Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season Three

by PopMatters Staff

13 August 2013


Fly & Abiquiu


S3E10 Fly

As one particularly humorous episode of Community taught the world, there comes a time in the life of a television program when budgets need to be made slim. The result of this need is “the bottle episode,” a moniker whose name comes from the way the resources of the show reach a “bottling point” in the minimalistic structure of the episode. The formula is basic: few principal cast members are used, there won’t be any expensive sequences or shots, and the number of locations can be counted on one finger. To some this structure may appear limiting, but as Breaking Bad’s finest achievement, “Fly”, can attest, there’s a freedom that comes in being limited.

“Fly” is as bare-bones as a Breaking Bad episode could be. The sole location is Gus Fring’s super-lab. The only characters, save for some extras in the laundromat above the lab, are Jesse and Walt. The impetus for the dramatic tension of the episode is one pesky, seemingly un-killable fly that Walt claims has contaminated the lab. It doesn’t help that Walt is suffering from insomnia as he discovers the fly; when Jesse comes in the morning for the regular day’s cook, he finds Walt scavenging around the lab, makeshift baton in hand, looking calmly deranged. “Is that your fly-saber?” Jesse asks, in the first of many quips that keep the drama of “Fly” suffused with humor. Jesse’s insistence to cook in spite of the fly’s presence—which to him is hardly a contaminant at all—is the first source of conflict, but his and Walt’s arguing, which even leads to some physical altercation, gives way to some intimate, touching reflections on mortality, memory, and those that have since passed.

The theatrical staging of “Fly” hugely contributes to its dramatic potency. The fine American director Rian Johnson, responsible for works like Brick and The Brothers Bloom, helmed this episode; his graceful and nuanced camerawork prevents the proceedings from being too static, yet he keeps the setting limited such that it feels like a long one-act play. The theatrical reference points of “Fly” are broad and deep: Walt’s obstinacy in hunting for the fly is Beckett-esque in its absurdity, the undercurrent of bleakness in Jesse and Walt’s observations hearkens to LaBute’s misanthropic tone, and on a broader level the plotting of the episode follows modern drama’s willingness to toy with Aristotelian tropes. Writers Sam Catlin & Moira Walley-Beckett were gifted with the chance to explore Jesse and Walt with previously unseen depth, and they clearly took every chance they got.

And, no surprises, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were up to the writer’s challenge. Paul gets the funniest lines of the episode, doling out jokes and bits of wisdom left-and-right. On the nomenclature of varmints: “When I was coming up it was just possum. Now it’s O’possum, like it’s Irish or something.” What he would say if they had waterboys in the lab: “Gatorade me, bitch!” And there’s his view of meth addicts: “We probably have the most unpicky customers in the world.”

His always-reliable humor is the counterweight here to Cranston, who turns Walt’s hunt for the fly into a melancholy reflection on his profession in a drop of a hat. It’s a remarkable feat, one that’s more daunting a task than any of Walt’s maniacally evil monologues. He is quite convincing when he utters that famous line, “I am the danger,” but what gets more to the core of Walt is the weakness he displays as the fly continually evades his grasp. (Though it should be pointed out that Walt does get some of his best scenes of physical comedy here, in particular one involving his shoe getting stuck in a light fixture after he throws it up to the ceiling to kill the fly.)

“I’m healthy,” Walt tells Jesse, summarizing his most recent trip to his oncologist. By this time, cancer is much less a concern for Walt than the immediate need to cook, which is evident in the way he ignores his positive prognosis and delves straight into what ails him: Skyler’s inability to accept his “sacrifice” for the family. “I truly believe there exists some combination of words,” Walt opines, “there must exist certain words in a certain specific order that will explain all of this.” The analytic clarity he delivers this line with is unflinching evidence of his hubris, but there’s a sadness in it that wasn’t present in the early parts of the Third Season, when he was first trying to convince Skyler the rightness of his decision to enter the meth business.

Then, he was assertive and calculative; to him, Skyler was just misled and in need of correction. Now he’s beginning to realize that he may have been wrong, but not for the moral reasons brought up by Skyler. By saying his failings in selling Skyler on his new life has to do with “not being able to find the words,” he is re-asserting his rightness about meth, but admitting his weakness in being able to string together that “magical sentence.” Jesse, who stands in the background as Walt says all this, remains silent. He’s been in the drug game for long enough to know that “convincing” is rarely the trick. Too often do those who love and live with those involved in drugs suffer the worst consequences of that dark world.

