Home / General / <em>Breaking Bad</em>: “Say My Name,” or fine, maybe don’t even acknowledge I exist.

Breaking Bad: “Say My Name,” or fine, maybe don’t even acknowledge I exist.

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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:

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Compare that to the establishing shot in “Say My Name”:

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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two of the chairs occupied in “Buyout” are empty, and one of the characters—Jesse in his role as a figure of a son—has been replaced by a bottle of wine.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.)

Point being:

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:

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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:

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And note that she takes the long way:

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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:

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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.)

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  • Three-nineteen

    How much of the responsibility for this lies with the editing as opposed to the directing? Is there significant collaboration between those two roles, or does what the director gives the editor as far as shot selection dictate the way the scenes are put together?

    • SEK

      Within a single, unbroken take — like the first one discussed above — it’s on the director. As to the transition, it gets tricky there. I’m tempted to impute final authority to the director, but that’s just a theoretical habit. I discuss this at length here, and from my limited experience with them, even editors tend to believe they’re working within the framework established by the director; however, I’ve also encountered directors who attribute the success of their scenes to their editors, almost solely, which could be false modesty, but I suspect not.

      In short, it’s tricky. Typically, though, no one will fault you for crediting the director, they’ll just note if a particularly talented editor was working on that project, the praise should be a little more equally distributed. (Not that I don’t want to distribute it, mind you. It’s just that I can only work with the finished product. That might be changing in a few months, though, so maybe I’ll be able to answer your question better then.)

  • There were lots of contrasting black and white imagery in this episode:

    The opening shots focus on Walt’s white bandage for the burn on his wrist resting next to his black watch on the other.

    In the scene referenced above between Walt and Hank when they drink coffee it’s from a black and a white mug.

    In that gut-punching scene on the playground a child’s white shirt is bracketed by two cops in very dark uniforms in four or five shots.

    I’m less sure about these but I think they still work:

    In the opening scene the contrast between different parts of sky is so great at first I thought something was wrong with the tv. Around the sun it’s almost white but there are parts where it gets so blue it’s almost black. I think the white parts are above the Phoenix crew and the black is above Walter’s pretty consistently.

    In that final scene the river features both a wide bright spot shimmering brilliantly in the sun and large expanses of water that are almost black.

    I’m not really sure what they’re doing with this. I could take a stab at it but it’d be a stretch.

    Who really cares, though, about anything but that final scene. The last bits of dialogue, the last close-up, and the last shot are all perfect. The score, too; at first it seems like they’re going to use that thumping bass they always use, but it peters out soon into a jumble of lighter strings that fade into natural water and bug sounds. And over the final shot and the cut to black they integrate the faint sounds of a swingset.

    Perfect.

  • danah gaz

    I’m sure the show has it’s flaws, but they are overwhelmed by the sheer artfulness and depth of the show when it’s at it’s best.

    This is an amazing show. It’s an instant classic. An obvious labor of love.

    You can tell that it’s poured over. They all want it to be perfect, or at least, stunning. There’s no half-measures. I absolutely adore it.

    • danah gaz

      arg. “There are no”, not “there’s no”. I hate when I change part of a sentence and forget to change the rest of it.

      /headdesk

    • jeer9

      I’m continuing to watch the show because it is more entertaining than I first gave it credit for, but many of the crime sequences are riddled with unexplained details or matters which, if given critical thought, clearly show the machinations of inept plotting.

      For example, Tuco’s death episode has many superb aspects: Pinkman overselling the ricin meth, Tio warning Tuco about the poisoned meal, Tuco laughing over the condom in Jesse’s wallet.

      Problems: How does Hank miraculously locate Jesse’s car way out in the sticks? We aren’t told. When they have Tuco wounded, why does Jesse not shoot the man who once beat the crap out of him and was just about to kill him? (Walt’s reservations seem at least plausible.) And why would they ever leave him alive when he’s obviously a remorseless, vengeful psychotic? When Hank’s car becomes visible, Walt and Jesse believe it’s Tuco’s cousins from Mexico and a standoff may ensue, yet Walt leaves the automatic weapon in the car. (From the perspective of the plot, Tuco has to die if Hank arrives on the scene because the bastard will identify Walt and Jesse to Hank; thus they don’t shoot Tuco and the gun is left in the vehicle so that Hank can’t simply arrest and question him.)

      Tio off camera tapping the bell as the credits roll, however, was just brilliant.

      • Heisenberg

        The show is hardly a model of realism, however:

        As discussed by Hank and Gomez, Jesse’s car was located via LoJack .

        Jesse hesitates to kill because he’s Jesse. He is repulsed by violence and cannot rationalize it as easily as Walt does, and is much more deeply affected by it; this is obvious by the fifth season but was true even of pre-Gale Jesse.

        And they were both too panicked to grab the gun.

  • 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.

    I don’t think the looser framing is about disorder, but aloneness. The scene doesn’t actually look disordered. The chairs aren’t askew, there isn’t a blanket falling off the back of that couch; there’s nothing on the floor; and the curtains are even and straight. The longer shot is mean to establish, first, Skyler’s isolation; then the emotional distance between the Whites; and then the isolation of Walt. The looser framing is the opposite of the tight frame from last week, which was meant to suggest intimacy (if only so it could be subverted).

    Opening the curtains so the space captured in the spot extends in that direction, too, is a nice touch.

    • Lindsay Beyerstein

      Camera work aside, I’d say the changes from one dinner scene to the next indicate Skyler’s increasing disengagement from her marriage.

      As SEK said, last week they were sitting down to plated dinner from the deli counter. This week, they’re eating TV dinners. (Scabby food, as Jesse described it.) It’s a nice touch that Skyler makes Walt nuke his own dinner.

  • Lacking Moral Fiber aka Useless Muthfucka frmly Nemesis

    Skylar will be Walts new cooking companion. You heard it here first.

    And yes, there have been some gaping holes in the plot. Like the now dead “security and distribution” member of the triumvirate coming to a hand off of $5,000,000 without a weapon. Wha?

    Still, its not bad enough to cause me to stop watching. Its the only demon box weekly show I bother watching.

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  • Robbert

    On the off-chance someone will be reading this: is there a significance to the sheers being open now that Jesse isn’t sitting in front of them?

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