Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: “Hazard Pay”

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: “Hazard Pay”

You think Mike the Cleaner’s job is just, you know, cleaning? Like keeping Gus Fring’s nose clean? You don’t know the half of it, as “Hazard Pay” begins to make clear in its cold open. We’ve spent the last two seasons of this show marveling at the icy control of Gustavo Fring, multistate meth distribution mastermind. Now it’s time for his righthand man, Mike Ehrmantraut, to get his share of the credit. Who recruits the muscle? Mike does. Who makes sure they get paid well enough to keep them loyal? Mike does. Who keeps the money flowing to family while the foot soldiers do their time? Mike does. Who leaves Atlantis off the maps? Who keeps the Martians under wraps? Mike does.

We see just what it takes to calm the jitters and plug the leaks when Mike, posing as the world’s toughest-looking paralegal, tags along with a lawyer to visit Dennis, one of Fring’s former laundry employees, in jail. His errand is assuring the man that Chow’s execution wasn’t a message, it wasn’t payback, it wasn’t anything Dennis needs to worry about. It’s been taken care of. Lest Dennis be thinking it’s time to open his mouth to save his own skin. Mike doesn’t issue any threats to keep the lid on Dennis (and the other half a dozen people he and the lawyer plan to visit that day). Instead, he appeals to proven results and professionalism. Doesn’t matter that Gus is gone, doesn’t matter that the feds RICO’d the “hazard pay” Dennis was getting. “Nobody’s gonna flip,” Mike assures him. “Everyone gets their hazard pay, including you. You will be made whole. You have my word. You need more?” It’s a no-nonsense, no bullshit approach, and it gets results. Everybody that Mike brought into Gus’s organization, all of his “guys” as he insists on calling them, will not be harmed by Gus’ downfall. Therefore there’s no reason for them to throw any tidbits to the ravenous DEA lion, tidbits that might threaten the new operation. Keeping that clear for them, though, is a full-time job for Mike.

Walt has his areas of expertise, too, and for all of us who are thrilled when he pulls off a masterful operation, it’s great to see him get a big win in “Hazard Pay.” Saul has a bunch of possible new lab sites to show them, but despite his evident pride in having covered all the bases, Walt, Jesse, and Mike find fault with them. Box factory? Corrugating machine uses steam and salt, making humidity that will ruin the crystal. Tortilla factory? The cooking fumes are going to make the tortillas taste like cat piss (“somebody’s bound to notice that,” Mike comments dryly), and besides, food operations are subject to unannounced government inspections. Lazer Base, Saul’s go-to money laundering business, where there’s an area right behind the skeeball games … ? “No” and “Hell, no” from Walt and Jesse, who remember all too well their last meeting there. But the place Saul can’t see any merit in, that even Jesse and Mike are ready to dismiss, sparks a brilliant plan in Walt’s mind. They don’t need a permanent lab location like Gus’ laundry. They need a series of places no one will look, and the tented houses that Vamonos Pest bug-bombs every week are perfect. Saul has the personnel angle covered; the exterminators, while fully legit, bolster their income by burglarizing the houses they fumigate (or by selling the alarm codes and duplicated keys to other crooks). “If you buy ’em, they’re going to stay bought,” Saul assures the group, and subject to Mike’s double-checking (which he never fails to remind Saul he will undertake), the setup is complete.

The montage of Walt and Jesse’s first cook, in a plastic enclosure set up inside a soon-to-be-fogged suburban home, returns us to the illicit thrills and ingenious satisfactions of season one, when Walt first figured out how to make his lab more professional and less vulnerable than the amateur-hour versions that Captain Cook and his ilk had developed. To the strains of “On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” by The Peddlers, they unpack the giant road cases that Skinny Pete obtained from the music store, set up what looks like a mini-version of Gus’ superlab complete with the best and newest equipment, and get to work, watched over by portraits of the homeowner’s family and venting their fumes into a backyard littered with kiddie toys. It works just the way Walt planned it, and he and Jesse bask in the satisfaction of a job well done.

