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Breaking Bad: “Gliding Over All” until you’re not

[ 55 ] September 15, 2012 |

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

At 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 painting) or suggest intimacy (the cafe) or indicate an experience with the ineffable (the money pile). That it functions so differently in a single episode prevents the audience from being able to predict how a particular stare will influence the narrative. (Unlike a stare in a generic gangster film, for example, which the audience can safely assume will lead to the death of the person being stared at or being thought about while the staring occurs.) This is why the final scene in the episode works so well: its simplicity. But before I get to that, I should set up the narrative at this particular moment. Walter and his extended family, including his DEA-employed brother-in-law Hank, are having a dinner beside the White’s pool. It’s worth noting that this is a significant pool: Walter spent the time in which Mike’s men were being murdered alternating between staring at it and his watch:

Breaking bad00106

Given that the palette of Walter’s depravity skews as blue as his meth, it’s not surprising that the face of his watch is blue. Nor is it surprising that after he learns that the synchronized hits went down successfully, MacLaren returns to the “scene” of the crime and shots Walter thus:

Breaking bad00143
There’s bad Walter bathed in blue and staring at the pool. He knows he’s crossed a line: it was one thing to murder Fring or Mike in what he could justify to himself as self-defense. It’s another entirely to remove Mike’s crew from the world because their continued existence posed a potential threat to his empire. Significantly, this is the scene immediately prior to the one in which Skyler introduces him to the money piles. [Sentences that were here now aren't. See the comments for more.] He’s cooked for three consecutive months and only could have done so by taking out Mike’s men. (Otherwise one of them would’ve talked and Walter would’ve been arrested.) As he sits by the side of his pool, ignorant of the exact amount of money he’s earned during his months long cooking binge, the serene look on his face may come from an exhausted sense of pride in work well-done, but it also hides the fact that he knows that work couldn’t have been done had he not arranged the murders of Mike’s men. The ends have justified his means. Then he’s introduced to the money pile, the experience of which so muddles his immoral calculus and leads to him informing Skyler that he’s retiring from the trade and bringing his family back into the fold. Which is only to say that regardless of Walter’s state of mind prior to meeting the money pile, its existence alters him in such a way that he believes himself capable of recapturing the life he’s lost.

The penultimate scene next to the pool is the first step in resumption of normalcy. His wife and children have returned home. His sister- and brother-in-law have come over for dinner. Everything is right in the universe. The river’s flowing:

Breaking bad00194
Traffic’s moving:


The sun’s setting:

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The sun’s rising:

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There’s a hose:

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And nobody’s staring at this bug:

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The montage leading up the poolside dinner goes to great length to create the impression that the rhythms of Walter’s life have returned to normal. For the first time in what feels like seasons, when Walter looks at Skyler, she responds not by talking to her wine or simply walking away, but with a smile that signifies, if not happiness, at least acceptance of the fact that she might one day be happy again:

Breaking bad00206
Breaking bad00206
The medium close-ups on their faces and the exaggerated eyeline matches—he stares off-frame right and she stares off-frame left—serve to hammer home the point that Walter not only can come home again, but that he has. He’s forsaken the trade and resumed living what he thinks of as “his life.” Which makes it all the more tragic when Hank needs to use the restroom, can’t find any suitable reading material and settles for some poetry:

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Which of course is Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Note though that he doesn’t stare at the volume intently in order to fathom the connections it might represent. He idly thumbs through the pages:

Breaking bad00168
Until he comes upon a handwritten inscription:

Breaking bad00169
From Gale Boetticher, the man Walter, in a moment of drunken arrogance, had convinced Hank couldn’t be Heisenberg. The fact that the camera reverses from a low-angle shot of Hank on the can to a high-angle shot of what Hank’s reading on the can is significant only inasmuch as it seems unwarranted. Something’s happening here, but it’s not happening in Hank’s head so much as it is to it. Hank’s being prodded to remember something:

Breaking bad00173
But unlike Walter—who was shot staring at the painting until he made the connection because he had to work for it, it couldn’t be conveniently given to him in the form of the flashback—MacLaren’s active camera suggests that something unintended and inadvertent is happening to Hank here, and sure enough, she provides him with a flashback:

