Hollywood can keep its 3D, its CGI and whatever Dolby Surround version they’re up to now. For a contemporary cinematic experience as visceral and visually arresting as Breaking Bad, audiences must look abroad, to Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, or further, to films coming out of Thailand, Japan, and South Korea. As Dave Bunting and Derek Hill point out in their video essay and commentary on season 5.1, Vince Gilligan’s series puts U.S. cinema to shame, not just in terms of story, but in its execution: The direction, the dialogue, the acting, and—as is evident from the video essay above—the cinematography are, quite simply, of a higher order of intelligence. An intelligence that is extremely, at times obsessively, self-aware.
Regarding the cinematography: We all agree that Michael Slovis has as many visual tricks up his sleeve as Penn & Teller and that his palette is as rich and saturated as that of Henri Matisse. And few will argue with the assertion that the series’ visuals feel not like excess or icing, but integrally connected with the psychological states of the characters. But for me, the kick is about how the kind of semantic moves being made in episode after episode—in the cinematography, as in everything else—effortlessly reverberate meaning out in a number of directions all at once. Slovis is not just emphasizing mere character states. By constantly, at times relentlessly, making the audience aware of the camerawork—does a camera on the end of a shovel really underscore anyone’s character state?—he’s giving us clues to a whole layer of meta-meaning. Like the incendiary and morally conscious German playwright Bertolt Brecht (who shares initials with Breaking Bad), Slovis works to absorb and entertain us, even as he pushes us an arm’s length away.
Breaking Bad is a well-crafted, hyper-visceral Brechtian tragicomedy about the slow but sure descent into amorality of high school chemistry teacher-turned meth cook Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and the lives and relationships that are forever spavined, torn asunder or vanquished in his wake. Metaphorically speaking, it’s a relentless commentary on capitalism and capitalism’s life-blood, addiction.
But there are other, more poetic, at times troubling layers. Consider Walter White’s relationship with his product. Like the late Steve Jobs, White sees himself not simply as an entrepreneur, but as an innovator, an artist. His exquisitely cool blue meth (has anything so toxic ever looked quite so delicious?) is, laugh if you will, artisanal. He even has worshipful followers, most notably his temporary lab partner Gale Boetticher (David Costabile). White, in fact, is an artist, or at least has the temperament of one when he’s cooking. He is, to meth, what Breaking Bad’s creative team is to television.
That last connection is not something that I pulled out of my hat, but a connection the creators have made again and again, the longer this show has run. In the fourth episode of season four (“Bullet Points,” by writer Moira Walley-Beckett and director Colin Bucksey), they practically hand the connection to you in the most meta-rich installment to date. At the precise midpoint of this 44:30-long episode, White’s brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), shares Gale’s lab notebook with White, pausing to mull over the dedication: “TO W.W. MY STAR, MY PERFECT SILENCE.” Tension develops as we understand that “W.W.” refers to Walter White, who deflects suspicion by telling Schrader that it refers instead to Walt Whitman, whose poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” is quoted several pages earlier.
It’s a brilliant moment on several levels, in part because of the almost sick symmetry of it (you’ve basically got four Ws pivoting on the dead center midpoint of the episode), in part for the gently aggressive camera, which cuts from the notebook to White’s face, seemingly looming over the viewer, half in a subtle but clearly bluish shadow, half too dark to fully see.
Whitman and his poetry figure significantly in this television series, though no single poem is fully quoted—consider how differently Mad Men handled another American poet, Frank O’Hara, whose poem “Mayakovsky” Don Draper read the whole fourth section of, just before the closing credits of the first episode of Season 2. There, O’Hara briefly took center stage, though his poem had little to do with the whole series, other than to help underscore the emptiness of Draper’s soul.
In Breaking Bad, Whitman’s poem gets only a passing reference, but Whitman is integral to the mix, and not just because Schrader will finally, in the last episode of the first half of Season 5, make the connection between White and the blue meth via a copy of Leaves of Grass in the Whites’ bathroom. That episode, not coincidentally, shares its title, “Gliding Over All,” with another Whitman poem from Leaves of Grass, which ends “Death, many deaths I’ll sing.”
There is a reason Breaking Bad’s creative team has Walter White graduating from a moustache to a goatee, and it’s not just because cartoon images of Satan often have him sporting one. It’s because Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, wears one. (What is a W, visually, if not a double V?) I don’t mean to suggest that White is a stand-in for Gilligan, but that a connection is being made, however subtle, however subconsciously. Is it merely coincidence that every main character charged with the oversight, production, and/or distribution of meth has a first or last name that begins with either a G (Gale and Gus, played by Giancarlo Esposito) or some residue of V? Even Gus’s right hand man, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), whose initials spell “ME” and whose first name initial, M, is an inverted W, fits into this odd semantic play. The only person whose name does not prominently feature a G or a V (nesting in the form of a W or M), is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), the closest thing to an “innocent” in the whole crew, and a character that Gilligan has said was originally slated to be killed off by the close of season one.
