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Breaking Bad: “Gliding Over All,” said the fly to the money pile.

[ 26 ] September 10, 2012 |

(This being another one of those visual rhetoric posts.)

I’ve had a week to digest the mid-season finale of Breaking Bad, “Gliding All Over,” and for the first time in weeks I’m not going to talk about kitchen tables. The episode’s title, “Gliding Over All,” references Walt Whitman:

Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul—not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.

How is that relevant to the episode? Not in the way people online are discussing it. For one, I keep seeing it referred to as an ordinary “poem,” when in fact it appears, untitled, on the title page of “Passage to India.” And the interpretations I’ve read of its relation to the episode all focus on the “many deaths” because of Walter’s increasing comfort with lethal force. But take a quick look at the actual poem that bit above introduces:

Singing my days,
Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong, light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)
In the Old World, the east, the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,
The seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle wires[.]

“Passage to India” celebrates the connectedness of the world. These canals and transcontinental railroads and undersea telegraph cables have made it visible and tangible the connections between distant peoples.

O voyagers, O scientists and inventors, [then] shall be justified,
All these hearts, as of fretted children, shall be sooth’d,
All affection shall be fully responded to—the secret shall be told;
All these separations and gaps shall be taken up, and hook’d and link’d together

The voyagers and scientists and inventors create the conditions necessary to acquire a new kind of knowledge: one whose “secret … separations and gaps” will be “hook’d and link’d together.” In short: titling the episode “Gliding Over All” doesn’t allude to the untitled poem’s “many deaths” but to the process of acquiring an interconnected vision of the world through technology that Whitman outlines in “Passage to India.” Given that Walter White and his contempories aren’t in the midst of a world-shrinking communicative revolution, it stands to reason that they’ll come into knowledge of how secrets are “hook’d and link’d together” differently.

Director Michelle MacLaren lets Walter have the first shot:

Breaking bad00002
MacLaren opens with an extreme close-up on a fly. The shallow focus blurs the background to the extent that the only thing the audience can see is the fly. Because we want the shot to be meaningful, we begin to study the wings and shadows of this centrally positioned and obviously important fly. We try to connect this fly to some structure of meaning. Is this an allusion to “the contamination” that deviled Walter in “The Fly” and the extreme actions he and Jesse took to “clean” the lab? The camera lingers on the fly for seven seconds—long enough for these questions to arise but not long enough for them to be answer—before racking focus reveals that we’re not the only ones trying to understand this fly:

Breaking bad00006

Turns out the blurred “background” consisted of an extreme close-up of the top-half of Walter’s face. Because the shot’s level of framing is the height of a person sitting in a chair, we end up staring directly into Walter’s eyes as he stares into ours. Except it can’t be directly, because the fourth wall’s intact, meaning Walter isn’t staring past the fly, he’s staring at the fly. Intently. He’s studying the fly for meaning just as we did before the focus racked. The impression that he’s staring through the fly—created by narrowing the depth of field in a way that blurs the fly invisible—is unsettling not only because it means that he might be menacing us, but also because it suggests that he sees some connection between himself and the fly that we failed to. He perceives the “eloquent, gentle wires” that connect him to that fly.

As well he should. There’s a reason there’s a fly in his office: Mike’s remains rot in the trunk of Walter’s car. He knows that knowledge of this fly’s life-cycle could link him to Mike’s murder by establishing a time of death. Even when Todd enters the room to inform him that he’s disposed of Mike’s car, Walter can’t draw his eyes away:

Breaking bad00018

This new world Walter inhabits requires a new breed of knowledge. Lest this discussion of eyeline matches and the connections they entail seem a little far-fetched, consider the last two shots in this scene:

Breaking bad00024

Walter completes his intense study of the fly. When Walter stands and exits the shot to the right, MacLaren again racks the focus to reveal what the white blur behind Walter above is:

Breaking bad00024

Which of course includes a taxonomic chart of flies based on the geographic distruction and rate of maturation. It is a secondary screwworm fly, meaning it only consumes necrotic tissue. Its presence connects Walter to the corpse decomposing in his trunk. We now know that this fly is unrelated to the one that taxed Walter in “The Fly,” because that fly represented Walter’s inability to maintain the illusion of an orderly world: he didn’t know how it entered the lab and found himself powerless to remove it from it. But this fly? He knows exactly why it’s there and exactly how to encourage it to leave. Its presence doesn’t represent a disorderly incursion into Walter’s orderly world but the extent to which Walter’s come to define “orderly” differently: if he can see the connections he can control them and his mind “shall be sooth’d.”

