(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:
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: