by Alex Greenberger
There’s something about “Hazard Play” that feels very cinematic. That is not to say that “Breaking Bad” feels like a TV show—it almost never does—but its episodes seem to always have several narrative arcs or goals of some kind, some way of making each episode feel guided. “Hazard Play” feels irregular because it feels a little more free-form, a little less to-the-point. By this, I don’t mean it feels aimless or misguided necessarily; I just mean that it feels unusually slowly paced for an episode of “Breaking Bad.”
But I think its rough, imperfect nature is part of the episode’s point. There’s been tons written by critics on how cinema leads to the truth, and there’s been tons more written about how digital filmmaking obscures truth and creates falsehoods. I’m not going to go into my personal beliefs on the matter, because that’s a whole other tangential issue, but I do think that “Hazard Play’s” movie-like treatment of its material is intended to give the episode a strange layer of artifice that each character gets wrapped up in.
Walt and Jesse seem to be the most deluded characters of the bunch right now, and not so coincidentally, we get to see them immerse themselves in lies several times. The first and most obvious lie is the renewal of their meth business, this time under the front of an extermination service called Vamonos Termites. Their new cook sites are people’s homes, and what I find most interesting about their new cooking method is that it involves the creation of a fake home within a real home. Walt and Jesse now make meth inside a plastic tent of a house inside each of their clients’ houses. The plastic home becomes a way for these characters to distance themselves from their problems—Walt from his marital strains with Skyler, Jesse from his undesired keeping of secrets from Andrea and Brock.
“Hazard Play” has another one of the show’s famed cooking sequences set in this home within a home. It’s no less stylized than any of the others this show has featured, and no less brilliant either, but Adam Bernstein makes one very jarring directorial move in this sequence by using computer-generated images of meth molecules joining. To my knowledge, this is the first time “Breaking Bad” has used any completely CGI images, and I found it really unsettling. For a show so based in a skewed version of reality, it’s strange to see CGI images, but I think it speaks to how reality has completely been obscured for these two, an idea that’s only hashed twice more by Jesse and Walt’s turn towards video games and television to avoid coming to terms with the brutality of their situation.
And I think Walt’s choice of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” isn’t accidental because, other than the obvious foreboding nature of Walt’s exclamation “Everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?,” each of De Palma’s movies is some comment on artifice. I haven’t seen “Scarface,” so I don’t know how it functions as a statement about being fake, but I’m well-versed enough in De Palma’s films to know that must be there. (Also note that the “Say hello to my little friend” acts as an auditory cue to remember Walt’s rifle in the flash forward.)
I really do love the dissolve from Skyler’s face as she hears the firing of guns in “Scarface” to Mike’s money counter. The dissolve is a beautiful visual that reminds that “Breaking Bad” is, in fact, fake. It’s also a reminder that Skyler, too, who is unfortunately having a bit of a mental breakdown, is living in her own twisted fantasy world as well. That powerful scene in which she tells Marie to “shut up” numerous times, one of which includes a censored f-word (damn you, AMC!), is a way of ignoring Marie’s attempts at making her realize the truth. She can’t come to terms with her situation, so she, too, descends into a state of disillusionment.
Even more fascinating is the allusion to final shot of “The Searchers” in which silhouettes of Jesse and Walt look out on the frontier that is Albuquerque. “Breaking Bad” has always been something of a Midwestern, if you will, and naturally, one of its themes is the opposition of order and morality. It’s pretty obvious at this point that Jesse and Walt are immoral people. So I wonder, does this allusion equate immorality with artifice? Seems logical to me, though Vince Gilligan’s Shakespearian form of morality changes week by week, so I could very well be wrong by the time this season’s fourth episode rolls around.
Alex Greenberger is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.