The idea established in this opening scene—that Walter has the power to acquire “secret” knowledge about connections in the world by staring at them intensely—is undermined when Skyler insists he accompany her to a storage facility. After they enter the unit, Skyler pulls aside a sheet. Instead of revealing what Skyler’s uncovered, MacLaren cuts to a medium close-up of Walter’s face:

Breaking bad00147

Within a given episode of any well-directed television, the director will establish associations between particular shots and particular narrative elements. In the opening scene, MacLaren creates a correlation between extreme close-ups and a knowledgable mastery of the world. She combines a medium close-up of Walter with the expression on his face to indicate to us that this Walter can’t fathom “these separations and gaps.” He can’t connect what he sees to the world he knows, and no wonder:

Breaking bad00147

He’s staring at a sublime amount of money. And I mean “sublime” as Kant meant it: it’s a mathematical sublime, the effect of encountering an object whose greatness is unencumbered by the very idea of limitations. (Which is precisely the conversation Skyler and Walter have about how much money lives in that pile. They can’t even imagine a way to count it.) Note that when the camera reversed the shot scale increased again. Walter’s now in a classic medium shot here and when it reverses again:

Breaking bad00147

The progressive lengthening of the shot scale suggests that Walter’s becoming increasingly incapable of connecting this pile of money to the world as he understands it. Unlike the fly, this pile of money can’t be categorized and put in its place: the pile lives in the storage unit because its size makes it impossible to launder its incomprehensible worth. Walter is shocked out of his fantasy of mastery-through-knowledge by an unknowable pile of money. That he decides to abandon the trade soon after encountering the sublime isn’t surprising: his continued participation was predicated on his belief that he could out-understand his competitors. Now he can’t even connect his labor to his capital.

These are but two moments in the episode in which this dynamic plays out. Tomorrow I’ll discuss the most literal link between the episode and Whitman’s paean to global shipping: the conversation between Walter and Lydia in the diner.

[Part II of this post can be found here.]

Comments (26)

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  1. UberMitch says:

    Given that Walter White and his contempories aren’t in the midst of a world-shrinking communicative revolution

    I dunno, I heard that some cab drivers have told Tom Friedman otherwise.

  2. brent says:

    Walter is shocked out of his fantasy of mastery-through-knowledge by an unknowable pile of money.

    That was the one thing about this scene that just didn’t quite work for me. It was a pretty cool scene in a lot of ways but the thing is Walt always knows exactly how much money he has. He knows, to the fraction of a gram, how much meth he has produced and he knows the precise value of that meth on the market. We have been shown, repeatedly, that he does that math in his head pretty much nonstop. The only part of the equation that he would be missing in this circumstance is that he has no way of knowing how much Skyler would have been able to launder. But he would still have a very close guesstimate at his total wealth and the actual currency shouldn’t have been able to surprise him that much. (Not to mention that a relatively inexpensive counting machine could have kept up with that flow of cash over a three month time period fairly easily.)

    Its a small thing but it continued to bother me for quite some time afterward. It seemed like cheating to me. Cheating for the sake of drama.

    • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

      What Skyler was showing Walt wasn’t the dollar value, it was the size of the pile, and by extension, the limits of her ability (or willingness) to launder it all. If they can’t launder it, they can’t spend it. So, if Skyler’s overwhelmed, adding money to the pile is meaningless.

    • hells littlest angel says:

      I was just bugged by the fact that it’s a ridiculously large amount of money to make in only three months.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        Not really. Walt is not only supplying meth to a bigger chunk of the Southwest than he was before (Gus’ former territory plus that of Declan, his new distributor), but also a big chunk of the Czech Republic. If he’s cooking every day, that’s ninety cooks. (He could get more places to cook by having Vamonos Pest offer a discount on fumigation, since they’re obviously making tall coin off the deal as well.) And he’s getting a much bigger cut.

        • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

          Walt calculated that the full thousand gallons of methylamine would yield $300,000,000 worth of finished product.

          Walt knows how much precursor he’s used, so he should have a pretty good idea of how much money he’s bringing in.

          The question Skyler wants Walt to ask isn’t “How much am I worth?” it’s “What are we going to do with all this?”

          • There is the complicating factor of how much the product sent to the Czech market is bringing back.

            They’re paying a premium, as Lydia said, so there’s going to be more money than the $300 million Walt calculated the methylamine was worth stateside.

