Breaking Bad: “Gliding Over All” the invisible lines and immaterial connectionsComments
(This being another one of those visual rhetoric posts.)
In the previous post, I claimed that the titular reference to Whitman’s “Passage to India” suggests that the central concerns of “Gliding Over All” were related to connectedness. I outlined the way in which the camerawork allows the audience to peer into Walter’s mind and observe him connecting the fly to Mike’s body by the power of intently staring. In retrospect I realize my claim is based on a manner of reading a visual text that’s not intuitive, and that I only do it because I’ve trained myself to. The full version of this argument can be found here, but for now a single image from it should suffice:
That yellow arrow obviously isn’t painted on “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” (I can personally attest to that.) I put it there to describe the eyeline match between the man at the table and Jesus. When we look at his eyes, we see that he’s looking at something and follow his line-of-sight. Is that line-of-sight in the painting? I would argue that it’s an invisible element that exists in the painting. Our eyes aren’t inventing that line-of-sight, they’re merely following it. The practical effect of this argument is that I see invisible lines all over my television. When a character stares at something I see the line shoot from his or her eyes and follow its trajectory. The longer the character the stares, the greater the intensity of the line, and the more thoughtful the act of staring seems to become. The classic example of this are the scenes in Antonioni’s Blowup in which Thomas uses his photographs to recreate the geography of the park in his apartment. Here’s the fence on the back wall:
Here’s Thomas staring at the unidentified man on the right wall:
What happens next?
Thomas follows the unidentified man’s eyes to the photographs of the fence on the back wall. Staring at the unidentified man led Thomas to follow the invisible lines shooting from his eyes which in turn compelled him to further “blow up” the image of the fence. In this sense Thomas is a figure of the audience: we share his desire to know what the man is staring at. This is an elaborate way of making a simple point: I see invisible lines and you do too. (You just didn’t know you did.)
The particular significance of those lines for “Gliding Over All” is that—as in Blowup—they function as tangible evidence of otherwise intangible thought processes. The staring is the physical equivalent of the technology Whitman celebrates in “Passage to India”: it is the canal through which ships can pass, the train tracks upon which locomatives can traverse, the underground cables through which messages can travel. It’s an invisible medium with the potential to be made meaningful because of what can move through it. In this episode it seems as if director MacLaren is intent on making Whitman’s point in as many ways as possible. On the one hand you have the kinds of connections discussed in the previous post and above. On the other hand you have discussions about creating a network of literal connections of the sort Whitman celebrated. Consider the scene of Walter and Lydia in the diner:
The fact that both of them are in-frame here is significant: sharing a frame creates the impression that characters are connected. This is especially true in a series like Breaking Bad which, as I noted earlier, the majority of conversational sequences are a series of reversed one-shots. What is the nature of their connection? The technological descendents of the invisible connections of which Whitman wrote: the telephone signals and airline routes that facilitate the movement of Walter’s product halfway across the globe. Lydia is offering Walter connections. When he balks MacLaren severs the implicit connection of the two-shot and switches to a series of profiles:
The more she convinces him the more connected they become:
The irony here is that the invisible connections I discussed in the previous post and the first half of this one are absent from the scene in which characters are literally forging a network of invisible connections. Until his sublime experience with the pile of money, Walter becomes—and is depicted by MacLaren as becoming—increasingly obsessed with abstract connections. Consider the scene in which he meets Todd’s uncle to put hits on Mike’s men:
As is hilariously evident when we follow all those eyelines, this shot is obscenely disconnected. But as with the scene in Blowup, MacLaren creates in the audience a desire to see whatever it is Walter is looking at. She lets the scene unfold for nearly two minutes before gratifying our curiosity:
But Walter isn’t just staring at a painting anymore than he was just staring at the fly. He’s attempting to stare through the this particular painting to all of its other iterations. After being told that coordinating the murders of Mike’s men is tantamount to killing bin Laden, Walter starts talking to no one in particular: “Where do you suppose these come from? I’ve seen this one before. I wonder, are they all in some giant warehouse someplace?” His first and third questions indicates that he wants to understand the deeper connection between all of these paintings. His second statement is simply one of fact:
That’s from “Bit by a Dead Bee,” the third episode of the second season, and that’s Walter staring at it from his hospital bed. There’s no visible flashback in “Gliding Over All,” but the suggestion is that Walter remembers where he’s seen it before. Or even if he doesn’t, he’s trying to remember by staring at it more intently than he has before, which means that’s another invisible line that’s functioning as a tangible representation of a thought process. Before moving on I should note that, as with the fly, the object being stared at is important. Just as the fly connected Walter to Mike’s dead body, this painting connects Walter to his family. It’s a painting, after all, of a woman and two children bidding a man farewell. That this family has a dog and Walter’s doesn’t is immaterial: studying that particular painting immediately before putting out a hit on eight imprisoned men reminds him of something. Maybe it’s why he’s doing it in the first place or maybe it’s how far at sea his life’s drifted. Doesn’t matter: both interpretations adequately serve as preparation for his decision to quit the business after the pile of money breaks him.
Tomorrow I’ll discuss the episode’s final scene, in which Walt Whitman helps Hank make the episode’s most significant connection.