One of the more gratifying things about studying film and television is the occasional payoff. You consider a scene in obsessive detail and it turns out that scene is just as important as you thought it was. This isn’t a credit to you, obviously, so much as the director. (Though it is a validation that you’re not imparting significance to irrelevant details.) So watching the latest episode of Breaking Bad, “Say My Name,” was particularly gratifying for yours truly because it indicated that I didn’t waste a day last week breaking down that scene at the dinner table in “Buyout.” It had a punchline. Recall the establishing shot from that episode:
Compare that to the establishing shot in “Say My Name”:
They’re nearly identical. Nearly. As I tell my students: shots in which the differences are slight matter more than shots in which the differences are grand. So this long shot is a little longer—the head of the couch in the living room is visible—but the composition is identical, albeit less tightly framed. What does the looser framing suggest? Given the off-center position of the couch-head, the implication is that whatever orderly detente had been reached in the previous episode has, literally, been cast askew. Evidence of the tipped kilter abounds: two of the chairs occupied in “Buyout” are empty, and one of the characters—Jesse in his role as a figure of a son—has been replaced by a bottle of wine. It’s almost as if the director, Thomas Schnauz, is claiming that if Jesse prevented Skyler and Walter from having a conversation in “Buyout,” in “Say My Name” it’s the wine. (And that Skyler’s deliberately putting the wine between them. It had occupied the majority of her attention the last time after all.)
Schnauz wants viewers to employ their Highlights for Kids-cultivated ability to discern what’s different about these establishing shots. He’s inviting the comparison, and there are many to be made. In “Buyout,” for example, the “family” sat down to a freshly cooked dinner from Albertson’s. It’s not quite home-cooking, but it’s not entirely processed either. In “Say My Name,” Skyler has sat down with a bottle of wine and a TV dinner. She didn’t even bother to buy the freshly prepackaged meal, meaning she cares one degree-of-freshness less in this episode than she did in the last. And not just about herself:
She’s “prepared” a microwave dinner for Walter as well, if by “prepare” one means “purchased and deposited in the freezer.” The implication in “Buyout” was that she’d plated the food she’d bought at Albertson’s—hence Jesse’s confusion about it being home-cooked—whereas in “Say My Name” Walter’s clearly had to microwave his own highly processed dinner. Moreover, whereas in the previous episode some modicum of social graces kept Skyler at the table long enough to listen to Jesse blather on about the green beans, in this episode as soon as Walter starts talking about Jesse’s replacement, Skyler just leaves:
And note that she takes the long way:
One of the cardinal rules of directing—albeit one championed most stridently by actors—is not to step on someone else’s lines. This scene is blocked so that Skyler callously steps all over Walter’s, and triply so, because she not only stands when he begins to speak, which draws the viewers attention away from him, but she traverses the entirety of the frame and even briefly obscures Walter. That’s three offenses against cinematic norms she and Shnauz have committed in as many seconds. On purpose.
But the best part about studying television and film is when a director genuinely surprises you. Being correct is all well and good, but finding a director who can enliven a cliché is far more gratifying. In “Buyout,” you’ll remember, the establishing shot segued into a series of reverse shots that ended with a medium close-up on Walter’s face as he spoke to Jesse. That’s the pattern established in “Buyout”: establishing shot of the table, series of reverse shots, finish on Walter’s anguished face. In “Say My Name,” there’s no reprieve from the formality of the establishing shot. It’s as if the camera’s telling you that it’s trying its damnedest to establish what’s going on in this shot, it just can’t encompass it. Skyler’s violation of decorum, however justified, only adds to the awkwardness. So when the camera finally cuts from the establishing shot it’s almost a relief:
Pattern reestablished! That long shot led to a medium close-up except wait a minute it’s daylight and where’s the food and Walter’s dressed differently. Skyler’s violation seems to have justified another: the viewer anticipated the cut to the medium close-up to be within the scene, but Skyler’s behavior necessitated that it function as a transition between scenes. Which isn’t normal. The fact that it cuts to the correct sequence—a series of reverse shots—only emphasizes the fact that the wrong characters inhabit it. This sequence should (and would have) reversed from Walter to Skyler, but because of what he’s driven her to do, it has to take place between Walter and Hank. (The fact that Walter has an ulterior motive isn’t relevant, because I’m talking about the bleed from the previous scene.) Shnauz’s direction here is as effective as it is clumsy elsewhere in the episode, but that’ll have to wait for another post.
(This being another one of those visual rhetoric posts. That list has been updated to include the ones I’ve been too lazy to add the past few months.)