I’ve just now finally caught up with Breaking Bad, which I just started watching last week.** Amazing how a show about meth has the same effect on its viewers as its subject does on its victims. But as I start to catch up on the years of episode breakdowns and critical analyses, I can’t help but be a little annoyed by the repeated claim about the show’s “realism.” Joe Kugelmass wrote about this vis-a-vis The Wire, and though I can’t seem to find the post, I want to give credit where it’s due, because I’m no Zakaria. Joe’s point, in brief, is that people always claim that The Wire is a realistic portrayal of the tangled mess of conflicting interests that is the great city of Baltimore, except that isn’t realistic in the least. Consider one of the infamous “Omar’s coming!” scenes: it’s a classic Western sequence whose sole post-modern twist is that it’s a shoot-out within a shoot-out. I’m not saying it’s not clever or well-executed, only that it’s highly stylized, i.e. not realistic and not attempting to be so.
Breaking Bad is equally unrealistic, except unlike The Wire, whose overarching narrative does actually embrace a realistic ethos, Breaking Bad is a thoroughly naturalist narrative. What do I mean by “naturalist”? Even I’m not entirely sure. But a decent (if stripped) working definition might be that a naturalist work is any in which a person’s character is determined by the restrictions of the social environment in which it operates. No matter what its author claims a naturalist narrative isn’t a realistic project: it’s a thought experiment that amounts to “If I place Person A into Environment B how will he or she react?” It may aim for realism but its logic is beholden only to itself. (Which is why naturalist novels often begin with a dentist winning a lottery ticket but end with a man handcuffed to a corpse in Death Valley.) Breaking Bad clearly fits into this tradition.
A high school chemistry teacher learns he has cancer. He can’t afford to pay for the treatment. What will he do? He’ll make meth. How will inserting a tidy high school teacher into the seedy world of meth production and dealing change this man’s character? The show’s spent five seasons answering that question, and the answer, as is always the case with naturalist narratives, is astoundingly unpleasant. If you win the lottery, you kill your wife before dying alone in the desert cuffed to a stranger. If you win the cancer lottery, you can’t afford treatment and estrange your wife such that she’s counting down the days until your cancer can mount a comeback. In short:
There is no good here. But there’s no realism either. Naturalist narratives are necessarily and aggressively pessimistic. When presented with a choice between a creating a disturbing tableau and presenting the likely consequences of a particular course of actions, naturalist narratives opt for:
Without giving away too much game, that’s an image of a man who’s just had half his brain blown into a cavity and he’s fixing his tie. Is he about to die? Of course he is. The life expectancy of people in his situation is dire beyond the telling. But it’s a powerful image of a man who risked everything with composure and is determined to die as subdued and dignified as he lived. Can a man actually take a pipe-bomb to the face and ablute himself? Of course not. Then why do people insist that Breaking Bad is a realistic portrayal of the perils of the methamphetamine trade? Because of scenes like what I’ll call “The Story of Jesse and the Beans.”
You’ll remember that I praised Louie for its commitment to the two shot. The two shot is one that has two people in the frame. (Can you guess what a three shot is?) The purpose of a two shot is create a connection between the characters through the process of accumulation. If you include two subjects in the same frame for an inordinate amount of screen-time the audience will consider them partnered regardless of whatever their actual relationship is. Playing against this instinct is why Bergman films create such discomfort. The same logic appears in Breaking Bad, except the sequences aren’t nearly so staged as Bergman’s. A typical conversation on Breaking Bad isn’t a two shot. It looks like “Walter, what do you have to say?”
Their psychological and sociological differences are accentuated by filming them in a series of perpetual shot and reverse shots. They don’t share the frame because they’re not friends and barely even co-workers. Which brings us to the scene in which Walter invites Jesse over for dinner with his wife. The sudden shift to the two and three shots is glaring because it’s painfully oblique to the status of their current relationships. So:
“The Story of Jesse and the Beans” opens with a half-empty long shot. (Just compare it to a very similar scene in Kick-Ass.) All three half-occupy the bottom half of frame that’s fronted by an empty chair. Moreover, the dominant diegetic light source pulls our eyes up to the chandelier, which means that when we search the frame for meaning we’re incredibly aware of all the empty unlit space in the top half of the frame. These are three diminished people sharing a table with Elijah.
The composition of the shot further distances them: the white inner curtains flank Jesse and cut him off, compositionally speaking, from Skyler and Walter, who sit before the dark outer curtains. (I know: I need to figure out what curtains are called. Feel free to point me in the right direction.) The frame’s split in three and each of these characters occupies their own bit of the triptych. This isn’t a realistic shot. It’s a carefully staged psychological reflection of the character’s current relations to each other. This shot only seems realistic because it’s ostensibly conventional: we’re accustomed to watching families eat dinner together and that’s what we seem to have here. Only we don’t. There’s a tension between the compositional elements in the frame and the narrative being communicated through it, and that tension mirrors that being felt by the characters.
About which more in the next post, which will be arriving shortly.
*Clearly I’m kidding. I just covered too much ground to come up with a snappy title.
**And before you ask why it took me so long to watch a critically acclaimed show about an educator who his cancer from his wife, I’ve already been over that. Does this resemblance make me look tough?