Breaking bad00176
Breaking bad00176
And it’s blue. In the first frame above, Walter convinces Hank that Boetticher’s notes indicate that he couldn’t have been Heisenberg. In the second frame, Hank jokes that “W.W.” could stand for “Walter White” instead of “Walt Whitman,” to which Walter responds:

Breaking bad00181
“You got me!” Note how the extreme close-ups and obstructed two-shot create an exaggerated sense of intimacy: they not only both in-frame, but they’re so close to each other that the frame can’t even contain the entirety of their heads. They’re within each other’s personal space, and Walter’s confessing, albeit humorously, to being the meth kingpin he actually is. Hank laughed it off when it happened, but when he’s presented with the flashback, he feels all the more betrayed by the revelation that Walter actually is Heisenberg:

Breaking bad00183
And he does so in another doubly intimate moment: it’s an extreme close-up and he’s on Walter’s toilet. So what does he do? He stares at himself in the vanity mirror and sees a dupe with the truth in his hands and his pants around his ankles. The episode’s final irony is that for all the revelations and connections that were drawn and communicated through staring, everything that just came back together is going to fall apart because Hank just happened to glance at something. Hank got lucky, or Walter became sloppy, but what this final moment demonstrates is that whereas Walter needs to stare because he needs to be certain 100 percent of the time to maintain his secret, Hank only has to half-notice one thing and half-remember another in order to expose it.

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  1. Julia Grey says:

    Hank laughed it off when it happened, but when he’s presented with the flashback, he feels all the more betrayed by the revelation that Hank actually is Heisenberg:

    ?? Do you mean that Walter actually is Heisenberg?

    /total ignoramus

    (The reason I haven’t followed this show is that the one episode I did see featured a man killing his son for what appeared to be good reasons.

    Ohhkay. Art is supposed to be disturbing, right? Well. In this case, Art did Its thing very well indeed, and in so doing became extremely Not My Thing.)

    • SEK says:

      Do you mean that Walter actually is Heisenberg?

      I did. Thanks for catching that.

      The reason I haven’t followed this show is that the one episode I did see featured a man killing his son for what appeared to be good reasons.

      I’m trying to think of which episode you could be talking about but am drawing a blank. Needless to say, you’re right about it Not Being Some People’s Thing. There’s nothing wrong with that, any more than someone not understanding the appeal of Mad Men or me finding the psychoanalytic underbelly of The Sopranos so annoying that I can’t take the show seriously.

    • UberMitch says:

      (The reason I haven’t followed this show is that the one episode I did see featured a man killing his son for what appeared to be good reasons.

      OMG! Dirt Bike Kid was the son of Matt Damon!

    • DT says:

      (The reason I haven’t followed this show is that the one episode I did see featured a man killing his son for what appeared to be good reasons.

      You must have been watching a different show. Never happened.

  2. Julia Grey says:

    It was Walter himself who did it. And now I’m trying to remember, maybe he didn’t actually, actively kill him, he just let him die.

    But wasn’t there also something about smothering him with a pillow?

    And maybe it wasn’t even his son?

    Sorry, it was a long time ago. I do remember that I understood his dilemma, whatever it was, which actually only made it worse. So my own conflict about it helped to make me almost as sick as I was after That Scene in Sophie’s Choice, which I wished for years that I could just……UNSEE.

    • Hogan says:

      SEK in another context:

      Just remember those are the only eyes God gave you and some images can’t be stabbed out of them no matter how hard you try.

    • DT says:

      He did let a young woman choke on her own vomit as he watched. She was Jane, Jesse’s girlfriend.

    • Julia Grey says:

      The imagery employed to enrich these TV and film stories is fascinating to me because I work in text fiction, mostly as an editor trying to help people refine their narrative ways.

      We don’t have ACTUAL pictures to work with, but since I’ve been looking at/thinking about your posts here, I’ve been trying to create this kind of cinematic imagery in my mind when I’m working, even to sometimes sketching stuff out on little storyboards: Be sure to tell the reader about the darkness of the stairwell overhead at this point and then remind them of it again here….This scene is a “reverse shot,” show what he’s seeing first, then his reaction to it….

