Don't read on unless you've seen Season 5, Episode 3 of AMC's "Breaking Bad," entitled "Hazard Pay."
In Sunday's episode of "Breaking Bad," we got our first inklings of how Team Jesse-Walt-Mike will work, and we also got a preview of how it will all go terribly wrong. Because it's going to go wrong, am I right?
I keep thinking about this episode in terms of connections: This show started out, after all, as the story of a man who felt the connection to life and to his family slipping away, thanks to his cancer, and he made huge changes in his life as a result. But because of the hubris he never completely resisted -- and which now defines him -- he's an incredibly dangerous loose cannon.
Not only is Walt a smirking, arrogant monster at this point, he feels he's above connections to anyone else. Sure, he's in a business venture with Mike and Jesse, he has to deal with Saul and he's still got Skyler in his life (almost by force), but the word "connection" implies give and take, compromise, negotiation.
Walt thinks he's ascended above such petty concerns. The thoughts he has about others center on his need to control them, to know that he dominates them, to know that he is the puppet-master of all he surveys. The idea that he should pay money to the employees of the man he destroyed is absolutely abhorrent to him. How dare these virtual strangers assert a connection to him and his business? How dare Mike challenge Walt's view of himself as the king of the mountain?
He eventually goes along with Mike's plan, because the only thing worse than giving money to strangers is being bailed out by Jesse (a useful inferior who is there to be used and manipulated -- he's not a true partner in any sense of the word). But Walt's refusal to see his connections to Gus' fallen empire and his responsibilities to these legacy relationships will cause no amount of friction and problems down the road, and Mike no doubt knows this. Mike knows that running a profitable illegal business comes with a set of built-in costs: Any operation like Gus' or Walt's has to plan for -- and pay for -- every possible contingency. But Walt thinks he's so smart and so devious that he doesn't need to do that.
Just as the guys went into their tent to do their cooking, Walt thinks his little empire exists on an island, and he sees himself as the island's iron-fisted ruler. But the trio's budding new business has to be connected to the world; they have to sell the meth and get money for it, get supplies, etc. No man is an island.
On some level, Walt might know that he needs connections, which is why he moved back into his little suburban castle. But "Breaking Bad" excels at making the mundane haunting. Walt and Jesse filled that typical home with two kinds of chemical poisons -- meth and termite-killing fog -- but in his own home, Walt is the poison. And no amount of chemicals will remove him.
The lyrical, beautiful section in which Walt and Jesse set up their mini-lab and cooked was not just gorgeously shot, it reminded us that part of what drives Walt is the quest for perfection. For him, there is a great deal of satisfaction in a job that is planned and executed just right. That worship of an ideal may be his only redeeming feature at this point, but that love of meticulous sequences and precise measurements -- in the lab and in the storytelling of "Breaking Bad" -- is one of the best things about the show. (Sidebar on the bug extermination front: Landry! Don't go near this guy!)
There is romance in the quest for scientific perfection, but there's also a certain coldness in the worship of absolutes, and I continue to marvel at how creepy and manipulative the show is willing to make Walt. With his ninja mind tricks, he somehow gets Jesse -- who needs connections more than anyone else on the show -- to break up with his girlfriend. As he and Walter Jr. are watching "Scarface" (a nod to creator Vince Gilligan's description of the show as the transformation of Mr. Chips to Scarface), Walt murmurs "Everyone dies in this movie," a clear warning to his already terrified wife. And when Marie grills him about Skyler's "breakdown," Walt does one of the sleaziest things he's ever done: He tells a selective story that makes Skyler look terrible and himself look like the patient, suffering spouse.
Then there's the greatest irony of all: Walt talking to Jesse about honesty, something Walt isn't really all that interested in. He's interested in the myth of his own power: Everything these days is about power, control, asserting dominance.
That's why one of the most interesting moments was when he sat on the couch next to Brock, the little boy he'd come very close to killing. He nearly had complete control over that child's life and death, and how did that make Walt feel? Even he had to squirm a little.
As Mike said, "Just because you shot Jesse James doesn't make you Jesse James."
Note: Gilligan talks about how they got to use that "Scarface" clip and how they had to get approval from Al Pacino here.