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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:

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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:

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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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