Walt’s insomnia allows the goal of killing the fly to remain on the table. Jesse, not caring about the fly at all, decides to take action to make sure at least a little bit of a batch is made that day. He makes coffee for both of them, with a nice sprig of sleeping pills in Walt’s cup. This, unfortunately, doesn’t lead to Walt calmly passing out. Instead, the cranky chemist lulls about, not quite falling asleep but not quite awake either. The last time he was in this state was in his cancer surgery at the end of Season Two, where he let it slip to Skyler that second phone he didn’t have he, well, had.

And, sure enough, it proves to undo Walt here. Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Jane, the one who Walt let die as she choked on her own vomit in her sleep, becomes a topic of conversation when Walt brings up to Jesse that a few nights before her death, he met her father at a bar. The happenstance of the situation befuddles the mathematical mind of Walter—he even admits to trying to calculate the probability of meeting Jane’s father—and as Jesse expresses surprise at this admission, Walt finds it to be the time to fess up.

Well, sort of fess up. As Jesse climbs atop a ladder to whack at the fly, with Walt’s support at the bottom, the sleeping pill-addled man lets it slip: “I’m sorry.” Jesse thinks this is just an expression of sympathy and assures him it’s fine. “I mean, I’m very sorry,” Walt insists. If Jesse knew what Walt was really saying, he would probably jump down from the ladder and beat his face in with the “fly saber” until he bled out—confer this with Jesse nearly shooting Walt for the Ricin incident at the end of Season Four—but the irony of the situation is lost on him. Like many of the show’s tense scenes, this interaction gets the pulse rate up, but in the end it’s all for naught. What it does go to show is that while Jesse may be the best friend Walt has in the business, there’ll always be an ocean of distance between the two of them. Walt needs Jesse, but he could never admit the actions he’s taken at the expense of Jesse to rise to the power he has; necessity prevents him from being the island he so wishes to be.

Showrunner Vince Gilligan says of “Fly”:

“Having said that, even if that weren’t the case [that finances shaped the creation of “Fly”], even if financial realities didn’t enter into it, I feel as a showrunner that there should be a certain shape and pace to each season, and the really high highs that you try to get to at the end of a season—the big dramatic moments of action and violence, the big operatic moments you’re striving for—I don’t think would land as hard if you didn’t have the moments of quiet that came before them. The quiet episodes make the tenser, more dramatic episodes pop even more than they usually would just by their contrast.

Amongst myriad other reasons, Breaking Bad will go down in television history due its unforgettable scenes of visceral brutality. Images like Gus Fring straightening his tie before dropping dead or Tortuga’s head atop a turtle are hard to un-sear out of the mind. But the only reason those images are able to be as wrenching as they are is because of the way the writers of Breaking Bad methodically pace the show. No action is ever unrushed. Every second has its time to say what it needs to say. In the case of “Fly”, the show gets to just slow it all down, freezing time to the exact moment when Jesse and Walt are in the eye of the storm—or, rather, a storm, as tumult never manifests in a single form in Breaking Bad. The key ingredient to this program’s best episode is not spectacular violence or fiery monologues: it’s breathing room. In the grand scheme of Breaking Bad, “Fly” does nothing to advance any storylines; it instead encapsulates themes, provides interesting new symbols, and displays a mesmerizing amount of character development for both Walt and Jesse. In a show rife with bad moral luck, sharp turns of fate, and at times relentless violence, “Fly” takes the troubles of these characters to the staging of theatre, and the result is a masterpiece of television storytelling. Brice Ezell


S3E11 Abiquiu

Some of the best moments in television history have come as a result of stubborn writers, the moments when dialogue that has the ability to be interpreted multiple ways is written into the script. On one hand, viewers can find deeper meaning within a set of scenes that may further the plot. On the other, the characters’ words may actually be aimed at proving petty, gamesman-like points to network executives on behalf of the writing staff and/or creator.

For my money, these are the best moments the entire medium has ever produced. It’s a lot easier to do it with comedic tones (see: Arrested Development, 30 Rock, or even some moments of America’s The Office), though it’s still quite the task for even a light-hearted set to accept. To try and seamlessly work these moments into a drama would appear impossible, considering how doing as much would run the risk of compromising the very serious nature of the narrative at hand.

