VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 5.2

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 5.2

This video essay is a co-production of Press Play and RogerEbert.com.

Because
He Wanted To

The final episode of Breaking Bad was a tender goodbye. I’ve watched
the entire series with my heart firmly planted in my mouth, but watching the
last moments of Walt’s life, his look of contentment as he sees the gas mask he
used to wear when cooking, that smear of his blood on metal as he finally
collapses to the ground, felt gentle. The great Heisenberg went out with a sigh
of contentment, rather than a roar of pride.

For five seasons critics have debated just what about Breaking Bad
has captured the American zeitgeist. In some ways, the show is surely
emblematic of some pressing cultural concerns—the desperation of the working
class and the changing face of American masculinity, for example. But ultimately,
the heart of Breaking Bad is not a public service announcement about the
dangers of meth, the need for better health care or the importance of family. Breaking
Bad
is about existential terror. It’s about the choices we make when
confronted with death and the disintegration of our own very identity. It’s
about the limits of free will and the recognition that we have minimal control
over our own destiny.  And it’s about how we all push for some kind of a
high, even though we know everything we do eventually has an expiration date.

In the end, Walt is a hero and a villain in equal measure. The same Walt who
murders his enemies in cold blood is the one who ties his wedding ring to a
string around his neck when his fingers become too thin to wear it, just as the
same Walt who kidnaps Holly is the one who touches her tenderly in her crib in
a final farewell.

Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Walter
White rewrote his story in order to survive. In the final episode we see Walt
claiming this story, owning his responsibility in the chaotic landscape that
nourished and destroyed him. In the end, Walt’s relationships with the people
who meant the most to him were faded fragments from a time when Walt was living
a different story, a time when he truly believed that he was making moral
choices to protect the family he loved. Nowhere is this clearer than in the
final showdown, where Walt is forced to look at the life to which he condemned
his former friend and partner Jesse. Even after respect and trust are long gone
between Walt and Jesse, there always remains the weight of a sad, long dead
love.

I cried watching that last moment of Walt wandering around what, at this point
in his life, had become his natural habitat—a meth lab littered with bodies and
blood. Walt died very alone, in every sense of the word. His meticulously
planned out last hurrah to set things right was, certainly, a suicide mission.
In the final episode of the series we see Walt, who had always resisted death at
every turn, finally resign himself to it, even though, in true Heisenberg
fashion, he went out in his own terms.

The final episode of Breaking Bad gives the illusion of closure, as
if the entire world will fade away now that Heisenberg and Walter White are one
and gone. In reality, there were things that Walt did that will never be
healed. Walt was proud of letting Jane die and poisoning Brock, both decisions
which he felt were made out of necessity. But this same Walt was terribly
ashamed of his betrayals—leading Hank to his death and losing the love and
trust of his only son. Walt’s confession to Skyler, where he says he did it all
for himself, that he liked it, he was good at it and it made him feel alive,
betrays the weight of his tremendous guilt, but doesn’t necessarily give us the
whole truth to his story. In earlier episodes one can clearly see a man who is
struggling to make moral choices; somewhere along the way his motivations
changed. The difficulty in pinpointing that catalyst is what makes Breaking
Bad
great art and it is what makes this touching, quiet finale emotionally
wrenching.

For me, Walt’s guilt tempers those last moments of Breaking Bad,
where we see Heisenberg wandering about the meth lab—his reflection beaming
back at him, all stretched and misshapen. Walt’s tremendous pride in his
creation, his love for his “baby blue” is palpable in that moment, but so is
the image of his bloodied hand, tarnishing a space that requires cleanliness in
order to make a dirty product a signature product: it got close, but was never
100% pure.


To read a wonderful essay by Scott Eric Kaufman about the season finale at RogerEbert.com, click here:

http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/the-cinematography-of-breaking-bad-season-5-part-2

To watch the entire series on Press Play, go here:

http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/tag/dave-bunting-jr

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed three times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate
Book Reviews Editor at
The Nervous Breakdown.

Dave Bunting, Jr. 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.

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 1

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 1

This video essay is a co-production of Press Play and RogerEbert.com.

What is it about the desert?

Put more simply, what is it about the desert that simplifies
human conflicts, desires, and fears as represented in film and literature?

Think of Kobo Abe’s Woman
in the Dunes
, Paul Bowles’ The
Sheltering Sky
, Sam Shepard’s True
West
. Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Sergio Leone‘s Once Upon a TIme in the West.

Or, more relevantly to this discussion, Breaking Bad.

Put more specifically, what is it about the desert that, in
early episodes of this show, threatens to topple the narrative with the
sparseness of its scenery, with shots so dry you can practically taste the
sand?

It’s the emptiness.

The sense that there is nothing but the air between a
character and his problems, and that air is so thin it might as well not be
there.

The sense that a man, when faced with a problem, be it the
legality of his enterprise, death, the ineptitude of other humans, or all
three, might flail in the desert air, and find nothing giving resistance,
moving him forward.

The tedium of all of it. The difficulty.

But, at the same time, the profound importance of it.

There is also the way conversation sounds in the desert: the
way each sentence falls into silence, like a coin falling into a dry well.

We don’t hear the clink of the coin at the bottom of the
well, because it doesn’t have a bottom. Not on this show.

Another thing about the desert, particularly the New Mexico
desert, is that it dehydrates you. It sucks everything out of you. You come to
it with a set of complications, a set of morals, a set of daily worries, and
you find, in almost no time, that they’re all gone, lost in the cold night wind.

