Every great television show has an episode that pushes the medium in some bold, even experimental manner, either visually and/or in the way the plot is structured. It’s usually something the writers and director do as a challenge for themselves and the audience to quicken the blood. Historically, cinema has been the arena for directors with a robust visual sense. Television, on the other hand, was the safe haven for writers. This has changed significantly in recent years with the rise of cable networks willing to accommodate writers and directors with ambitious projects. Now, the emphasis on high production values and vibrant imagery is just as essential as a great script. Breaking Bad, with its carefully thought-out look, dependably relies on its cinematography to deliver crucial narrative/thematic information, just as it relies on its characters to deliver significant exposition in a straightforward manner.
A truly great dramatic series, such as Breaking Bad, tends to show brilliance fairly consistently, but episode ten from the third season—”Fly,” directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and written by Sam Catlin and Moira Walley-Beckett—sprints ahead as a major creative standout. The entire episode plays out in the confines of the sublevel lab where ex-high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston), now a big time meth cooker, makes the drug with his ex-student and now-assistant, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). But through the entire 48-minute episode, Walter and Jesse aren’t cranking out batches of meth for their boss, the highly successful fast food entrepreneur and bloodthirsty drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). A fly has somehow gotten into the lab and Walter obsesses over killing it. He can’t cook until the lab is sterilized and free from any taint. Of course, it’s not really about the fly. Walter is paralyzed by fear and the knowledge that he’s about to die. It’s only a matter of time before the cancer inside him will reawaken and the stalemate between him and Gus will dissolve. Regardless of which one gets to him first, Walter is a dead man.
Since the writers have trapped Rian Johnson, in a sense, with this plot, he must, along with cinematographer Michael Slovis and editor Kelley Dixon, figure out ways to keep the whole thing visually dynamic. It’s a difficult challenge considering the action is primarily contained to one setting and the variety of camera setups are limited to a large degree. They pull it off, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been watching closely; Breaking Bad has consistently been one of the most cinematic serial dramas on television.
All of the great serial dramas over roughly the last decade—The Sopranos, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, and Mad Men—excel in their different ways at the art of storytelling. However, only Breaking Bad, and Mad Men to a large degree, also deliver a strong cinematic visual scheme to accompany the stellar writing. From its first episode, Breaking Bad has told its story of the transformation of nebbish teacher Walter White into sociopathic monster Heisenberg with imagery as much as with writing and acting. The show’s sophisticated compositions and its ability to convey meaning and thematic resonance through classic framing and symmetry over the course of its five seasons is something that should interest any serious cinephile. On a visual level, Breaking Bad rivals anything you’ll see in the theater.
What makes the show special? It works in a seemingly dormant tradition of classic visual storytelling; what it reveals through its images is just as important as the dialogue. The trust in the audience displayed by the show’s creator/showrunner, Vince Gilligan, makes it feel daring and even radical at times. With some major exceptions, this form of bold stylization in major commercial filmmaking (particularly in action and crime features) has fallen out of fashion in lieu of hyperkinetic editing schemes and discordant action sequences, the rivet-headed mode of style in so-called chaos cinema. What Breaking Bad has is visual literacy; it draws on the muscular richness of past masters of the action genre, such as Sergio Leone, John Sturges, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah, William Friedkin, and Michael Mann, to deliver the goods.
Set in modern-day Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad is ostensibly a crime show. It explores the realism and grittiness of urban decay to great effect, but it also uses and reconfigures the visual motifs of the Western and horror genres. What’s remarkable and distinctive here is that the show swipes from these genres in a way completely opposite to the approach of a pop postmodernist like Quentin Tarantino. The style and signature visual metaphors of Breaking Bad cannot be extricated from the psychological subjectivity of its characters.
The show frequently jazzes around (as fiction writer John Gardner said of experimentation), positioning the camera in holes, toilets, underneath corpses, at the bottom of a bathtub, in a safety deposit box, submerged in a deep fat fryer, and in crawlspaces, showing us the world from vantage points that are more or less unseen by our eyes in real life. The camera even microscopically observes the movements of a fly. And the show aggressively embraces the musical montage sequence (usually during its meth cooking scenes), as is the norm for contemporary dramas like this.
But the most stirring cinematic moments in Breaking Bad occur during less virtuosic sequences. They rise from the show’s visual metaphors, from the way cinematographer Slovis frames the actors (traps them) behind barred windows, in darkly lit hallways and doorways, behind cracked windows, and frequently on their backs peering up at us from the ground, where the symmetry of the image and the existential despair of the characters’ psychological headspace meld.
Actors in the frame are typically juxtaposed with advertising signs or dwarfed by urban architecture, a sort of primetime visual semiotics. Although the show ostensibly explores Walter and Jesse’s trajectories through the seedy, violent world of drug dealing and crime, it’s really about capitalism at its most savage. Walter’s justification for his involvement in the meth business has always been his need to financially support his family. That’s what he tells himself and his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn). It’s a lie, however, since Walter has had many opportunities to walk away with the fortune he’s made. Greed and the American need to dominate have taken root in Walter now. Jesse, a low-level drug dealer before hooking up with his old teacher, is seduced by the luxuries of wealth as well, although he’s also a victim of its violence. Sometimes, the scourge of unfettered capitalism is portrayed in a humorous fashion, as in the scene when Jesse runs into his drug buddy Badger (Matt Jones) dressed as a $1 bill, trying to draw in customers for a savings and loan. Capitalism offers a bounty of comfort, but it can likewise deliver our doom.
In Breaking Bad, mundane places like fast food joints, big box stores, and strip malls, can easily change from the innocuous to the malevolent. The ingredients and instruments of death can be readily purchased at your everyday building supplies store. Gus, an outstanding member of the community and the proprietor of the Los Pollos Hermanos fast food chicken chain, is a brutal murderer and high-level drug lord. His restaurant is frequently used as a meeting place with associates. Places where families gather for fun, such as a rundown laser tag amusement center that corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) tries to get Walter to purchase for money laundering purposes, can be nests for corruption and vice. Not even the beauty and the expansiveness of the high desert country around Albuquerque is free from the corruption. Equipped in their RV, Walter and Jesse cooked meth in the country in the early episodes, a stark reminder of how widespread the drug’s reach can be.
The West has always been violent. It hasn’t really changed. It’s just that in the world of Breaking Bad, the outlaws sport pocket protectors and wear garish Ed Hardy shirts. In this new American Nightmare, no place and no one is spared its destruction.
Dave Bunting is the co-owner (with his sister and fellow Press Play contributor, Sarah D. Bunting) of King Killer Studios, a popular music rehearsal and performance space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He plays guitar and sings in his band, The Stink, and dabbles in photography, video editing, french press coffee, and real estate. Dave lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and sister.
Derek Hill is the author of Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood’s Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers (Kamera Books), a study of the films of Charlie Kaufman, Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and others. He is also a movie reviewer for the Athens, Georgia alternative newsweekly Flagpole, contributing editor/movie critic for the online arts journal Sinescope, and reviews books for Mystery Scene magazine.