(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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.]