All that’s left is you, and the matter that brought you
here.

Another thing about the desert is that it’s where we all
started. (Depending on who you ask.)

Not in the desert, literally—but in the semblance of desert.
With nothing.

Nothing except, of course, that 800-pound elephant,
shimmering in the heat in front of you.

You can either stay where you are, and hope, until the sun
goes down, that the elephant goes away.

Or you can do something. And walk towards it.

And that moment, right there, that first step, is where your
troubles begin.

You think, If I can
just kill that elephant, all my problems will go away. I can leave. I can step
over its corpse, and head back to what I was doing before this.
 

But sadly,

and truthfully,

and unavoidably,

you think you’re walking out, but in reality, you’re just
walking farther in.–Max Winter

For a terrific essay by Nick Schager on the cinematography of Breaking Bad’s inaugural season, go here:

http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/cinematography-of-breaking-bad-season-1

To watch the video essay on Season 2, along with an interview with director of photography Michael Slovis, go here:

http://www.rogerebert.com/balder-and-dash/gliding-over-all-the-cinematography-of-breaking-bad-season…

To watch the entire series on Press Play, go here:

http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/tag/dave-bunting-jr

Dave Bunting, Jr. 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.

Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 3

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 3

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.

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 4

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 4

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.

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 5.1

VIDEO ESSAY: Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of BREAKING BAD, Season 5.1

Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 5.1 from Press Play Video Blog on Vimeo.

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.


null

nullnullnullnull

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.

BREAKING BAD RECAP 2: MADRIGAL

BREAKING BAD RECAP 2: MADRIGAL

The most striking aspect of tonight’s episode was our introduction to German mega-company Madrigal Elektromoteren (and, of course, the short-order introduction and elimination of suit Herr Schuler, who was clearly complicit in the late Mr. Fring’s meth empire, though we don’t quite know yet to what degree). The episode’s opening scene (below), with Herr Schuler absently munching chicken fingers as a scientist explains the money-saving formulas in their dipping sauces, seems absurd at first, until you think of the number of times Herr Schuler had to taste the “authentic” blend of spices for the meth-concealing Pollos Hermanos chicken recipe. Schuler is distracted, and we find out very quickly why: apparently, there are police here to see him, and more of them than last time, according to his assistant. Uh oh.

As Schuler makes his way toward his self-inflicted demise, we’re shown just how far-reaching the Madrigal empire is as he passes the backlit logos of fast-food chains such as Whiskerstay’s, Haau Chuen Wok, Burger Matic (hilariously abbreviated to “BM”), and Pollos Hermanos. (It’s also worth noting that these fast food chains are most likely just a fraction of Madrigal’s overall business; I would imagine a majority of what they produce relates to auto parts, judging from the “Elektromoteren” part of their name.) Schuler pauses to watch two workmen take down the Pollos sign, clearly wondering how such an innocuous-sounding fast food joint could have possibly led to his undoing. For us, one thing’s for sure: Hank’s excellent police work has traced a few of the superlab’s equipment pieces back to Madrigal, and Schuler is on borrowed time. As Schuler passes by his office, he watches one of the Polizei eyeballing a picture of himself and Gus Fring golfing in happier times, and decides this can’t be worth it. Gus must have seemed like such a sure thing. Well, until Walt came along.

Another large chunk of tonight’s show was dedicated to Jesse and Walt’s “search” for the ricin cigarette (below), the loss of which triggered their rift last season when Brock fell ill from an apparent poisoning. Jesse is obviously made distraught by its absence, but Walt can’t really explain to him why one of Saul’s goons lifted it from him without coming clean about the Lily of the Valley, so he gets to work not only hiding the actual ricin vial (it may come in handy again sometime, so he hides it in an electrical outlet; I’m sure that’s going to be important again soon), but also creating a dummy cigarette and helping Jesse discover it in his Roomba to give him some peace of mind (and I have to give it to the sound department here; every sound of Walt and Jesse rifling through the apartment during the montage has a rhythmic quality that syncs with the musical cue, adding to the scene’s urgency while also increasing the fun factor of watching). Executed with perfect Walter White-style conniving trickery, he even gets Jesse to cry from the guilt he feels for even thinking about shooting him last season, allowing Walt to slip right back into father figure mode, further bonding Jesse to him.  Of course, this also gives Walt the perfect opportunity: “What happened, happened for the best, you hear me?…Having each other’s back?  It’s what saved our lives. And I want you to think about that as we go forward.”  “Go forward where?”

It was also interesting to see Mike essentially forced into a position where he had to take Walt’s offer of partnership. Between Lydia’s high-strung desire to eliminate everyone even remotely connected to the Pollos empire and Hank’s discovery of the account in his granddaughter’s name, Mike doesn’t seem to have much choice. Of course, it’s helpful that Lydia still has some methlamine connections, otherwise there’d be no precursor, but her character (played by Laura Fraser) is far too high-strung and nervous (her “you’re really running me through my paces” line when she finds out that the roadside diner doesn’t have any tea other than Lipton’s was perfect) to be good news for the Heisenberg empire in the long run. She’s already sold Mike out to his own guys, and she’ll be sure to do whatever she can to protect herself and her little girl (and her amazing house, too). I suspect that that Mike’s decision to not kill her had something to do with her having a little girl. However, her ability to get methlamine, thus getting Walt’s operation back up and running, will allow Mike to keep earning money for his favorite little girl, as his old Fring account has, for all intents and purposes, gone bye-bye.  Still, though, she may have been able to hide behind the financial machinations of Madrigal’s support of Pollos’ not-so-little secret when Gus was still around, but without him, she’s an exposed nerve, and a very jumpy one at that. Not good for anyone, least of all Ol’ Mike.

