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Realism and bad manners in Breaking Bad

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In the previous post, I wrote:

[W]hy 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.”

I suggested that the answer is the power of conventions: if you shoot a family sitting down to dinner, the audience will peg the frame as being realistic because they’ve seen so many television families sit down to dinner. And there’s something to that. Quite a bit actually: film conventions normalize human relations. Consider the last frame from the previous post:

Breaking bad00021

Even if you’ve never seen the show, you know exactly what this is: a family sitting down to dinner. How do you know it’s a family? Because there’s a husband on the right and a wife on the left and a son in the middle? How do you know that’s a son? Because he’s smaller than the father and the mother. (Even if Aaron Paul were taller than Bryan Cranston or Anna Gunn, the director, Colin Bucksey, could make him appear smaller by staging the scene as he does here and simply placing Paul further away from the camera.) How do we know it’s dinner? Because they’re at the dinner table. But they eat breakfast at the dinner table too, which is why Bucksey doesn’t backlight the window and instead employs the light above the table to illuminate the scene. I know they could be eating before dawn, but the mother has a wine glass in her hand and people don’t conventionally drink wine with breakfast.

All of which is a long way of saying that the elements in the frame demand it be read as an image of a nuclear family sitting down to dinner. This shot is effective because its formal conventions militate toward the nuclear family interpretation, whereas our knowledge about the content of this situation requires we draw the exact opposite conclusion. The tension between form and content creates an awkwardness analogous to the awkwardness each of the three characters in the scene currently feels. That’s not a husband on the right nor is it a wife on the left: that’s a terrorist on the right and that’s his hostage on the left. That son isn’t their son, though it could be said that the father adopted him—except that this surrogate son is only at this dinner table because he stopped by to break up with his fake father. And the mother only knows this soon-to-be-emancipated not-son as the father’s former drug dealer. At this precise moment in time these people couldn’t be more unrelated, but if I show you that frame your brain will insist that it’s a nuclear family sitting down to dinner.

Director Bucksey takes advantage of this. As I noted in the previous post, the sense of isolation experienced by each of these characters is typically reinforced by sequencing their conversations as a series of shots and reverse shots. The camera tells you that even though these people are in the middle of a conversation, there’s something (literally the camera) preventing them from sharing the same filmic space. Even when they share the same diegetic space they’re still not together, and because we know that they seem more alone than they otherwise would. Given the circumstances outlined above, you’d assume that Bucksey would film this scene in a similar manner: establish that they’re at the dinner table with an establishing shot and then hammer home their isolation with a series of reverses. But no. The irony is strong and painful:

Breaking bad00025

This is the kind of two shot that directors usually use to establish intimacy between characters. Skyler’s doing something that under other circumstances violates a cultural taboo: she’s watching him eat. Also note the appearance of physical proximity: Jesse’s head seems dangerously close to violating Skyler’s personal space. (In the sense that he’s in her house, you could argue that he already has.) The minor deviations from social norms that seem to be at work in this scene wouldn’t be deviations at all if these two people were what the establishing shot made them appear to be. Except we know that they aren’t, which makes the framing of this shot all the more discomforting. That feeling of wrongness you felt when you first watched this scene? It’s being compounded by Bucksey’s ironic use of convention. To wit:

Jesse’s dealing with the awkwardness of talking to Skyler by trying to talk to Walter, but in another violation of social norms, Walter’s refusing to return Jesse’s eye contact. So what does Jesse do? He starts staring down at his food, which means there are now three people at this dinner table staring at food: Skyler and Jesse at Jesse’s and Walter’s at his own. They’re refusing (or being refused) that most basic of pleasantries: the acknowledgment of speech. Skyler and Walter’s body language signals the fact that whatever Jesse says doesn’t matter—and it doesn’t, since he’s complimenting Skyler on green beans she bought at Albertson’s—but the fact that they’re reinforcing his irrelevance by refusing eye contact ups the intensity of the awkwardness. (Especially because part of the point of a medium close-up is to allow access to the language of the face.) The viewer is essentially in the position of being forced to watch a blind date in which both parties quickly decided they loathed the other but neither wants to leave until after they eaten. And so:

Of course the scene ends with another two shot that should cement the relationship between these two character, and of course this shot undermines that having Skyler talk to her wine glass. The overall impression is that the people at this table matter less to Skyler than the victuals. The particular impression of this frame, though, is that by avoiding eye contact with Walter she can make Jesse disappear, and she’s right because Voila! he’s gone. We know he’s still in the diegetic space, but the camera’s telling us that even though he’s still talking about the green beans he’s not important enough to include in-frame. The camera is making these characters seem rude, the result being that we start to sympathize with Jesse for the curt and summary dismissal. So why does all this clever and deliberate staging and framing make Breaking Bad seem realistic?

