And, sometimes, the binge-watch gets interrupted…
I said when I started this series that I wanted to honestly chronicle the experience of binge-watching, but that hasn’t completely worked the way I imagined it. As it turns out—who knew?—having to stop and write 5,000 word posts after every few episodes really screws with the momentum that the term “binge-watch” implies. So far, I’ve made it through two and a half seasons in about six weeks: respectable for a reviewer, perhaps, but downright shameful for a binger.
(If you’re interested in knowing how I really binge-watch things—when I don’t have to write about them—I could mention here that, in the six weeks since I began watching Breaking Bad, I’ve also binged three seasons of Call the Midwife, one season of You’re the Worst, all three seasons of Slings & Arrows, all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, about 18 episodes of Arrow, and I’ve caught up with the last five episodes of Outlander. Some of these were re-watches, and almost all of them were just on while I was doing other things, but still: when I really want to binge something, I tend to knock it out in days, not weeks or months.)
What’s happening with Breaking Bad is that I have too much to say about each batch of episodes, and writing time is harder to come by than watching time. I first watched these five episodes over two weeks ago, but those have been a busy two weeks, and I’ve been picking away at this post ever since. (I’ve also had to go back and rewatch them, because I found I couldn’t remember what happened in the middle bits.) And of course, to preserve as much of the “first-watch” experience as possible, I’m not allowing myself to move onto watching the next batch until I’ve finished writing about the last batch.
All of which is really just a long-winded apology for the lateness of this post, and an admission that I might need to either rethink my approach to this “Binge Watch” series or else, at the very least, rethink the name.
For now, however, let’s get on with it…
BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION SIX
Binge Watch Period: September 2–3, 2014
Episodes Watched: Season 3, Episodes 6–10 (“Sunset,” “One Minute,” “I See You,” Kafkaesque,” and “Fly” )
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Harried and guilt-ridden: see above.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago that watching Breaking Bad the way I’m doing it—by splitting it up into uneven chunks of episodes—creates an artificial sense of cohesion. In some reviews I’ve covered three or four episodes, in others six or seven, but in each case it feels like these completely arbitrary groupings have an organic logic of their own: wherever I begin and end, I can’t help but approach (and discuss) each run as if they make sense as a unit. It’s one of the curious perversities of binge-watching: we can completely disregard whatever start-and-stop points a show’s creator intended, and create little mini-seasons of our own.
Like I said, it’s an illusion of cohesion, conjured by whim. And yet, in these last two binge-watching sessions I can’t help but feel as if I’ve haphazardly stumbled upon the right groupings, at least for this season. The first five episodes of Breaking Bad‘s third season were a unit: beginning with “No Más” and ending with “Más,” it was—to my occasional irritation—the domestic-drama portion of the season: it began with Walt on good behavior, trying to patch things up with his family, and it ended with his signing his divorce papers, moving out of the family house, and accepting Gus’s offer to get back into the meth business.
A lucky accident, I thought. But imagine my surprise when I got to this next arbitrary grouping, and realized it begins, and ends, with flies.
I don’t think there’s any question that the scene that opens Episode Six, “Sunset,” exists almost solely to echo forward to Episode Ten, “Fly.” There’s really no other reason for this little mini-suspense movie about a cop who stumbles upon one of the Salamanca Brothers’ victims (and becomes one of those victims himself). I mean, the scene contributes nothing to the overall plot except to show us that the that brothers are dangerous, and ruthless, and willing to kill innocent people out of convenience: something we already knew from the scene in the season premiere when they torched an entire truckload of illegal immigrants. Here, though the scene also foreshadows their confrontation with another cop—Hank—in “One Minute,” the main purpose of this scene is to introduce that image of the flies swarming around the old woman’s corpse.
Season Two had the pink bear, and Season Three has the fly, and both generally represent the same thing: the dangerous consequences of Walt’s actions. (This woman, after all, is just another of the now scores of faceless victims who have died because Walter White is having a midlife crisis.) But the way the imagery has shifted is interesting. The pink bear was a symbol of innocence, destroyed: it represented the innocent victims (including, but not limited to, Jane), but it also represented the loss of Walt’s innocence, his naive belief that he could somehow make a lot of money from cooking methamphetamines without having to hurt anyone, and while still maintaining his role as a loving husband and father. As I said in my discussion of the finale, that scorched, drowned children’s toy also stood for Walt the Family Man, Walt the Father, Walt the Good Guy.