            We don’t know how steady that extra income is, we don’t know if there is uncertainty (eg fluctuating bribes or police disruption) in the cost of international shipping of the stuff that has to be taken into account, we don’t know if the exact amount of return is only knowable after a certain time period (ie after enough of the stuff has been shipped, distributed, sold, and the profits sent back to America), etc.

            But in the end there does feel like there’s something off or wrong in Walt not knowing that stuff to the penny, and I think it’s a spin on what was pointed out above: throughout the last few seasons and this season especially, Walt knowing exactly what’s going on has been a fairly fundamental part of the evolution of his character. And all of a sudden we’re given this three month time-jump after which not only does Walt not seem to know the financial details of his operation, but we’re not even given enough information to know if Walt knows the financial details of his operation.

            In other words, we’ve been encouraged to view Walt’s character through a particular lens, and this bit with the money doesn’t only obscure that view, it smashes the lens. It doesn’t allow us the same vantage point from which to understand the character as had been built up over the last few seasons, and especially the most recent season.

            I do think the point of the scene is “there’s no way we can launder and so spend this stuff” rather than “look at how much money this operation is worth”, but there’s still this narrative tension that’s created when Walt doesn’t seem to know, in fact, how much money the operation is worth.

            • Halloween Jack says:

              If there’s one real goal that Walter’s had, it’s in eliminating the X factors from his life (see my comment below) so that he doesn’t have to worry about little things like exactly how much money he’s got, or even a halfway-accurate round figure. If you’re omnipotent, you don’t need to balance your checkbook. One of the very few times that Walt has gotten sloppy was when he was drunk; that’s when he told Hank that he didn’t think that Gale was responsible for the blue meth recipe, which put Hank back on Heisenberg’s trail and eventually led to Hank’s revelation at the end of this episode. Walt’s been drunk on power since the beginning of this season and since Mike’s death his power has been more or less absolute.

  3. Siobhan Carroll says:

    I was just pointed to your site by television without pity’s BB forum. Keep up the visual rhetoric posts! They’re fascinating to read!

  4. This is a more pedestrian layer of the poem, but

    All affection shall be fully responded to—the secret shall be told;
    All these separations and gaps shall be taken up, and hook’d and link’d together

    sets up Hank’s revelation on the crapper, a revelation that uses the visual rhetoric established earlier in the episode.

    In the opening scene, MacLaren creates a correlation between extreme close-ups and a knowledgable mastery of the world.

    In the closing scene, Hank is shown sitting on the thrown and handling the book in tighter and tighter shots, and his final realization is shot as a zoom intercut with a blue-tinted flashback, until he fully comprehends what he’s holding, and his head fills the screen.

    Yar dis show is purdy gud.

    • Lindsay Beyerstein says:

      It seems like a stretch to interpret “Gliding Over All” as a reference to A Passage To India.

      The line is from Leaves of Grass, and a book that is central to the plot of Breaking Bad in general and this episode in particular.

      Is there any reason to think that Gilligan is drawing our attention to A Passage To India, as opposed to the more parsimonious explanation that he’s referencing a Leaves of Grass?

      • I didn’t mean to imply, as I don’t think SEK did, that the reference to Gliding O’er All should only be associated with Passages to India specifically and not with Leaves of Grass in general. There are multiple layers to the reference. And in any event Passages to India was published by Whitman as an annex to a later edition of Leaves of Grass, with Gliding O’er All on the introductory page of the annex. It’s all the same tangled mass conjured up by that single reference.

        And there’s so much resonance in Passage to India there’s lots of ground for making explicit connections. Plus part of the fun of analysis is seeing how deep the associations go. So Gliding O’er All is obviously first a tie to Leaves of Grass, which has been a part of Breaking Bad’s plot and themes for years. But the specific reference is also associated with a poem in Leaves of Grass that has both plot and thematic resonance all over the place.

        Besides the stuff pointed out above:

        For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past / As a projectile form’d, impell’d, passing a certain line still keeps on, / So the present utterly form’d, impell’d, by the past

        Adam and Eve appear, then their myriad progeny after them / Wandering, yearning, curious – with restless explorations, / With questionings, baffled, formless, feverish – with never happy hearts, / With that sad, incessant refrain, Wherefore unsatisfied Soul and Whither 0 mocking Life

        The whole reference is also utterly ironic, since Passage to India is replete with joyous celebration at the human impulse to build, to create, to tame, to face and stare down challenges, danger and death; and that this impulse and capability is inextricably bound up with what is good and holy about humanity, and with notions of spirituality and God; and at the time of the ultimate fulfillment of this impulse,

        Reckoning ahead, O soul, when thou, the time achiev’d, / (the seas all cross’d, weather’d the capes, the voyage done,) / Surrounded, copest, frontest God, yieldest, the aim attain’d, / As, fill’d with friendship, love complete, the Elder Brother found, / Younger melts in fondness in his arms

        all will melt into spiritual and familial love and fulfillment.