      • SEK says:

        I think you’ll enjoy my next series of posts. I’m working up the first season of Game of Thrones for my class, so I’ll be discussing the relation of the imagery in the novel with the way it’s been adapted for the small-screen. Those should start up on Monday.

        • Julia Grey says:

          Excellent.

          However, it’s interesting that this is one of those times when I found the film version more compelling than the text.

          I saw the HBO series first, then read the first book, and although it gave me additional information and new ways to look at the characters, I still preferred the visual version. Which is generally unlike me.

          Maybe it had something to do with Sean Bean. Or….

          Oh, surely not Peter Dinklage…!?

          • Cody says:

            I think it has to do with our real the film version makes it. Even though there is very little magic or things in the books either, when you actually see it…

            It’s very believable. At least that’s the effect it had on me.

          • YankeeFrank says:

            The film version is much more sophisticated than the books. I was kind of shocked by the lame writing in the books — they are full of fiction writing no-nos including complete exposition (telling, not showing), lack of a writing style other than what I will call “1st grade essay style” and actually quite prudish sexuality. Its one level above lame fanfic, whereas the HBO series is sophisticated visually, narratively and morally. I was very disappointed in the books frankly. Oh, and Dinklage’s character is SO much more interesting in the series… but then so if pretty much everything. The one good thing I can say for the books is that they gave us the show and so there must be something to them, although its hard to see it.

  3. DT says:

    Walter crosses his Rubicon immediately before he learns that he didn’t need to. When the money pile breaks his brain he realizes that he’s sentenced to death men who didn’t need to die. He already had the treasury.

    You got the timeline all wrong here. The scene at the pool, and the storage bin scene that follows it, happen after the 3-month meth cooking montage, not right after the prison murders. If Walt hadn’t had Mike’s men killed, he wouldn’t have been able to amass “the treasury” because Mike’s guys would have been spilling their guts to the DEA. If anything, viewing the pile of cash would have confirmed to Walt that the massacre was the right move, since it made possible all the cooking that followed it.

    This would seem to pretty much derail the rest of your analysis, wouldn’t it?

    • GFW says:

      You beat me to it while I was typing. Between us I’d say we pretty much nailed every little detail.

    • SEK says:

      The three months that pass is a factor, in a narrative sense, but in terms of scene-to-scene, it’s less of an issue. The montage, after all, speeds up narrative time in order to create the appearance that it sped by for the characters. Sure, it was hard work, but the days, they just blew by, etc. I’m not saying you’re wrong, because clearly you aren’t, but the contiguity of the scenes is as important to the effect as the literal passage of time. (You’re right, though, that that “immediately” is misleading.)

      • GFW says:

        It’s not just contiguity of scene … your statement “He already had the treasury.” is wrong, therefore “he’s sentenced to death men who didn’t need to die.” is wrong, etc.

        DT’s key conclusion

        If anything, viewing the pile of cash would have confirmed to Walt that the massacre was the right move, since it made possible all the cooking that followed it.

        fits perfectly with both logic and what we know of Walt’s character.

      • DT says:

        Nice try, but I’m not buying it. Your point was that Walt realizes that he crossed a line he didn’t need to; he realizes no such thing. Ever. That’s what makes him a monster. He crossed that line long ago; by the time he poisons Brock in season four, he had already crossed it.

        • Craigo says:

          I’d argue that letting Jane die, as discussed above, crossed the line as well, though I recognize the difference between refusing to save a life and deliberately endangering one.

          • DT says:

            You could argue that he crossed a line (if not the line) early in season one, when he killed Crazy 8 with the bike lock. Jane was another line, but he did feel guilty while he watched her die (he cried). With Brock, there was no remorse, just cold calculation.

            • Anonymous says:

              I haven’t watched Season 1 in quite a while, but as I recall Walt had finally decided to release Crazy 8, and only killed him when he was threatened. But it may have been more ambiguous.

              • DT says:

                You’re right, kind of. He did decide to release him, but changed his mind when he realized that Crazy had pocketed a wedge-shaped shard of the broken plate. It was Walt’s first killing, and he was reluctant up until the moment when he realized he had no choice.