Mike’s interaction with Hank and Gomez was fantastic, as well. At this point, most viewers have affinities with both characters (Hank and Mike, at least), so watching them interact with each other is always fun because it’s so hard to pick a side.  Hank is natural police, and he knows how to get under even Mike’s skin. But Mike, being the road-worn soldier that he is, has seen it all, even, apparently, from the law enforcement perspective, and it’s always a pleasure to watch Jonathan Banks play Mike’s eye-rolling resignation, even while realizing the money for which he’s taken a lot of crap is essentially gone. Of course, he saves his pissed face for when he’s walking out the door; as far as Hank and Gomey are concerned (at least, on the record), he’s cool as a cucumber, and only tangentially connected to Fring’s quickly-unraveling drug web.

And, as in Live Free or Die, this episode features yet another cringe-inducing scene with Walt and Skyler (below), in which Walt willfully ignores Skyler’s paralyzed fear in order to feign intimacy with her. She doesn’t say a single word as he prattles on about dinner and how “it gets easier,” and then proceeds to kiss and grope her as she clutches her pillow so tightly it looks like it might disintegrate. “When we do what we do for good reasons, then we’ve got nothing to worry about,” Walt waxes, kissing Skyler’s neck. “And there’s no better reason than family.”  This is no longer Walter White trying to get himself out of the dog house. This is Heisenberg. This is Heisenberg’s house, and he has just found out that Mike is back in, and that the Southwestern meth trade is his for the running, and he doesn’t need to justify anything to anyone. This is Heisenberg telling his wife how it is, and how it’s going to be from now on; that there’s nothing to worry about, there’s no monster under the bed . . . at least no monster that could compare to the one that roams this house.

But, we all know things are going to change, and Walt’s overconfidence will surely play a large part in his eventual undoing. If the M60 he receives on his 52nd birthday is any indication, his current attitude is going to result in Walt finally digging a hole for himself that he can’t undig, and there will be lots of needless bloodshed. 

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.

BREAKING BAD RECAP 1: LIVE FREE OR DIE

BREAKING BAD RECAP 1: LIVE FREE OR DIE

In the months since Breaking Bad's explosive season 4 finale, and Walt's certainly premature declaration of victory, we've had a long time to ponder what exactly he meant by saying, "I won."  Sure, he had won the most obvious victory in outsmarting Gus Fring, who, at least with Mike as his right hand, had mostly been able to stay a few steps ahead of the erratic and unpredictable Heisenberg (well, except for the whole Gale thing). But really, what Walt thinks he has won is his own freedom: freedom from the inconveniences that having a boss like Gus Fring brought; freedom to do things his own way; freedom to be the Southwest's real meth kingpin. We've been passing through the looking glass of Walt's need to cook meth to support his family after his presupposed demise from cancer for a few seasons now; it's obvious this guy has found something he's not only good at, but truly enjoys, except for (or more likely because of) all of the inevitable drama, chaos, and destruction he leaves in his wake as a result. And all of this havoc is completely worth it to him as long as he finally gets to be "the man" at something.

nullBut in the drug game, being "the man" is like having a target on your back, and Walt will realize soon enough that his problems have most likely been more augmented by Fring's murder than solved by it. In fact, below, in a callback to Season Two's predictive pre-credit scenes, we see a Walt with a full head of hair distractedly chit-chatting with a Denny's waitress, while nervously checking over his shoulder every few seconds. Breaking Bad’s signature sense of dread is almost overbearing (just watching the scene made me feel like I was about to have a panic attack), and as soon as we see that Walt is actually there to meet Lawson (his black market dealer for all things sidearm-related, played perfectly with cautious resignation ["Good luck, I guess."] by Deadwood's Jim Beaver), we know things can't be going as swimmingly as Walt thought they would when he said, "I won." When Walt uncovers the M60 machine gun Lawson has dropped off for him, it's obvious that something has gone severely pear-shaped.

There could be a few causes of such nastiness, knowing what we know now. Perhaps Hank has finally uncovered his brother-in-law's secret life as Heisenberg, and Walt is preparing for an all-out battle with the DEA. Perhaps the German conglomerate that was funding Fring's operation through the back door is more than a little annoyed that Gus has died, and has come to collect on their lost revenues. There is really no way to predict what Walt will have to defend himself against in the future, given writer Vince Gilligan's propensity for throwing viewers for a loop with left field plot twists. But, whatever has Walt packing such heavy heat is definitely formidable, and watching Walt dig himself deeper into whatever hole he's in will no doubt be equal parts terrifying, hilarious, and beautiful.  