Because the slights created by the staging and framing are so minor that the resulting pangs do an end-around on our suspension of disbelief. On some level you know that the intensity of experience felt when, for example, Luke Skywalker prepares to make his final run at the end of Star Wars is false. It’s too intense—and that intensity reminds us of the beliefs we’re actively suspending in order to enjoy the film. This dinner does the opposite: because the transgressions are so unexciting we drop our guard, and so instead of suspending our disbelief we just sort of start believing. After all, it’s not that different from how life feels.

So it must be realistic.

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  • jeer9

    I never got past the first episode. Most fifty-year-old teachers have at least fifteen or twenty years of service and make enough money that they don’t have to work evenings at a car wash. And if they need extra cash, there are coaching duties, after-school make-up classes, summer school, etc. The scene where the teens were making fun of his disabled son at the clothes store was also a grinding cliche. Cranston is a solid actor, but the writing and details in the pilot left a lot to be desired. It must have improved significantly to garner all of this attention.

    • Jonathan

      Part of the plot is that Walt left the chemical industry for teaching. So he wouldn’t have a normal amount of seniority built up.

    • They also bought a starter house based on “half of a promising company” money and not “truncated high school teaching career” money. (Which doesn’t really come out until like the third season, I think.)

    • Lindsay Beyerstein

      Walt has a disabled son and what we’re told is a surprise baby on the way. His wife is a part-time bookkeeper. He’s got financial needs that easily outstrip the salary of a not-terribly-senior NM public school teacher, even if you factor in summer school.

      Summer school wouldn’t be an option during the pilot, which is set during the regular school year.

      Could you see Walt coaching a sport? Any sport?

      • mark f

        The school also probably doesn’t have a lot of coaching vacancies up for grabs, especially when you figure what obvious and attractive cash cows they are.

      • Halloween Jack

        If mercury fulminate throwing became a competitive sport, I’d watch.

    • Anonymous

      spoiler alert

      1. Walt wasn’t always a high school chemistry teacher.
      2. Heisenberg.

    • danah gaz

      Walter’s history of being an R&D chemist who changes paths late in life (walks away from the research) coalesce with his position as that teacher.

      You don’t find it funny that you “didn’t make it past the first episode” and yet you knew enough about the back-story and plot to criticize it? That doesn’t strike you as odd?

      As a thought experiment, consider how you would have felt about the show if the plot and back-story were entirely revealed to you through the first episode. That would be incredibly an incredibly lazy and shallow circumstance in which to expect characters to be developed, don’t you think? The very beginning of the first episode in fact, makes it quite clear that the back-story and plot is not yet available to you.

    • Halloween Jack

      Aside from some of the replies already made, you also have the problem that Walter and Skyler may have a more expensive house than they can really afford. I’m acquainted with a few teachers, and none of them have in-ground swimming pools, no matter their seniority. Walt and Skyler are both very smart people (and Skyler’s an accountant to boot), but they’re not very good at budgeting or talking about money (or lots of other subjects of importance).

      And whether or not teenagers making fun of a disabled kid is really a “grinding cliche”, you’re missing the point of the scene, which is that it’s one of the very few instances in Walter’s life prior to his breaking bad in which he feels comfortable in venting his anger at someone.

      • DFH no.6

        My nephew (mid-30s) is a public HS math teacher who grew up working-class (so, you know, no trust fund or anything), with two young sons (his wife has worked on and off – mostly off – since their births) and they have a very nice in-ground pool at their nice house in Chandler, AZ (very similar house and neighborhood as the White’s).

        And my nephew drives a nicer car than a Pontiac Aztek.