Now, in contrast to that innocent image, we have the fly: a symbol of corruption, a symbol of decay, a symbol of evil and death. Walt no longer even has any illusions of innocence or good intentions to which he can cling: he knows the destruction his actions cause, he has grappled with it, and accepted it, and he has now decided to keep doing it anyway. He is consciously, deliberately, even longingly, choosing the path to Hell. We can call him Heisenberg, or we can call him Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies.
(I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek there, but I don’t think the demonic metaphor is too overwrought, especially since Gus, the Chicken Man, cuts a decidedly Mephistopholean figure. It’s been clear almost right from the start that Breaking Bad is a story of damnation.)
There’s another, related theme that ties these five episodes together, and it’s one that has—as I’ve mentioned before—been creeping its way into Breaking Bad for a while now: the nature of the universe. “Sunset” shows us Walt’s first day of work—descending into the underworld, I should note—where he meets his new lab assistant, the officious and efficient Gale (David Constabile). Walt and Gale bond over their love of chemistry, and the glorious moments in the lab when science becomes indistinguishable from magic. Gale—who cheerfully admits to being a “nerd”—recites Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
One suspects Gale and Walt were both better students of science than of poetry, since Whitman’s poem is far from being an ode to science; rather, it expresses almost a nauseated revulsion with scientific method, as the astronomer’s attempts to chart and diagram and order the universe drive the speaker to retreat into experiential wonder and mysticism. It’s an expression of terror at seeing the endless mysteries of the universe reduced to cold hard facts.
And in “Fly,” Walt experiences the opposite terror: the possibility that there are hidden workings of the universe that can’t be explained by science and math. He describes to Jesse—Gale’s replacement—how he happened to encounter Jane’s father in a bar on the same night that Jane herself died. “I mean, think of the odds,” Walt says. “Once I tried to calculate them, but they’re astronomical,” he says (calling back to Gale’s Learn’d Astronomer).
“The universe is random. It’s not inevitable. It’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That’s what science teaches us. But what is this saying? What is it telling us when, on the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who’s having a drink with him? How can that be random?”
What, in other words, if it’s not random? What if there is an order to the universe, for which science can’t account? Call it God, or mysticism, or fate, it’s a concept that’s at odds with Walter’s “Heisenbergean” sense of the way things work, and one that’s a threat to his sense of himself and his own culpibility.
I confess—avowed atheist though I am—I have a fondness for these sorts of theological questions in my fictions. (They come up a lot in my reviews of Game of Thrones as well.) Because when fictional characters ask these sorts of questions about their fictional universes, they are not simply philosophizing: they are interrogating the very belief-system of the show they are living in. What is the nature of the universe in Breaking Bad? Is it just a haphazard experiment in which characters and elements are set in motion just to see what happens? Or is there a larger purpose to it, a larger meaning, a plan? Is there, in the end, a message in all of it? And, more importantly, is there a moral authority, a force that will eventually reward the good and punish the bad?
(There is, of course, another meta-element in this type of questioning: do the creators know what the hell they’re doing? Vince Gilligan has said that Season Two was painstakingly planned and ordered in the writers’ room—they knew exactly where they wanted it to go—while Season Three was much looser and more character-driven: there was no master plan. “So we were on a journey of discovery in which we were trying not to force any particular plot moments into happening,” he has said of this season. The showrunner is God in the television cosmos, but how firm a hand he has on the fates of his characters can vary from season to season.)
So, though it’s almost never stated directly, I think this question of order vs. chaos is at the center of Breaking Bad. It is, certainly, at the root of Walt’s unease—though he has not yet articulated it, even to himself—and the question that keeps us, as audience members, intrigued: will there be a reckoning? Will Walt, eventually, be held responsible for what he has done? Is there order in this chaos after all?
It comes up several times in these episodes, in other ways. For example, after Hank has beaten Jesse unconscious in “One Minute,” and faces an internal investigation, Marie tells him he should lie to protect himself because, ultimately, he did the right thing. “Oh, baby, it wasn’t the right thing,” Hank says. “I’m supposed to be better than that.” Absent any other moral authority, he holds himself to a higher standard, and confesses the truth to the investigators though he knows it will result in his suspension. And, almost immediately, he is rewarded for his honesty: he learns that Jesse isn’t pressing charges. “Maybe you have a guardian angel,” his boss tells him.
And maybe he does, but the universe moves in mysterious ways. In the very next scene, Hank—who thinks he has put his sins behind him—finds himself in a nightmarish ordeal as he comes under attack by the Salamanca Brothers. It’s one of the best, and most fantastically tense action sequences Breaking Bad has produced.