For now, Walt is on top of the world. The drug trade in town has been decentralized, and is just waiting for someone to step into power ("There is gold in the streets, just waiting for someone to come and scoop it up.") His cancer's been in remission for some time, Gus can't kill him, and as much as Mike might want to put a bullet squarely between Mr. White's eyes, he can't until one last issue remaining from Fring's empire (the laptop containing all of the super lab video surveillance) is taken care of. In dealing with the issue, Walt buys himself enough time for Mike to consider joining Walt and Jesse in their proposed partnership. Mike clearly wants nothing to do with Walt; he hasn't ever, really. But the way he sees it, if he doesn't help clear up the hard drive issue, he's equally as "boned" as Jesse and Walt; naturally, in taking part, he inadvertently will be screwing himself somehow. Mike even tries to tell Jesse to take the money he's made and "skip town, today," knowing full well this White guy is rotten. But Mike's already in too deep, and it is not going to end well for him, especially if Gus's broken picture frame has anything to do with it, and I'm sure it will.

Walt's proclivity for self-destruction is exemplified perfectly in the electromagnet scene (posted below), when he (of course) decides to crank the amperage to maximize the likelihood that the hard drive will get wiped, making the box truck topple into the evidence building and putting Jesse and himself directly in danger. Of course, with Mike around, they're able to get away unscathed (for now), and Walt's new level of hubris makes itself painfully apparent when Mike asks how they can be sure the plan worked: "Because I say so." This isn't Walt saying something like this to pump himself up and convince himself it's true (a la "I am the one who knocks."); Cranston's delivery is almost flippant, making it clear that when Walter White is truly comfortable with the level of power he now has, he doesn't need gravelly-voiced machismo to sell it. He seems amused, which is far more terrifying than he ever was before Gus's death. Walt doesn't have to fake it 'til he makes it: he has arrived.

And of course, there's Ted Beneke to consider. I suppose I should have known that without seeing a body in a coffin that then closes and goes into the ground in one shot, there's no guarantee of a character's death on any television show, but I was quite sure that Ted had gone the way of Lindus from Terriers. It seems as though I was incorrect, and Gilligan and Co. aren't quite done with Ted. I'm certainly curious about this decision; perhaps Beneke, despite claiming that he's going to keep his mouth shut, could be the guy to unravel Walt's meth business, intentionally or not, directly or not. It's more likely that Walt, now knowing what he does about the situation, is going to give Ted the dirt nap I suspected he was taking all along, and in doing so yet again leaving more problems to be solved.

Finally, Anna Gunn's portrayal of Skyler has made a subtle but significant shift. We have grown accustomed to seeing Skyler act by turns distant, skeptical, spiteful and angry with Walt, at times unrelentingly (and perhaps cruelly) so. But Walt's new freedom seems to have come at the cost of Skyler's. In Gunn’s spot-on portrayal, Skyler now acts like an abused animal, trapped in a cage partially of her own making, with no escape possible. She slinks around, defeated, and speaks to Walt only when spoken to. Her knowledge of Walt's hand in Gus's death has shaken her to her core, but not as much as the knowledge that she essentially drove Walt to it by giving all of their potential escape money to Ted. Skyler hasn't always been the most sympathetic character, and her involvement with Beneke's cooked books has essentially brought the White family back to square one, financially. But now it seems she has broken under the combination of her psychic guilt at her own complicity and her fear of the husband she thought she knew until recently. Gunn’s performance stands out painfully against Cranston's portrayal of Walt’s overconfidence and obliviousness to Skyler's fragile mental state. In the scene below, Walt tells Skyler he forgives her for the Ted situation, replaying a familiar trope: Walt needs to use Skyler as an emotional punching bag, because if he has nobody to demonize, he's forced to look inward and come to grips with the monster he's created in himself. The hug at the end is so unnatural, I could barely watch. Barely.

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.

VIDEO: The Story of BREAKING BAD, As Told by The Cousins

VIDEO: The Story of BREAKING BAD, As Told by The Cousins

[Editor's note: Tuco Salamanca's twin cousins Marco and Leonel were among the most fascinating characters on Breaking Bad. Stoic, menacing and quietly murderous, they were quickly established as a force to be reckoned with. We wondered: If we were to reorder each of their scenes from Breaking Bad's third season into a chronology, would their story be as compelling? Would it be different entirely? Could we glean greater insight into these two men?

We asked Press Play contributor Dave Bunting, Jr. to edit these scenes together (in addition to the prologues of all four seasons to create two self-contained Breaking Bad episodes, one covering Seasons 1 and 2, the other covering Seasons 3 and 4.) He arranged all of The Cousins' material in chronological order except for a late-season flashback to their childhood, which he placed at the start. Then we asked another Press Play contributor, Sheila O'Malley — who has never seen a frame of the series — to watch the compilation and write down her impressions. Sheila was asked not to read any supplementary material before or during the experiment, and she agreed. Her written account of The Cousins is derived entirely from having watched Dave's compilations. Shorn of everything but its openings, was Breaking Bad still Breaking Bad? Read on and see.]

The two boys were inseparable growing up.  They were twins, and although they fought on occasion, there was a special unbreakable bond between them at all times.  Words were rarely necessary.  They would just look at each other and know what the other one was thinking.  It was a psychological and intellectual bond, bordering on the spiritual.  It is a profound thing to not need words.  Nobody else could enter their cyclical closed bond.  That was okay by them.  As long as they had each other, they didn't need anyone else.