      • jeer9

        I will try to view a few more episodes and see if it hooks me, but I don’t know of any teachers who put in a full day in the classroom and work part-time in the evening – unless the NM pay scale is one of the worst. And most teachers new to the profession are so overwhelmed with planning and familiarizing themselves with curriculum and new courses that they spend their nights on such tasks just trying to keep one step ahead.

        If you live in the heat (as I do), built-in swimming pools are quite common amongst teachers.

        you’re missing the point of the scene, which is that it’s one of the very few instances in Walter’s life prior to his breaking bad in which he feels comfortable in venting his anger at someone.

        Obviously, this history of suppressed anger must be conveyed in future episodes. I look forward to watching the naturalistic way in which these plot holes are filled and the psychological portrait rounded.

        • I had a biology teacher in high school who worked full time as a teacher and then worked as a security guard at night.

          • SEK

            I don’t merely know, I am a person who, even when teaching a full load, works as a tutor in the evening. I want my house and swimming pool, damn it.

            • jeer9

              But that’s a form of extended day (no prep period) and I would imagine your tutor pay rate is considerably higher than a car wash position. Where I live (in the central valley of California) housing is quite cheap, culture is non-existent, and a swimming pool makes the 110 degree heat barely tolerable. Come to the great San Joaquin. You’ll love it! And the Mexican food is great!

          • jeer9

            I can recall a few of my high school teachers discussing the construction and house painting jobs they’d lined up for the summer – but that was almost 40 years ago. Did you ever learn if your example was due to poor pay, overwhelming debt, the need to escape his wife, or all of the above?

            • No, it was a long time ago and I was 17 and not really paying that much attention.

        • DFH no.6

          YMMV, of course, but if you give Breaking Bad a chance and watch some more episodes (at least through the truncated – by the ’08 writers’ strike – first season) you may see why this TV show is as universally-acclaimed as any show ever done.

          It really is that good, and it’s remained at a high level all the way through so far.

          My only quibble is the language is not nearly as profane as, hell, even around my office, so I find that a bit grating, as I did with The Shield on FX. The one ‘f-bomb” ever used on Breaking Bad (and it’s a big one, in context) is bleeped out, though there’s no doubt that’s the word that is said.

  • danah gaz

    I just have to add that this is easily one of the most well written shows in the history of American television. It easily outstrips the Sopranos – which is formulaic by comparison. It’s maybe not as as well written as The Wire – but maybe nothing will ever be. That said, this is still, by any measure, easily one of the best shows to ever grace an American TV screen.

  • At this precise moment in time these people couldn’t be more unrelated, but if I show you that frame your brain will insist that it’s a nuclear family sitting down to dinner.

    There’s a far more obviously clue that establishes this relationship/non-relationship tension and it’s in the first frame you post here.

    That table is huge. It’s a solid barrier (even the support is the size of a small tree trunk) between any physical connection the characters might have. You really don’t need to see more than that to understand these are people who are painfully isolated from each other.

    To me, what the two-shots establish is the desperate need each has for the other character, even as they deny that need to themselves.

    • SEK

      In the establishing shot, most certainly. But there’s quite a bit of foreshortening in those reverse sequences with Jesse, though, tellingly, not in the ones with Walter and Skyler. I think we’re making the same point here: that table is being mightily manipulated for emotional impact.

    • Lindsay Beyerstein

      The dinner table scene packed an emotional punch for me–it evoked feelings I’ve had around real dinner tables.

      But I wouldn’t describe the visual component of the scene as realistic. In fact, it struck me as being very stylized, a parody of a family dinner that ratchets up the emotional intensity of an otherwise banal event: the awkward dinner.

      For one thing, they’re eating in the dark. The low light imparts a somber mood and a sense of foreboding. What is wrong with these people? Why don’t they turn on a light? But it’s about the furthest thing from naturalistic or realistic.

      For a more naturalistic, albeit comic, awkward dinner in recent prestige TV, see the scene in Girls where Hannah’s parents cut her off.

  • Halloween Jack

    There’s quite a lot of this sort of thing in the show. Take almost any example of when people are in the living room and contrive to be about as far apart from each other as they possibly can. I’d love to read your take on the “intervention” scene, which is exquisitely and hilariously uncomfortable, in no small part because Hank and Marie are involved.

