"Breaking Bad" gets cooking

Walter gets his meth operation running, causes havoc at home -- and implicates all of us still rooting for him

Published July 30, 2012 3:00AM (EDT)

In which Our Hero declares war on crawling vermin, alludes to a clandestine affair and watches a pile of ill-gotten gains dwindle into insignificance.

How do they do it? How can we remain hard-wired to like “Breaking Bad” and some of the most appalling characters ever to appear on dramatic television? One answer is easy: Stockholm Syndrome. We identify with our captors. Crime does not pay, but it does pay out for our interest, with dividends. It is one thing to describe a character as being smart, or to have them talk smart. It is quite another thing to actually have them do smart things. And Walter’s genius under pressure has rarely been so well on display as in the third episode of this final season, “Hazard Pay” -- another in a distinguished line of “Breaking Bad” how-to episodes.

One of the sneaky joys of “Breaking Bad” is how Walter White and Jesse Pinkhams’ problems become our problems – continually putting us in the unenviable position of rooting for them. Whether that problem is disposing of a henchmen’s body in acid, jumpstarting the stranded “Crystal Ship” RV with a home-brewed battery or figuring out how to erase a hard drive by “Magnets, bitch,” we are continually placed in the queasy role of rooting for the Bad Guys while hoping that the good guys lose. And like the monkey pulling a lever to get the right banana, we get rewarded when our heroes win. It's forbidden fruit that's tasty and strangely addictive, if occasionally rotten.

Problem One. Just how do you jumpstart a meth business when you’ve been to the top of the Gale-equipped laboratory mountaintop and that mountain is now a smoking ruin? Well, let’s go on a road trip with the Four Amigos, as they tour Albuquerque in search of a new business plan and a base of operations. We’re in their movie now – and their problems are now our problems. Box factory? Too humid. Tortilla factory? Surprise food inspectors and toxic tortillas. Lazer Blast? Toxic memories. And then, as it always must, we come back to Walter thinking his way out of the maze, looking for that lever, and we glimpse the future of “Breaking Bad” for the rest of its run. Not only is Vamonos Pests a great DBA, and a brilliant solution to his cooking problems, it is also a brilliant plot arc that promises a new supporting cast of probably disposable henchmen.

“Breaking Bad” does more than untie plot knots and dispose of henchmen – it also excels in fantastic musical montages. This one is exquisitely set to a 1968 version of “On a Clear Day You See Forever” (by British Invasion foot soldiers The Peddlers, for those keeping score at home). Here is where the Stockholm Syndrome really kicks in. I was so happy to see Walter and Jesse cook again! They do it so well and with such grace and fluidity. What a beautiful act of creation! Look at those gorgeous molecules as they shimmer and dance. Perfect “10” from all the judges!

Then you realize they are making blood-soaked poison that is destined to destroy their lives -- and the lives of many around them.

Problem Two.  Poor Skyler. Her hatred of her husband leaks from every pore, and if we are in any danger of developing any empathy for our anti-hero, his cheery atonal singing and complete lack of awareness about his nonchalant brutality snaps us out of it. He fills his sock drawers and casually announces that he is moving back in. Does he know how he is punishing her -- how her skin crawls off her face? Is he oblivious? Either way, Skyler loses. As hard as it is to watch her writhing in pain, it does allow us to welcome back Marie. Skyler’s car wash breakdown sets up another classic Walter Genius Moment. Marie says she will not leave Walter’s house until she finds out the truth about her sister. Everything comes to a halt in a great “Breaking Bad” ruh-roh moment. No way out. Walter frantically tries to claw his way out of his home-built maze. What “truth” can he tell? What lie? And then he locates an emergency exit we didn’t know was there: He does both. He deftly lets Marie connect the dots about Skyler’s affair with Poor Ted. Simultaneously, he: A.) wiggles out of the trap, B.) gets Marie out of the house, and C.) manages to violate Skyler in an entirely new, creepy way. This is the “Breaking Bad” trifecta of aberrant behavior. And Marie even gives him a sympathy hug. The fact that part of us roots for Walter takes us right back to our cozy residence in Sweden’s capital city. What a prick! What a genius! A moment perfectly buttoned with Walter self-satisfyingly taking a bite out of an apple. Well done, Walter, and the “Breaking Bad” writer’s room!

Problem Three. The battle lines of the looming dilemma that will define Season 5 -- the conflict between Mike and Walter -- are drawn out in cold, hard cash. Finally, we get to one of the hallowed traditions of crime drama, the “split the loot” scene. Again, this sequence shows how good “Breaking Bad” can be. Starting with four ridiculously large piles of money, we get a crash course in Methonomics 101. This split is staged schematically and simply, like a scene from some fubsy science film that Old Walter might have screened in his old classroom. We not only see why New Walter is angry with Mike, we sympathize with him. His pile of money, like his hard-earned self-respect, dwindles into insignificance. At the same time, we embrace Mike’s sense of honor and understand why these expenses are the logical costs of doing business. And as Walter is pressured by Jesse into coughing up his share, we see his resentment getting baked in as Mike’s “dead mackerel eyes” take it all in. Have I mentioned before that this new partnership will not end well? Poor Jesse. Stuck in the middle between warring father figures.

The next and final scene is where Walter joins all “Breaking Bad” fanatics in reinterpreting and reading too much into an old episode and a “greatest hit” moment, Victor’s messy demise from Gus’s “Box Cutter.” Walter White is always best when he is a little enigmatic, and this scene leaves too little to the imagination, a preview of ominous coming events.

Random observations and predictions:

* Inbound Problem! Brock and Andrea are back in Jesse’s life. Just when you think Walter has reached the bottom in creepy evil, he manages to swim deeper. I had thought that Jesse (and we) would never learn how Walter slipped Brock the “Lily of the Valley” into his after-school snack. Not any more. Another bomb starts ticking, quietly, as I cannot imagine Brock not innocently mentioning that time when Jesse’s big buddy made him that after-school P B and J (with the crusts cut off) ...

* How much do we love Mike “Mackerel Eye” Ehrmantraut's appearance as the world’s most intimidating paralegal? Notice the way his lawyer sidekick switches on his iPod, embracing the “Sergeant Schultz” school of negotiation.

* How great to find out that Skinny Pete is also a gifted pianist! Completely from left field, and overdubbed by the “overenthusiastic” Badger on double-necked lead guitar. And thanks for the free equipment case stencil!

* Jesse grabbing a hot tortilla off the assembly line. You’d do it, I’d do it, and a perfect little character beat.

* Marie instructing the car washers how to scrub a side mirror. Perfect, and perfectly in character.

* Mike patiently working out a crossword puzzle as the giant Huell wheezes in the background. Mike takes Huell’s measure, briefly, and finds him wanting.

* Walter “Yes, sir” White brusquely assessing one of his new partners in crime after the tip about the baby monitor. Let’s just say that Mike’s advice not to steal will probably not be taken. And this will cause problems.

* Gale Boetticher is gone, but his memory lives on, as his beloved WW caresses the cover of the other WW’s “Leaves Of Grass.” If this were anyone else, I’d say he had a “moment” there. If ...

* Where’s Lydia? After that rousing introduction last episode, it's odd to see her gone so fast. Thanks, though, for the free barrel of contraband chemicals.

* Easy on the clips, boys. There is obviously no work of fine art that is not improved by a Three Stooges reference, but “Scarface” was just too on-the-nose. It seems an inside joke on all of us critics for writing clichéd headlines about Walter’s metamorphosis. We got it, we’re getting it, and let’s move on.

“Just because you shot Jesse James doesn’t make you Jesse James.” One line fits all.

By Erik Nelson

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