(Side-note: TV directors rarely get a lot of notice, let alone acclaim, so let me put in a word here for Michelle Maclaren, who is one of the best working in the business: in addition to this and other episodes of Breaking Bad—like the classic “4 Days Out”—she’s directed several hours of Game of Thrones, and I first noticed her as the director of the nihilistically brilliant episode of The Walking Dead, “Pretty Much Dead Already.”)
But back to poor Hank, and the question of order in the Breaking Bad universe. This scene plays with issues of luck and fate and cosmic retribution as though there may be a design to all of it. Earlier in “One Minute,” for example, we see the brothers buying their bullet-proof vests from a roadside arms dealer, who gives them a single bullet as a free sample. (The scene ends with them shooting him in the chest to test out the effectiveness of his Kevlar, which fortunately holds up.) That single, predestined Chekhov’s bullet, of course, turns out to be what saves Hank’s life.
But the larger question is how we interpret this event at all: is it karmic payback for Hank, as punishment for his brutality towards Jesse? Or is it a karmic reward, because he receives a call from his “guardian angel” that alerts him to an assassination attempt he would almost certainly not have survived otherwise? Is it both, or is the universe not really concerned one way or the other?
It’s too early to be saying what the ultimate stance of Vince Gilligan is, vis-a-vis a just and moral universe—we probably won’t really know the answer until we see how the series concludes—but for now, the only real order in Breaking Bad comes from Walt. He is Hank’s “guardian angel” here: directly, in the case of Jesse—whom Walt convinces to drop the charges—and indirectly in the case of the phone call, which came from Walt’s new boss Gus. Nearly everything bad that has happened on this show is the direct and indirect results of Walt’s actions and decisions. If the fly is evil, then the spider is Walt, sitting at the center of a sticky web of consequences.
So there may be no moral order to the universe: no fate, no judge on high, no cosmic balancing of the scales. There may, in the end, be nothing more than individual actions and individual responsibility. But maybe that will turn out to be enough? Because, just as Hank has to hold himself to a higher moral authority, Walt may end up doing the same thing.
It is important to note that, every time Walt gets good news—every time the universe seems to reward him for his actions—he becomes self-destructive. In last season’s “4 Days Out,” he found out he was in remission, and instead of being relieved he beat his fists bloody in frustration. (He later said that he asked “Why me?” both when he learned he had cancer and when he learned he would live.) The absence of any divine justice clearly troubles him, and it’s only getting worse.
Now, in “Kafkaesque”—note the echoes of an insect theme in that title—he receives what is essentially a lifetime contract from Gus, who is willing to pay him $15 million a year to keep making meth. This is beyond the wildest dreams he had when he set out on this course of action—remember when he thought he only needed $737,000?—but it makes Walt suicidal rather than elated. Immediately after this conversation, he gets on the highway, and revs his car up to 100 mph, and closes his eyes as the car drifts into oncoming traffic, just narrowly avoiding a head-on collision. There is a core of self-loathing in this man, and an impulse towards self-destruction, that is only getting worse as he grows more successful.
Which brings us back to “Fly,” in which, at one point, Jesse asks Walt straight out if he wants to die. There’s no question, I think, that Walt wants to die, and perhaps has been feeling trapped in his life since even before his cancer diagnosis. His decision to start cooking meth, way back in the pilot, was never about living, but about having something to leave behind. (Remember how nonchalantly he heard his cancer diagnosis in the first place, more concerned about the mustard on doctor’s lab-coat than about his own death sentence.)
Even now, in remission—with many years perhaps ahead of him—all he can do is lament that there’s “no end in sight,” and worry about how he missed the right moment to die. As he tells Jesse:
“There was some perfect moment, and it passed me right by. I had to have enough to leave them. That was the whole point. I mean, none of this makes any sense if I didn’t have enough. But it had to be before she found out. Skyler. It had to be before that…I’m saying I’ve lived too long. I mean, you want them to actually miss you, you know? You want their memories of you to be…”
I know that “Fly” is a divisive episode, but I think it’s brilliant: as I’ve said before, Walt-and-Jesse-alone-in-the-lab is Breaking Bad in its purest form, and the way the show keeps playing with that simple formula is fantastic. Last season, in “4 Days Out,” they found themselves in an externally imposed pressure cooker: they were trapped, and forced to fight for their lives, and that comedy of errors and accidents led Walt to the epiphany that he deserved to die: it felt, to him, like fate, like divine wrath, like he was being punished for his sins. At this point—immediately before his remission—Walt still believed that there was some force in the universe that would bring him to justice.
But now he knows better—and it bothers him more. He has his health (relatively speaking), he has his perfect lab where he can “respect the chemistry,” and he has all the money he could ever spend and the promise of more than his family could ever need.