There is always a moment in life when your character is determined.  It usually happens early.  And character can mean destiny.  All else follows from that one moment; it is as though it was written in the stars.

nullSomething happened when they were young that was crucial to the development of their characters as men.  They were about 10 years old, and playing in the yard, as their uncle looked on, talking on a giant phone the size of a computer modem.  Their uncle was a bigwig in the family drug cartel, a behemoth with many tentacles, reaching into the United States.  He was running his business from a lawn chair, as the boys played and taunted one another.  To the boys, their lives were normal, of course.  They didn't know that their lives were any different than anyone else's.  One boy takes the other's G.I. Joe doll and holds it just out of reach, taunting his brother until his brother breaks into tears, shouting, "I wish you were dead!"  This innocent comment gets the uncle's attention.  He calls both boys over, taking in the situation wordlessly and then asks the boy who had taunted his brother to get him a beer out of the bucket of melting ice beside his chair.  The little boy reaches in, grabs a beer and holds it out but the uncle rejects it, telling him to get him one that is really cold.  Leaning over the bucket, reaching in deeper, the little boy is caught unaware when the uncle swiftly pushes his head beneath the water.  A struggle ensues.  The uncle remains imperturbable, and asks the boy standing in front of him, "This is what you wanted, right?"  The panic of the boy being held under the water intensifies, and his brother, desperate, starts hitting his uncle ferociously.  Just before the submerged boy would have drowned, the uncle lets him go, and the boys huddle together by the bucket.  The uncle stares down at the boys and says, "Family is all."

In that moment is the destiny of these beautiful boys.  It would be a scar, of course.  Their uncle was willing to kill one of them to teach them both a lesson.  They would never feel the same way about him again.  However, the lesson was learned.  Family is all, and to wish death upon a family member is forbidden.  In the ensuing years, as they grew older, they mind-melded to such a degree that they became one larger impenetrable entity.  They were not two individuals.  They had coalesced into a terrifying Third.

nullAs teenagers, they began working for the family business.  While their uncle was a negotiator, the twins were the muscle.  They killed enemies of the family with a breathtaking swiftness.  They were perfectly suited, emotionally, for the job.  They didn't experience an adrenaline rush like normal people in the face of danger.  On the contrary, when faced with a dangerous situation, their blood pressure lowered.  They were able to be very still.  They had patience, they could wait.  They had a deep coiled core of rage inside them, but their faces remained placid and flat.  They liked to kill people with axes.  Sure, you could shoot someone, but it wasn't as satisfying.  They felt nothing as they chopped off the head of a man in the back room of a bar.  He screamed, of course, but that didn't matter.  They all scream.

Genetics had favored the boys with beautiful movie-star good looks.  They both shaved their heads.  They preferred to dress in silk suits, monochromatic and flashy. Maybe they had seen some <i>Miami Vice</i> episodes as kids.  They were vain.  They were constantly having to change clothes, due to the blood splatter of their victims, and they were always on the lookout for a clothesline.  They wore stunning custom-made cowboy boots, with an upturned lip featuring a leering skull.  It was their trademark.

By the time they reached adulthood, the boys had settled into a routine, and had no need for language at all anymore.  Their movements remained calculated and yet almost casual.  Normal people experience tension from time to time, especially in stressful situations.  The twins rarely betray tension.  Indeed, they rarely experience tension at all.  Instead, what they seem to experience, on almost a cellular level, is that there is unfinished business out there, and they will not rest until the scales have been righted.

nullAfter their cousin Tuco is betrayed by some meth guy in Albuquerque named "Walter White", the twins know what they have to do.  They move forward inexorably, getting closer and closer to their target.  In a makeshift shrine devoted to death and their enemies, they place a sketch of "Walter White" beside a skull.  Gleaming in their silver suits, they stare at the sketch, glance at one another, and then stare back.  They have him in their sights, like a hungry lion spotting a lame antelope, and waiting, patiently, until the time is right to pounce.

Occasionally, regular people have interactions with the twins.  And, without fail, the regular person will make eye contact, and immediately sense that something is "off", and draw back in confusion and revulsion.  The twins are used to social rejection on that level.  They know they aren't like other people.  They wouldn't want to be like other people, screaming and whining just before death, and laughing about stupid things, and talking about nothing.  Regular people are so undignified.  They are bored by everything.

Their difference is acknowledged by the cartel representative himself during a negotiating moment with a meth supplier in the Albuquerque area.  The cartel has come to the supplier to explain that the twins need to exact revenge for the betrayal of their cousin.  The supplier politely says that he needs Walter White alive, he is working with the man and White is crucial to his business.  Pulling the supplier aside, the cartel rep says, "I totally understand.  But you have to understand that the boys might not be able to wait."  He then says, pausing, as he tries to find the words, "These boys …. are not like you and I."

Even hardened criminals recognize that these boys are different.

In their pursuit of Walter White, they remain unflappable.  One day, they walk into White's house, holding their favorite axe, polished to a highly reflective gleam.  White is singing in the shower.  The boys, betraying no nervousness that they are in someone else's house, stroll casually through the rooms, checking out the pictures on the fridge, glancing at one another for eloquent moments of silent conversation.  They sit on the bed, waiting for Walter to come out.  Their faces are the blank faces of a cobra, just before it strikes.  All the energy and desire inside of them has poured itself into a tiny container, with no escape valve until the axe falls.  At the last minute, they are called off the job by an urgent text from the cartel, and, with White just emerging from the shower, the twins get up and leave the house.

