By Ken Tucker
July 29, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Where most thrillers thrive on macho posturing, making heroes and villains cool for the way they brag and speak in hardboiled threats they may or may not carry out, Breaking Bad exists partly to deconstruct that genre staple. Thus this week’s episode, “Hazard Pay,” was full of tough talk by Jonathan Banks’ Mike undercut by Walt’s more quiet, understated, but ultimately more ruthless ideas and actions. 

This week continued Mike’s upgraded status to full partner with Bryan Cranston’s Walt and Aaron Paul’s Jesse. The hour began and ended with key Mike scenes that both set the tone and then had Walt comment upon that tone, and thus expose it — make it evaporate. At the start of “Hazard Pay,” Mike visits all of his “guys” — nine men who’ve helped him do his dirty work in the past. He wants to get to them quickly, to assure them that the arrangement he had with them when he worked for Gus Fring is intact, that they’ll be paid and must not rat him out to anyone. What was striking in the opening moments, when Mike visited one of these guys, Dennis, in prison, was our hit-man’s fidgetiness, his agitation. Mike is feeling the pressure.

The hour peaked with the other Mike set-piece. After a “cook,” Walter, Jesse, and Mike met to split the earnings on the sale of the new blue meth. Walt had said that Mike handles the business side of things now, but we hadn’t missed the ominous second part of that sentence, even if Mike didn’t take it in: ” …and I handle him.” The scene was a beautifully simple lesson in economics, laid out clearly for both Walter and Jesse, and for us. Mike had a big stack of cash for each of them. From each of these three piles, he pulled away various sums for various fees (for the drug mules Mike uses; for lawyer Saul, who gets $54,000 split three ways; for the insect exterminator crew that was hired as a front in this episode, etc.). When he got to his nine “guys,” Mike termed them “legacy costs” — people who are grandfathered into the system and must be kept paid and shut up. They cost a total of $351,000, or $137,000 each from Mike, Walt, and Jesse.

Walt took offense at this, arguing that these men weren’t his and Jesse’s problem, but Mike was adamant. “Business is my end,” Mike said. “This is how it’s gonna be done from here on out… My guys are an ongoing expenditure.” Ultimately, Walt agrees, and on any other show, this would have been a humbling lesson to the show’s chief protagonist in the economics of crime, with Mike coming out of it as the tough man of the world. But that’s not the way things work on Breaking Bad. What we witness is Walt undermining Mike — as well as Jesse, and his wife Skyler, and his sister-in-law Marie — throughout the episode. By the end, we’re more in fear for Mike’s life, for what Walt may be planning in his ruthless route to complete “control,” than we are admiring of Mike’s loyalty and toughness, which are, in the context of this show and any thriller like this, indeed admirable, because Mike is what’s known in the genre as a stand-up guy. Walt is not. 

This was the frame around which the hour was constructed. Within that, it was a marvelous episode, full of problem-solving and execution, along with a few wild-card emotional moments. Walt’s initial notion of a new site in which to cook — following the Vamanos Pest Control company from job to job, as a small crew that included Friday Night Lights‘ Jesse Plemons as smart but deferential Todd (Walt has already singled him out for his intelligence, so naturally we immediately fear for Todd’s life) — at first seemed absurdly cumbersome. Build a cook location on the site of a tented house, and break it down every time a job is completed? Yet Mike (who knows this Vamanos bunch is actually a group of second-story men [great old crime term; I loved that Walt had to ask what it meant] who usually burgle their job houses) and Jesse helped Walt figure out a way to do it.

Walt never stops plotting, planning, undermining. Offered an opportunity to spend some nice, harmless quality time with Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea and her son Brock, who’d survived last season’s poisoning, Walt — in the guise of offering fatherly advice about life’s commitment — succeeded in getting Jesse to “break it off” with Andrea and end up thinking it was his own idea, rather than a result of Walt’s manipulation. (I don’t quite accept that Jesse could be turned around so quickly, though. I wonder if we aren’t going to see Jesse either executing his own plan, or at the least, re-thinking all that Walt has told him. I think the seed for this was planted at the end, when Walt brings up Gus’ throat-slicing of Victor, in the “Box Cutter” episode, as an example of what happens when an underling overreaches. Walt acts as though he’s musing aloud to Jesse about Mike’s new behavior, but Jesse knows damn well this is significant for him, as well.)

Similarly, by moving back in with Skyler, Walt is driving her to a near-, if not total, breakdown, as witnessed by Marie. In an earlier season, Skyler screaming at Marie for her to “Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up” over and over might have had a comic tinge — now, it seems sad, a bit frightening. When Marie tells Walt about her sister’s extreme behavior, his reaction is telling.  After Marie leaves, rather than see how Skyler is doing as she rests in bed, Walt instead saunters into the kitchen and munched an apple: He could not care less about Skyler’s condition. It’s part of the plan, baby. Bryan Cranston is playing Walt’s slow, steady descent into hubristic hell with a cool command that’s a wonder to behold. 

Series creator Vince Gilligan has said in interviews that Walt’s journey is to go from being Mr. Chips (meek teacher) to Scarface (tragic criminal overlord), and last night, he decided to stop making that simply a metaphor. Skyler was awakened from her troubled, post-“Shut up!” sleep to the sound of gunfire. She found Walt, cradling the baby, sitting in the living room with Walt, Jr., watching Scarface. It was the climactic shoot-out, the “Say hello to my little friend!” automatic-weapon-spray moment in Tony Montana’s mansion. When Breaking Bad premiered, the original, soft Walt would have come upon Walt Jr. watching Scarface and told him to turn off such violent stuff. Now, it’s just fodder for family-movie-night at the Whites’. And now, off-camera, Walt was heard to mutter darkly, “Everyone dies in this movie.”

So might everyone, or at least anyone, in Breaking Bad, if Scarface Walt has anything to do with it.

Twitter: @kentucker

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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