This isn’t to conspiratorially imply that this was necessarily planned, or that we’re meant to parse this all out. I’m simply saying that, in the creative process, there are many things that just “feel right” when one hits on them—and that intelligent creators tend to include those things in their work. I’m also saying that there is a poetic quality to the way meaning is accrued and resonates throughout the series, much of which was planned, and some of which simply fell into place as the creators cooked.
The character Walter White’s poetic linking to the creative process couldn’t be made more clear than it is in Episode 4.4. After an opening scene involving a shootout that causes the liquid ingredients for meth to be spewed out all over a delivery truck’s floor, White’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is seen in bed, jotting down notes, trying to fall asleep, then sitting back up to jot down some more notes. She looks as if she is suddenly inspired. Poetically, subconsciously, we connect the image of the blue liquid pouring out of the plastic tubs to the creative juices now flowing through Skyler as she begins to construct an elaborate fiction about her meth-cooking husband being a gambling addict. The amount of research she has done on this, we see a few minutes later, appears to be extensive and no doubt resembles the research Gilligan and team did on meth and its production and distribution.
Another freaky bit of semantic symmetry: While prepping Walter on his story, Skyler makes a big deal about whether or not he’s going to “split the 8s”—which means one thing in the immediate context of blackjack, but consider it poetically: Splitting an 8 would result in two 4s, and here we are in Season 4, Episode 4, with a running time of exactly 44 and-a-half minutes from opening scene to blackout prior to credits.
When an exasperated Walter tells Skyler that he doesn’t need to know what he’s doing, as he’s in recovery and shouldn’t be called upon to talk extensively about his gambling system, Skyler brings out what appears to be a script, or what she describes as “bullet points.” For the next 10 minutes or so, the couple goes over the points—which include scripted dialog, blocking and suggestions for physical gestures—like actors familiarizing themselves with a script. The cinematography during this scene is practically invisible: the viewer simply has the sense of being there in the room with the couple. At one point, Skyler says something that could have been lifted right out of a development meeting for Breaking Bad: “We need this story to be solid, sympathetic and most of all completely believable.”
Armed with their story of Walter as successful gambler, the White family, with Walter, Jr. (R.J. Mitte) in tow, visits Hank and Marie (Betsy Brandt) Schrader. Early in the evening, Hank pulls out a DVD to show Walter and Walter, Jr.: It’s Gale, singing Peter Schilling’s English-language version of “Major Tom” in a Thai karaoke lounge. Though brief, there’s a ridiculous amount of semantic information packed in to this scene: Not only do we see, via the horrified reaction shot of Walter, the levels of remorse and fear he has in the wake of his having ordered Jesse to kill Gale, but the circumstances of Schilling’s song mesh nicely into the general meaning-universe of the show.
The relationship of Peter Schilling and “Major Tom” to David Bowie and Space Oddity foreshadows the later revelation of Gale’s homage to his creative superior, Walter. Further, its interstellar theme resonates with the Whitman poem Gale references as part of his homage. But, creepily, ghostly resonances of meaning go beyond even than that. Originally recorded in German (it made #1 on both the German and Austrian charts), “Major Tom” was rerecorded in English, where it went on to chart in Canada, Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. The Thai subtitles beneath Gale’s rendition hearken back to the song’s English status as translation. And, whether or not they were aware of it, Breaking Bad’s creators would certainly appreciate the original German version’s running time: 4:33. Not just because it slant-rhymes with the episode’s 44:30 running time, but because it shares an exact running time with the most notorious American composition of the late 20th century: John Cage’s 4’33”, which could easily be described as a kind of answer song, in its interrogation of silence, to Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer” and that poem’s last line, “Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
Is Breaking Bad, like Leaves of Grass, the great epic poem of our time? If not, it’s the closest thing television has ever given us.
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.
Gary Sullivan’s poetry and comics have been widely published and anthologized, in everything from Poetry Magazine and The Wall Street Journal to The Norton Anthology of Postmodern Poetry (2nd Edition, forthcoming). Everyone Has a Mouth, a selection of his translations of poetry by the Austrian schizophrenic Ernst Herbeck, was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. He lives in Astoria, Queens, where he maintains bodegapop.com, a music blog devoted to treasures found in immigrant-run bodegas in New York City.