They have been told that Walter White is off limits.  This is one of the only times that their beautiful faces betray any emotion.  They look stopped up with annoyance, but more than annoyance, they are truly baffled that someone has the balls to say "No" to them.  It does not compute.  Their brains are set up on a very simple wiring system, and their impulses flow naturally from thought and vice versa.  There is no need to analyze any of it.  When there is unfinished business, you handle it.

nullThe meth supplier, realizing that he is in a world of trouble by saying "No" to the twins, sets up a private meeting with them in a vacant field outside of town.  He acknowledges their family feeling and he acknowledges their need for revenge, but Walter White needs to stay alive.  However, he must remind the twins that Walter White did not actually pull the trigger on the gun that killed their cousin.  That job was done by White's brother-in-law, who was a DEA agent.  One of the twins says, "We were told the DEA was off-limits."  It is rare to hear either of them speak.  The meth supplier assures them that this is his territory, and he calls the shots here.  Go kill the DEA agent if that is what you need to do.

The scene ends with the supplier saying to them, realizing that he is in the presence of something completely "other" and not altogether human, "I hope his death will be satisfying to you."

In the shootout that follows, things do not go according to plan.  They stalk the DEA agent to his car in the parking lot of a mall.  The DEA agent has been tipped off by an anonymous phone call that two people are coming to kill him right now, he has 5 minutes left.  While the DEA agent looks around the parking lot, palpably terrified, he sees nothing.  Until, from out of nowhere, in gleaming silver and white suits, the twins appear.  One shoots through the window.  The DEA agent has been shot but still puts the car in reverse and slams on the gas, crushing one of the twins between his car and the one behind him.  The DEA agent crawls out of his vehicle, and the crushed twin is released, falling to the pavement.

Here we finally see how character is destiny.  The uninjured twin, thrown off his game for the first time, runs to his fallen brother.  It is already inconceivable to him how he will live without the other. It's not just that he is a half-person without his brother.  He is nothing at all, and will implode completely.  The fallen brother, in agony, says up to his twin, "Finish him."

It is the final request of the only person he has ever loved, and is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the uncle many years before when they were boys on that fateful day.  "Family is all."

And while he may finish off the DEA agent, for the first time he is rattled enough to make an error, a deadly mental error.  The person finished off here will be him.

Sheila O'Malley is a film critic for Capital New York. She blogs about film, television, theater, music, literature and pretty much everything else at The Sheila Variations.

Dave Bunting, Jr. is a writer, musician and audio engineer, and a frequent narrator of videos for Press Play, The L Magazine and TomatoNation.

VIDEO: The story of BREAKING BAD, as told by its opening scenes, seasons 3 & 4

VIDEO: The story of BREAKING BAD, as told by its opening scenes, seasons 3 & 4

[Editor's note: The Press Play Breaking Bad intro compilation for season 3 is here. The season 4 compilation can be found here. Each episode of AMC's drama Breaking Bad starts with a prologue or teaser. Some of these advance the season's ongoing plot. Others feel like self-contained, at times experimental short films. We wondered: If you strung all of the opening scenes from the various seasons together in chronological order, would the show's basic narrative make sense? And, if people who had never watched Breaking Bad watched only these curtain-raisers, would they come away with a more or less accurate impression of the show? Or would it seem like a different program entirely? We asked Press Play contributor Dave Bunting, Jr. to edit the prologues together in chronological order to create two self-contained Breaking Bad movies, one covering Seasons 1 and 2, the other covering Seasons 3 and 4. Then we asked another Press Play contributor, Sheila O'Malley — who has never seen a frame of the series — to watch the two compilations and write down her impressions. Sheila was asked not to read any supplementary material before or during the experiment, and she agreed. Her written account is derived entirely from having watched Dave's compilations. Shorn of everything but its openings, was Breaking Bad still Breaking Bad? Read on and see. If you want to see exactly what Sheila saw, the prologues for Season 3 and 4 are embedded above.]

nullSeason 3 opens with a surreal scene of a group of people crawling in the dirt through a rustic Mexican village.  It seems that some well-known ritual is taking place.  Nobody seems too surprised at the sight.  A gleaming car pulls up and two men get out.  They are bald, handsome, and dressed in immaculate suits.  They are also identical twins.  Without hesitation, they join the ritual, lying down in the dirt, despite their silk suits, and crawling along with the others.  The destination is a run-down shack which has been built into some kind of shrine.  Inside there are lit candles with dripping wax and bouquets and skulls draped in beads.  The men in suits pin a picture up on the wall.  It is a sketch of the chemistry teacher.  Wherever we are in this opening scene is far from the sun-blasted streets of Albuquerque (the stomping grounds of the chemistry teacher), but it is clear that his fearsome influence is spreading.

Delving more and more into the backend machinations on the Mexican side of the border, Seasons 3 and 4 feature Mexican drug dealers, drug lords and drug runners, all far removed from the American scene, and yet connected by an unbreakable thread.  The identical twins have targeted some of their main competition in New Mexico, and the shrine is devoted to keeping track of those targets.  Not only is a sketch of the chemistry teacher up on the wall, but a photograph of the chemistry teacher's brother-in-law (who also happens to be a DEA agent) is added to the mix.  Both characters experience attempts on their lives over the course of the two seasons.  The situation is no longer local.  Mexico is coming in, and hard, the tentacles of the drug war proliferating.