But then there’s that damn fly. It’s important to note that this “crisis,” unlike “4 Days Out,” is entirely self-imposed: this psychological pressure-cooker is all Walt’s doing. Walt keeps expecting to pay for what he’s done, and he keeps getting rewarded. And so, he’s starting to go a little crazy. Absent any divine force to punish him, he punishes himself, which manifests here as an obsessive need to grapple with the fly: this nagging symbol of corruption, of death, of evil.
On a basic level, the fly is his guilt over Jane’s death: that’s the thing that buzzes, constantly, between he and Jesse as they work together side-by-side, and—importantly—it can’t be killed until Walt apologizes. “I’m sorry,” he says to Jesse—who doesn’t even know what he’s apologizing for—and shortly thereafter Jesse finally manages to crush the fly. But by then Walt doesn’t care, because he’s realized that snuffing out this one sin—this one piece of contamination—doesn’t matter. (Even his speech about the “perfect moment” reveals the true nature of his troubled soul: the perfect moment he picks is, of course, the moment before his greatest sin, the last chance he had to stop himself from becoming a monster. If he had died that night, Jane would still be alive, 167 airline passengers would still be alive, and a lot of other people he doesn’t even know about—like that old woman in “Sunset”— would still be alive. If Walt had died that night, Hank might not have been crippled, and Jesse might be happy, and yes, Walt’s family might even still love him.)
“It’s all contaminated,” he says, and it is: his whole life is contaminated, everything he touches and everyone he comes into contact with. That night, when he goes home, the fly is there, looking down on him, accusing him, reminding him that there’s no escape from his sins, and no exit from the Hell he’s chosen. I’ll leave for another time the question of why Walt doesn’t take a more direct path to suicide than this slow, careless, toxic route he’s chosen, but, one way or another, this show that once seemed to be about self-empowerment is becoming a show about self-destruction.
And so the key symbol in these episodes may not be the fly at all, but that image of Walt, recklessly barreling down the highway towards his own death, and the deaths of others, with his eyes tightly closed.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Running so far behind this week, I’ve skipped a lot that happens in these episodes, particularly concerning Jesse (who is playing a very dangerous game, skimming meth from the lab to sell on his own). On the theme of evil and damnation, however, it strikes me that Jesse’s deadly sin is not greed, but pride. In “One Minute,” he reveals that his anger towards Walt is not about getting cut out of the business, but about how Walt insulted the quality of Jesse’s product. (“You said my meth is inferior.”) And the theme is picked up in “Kafkaesque,” when Jesse’s rehab counselor (Jere Burns) asks him what he would like to do, and Jesse describes how he once made a box in shop class that was perfect. It’s a clue that the root of Jesse’s issues—and this may be similar to the root of Walt’s—is that he has never been good at anything in his life, never done anything in which he can take really take pride.
- I ascribed Hank’s motives in confessing to guilt, but of course it’s more complicated than that: he’s also still suffering PTSD (from his shootout with Tuco, and his encounter with exploding tortoises), and so there is a part of him that is anxious to escape the dangerous life of a cop. In this sense, his self-destructive behavior parallels Walt’s, a little: they are both caught up in violent nightmares, but are too caught up in questions of masculinity and self-image to escape.
- The first scene of the season showed the Salamanca Brothers crawling on their bellies towards a religious shrine, as a pilgrimage to ensure the death of “Heisenberg.” We get a nice callback to that in “I See You,” when the now legless Leonel Salamanca (Daniel Moncado) crawls out of his bed and drags himself in a murderous rage of recognition towards Walt. (Also, we can perhaps put it down as an argument against a moral universe—for now—that all the Salamanca Brothers’ devout prayers didn’t work.)
- Speaking of callbacks, Walt trying to figure out where he’s losing .14 percent of Gus’s meth (which Jesse is stealing) calls back to that .12 percent of the human body he and Gretchen couldn’t account for in “Cancer Man,” which Gretchen concluded was the soul.
- I really don’t spend enough time talking about the comedy on Breaking Bad, but Aaron Paul really is a goldmine, and the lab is bringing out the best in him. Favorite moments: Walt explaining to Gale how he needs someone more “classical,” not “jazz,” and then Jesse entering so Gale can see what “classical” looks like; Jesse alone in the lab in “I See You,” inflating his hazardous materials suit out of boredom; and, of course, the Three-Stooges slapstick of he and Walt hitting each other with a makeshift flyswatter in “Fly.” The way this show is able to pivot from absurdity to drama is kind of amazing.
Next: In an effort to pick up the pace, I’m going to try something different
and “live-blog”the final three episodes of this season.