But Walt isn’t done cleaning up loose ends. And the only one on his mind right now is solidifying his power base by making sure his partner has no conflicting loyalties. The master manipulator is in far more subtle form this week, feigning to share Jesse’s happiness about the makeshift family the young man’s found in Andrea and Brock. “The way she looks at you—oh!” he exclaims. But then: “Have you thought about what your plan is vis-à-vis honesty?” And when Jesse protests that he will never tell Andrea anything, Walt opens the stopcock of guilt and self-doubt and lets the fog blow through Jesse’s mind. On the one hand, “I can’t pretend this doesn’t affect me, it does.” On the other: “Secrets create barriers between people… All that you’ve done, it’s part of you… You’ll have to decide how much you’ll share with her.” “Like everything? Like Gale?” Jesse asks his trusted mentor. “I’m just trying to say that I trust you, and I know you’ll make the right call,” Walt bluffs with facile ease. “If she loves you, she’ll understand.” Nothing Walt says is an outright lie, but it’s all perfectly calculated to remind Jesse that

  1. his actions have the potential to endanger Walt, and
  2. no one could love him enough to forgive what he’s done, if they knew the full truth of it.

It’s not surprising that Walt continues to tell stories to those around him that reorder their perceptions and keep him safely out of suspicion. But it’s shocking how readily those stories now shift all the blame onto other people. He’s not just saving himself or his operation; he’s throwing people he supposedly loves in the trash, without a second thought. Is it necessary to lure Marie off the scent of Skyler’s horrific breakdown in the car-wash office by revealing her infidelity with Ted? It certainly is brilliant. Marie forgets all about Walt as she tries to process this new version of her sister, the one whose smoking and sleeping around seem to reveal that she no longer cares about her family. “I don’t want anyone to think less of her—or me,” Walt begs, practically with a self-deprecating halo over his head. Problem solved, just like it was with the purely potential problem of Jesse’s attachment to Andrea and Brock, by shifting the glare of guilt to someone else. Then remind Skyler just how afraid she needs to be by moving back in without consultation (Skyler: “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” Walt, preemptively: “Yes”), and watching Scarface with her son and her baby girl, exclaiming at the fantastic rain of bullets and commenting “Everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?”

Distractions sorted, awesome mobile minisuperlab constructed; now we’re back in business, right? Right! Except business isn’t what Walt envisioned it to be. He talks the language of collaboration, but in his mind, he’s the linchpin and therefore ought to be the kingpin, too. All this partnership stuff is just the rhetoric it takes to keep necessary cogs of the organization in line. When Saul aggrandizes himself to the position of an equal leg in the Heisenberg stool (“We don’t need a fourth amigo!”), Walt tells him to “grow a pair” because Mike’s tough-guy behavior is all in a day’s work: “He probably threatened someone before breakfast today, it’s what he does.” And he accepts Mike’s clear conditions for joining the criminal conspiracy with a firm mental reservation. “I handle the business,” Mike says. “Making the stuff, that’s your end. I don’t tell you how to mix your chemical and whatnot, and you do not tell me how to take care of business.” “Sure,” Walt says with a flippant smile, then mutters to Saul as they exit: “He handles the business, and I handle him.” Then after Walt has outlined his plan for the Vamonos Pest lab, Mike asks: “We take a vote?” Walt, from the backseat, tosses out: “Why?” It’s not a partnership. It’s not a democracy. It’s the Heisenberg show.


In a devastating final scene, Walt’s delusions of grandeur turn to naked rage when he finds out just what Mike’s business side takes out of his pocket. Three huge stacks of cash—$367,000 each, the gross from their first 50-pound batch—steadily dwindle as Mike allocates cuts to the other parts of the operation, the parts whose existence Walt conveniently likes to ignore since in his mind he’s flying solo. Mules get a flat 20 percent, which elicits Walt’s first objection: “What did Gus pay his mules?” he muses as if he’s just idly wondering. Of course, Gus didn’t need mules because he had his own distribution network of Pollos trucks; “You don’t like paying 20 percent, maybe you shouldn’t have killed the guy,” Mike observes. Jesse gets back the $120,000 he fronted the group. Ira, the ponytailed owner of Vamonos Pest, gets $45,000 out of each share. Ira’s crew get $10,000 from each. Saul gets $18,000 from each. “Legacy costs,” Mike then announces, and to Walt, staring at a stack of bills that’s been cut in half since Mike started talking, it sounds like he’s saying “processing and handling,” some bogus overhead that he’s adding in to pad his share and stiff Walt out of what he’s earned. He blows up and refuses to be mollified by Mike’s explanation that his guys need to be taken care of. To Walt, these nine guys in prison are a part of the Fring operation, the one he destroyed. They don’t exist anymore. “We are gonna make ’em whole,” Mike states, and Walt counters, “What is this ‘we’?” Either they’re the late Gustavo Fring’s problem, or they’re Mike’s problem, and Walt can’t see that he has any responsibility one way or the other. “What are they doing to further our interests?” he demands. “We are paying them… why?”

