Monday, 30 July 2012

Television - Breaking Bad 'Hazard Pay' review

Many of fiction's greatest villains are mirrors to the protagonists who take them down, and it is becoming increasingly obvious how much alike Walter White is to Gustavo Fring. The parallels were there from the beginning, notably in Gus' origin as a once timid man who built a criminal empire in the aftermath of a personal disaster, having seen his partner executed by Tio Salamanca. Walt got started in the meth business after being told he had cancer, but it soon became obvious his reasons for continuing, despite regularly putting in danger the family he vowed to protect, were rooted in bitterness and anger at a world which had stuck him to the bottom of its food chain.

There have been numerous landmarks throughout Breaking Bad marking the deepening stages of Walt's journey to the dark side, be it his first kill, allowing Jane to drown in her own vomit near the end of season two, going full measures in season three's incredible finale, or poisoning a child at the end of last season to claim his final victory over Gus. On each occasion, Walt had circumstances to mitigate his decisions. Now, with no visible danger posed to his life or family, we are seeing how Walt's rise to the top of the drugs world has completed his descent into absolute villainy.
At the end of 'Hazard Pay', Walt wonders whether he misunderstood Victor's death by box-cutter: perhaps it had nothing to do with sending Walt a message, and instead about Gus eliminating an employee who had taken too much initiative and posed a threat to the operation. It's a ludicrous assertion, expressed in a terrific half-metaphor about Icarus, but we can see Walt's mind working to justify future actions and place him back alongside the Chicken Man on a pedestal Mike had just pulled him down from. Parallels are opening up everywhere between Walt and his former employer: the aforementioned similarity of their origins; how both reached the top by killing their previous boss; both have used children as weapons; both alienated from their families; and both having a grudge against a dangerous employee providing an invaluable service. Gus couldn't do without Walt's meth. Walt, in turn, can't do without Mike's business savvy and contacts, despite the growing animosity between the two threatening their nascent operation.

Mike may have a point, however, when he reminds Walt that "just 'cause you shot Jesse James don't make you Jesse James". Though there are strong similarities between the two, Walt has none of Gus' calm rationality. He's a ranging egomaniac, wanting power and reward immediately and without any of the hard work and expense that went into building up the Pollos Hermanos operation. When Mike coolly lays out where Walt's diminishing pile of cash is going, Walt takes it as a challenge against his integrity as self-appointed kingpin. Mike is not marked for death because he has done anything wrong (quite the opposite) but because he's a threat to Walt's delusional sense of entitlement. He's everything Walt wishes he could be - feared, respected, powerful, professional - and thus, must die.

'Hazard Pay' featured little plot or significant movement in what has been suggested as an important source of conflict for the season, Hank's continuing investigations into the foundations of Gus' empire, but instead built tension through showing the depth of the cracks quietly opening beneath Walt's feet. He sees himself as invincible because he cannot fathom a threat that isn't right in front of him, believing the world revolves around him so completely that the notion of significant events happening beyond his vision gets ignored. Last season, he did little but complain and alienate Jesse while Gus was moving around the sidelines, cutting away his safety net. Only after a direct threat was issued did Walt make a move.

The episode shows how close Skylar is to breaking point, and Walt turning Marie against her by revealing her affair with Ted as a means to allay suspicion will only make matters worse. It's telling how, when Walter moves back into the house, he carelessly pushes Skylar's belongings aside, just as he is doing to her. The connection that Walt cannot make is that Skylar has direct access to Hank, who would surely protect her and Walt Jr. if she finally gave up the truth about the elusive Heisenberg. (If she needed any reason for not coming forward sooner, she could truthfully say she was afraid for her and her son's lives). Walt also cannot see how, despite crowning himself as Gus' heir apparent, his role in the new operation is more disposable than he'd like to believe. He has no business connections, plenty of enemies (those impacted by Fring's death; his own brother-in-law), and a partner who can cook just as well as him. Walt remains a good ideas man, proven by his moment of inspiration of using fumigating houses as cover for his meth labs, but Jesse is even catching up with him on that front, having devised the idea of using a magnet to destroy Gus' laptop in the season premiere.

Given the established similarities between Walt and Gus, I'm sticking to my theory that Heisenberg's downfall will not come at the hands of Mike, or Hank, or Skylar, but Jesse. Just as Gus killed his boss, and Walt killed Gus, Jesse would be next logical link in that chain. After four years, Walt is concealing so many terrible secrets and been the cause of so much loss for his so-called 'partner' that any single revelation could break an already unstable bond. What is almost certain is that Walt will be the cause of his own downfall on some level, and it was he who pushed Jesse to kill for the first time. A discussion between the pair as they watch The Three Stooges (one of two witty, televised nods to the series' state of affairs) has Walt manipulate Jesse into breaking up with Andrea, all the while inadvertently talking about the one-sided nature of their own relationship. Jesse leaves Andrea because he can't face becoming to her what Walt is to him: deceitful, manipulative, reliant on another's affection to get away with actions that have already yielded terrible losses, specifically the death of Andrea's brother, Tomás, as a result of Jesse's rebellion against Gus' practice of using children as executioners. Were Jesse to learn about Jane, or Brock, what's to stop him going full measures on the man he used to consider a mentor?

Hierarchies, and how those at the top are pulled down by those beneath them, have been a recurring motif in the series: Walt first broke bad as a reaction to being stuck at the bottom, proceeding to steadily slaughter his way up the ranks. The idea of the son overthrowing the father is a stalwart of classical literature and mythology, from Zeus defeating Cronus to Hamlet killing his uncle. Walt Jr. may be too preoccupied with his never-ending breakfast to do the same to Walt, but Jesse, the surrogate son, is only waiting for a reason, of which there are plenty. Near the end of the episode, Walt watches Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983), which Vince Gilligan has often cited as an influence on the series. The movie depicts a young man's ascent to the top of the Cuban drug cartel, becoming responsible for the deaths of everyone he once cared about on the way and ultimately leading to his downfall. Walt's reaction?

'Everyone dies in this movie, don't they?'

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is one of the best recaps of Breaking Bad I have ever read - much better than many of the large sites. Keep up the excellent work.