Breaking Bad continues it’s astonishing fifth season with this week’s episode “Hazard Pay”. And before you can ask what the title means, the writers pull a title drop during the cold opening. Mike (Jonathan Banks), disguised as a paralegal for a lawyer, visits one of his former co-workers under Gus in prison. The prisoner explains that he’s willing to stay quiet, but he needs compensation in order to support his wife and kids on the outside. That compensation? Hazard pay. This is probably the weakest cold opening of the season, with no real mystery behind it and not much to it beyond exposition. Sure, there are some nice details here and there, but it’s not much considering the standards of usual Bad openings.
Beyond that start, this episode gets us started back on the right track, with the boys getting back into business. After a brief meet up at Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) office, Walt (Bryan Cranston), Jessie (Aaron Paul), and Mike are treated to a tour around New Mexico’s most prime potential real estates for meth production. Saul attempts to sell the trio on big open spaces like a cardboard box factory and a tortilla production warehouse, but there always seems to be some hole in the idea according to one of the three. The main strength of this segment is watching these four characters interact, showing how genuinely funny a show this dark can be. The way Saul acts as the foible to Jessie, Walt and Mike as they deny location after location speaks to how funny Odenkirk is, which has been somewhat squandered this season due to the more heavy involvement on the dramatic side of things. Plus, there are nice little bits with the other characters, like learning the Walt worked in a box factory or a bit of Jessie stealing a tortilla.
Eventually, Walt finds the best option when Saul suggests the headquarters of the extermination service Vamonos Pest Control, but not with the headquarters themselves. Instead, Walt sets upon the unconventional idea of making the lab mobile, moving equipment into the bigger houses that Vamonos tents for fumigation and cooking before they start the process. This brings us to one of my favorite recurring bits in the show: a musical montage of Jessie and Walt cooking. It’s such a simple concept, but the show always manages to make each montage memorable. The montages manage to make to production of this horrible drug engaging to watch, mostly because it shows Walt and Jessie in their element. Plus, the crew tends to pick some great music to bounce along with the action, with the track for this montage being the soulful smooth jazz song “On a Clear Day” by The Peddlers. Plus, there’s even a moment after the cooking process where Walt and Jessie have a genuine moment of discussion about Jessie’s life and how he’s dealing with his future with girlfriend Andrea (Emily Rios) and her son Brock (Ian Posada). This moment of concern is so bewildering, not only because of Walt’s sickening actions that lead to Brock’s poisoning last season, but also because of how transparent Walt’s interest in Jessie’s home life really is. He fakes his way through comfort towards Brock while visiting Jessie’s home and shakes off Jessie at the tail end of the episode when he misunderstands Walt’s questioning of “How do you feel” for an update on his home life instead of his real concern.
Speaking of that “real concern”, it’s time to talk about the centerpiece moment of the episode; the money distribution scene. After cooking their batch, Mike, Walt & Jessie come together in order to collect and distribute their cash to the right persons with some fair divisions to outside parties (the owner of Vamanos Pest Control, his guys that are keeping things quiet, distribution drivers, etc.). However, the only thing that makes Walt bulk is a “legacy cost” to people from Gus’ employ, which would be the remaining nine employees Mike mentioned in last week’s Madrigal. Walt’s displeasure with this and Mike’s stronghold on his convictions feels like two strong apposing forces pulling on the thinnest of ropes, the tension of who will break simmering on the screen, to the point where Jessie is willing to pay for Walt’s share. That tension between Mike and Walt that was established in ”Live Free or Die” is boiling up, with the two of them very close to wanting to eliminate the other. Walt even implies that Mike might be over stepping his boundaries while talking to Jessie, alluding to Gus’ brutal murder of his henchman in last season’s opener “Box Cutter” as a possible fate for Mike. Let’s hope that the tension there continues throughout the season.
On a less meth production related note, this episode features a further look at Skylar (Anna Gunn) and her current psychological state. While talking with her visiting sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) at the car wash, Skylar reveals that she has started smoking again, which leads to Marie chastising her profusely. Then, it all culminates in Skylar doing something that every Breaking Bad fan has wanted to do since the series started: telling Marie to “SHUT THE HELL UP!” Sure, it comes off as a nervous breakdown that Skylar is having, but there’s a great bit of truth still there. The episode also shows just how much influence Walt has over Skylar’s life now; the way he just casually moves back in without her say and tells Marie that the major cause of her stress was the centered around her affair with Ted. This shows that Walt is the only driving force in the family, which could just lead to its downfall. It’s even symbolized by the moment where Skylar walks in on her family watching Al Pacino blow away members of a drug cartel in 1983’s Scarface. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has commented in the past that the show was conceived under the concept of “taking Mr. Chip and turning him into Scarface,” so this moment seems less like an homage to a film in the same genre and more like foreshadowing for a horrible turn of events for the White family.
In the end, “Hazard Pay” may end up being my least favorite overall episode so far of the season, though it’s only because of a lackluster cold opening. Otherwise, it’s an episode jam-packed with drama, foreboding and a few familiar faces (Beaver and Skinny Pete FTW!). The dominos for the season seem quite set… but let’s see just how they fall with next week’s episode Fifty-One.