      • Jon says:

        Was it just me, or did that montage feel unusually long? I’m not sure what the standard montage-time is in Breaking Bad (I vaguely recall they’ve had a few) or in other shows, but I remember thinking it was stretching out a little uncomfortably by the second time the words, “crystal blue persuasion” were sung — and then it seemed like they kept playing the song, if not to the end, then pretty close to it.

    • SEK says:

      That said, I do think that takes the winds out of that paragraph’s sails. I still think the sequencing is significant, as is the fact that he’s returned to the “scene” of his crime, even if it is three months later. But I don’t think it derails the rest of my analysis, which is based on Walter reacquiring a “normal” life after his sublime encounter with the money pile.

      • GFW says:

        Walter reacquiring a “normal” life after his sublime encounter with the money pile.

        No argument here! Indeed, you might want to think about his ability to return to normal as evidence for how self-justified he must be about the murders.

        • DT says:

          That’s an excellent point. Walt feels vindicated (for now).

        • SEK says:

          I think this is the direction I’m headed: the murders enable him to create the circumstances that’ll allow him to return to a normal life. At this point, though, he doesn’t yet know that. He knows he’s made a lot of meth, but he’s yet to have the sublime experience of the pile of money. If anything, then, this scene by the pool almost amounts to a self-acknowledgement of pride-in-craft. He’s proud of the work he’s done, even though he doesn’t know exactly what it’s amounted to.

          • DT says:

            By the time he’s sitting by the pool, the murders are long past. If anything, he’s probably thinking about how cooking meth is turning out to be as much of a grind as teaching high school chemistry (throughout the cooking montage, we see shots of him sitting alone in the dark, looking dour), not about the murders.

            Scott, no disrespect, but I think you might need to give it another viewing.

            • SEK says:

              None taken. I did re-watch that bit, and I still think that the scenic contiguity matters, but I think your explanation’s plausible as well. I updated the original post to reflect that and pointed to your comments.

  4. GFW says:

    Significantly, this is the scene immediately prior to the one in which Skyler introduces him to the money piles. This is extremely important for narrative reasons because the tension at work in the episode’s final moments is born of the contradiction: Walter crosses his Rubicon immediately before he learns that he didn’t need to.

    I have to disagree there. There are the multiple murders, then a montage representing three months of raking in huge profits selling both to his new US distributors and through Lydia to the Czech Republic … and then Skylar shows him the pile of cash in the locker. It’s a reasonable (almost inescapable) inference that Skylar only created that pile over those three months, as the money stream was more than twice as large as it’s ever been, and no bizarre threats or emergencies came up. (Recall, Skylar didn’t have a locker full of money when she used much of Walter’s stash to fix their Beneke/IRS problem, and that was only just before Walt took out Gus.

    • SEK says:

      There are the multiple murders, then a montage representing three months of raking in huge profits selling both to his new US distributors and through Lydia to the Czech Republic … and then Skylar shows him the pile of cash in the locker.

      Again, you’re not wrong. I just think we disagree about how that montage compresses narrative time, and that it might do so differently for the character and the audience. Another way of putting it is this: the montage compresses months into minutes, so we see the murders happen, have the montage, see Walter by the pool, then he’s introduced the the piles. Even though three months are elided via editing, I don’t think the effect of the sequence is “look at how much time has passed.” To me, it’s more like “I remember ordering the hit on those guys like it was yesterday.”

      • SEK says:

        Sorry, didn’t mean “again.” You’re a different person making the same point. I blame my eyes. They’re old!

        • GFW says:

          No problem with the “again” – it reads correctly to anyone reading the comments in the order in which they are laid out on the page. But (as I pointed out under DT’s nearly identical comment, and feel free to only respond there so as to combine the threads) the compression of time doesn’t alter the logic of “Was killing Mike’s guys necessary to Walt’s success?” He would see it as completely the correct move regardless of how quickly those three months passed.

  5. [...] Part III: In which we learn about the color blue and that sometimes looking is important too. [...]

  6. Jed Covington says:

    It’s also important to note that the scene you describe above opens with a series of shots that are practically mirror images of the shots that make up (what is collectively known as) 737 down over abq…It would appear in this case, at least, it is I playing Hank to your Walter sir!

  7. [...] 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 those about to follow, except this [...]

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