Dave Bunting Jr.’s video essay on Season 3 of Breaking Bad opens with time-lapse landscapes, which are de rigueur establishing shots in TV these days. Here, though, they are uniquely awe-inspiring, in part for their exotic nature (most of us watching the show spend our lives in urban and suburban environments nowhere near mesas, plateaus, or even cacti), and in part for how they seem to breathe life into everything—from churning clouds, to rocks whose shapely silhouettes (even in their stillness) manage to suggest personalities, to cityscapes that pop colorfully to life as darkness descends upon them. Vince Gilligan & Co.’s ground-breaking TV series is filmed so as to be as suggestive—as potentially rich with meaning—as possible.
Breaking Bad’s extended shots also fuck with our sense of scale: The vehicles popping in and out of the gas station move with the speed and directness of hummingbirds or bees. Wendy the meth whore flits into and out of the frame like a fly. Contrast this with the extreme close-up of the actual fly that opens Season 3, Episode 10 (“Fly”), a close-up held long enough to give that creature the weight and ominous presence of a significant carrier of meaning. We expect flies to carry disease, of course, not meaning. But in Breaking Bad the two have been flattened together, a la William Burroughs’ statement that language = virus.
Season 3, Episode 1 (“No Mas”) starts with a frame filled with what feel like toxic-colored clouds, then a pan down to reveal a Mexican landscape, moon-like or possibly even post-apocalyptic in its apparent desolation. Things only get weirder—more “foreign”—as we begin to see first one older man, then several men and women of various ages crawling on their elbows and knees through the dusty streets of a remote village. The crawlers are soon joined by two men (revealed later to be “the cousins”) who wear similar deep mauve shirts, gray suits and cowboy boots with silver skull tips. Both men are bald and sport a hint of facial hair—a goatee or maybe (the bottom) half of a goatee.
This dialog-less opening unfolds for a full four minutes—an eternity in television time—as the cousins crawl their way to a shack filled with burning candles and other religious and pseudo-religious detritus, leaving an offering of money and lighting a candle of their own before silently praying to Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death. One of them tacks the object of their prayers to the wall: A crudely rendered but recognizable portrait of Walter White in hat, shades and moustache (the upper half of the full goatee he’ll sport this season). As the plot plays out, the cousins cross the U.S.-Mexico border in order to find and axe-murder Walter, whom they deem responsible for the death of one of their relatives, but are redirected by Gus and wind up seriously injuring Walter’s brother-in-law Hank.
Everything in Season 3 seems to pivot on acts of communication—on the successful or unsuccessful transference of meaning—right up to the final two minutes of episode 13 (“Full Measure”), when Gale’s cell phone begins buzzing frantically on a haphazard pile of CDs. It’s Mike, calling to warn Gale, who can’t hear it over Zhang Fan’s 1938 shidaiqu hit “Flying over the Court.” Because Gale misses Mike’s warning, he opens the front door, allowing Jesse to shoot him in the head before the screen goes black and the season-end credits roll.
It’s probably no accident that Season 3 begins and ends with these plot-propelling examples of foreign exotica. After all, the disease that sets all of Breaking Bad’s story into motion—lung cancer—is the result of exposure to foreign substance (in Walter’s case, most likely radon or asbestos, since he was never a smoker). And it is, in fact, “the foreign”—a fly—that sets Walter off on the most philosophical monologue of the series.
In Episode 10, after becoming deeply concerned when the meth yield isn’t, in his own words, “adding up,” Walter becomes first distracted by and finally obsessed with a fly that somehow gets into the sterile environment of the lab, threatening to contaminate his 99+% pure blue meth. After many hours and countless unsuccessful attempts (including the introduction of what Walter calls “positive pressure”) to kill the allusive insect, Walter reveals to Jesse that, on the night of Jane’s death, he had randomly met her father in a bar.
“The universe is random,” Walter says. “It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in an endless collision. That’s what science teaches us. But what is this saying? What is it telling us when, on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him?”
What Walter fails to confess is that he was at least in part responsible for Jane’s death—which is, of course, why he’s now agonizing over it—that, and the randomness of running into her father the same night. The universe, Walter says, is trying to tell him something—but, what? And what does it mean, what horrific truth is revealed, if and when things, finally, “add up”?
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.
One thought on “VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 3”
The best cinematography of all tv shows ever made!