Jumping around in time, we see how the chemistry teacher got hooked up with the young man whom we have come to know as his partner in the first two seasons.  In his time teaching chemistry in high school, the young man was one of his students.  As they begin to set up their partnership, the chemistry teacher orders the kid to buy an RV, which will be essential to setting up a private meth lab, as well as transporting the drugs.  The young man, who is clearly undeveloped as an adult, promptly goes to a strip club and spends almost all of it on strippers and Dom Perignon.  A friend of his, the drug dealer in the white track suit whom we saw murdered by the child on the bicycle in an earlier season, hooks him up with an RV (illegally, of course).

nullThis young man lives in isolation in a ratty room, spending most of his time playing violent video games, imagining his real-life enemies before him.  He dates a pretty young woman, who takes him to a Georgia O'Keefe exhibit.  He is singularly unimpressed, staring at one of O'Keefe's famous flower paintings and declaring,  "That doesn't look like any vagina I ever saw." In the car afterwards, they talk about art, and repetition, and she tries to tell him what he is missing in his interpretaion of O'Keefe's work. In this scene he is almost fresh-faced.  He kisses her gently.  You really see how far this kid has fallen when you consider that in most other scenes he is either jacked up on meth, buying gas he can't pay for and then trading drugs with the cashier to pay for it, or beaten almost beyond recognition.  There is a slow steady progression into hell with this character, and leaping around in time nails that point home.

We see the frightening poker-faced identical twins in flashback, two little boys playing in the yard, while their uncle looks on.  In a terrifying scene, the uncle pushes one of the boy's heads underneath the water in a bucket of beer beside him.  It is to teach his nephews a lesson.  The little boy almost drowns.  As the two boys crouch together staring up at their uncle, it is clear why they would grow up to be the demonic straight-faced killers that they become.
Out in the desert, the twins commandeer an isolated house, murdering the resident, and setting up shop, casually hanging out their clothes to dry.  A cop shows up to check on the resident who hasn't been seen in a long time, and they murder him too, hacking him to death with an axe.  The twins are moving closer every day, closer to their targets on the shrine wall.
nullSeasons 3 and 4 also deal heavily with the chemistry aspect of meth production (which is a propos seeing as how the opening credits sequence features a periodic table), as well as the ins and outs of running a successful drug dealing business.  A local Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque called Los Pollos Hermanos is a front, and freezer trucks filled with crystals hurtle across the desert, with armed men crouched in the back, their breath showing in the cold darkness.  Often these trucks are stopped by rival drug-dealers.  Multiple shoot-outs occur.  We also see the creation of the meth itself, characters in white suits and gloves moving the gleaming blue crystals along, bagging them up.  Later, we learn that this particular brand of meth is 99% pure, and industry-standard appears to be around 96%.  Others wonder what the secret is, how this meth can be so pure, and how it is done.  That 3% gap in quality serves to "up" other people's games.

The chemistry teacher finds himself deeper and deeper in the netherworld of crime and danger, separating from his wife and child even further.  His brother-in-law is shot by one of the Mexican twins, fulfilling the prophecy on the shrine's wall.  Both twins are killed by police in the aftermath.  The DEA teams up with the FBI and local homicide detectives, and so the chemistry teacher knows that his time is nearly up.  He meets with a gun seller and buys a gun with the serial number scraped off.  He knows how bad it will be if he is caught with such an illegal weapon, but he needs the protection.  Alongside of these scenes, we see him in flashback househunting with his pregnant wife, looking forward to a better and more aspirational future, even though he already has the cancer that is slowly killing him.

nullBut the chemistry teacher has been living in two worlds for too long. As Season 4 progresses, that separation becomes harder and harder to maintain

Breaking Bad has multiple visual references to John Ford's The Searchers, with its famous opening and closing shots of dark interiors with doors opening onto colorful desert vistas.  This has to be a deliberate choice, since those shots are so famous, and they are used so often here.  The Searchers is a story not only about a man's desire for revenge, but also racism and the deadly culture clash that existed in the old frontier West.  We may think we have moved on past those days, we may pride ourselves on being more civilized and enlightened.  But Breaking Bad, with its consistent nod to The Searchers in those visual cues, is a reminder that the same tensions exist.  The frontier in America is as wild and lawless as ever, and there is the same stark separation between darkness and light.


Sheila O'Malley is a film critic for Capital New York. She blogs about film, television, theater, music, literature and pretty much everything else at The Sheila Variations.

Dave Bunting, Jr. is a writer, musician and audio engineer, and a frequent narrator of videos for Press Play, The L Magazine and TomatoNation.

VIDEO: The story of BREAKING BAD, as told by its opening scenes

VIDEO: The story of BREAKING BAD, as told by its opening scenes


[Editor's note: Each episode of AMC's drama Breaking Bad starts with a prologue or teaser. Some of these advance the season's ongoing plot. Others feel like self-contained, at times experimental short films. We wondered: If you strung all of the opening scenes from the various seasons together in chronological order, would the show's basic narrative make sense? And, if people who had never watched Breaking Bad watched only these curtain-raisers, would they come away with a more or less accurate impression of the show? Or would it seem like a different program entirely? We asked Press Play contributor Dave Bunting, Jr. to edit the prologues together in chronological order to create two self-contained Breaking Bad movies, one covering Seasons 1 and 2, the other covering 3 and 4. Then we asked another Press Play contributor, Sheila O'Malley — who has never seen a frame of the series — to watch the two compilations and write down her impressions. Sheila was asked not to read any supplementary material before or during the experiment, and she agreed. Her written account is derived entirely from having watched Dave's compilations. Shorn of everything but its openings, was Breaking Bad still Breaking Bad? Read on and see. If you want to watch exactly what Sheila saw, the prologues for Season 1 and 2 are embedded above.]