“Because it’s what you do,” Mike spits out, and there it is; Walt believes he can reinvent the business and ignore outmoded codes of conduct in favor of the chilly purity of wealth accumulation, and Mike knows with a certainty the proven value of professionalism and guild honor. To Walt, Mike is basically muscle, and “what he does” is throw his weight around; to Mike, his role in the operation is making sure “what you do” in these kinds of relationships gets done. It’s open warfare between the two of them as Jesse hunches miserably at the other end of the counting table. When Walt asserts that Mike’s “legacy costs” amount to a “shakedown” (another stunning shift of guilt, by the way—continued loyalty now becomes blackmail), Jesse can’t take mom and dad fighting anymore. “Just take it out of mine, I don’t care, just take it,” he pleads, and Walt retreats under the guise of a magnanimous concession to fairness for his young partner. With a final warning that Walt needs to make peace with these ongoing expenditures (including the methylamine, which won’t be gratis next time), Mike leaves Walt to count his sadly depleted stack of cash: $137,000. “It’s less than with Fring,” Walt grumbles, and this clearly alarms Jesse, who needs Walt stable. “You’re looking at it wrong,” Jesse pleads, arguing that this amount is for a far smaller amount of product than a day at Gus’ superlab. “We may have cleared less money, but we got a bigger piece of pie… We’re owners, not employees, just like you said.”


For Walt, though, an owner has certain prerogatives. An owner isn’t dictated to by underlings. And callously, the mask of concern for Jesse drops as Walt ponders just how necessary those other cogs of the organization are. When Walt asks how Jesse feels, and Jesse responds with the heartbreaking news that he broke it off with Andrea and left her the job of telling Brock, Walt cuts him off, completely unconcerned. He meant how does Jesse feel about what Walt cares about: The money, and the respect that money indicates. His last speech is a stomach-lurching reversal of roles, as he contemplates that Victor might have been executed because he was “taking liberties that weren’t his to take,” because “he flew too close to the sun, got his throat cut.” To Walt, Mike is an underling who has forgotten his place. That’s another nice, self-serving story. But it won’t keep the Dennis Markowskis out there happy while they do their time.

Stray observations:

  • The triumphant return of Skinny Pete and Badger! Pete plays a beautiful classical run on the music store’s Yamaha keyboard before Badger pisses all over with tuneless power chords on one of those guitars that are like, double guitars. Pete’s got some serious professionalism going as he measures the road cases and negotiates the deal with the skeptical but accommodating salesman (who greets them insincerely with “Rock on, man, solid!”). He and Badger beg for a spot on Jesse’s team, but the appearance of Mike in the doorway puts the kibosh on the old gang getting back together. Walt’s not the only one making sure the lines of loyalty remain clear and unmuddled.
  • The sharpest tack in Ira’s Vamonos crew is Todd, played by new series regular Jesse Plemons from Friday Night Lights. He understands immediately when Mike says that everything will remain exactly the same except for one detail: “No stealing,” he answers, and Mike confirms that the temporary meth lab houses have to stay off the B&E roster forever. But Todd’s also got ambition, and he lets Walt and Jesse (or as Mike introduces them, “Yessir and Nossir”) know he can be useful by volunteering that he disabled a nannycam in the living room clock. If Walt’s going to try to move Mike to the sidelines, I’m betting he’s going to consider Todd a useful tool.
  • Marie isn’t impressed that the DEA has welcomed Hank back after they ridiculed his “chicken man” obsession. “If it were me, I’d tell ’em all to go to hell. Do I sound bitter?”
  • Love that shot of the bug crawling across the furniture outside the plastic tent of the mini-superlab. The contaminants are always lying in wait.
  • Walt needs to find a way to answer his phone during a cook. This whole not-picking-up-five-frantic-messages thing is a vulnerability.
  • Old Joe and the junkyard gang fabricated the parts needed to make the mini-superlab assembly-ready. There’s another spin-off idea ready to go: Old Joe And The Junkyard Gang. Tagline: “If they can pull off a magnet, they can handle this!”
  • After meeting Brock, the kid whom he arranged to poison at the end of last season, Walt smoothly notes, “I understand you were in the hospital, and Jesse told me you were very brave.” Then he gives the kid a long look when they end up alone on the couch. How did you interpret it? Annoyance that Brock is still in the way? Or is there any regret for what Walt did?
  • There’s no room in a professional operation for the Badgers of the world, as Skinny Pete makes clear in the music store: “Hey man, I’m trying to do business over here, bitch! Sorry, he’s like, overly enthusiastic.”
  • Words Walt would do well to take to heart (but don’t hold your breath): “Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.”