walt’s talk with Jesse about having to decide whether or not to tell Andrea (Emily Rios) about his business was all planned, an example of just how good he’s gotten at manipulating the younger man. But I’d like to think it was a moment, at least, of actual openness. Walt’s gone through a lot with Skyler, and whatever his warped conception of the current standing of their relationship, it’s been a tough road. Maybe he actually trusts Jesse to make the right call, or maybe making that claim of trust was just another way to pull Jesse to his side, but either way, Jesse ends the relationship, sparing Walt any future encounters with the kid he nearly murdered. Well played, big guy.
As Jesse points out, they’re business owners now, not employees, a shift in mindset Walt’s going to have to get used to. Walt’s been an employee all his life — that’s why he ended up in Gus’ superlab in the first place, much more comfortable being a (praised) cog in the wheel than the one in charge. And he still has trouble grasping what Jesse understands more clearly, which is that they’re now responsible for all the business expenses, but they also get all the profits — “You’re looking at it wrong.”
Walt’s never been a bigger picture guy in that sense — he’s the kind of guy who’d cheap out on his employees because he feels like he’s being ripped off for every dollar not going right into his pocket. And he frustratingly refuses to see that it’s in all of their best interests to make sure that none of Gus’ former employees flips — Walt worked in that lab, too.
But as we see from his watching “Scarface” with Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), Walt’s never been a guy to have a lot of self awareness. “Everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?” he says.