Albuquerque has a huge meth problem.  Meth labs blow up in the desert, in the suburbs, in the center of urban areas. High schools are broken into, chemistry labs ransacked.  The situation has gotten so extreme that an FBI task force has been assigned to investigate.  They argue over what to call their investigation.  "Operation Icebreaker." "But isn't that a breath mint?"  There are two Mexicans of the criminal class who have vanished, and it is thought that their disappearance has something to do with the Albuquerque meth war.  The meth found at the various crime scenes is purer than anything before seen in the area, so it is clear there are "new players in town".  The FBI is determined to find out who they are.

Breaking Bad is told in a non-linear, non-chronological fashion.  Season 1 opens with a climax. The rest of the series is told in flashback.  An RV barrels through the desert at breakneck speed, being driven by a man wearing a gas mask.  Is he fleeing from a nuclear event?  Is he some sort of ecological terrorist?  He is so panicked he loses control of the RV.  There are dead bodies in the back of the RV.  His passenger has been knocked out by the crash, head smashed against the dashboard.  The man tosses the gas mask into the dirt, and stands in his underwear beside the crashed RV, recording a farewell message on a flip-cam to his wife and child at home.  The sound of sirens fill the air, and he walks up to the road, gun drawn, ready to meet his pursuers.

The series is devoted to showing us how this man got to that desperate point.  It leaps around in time.

There are multiple characters whom we follow and track.
nullFirst we have gas mask man, who is a chemistry teacher, on medical leave due to his fight with cancer.  It is clear that he is living a double life.  His wife, Skyler, appears to have no idea that he is also a Drug Lord running a meth lab out of a battered RV.  They visit the oncologist.  The prognosis does not look good.  He is very ill, balding and thin (although he has a full head of hair in the first scene with the getaway RV).   The FBI calls a meeting of the school board to discuss the recent theft of chemistry equipment. The teacher gets a round of applause because he is so ill and yet has the commitment to show up at the meeting.  Little do they all know that he was the one behind the ransacking of the chem lab in the first place.  He spends the meeting distracted, silent, and putting his hand between his wife's legs under the table.

He partners up with a young kid who used to be one of the main meth dealers in town.  The kid has been trying to go straight. We first see him applying for a job at a local business, gleaming-eyed with ambition that he "would make a great salesman".  Unfortunately, without experience or a college education the best he can hope for is to put on a silly costume and stand on the sidewalk as a walking ad.  He thinks this is beneath him and storms out.  Meanwhile, he can't walk down the street without former customers coming up to him asking him if he has anything he wants to sell.  He deals with some pretty unsavory characters and is finally roped into business with the chemistry teacher who informs him ferociously that this will be an unequal partnership:  If anything bad goes down, then they do not know each other.  "I want no interaction with the customers whatsoever," he says. In a quick cut, he is then seen emerging from an exploded building, blood pouring from his nose, carrying a bloodstained bag. The two of them wander the desert, burying a gun, and hitching a ride with a passing truck.

nullWe also see them back in the crashed RV in the desert, staring at the dead bodies in the back, one of which, horrifyingly, starts to move and moan.  Flashing back, we see the two of them in a house, wearing gas masks, cleaning up after a brutal murder, body parts blown apart, flushing the meaty pieces down the toilet.  They choke and gag at what they are doing.  These two bodies are the missing Mexicans we've seen earlier, swimming across a muddy river.

The chemistry teacher gets sicker and begins to lose his grip.  He is found standing stark-naked in a crowded convenience store. He misses the birth of his baby because he is in the middle of a crisis situation with his meth business.  He tells his wife he was stuck in traffic.  A neighbor had driven her to the hospital.  The chemistry teacher fears that she is having an affair with the neighbor, and judging from the tender way she kisses the neighbor goodbye in the hospital, it seems that his fears are not unfounded.

The drug war in Albuquerque is shown in various innovative ways, an ongoing and creative theme the series revisits again and again.

There's a veritable music video, with three Mexican singers standing out in the desert, in flashy jackets, playing guitars, and singing about the new Gringo drug lord in town.  "Now New Mexico is living up to its name …” they croon in Spanish.

In a cliffhanger of a scene, a rival drug lord, in a white track suit, is murdered by a 10-year-old kid on a bicycle.

nullA meth lab has blown up in a nice suburban home with a swimming pool.  A charred pink teddy bear, with one missing eyeball, floats in the pool, before being lifted out by a looming figure in a Hazmat suit.  Evidence is bagged and lined up on the concrete.  There are two body bags in the driveway.  These are recurring dreamlike images, filmed entirely in black and white, except for the teddy bear, which blazes in pink against the monochromatic background.  The bear is shown floating through the water, one side completely burnt from the explosion.  This scene is shown repeatedly throughout the series and takes on an increasingly haunting aspect with each insistent repetition.  The floating lone eyeball peers up through the water into the blazing light of day before being sucked into the bowels of the pool.

Everyone in the series is working with just one eyeball.  Nobody can see the whole picture.


Sheila O'Malley is a film critic for Capital New York. She blogs about film, television, theater, music, literature and pretty much everything else at The Sheila Variations.

Dave Bunting, Jr. is a writer, musician and audio engineer, and a frequent narrator of videos for Press Play, The L Magazine and TomatoNation.