Coming off “Fly”, widely known as a bottle episode within Breaking Bad lore (meaning there was no real budget for production due to, in part, all the contract negotiations taking place at AMC at the time), Season Three’s “Abiquiu” opened with an oh-so-fabulous double entendre-like sequence. Leaning on its almost-always-successful flashback approach, it begins with Jane and Jesse debating the true value of Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting of a door, presumably days, if not hours, before Pinkman’s muse officially fell off the wagon (remember: Jesse blew off the exhibit to go cook with Walt in “Over”, the episode directly before “Mandala”, the episode Jane introduces her beau to the joys of heroin).

“Why would anyone paint a picture of a door over and over again, like dozens of times,” Jesse asks Jane.

“It was the same subject,” Jane asserts, “but it was different every time. She saw something new every time she painted it.”

“And that’s not psycho to you?” Pinkman quips.

“Well, then why should we do anything more than once?” his girl responds. “Should we just watch one sunset or live just one day ... it’s new every time. Each time is a different experience. Sometimes you get fixated on something and you might not even get why.”

Forget psychobabble character development for a minute and consider: A) “Fly” was nothing more than a play shot on a television studio set. It was, essentially, the same thing over and over and over (that damn fly!)—so much so that there have been many a detractor to the episode’s relevance, moving forward.

This, then, leads to B) Who’s to say this wasn’t creator Vince Gilligan’s way of taking a shot at his show’s critics? Who’s to say those words weren’t aimed at the people who tried to get into Breaking Bad, but ultimately dismissed it as a one-trick pony because of its formulaic nature, what with Walt always finding trouble before always seeming to overcome it? Who’s to say the line “You get fixated on something and you might not even get why” isn’t supposed to imply to the networks that even though there may be a sect of individuals who can’t quite articulate their affection for the series properly, there is still an inherent magnetism to the story being told?

Dude’s a smart guy—don’t put those implications past him. From the lipstick on the cigarette to the Spanish-language version of Chicago’s “Saturday in the Park” playing in the background while Jesse and his new friends are eating at that taco joint, Gilligan has his hand on everything. You can’t get as good as he is without the desire to offer up a few potshots every now and then, right?

Potshots is the word for Hank here, as he can’t help himself from firing them off at everyone around him, most notably Walt Jr. You can’t blame the guy for being frustrated with his recent luck, but to ask the teenager if he has any friends? Come on, man—that’s low. Kudos to the kid for brushing it off so easily, more than likely focusing all his attention on the prospect of a new car.

Oh, and don’t think that symmetry is lost on the viewers: from Junior’s play for a new vehicle early in the episode comes Walt and Skyler’s latest purchase ... a car wash. The dynamite goes boom when we find out that the Missus is, herself, ready and willing to break bad, taking over money issues for the operation (not to mention her decision to never file divorce papers because “spouses can’t be compelled to testify against each other”). In for a dime, in for a kilo, this would be the point in the series where the dynamic of the Skyler character takes a leap of faith, for better or for worse. Making the decision to dive in this deep, as she will find out in the subsequent seasons, might not have been the wisest move of them all. Then again, what else could she do?

The best moments come from the single greatest supporting actor in the history of television (can’t say that enough) as Aaron Paul’s Jesse finds out that his new love interest has ties to his boy Combo’s death. Concentrate on that face as she explains what Tomas once did, and you should be sending check to Mr. Paul with a memo line that reads “Quick Acting Lesson.” From shock, to disappointment, to rage, to sadness, he nails about 82 different emotions in a 90 second span and not once do any of them become unbelievable.

Even better is his serious affection for children. Nary a season has gone by where Jesse hasn’t been influenced by a little kid, one way or the other. From a child with drug-addicted parents, to Brock’s apprehensive fist-bump, all the way to the tarantula enthusiast Todd shot and killed in Season Five (which would ultimately lead him to want out of the business for good), Jesse’s soft-spot is equally endearing and refreshing in such a darkly presented show.

The episode is at its darkest, however, when Walt ventures over to Gus’ house for dinner. Confused and uncomfortable, the scene was palpably more fluid than the time Jesse would eventually be called upon to do the same thing. The key moments are endless: Gus gives Walt a knife. Walt lectures Gus on how taste can impact memories. And then, of course, there’s the ah-ha! quote: “Never make the same mistake twice,” the drug boss tells his nervous newcomer.

Wait. Which mistake was that again? Colin McGuire

//Mixed media