        Suffice to say Walt seems to be driven in part by that impulse but is not quite finding that sense of spiritual fulfillment and will probably not bathe in the love of his family when all is said and done.

      • SEK says:

        The line is from Leaves of Grass, and a book that is central to the plot of Breaking Bad in general and this episode in particular.

        Brief pedantic correction: it’s in Leaves of Grass because everything Whitman wrote ended up in Leaves of Grass. He started writing it in 1855 and finished it, on his deathbed, in 1892. I pointed out that there’s no poem called “Gliding O’er All” because it’s significant that those lines belong to “Passage to India,” which is explicitly about making connections via technology. I’ll have more on this in the follow-up post.

  5. Halloween Jack says:

    Not to sound like a suck-up, but making the connection between the fly and the screwworm fly on the poster is kind of brilliant. Walt, of course, has never been one to let blowflies, nature’s Sunshine Cleaning, take their course; he was all about the jugs of acid and the plastic tubs from the beginning, and the extermination business is a good match for him, as it’s all about eliminating bugs (which are really doing nothing but occupying an available niche in the local ecology) and imposing order on nature. Walt’s been all about eliminating the X factors from his own life, and if that means eliminating every X factor from all of Albuquerque, he’ll give it a shot.

    Thinking about Walt and the exterminators leads me to thinking about Walt and fascism; Walt, ultimately, has a very fascistic outlook on life, always finding a scapegoat for his failure to have his genius fully actualized and appreciated. Walt has come to resemble Edward Norton’s neo-Nazi character in American History X, his new associates methodically gas one house after another (Zyklon B was originally a pesticide), and Walt’s new assistant, that blond, clean-cut fellow, shoots a kid with no more malice than a professional exterminator stepping on a bug–after all, he was just following orders. (Consider meth’s first widespread use, and the most notorious tweaker in history.)

    • SEK says:

      Not to sound like a suck-up, but making the connection between the fly and the screwworm fly on the poster is kind of brilliant.

      It’s just a feature of looking too hard. When the camera forces me to stare at something, I stare at it. Sometimes the exercise is fruitless — either deliberately, in that not being able to see something is the point, or accidentally, because the director doesn’t know what he or she is doing — but in this case, I think the connection’s being deliberately made. That his front is an extermination company makes the connection all the more obvious: we’re constantly in infested environments, so looking for bugs seems like a natural thing to do.

  6. Mike says:

    Somebody wants to make themselves feel smart. BUT when you over analyze everything and say things like “the camera is trying to get us to think this” when it’s just your opinion, you just come across smug and pretentious.

    You’re 100% wrong about what the fly means to Walt. You’re also 100% wrong about Walt and the money. It’s really sad to see somebody trying to hard to act superior.

    You should stick to blogging about Justin Beiber and kittens, stuff you probably know more about.

    • SEK says:

      You’re 100% wrong about what the fly means to Walt. You’re also 100% wrong about Walt and the money.

      If I am, then prove it. I’ve presented my evidence — both narrative and visual — and if you can demonstrate that my explanation’s incorrect, I’m more than happy to consider an alternative one.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        He just wants you to blog about the Bieb and kittehs. (Not that you should indulge him; if there’s any subject that desperately needs tackling, it’s Community‘s Britta/Annie OTP.)

  7. nate says:

    Jeff, is that you?

  8. I didn’t know this poem. It looks like Harper uses it at the end of Angels in America (possibly the only one of her monologues that wasn’t cut from the HBO film): “And the souls of these departed joined hands . . . and made a web . . . and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.”

    • SEK says:

      I didn’t know this poem.

      One of the hazards of being a 19th Century Americanist is that you encounter oodles and oodles of Whitman.

      (Also, I just saw your comment on my Wikipedia post. I’ll respond shortly.)

  9. [...] the previous post, I claimed that the titular reference to Whitman’s “Passage to India” suggests [...]

  10. [...] this point my point should be staring you in the face: the mid-season finale of Breaking Bad is all about staring and what it means to stare. Staring can signify the acquisition of knowledge (the fly and the [...]

  11. [...] at doing it, Michelle MacClaren, whose episode of Breaking Bad, “Gliding Over All,” was all about staring and following stares. (In fact that second link contains images strongly resembling [...]

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