    • SEK

      I actually had, and removed, a talking pillow joke because I thought it’d be too obscure. Good to see I was wrong to do so. I’m actually interested in going back and looking at how that scene was put together, now. I have to admit I treated the first few seasons like airplane reading: I just kept on hitting “Next” on my Netflix box because it’s summer damn it and I deserve a break. Sometimes even critics nod, or something.

  • mb

    Disclosure: I’m a big Breaking Bad fan — love the show.

    I never have considered “realism” to be its strongest attribute. I am, though, a little aggravated with the contention that the events of the program have happened in a time frame of only one calendar year.

    At the beginning of this season, Walt is celebrating his birthday and there is much talk about how it has only been one year since he was diagnosed with CA. Therefore, since all the events of the program proceed from the premise that he has cancer, all the events had to have occurred over the span of 12 months. This, imo, strains credulity almost to the breaking point. A LOT has happened in that fictional 12 months; I’d say easily 2-3 years worth of stuff.

    • SEK

      I mentioned this in the earlier thread, but it’s entirely consistent with it being a naturalist novel, the point of which is to show how quickly environmental conditions can cause an otherwise “typical” life to spiral into poverty of the actual or moral sort. It strains credulity because it plays upon middle-class fears: even those of us who, like me, barely scrape by from paycheck to paycheck like to pretend that a month’s time won’t find us cooking meth in an RV to make ends meet, but the naturalist narrative is there to remind us how wrong we are.

      Put differently: the rapidity of potential descent is designed to invoke a sublime — in the technical sense — feeling of the tenuousness of contemporary life.

      • Lindsay Beyerstein

        Maybe this is a semantic dispute, but that seems like a strange definition of realism. How is it realist to depict someone’s downward spiral happening implausibly fast? I can think of good artist reasons for speeding up the tempo. A fast-paced story may be more dramatic and therefore more memorable. But that seems like a paradigm example of artistic license rather than realism.

        • SEK

          It is a semantic dispute, and it dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century. Without delving too deeply into literary history, it basically boils down to this: in the 1890s, the majority of novels were historical romances, i.e. American imitations of Rob Roy like Last of the Mohicans. They were loosely based in fact, and Mark Twain’s proto-fisking of Fenimore Cooper is instructive here:

          [O]ne of his acute Indian experts, Chingachgook (pronounced Chicago, I think), has lost the trail of a person he is tracking through the forest. Apparently that trail is hopelessly lost. Neither you nor I could ever have guessed the way to find it. It was very different with Chicago. Chicago was not stumped for long. He turned a running stream out of its course, and there, in the slush in its old bed, were that person’s moccasin tracks. The current did not wash them away, as it would have done in all other like cases — no, even the eternal laws of Nature have to vacate when Cooper wants to put up a delicate job of woodcraft on the reader.

          That’s not the best bit, just the only one I could excerpt because he layers absurdity upon absurdity, but it does the job of showing why realists like Twain despised writers of historical romance. Their details were mighty detailed, but they didn’t bear any reference to reality. The naturalists are, depending on who you ask, a subset or an offshoot of the realists, in that they responded to the realist demand for accurate detail by claiming that novels should also adhere to the immutable Laws of Nature. So you get people like Jack London writing books about wolves which are accurate and possess a clear moral message. That message was usually the same one, that human civilizations teeter on the edge of animality and are as beholden to the Laws of Nature as any other animal that’s ever evolved. The downward spiral’s indicative of just how close humans are to their animal forebears, and how tenuous human’s humanity actually is. (Hence the obsession with atavism and devolution at the time.) All of which is only to say:

          Breaking Bad isn’t realist, it’s naturalist, because like naturalist narratives, it pays quite a bit of attention to detail, but those details are marshaled to a greater purpose. They’re not trying to replicate the world, they’re trying to tell a moral tale about an immutable human flaw — here, most likely intellectual hubris. I’m not entirely sure whether this compact history of American literature actually makes any sense to non-specialists, but I hope it at least suggests why I’m calling the series naturalist instead of realist.

          • SEK

            Re-reading this, I see that’s it difficult to shoehorn a grad seminar into a comment box without sounding really pedantic. Sorry about that!

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