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Breaking Bad as Literature
When you spend time thinking about what makes Breaking Bad so very (pardon the pun) dope, you're bound to run to the crazy plots, the unforgettable characters, and the nose-hair-curling action sequences.
But Breaking Bad is a work of art, and without its signature visual and narrative style, it wouldn't feel the same at all. Like Walt says to Declan, it'd just be some tepid off-brand generic cola—but what Vince Gilligan and his crew are making is Classic Coke.
And we mean classic.
In this lesson, we're going to talk about some of the artistic and visual storytelling techniques that boost the show's appeal.
Watch and Learn
First things first: read this essay by the Emmy award-winning Michael Slovis, the cinematographer for Breaking Bad.
He's got a lot to say about his vision for the series, and he points out some fantastically interesting strategies he used: for instance, that you "often don't see the faces of the main characters"—they're often concealed or obscured in darkness. (We know it gets pretty technical about halfway through. It's okay if you can't understand the jargon; we just think it's cool to see how much expertise goes into it.)
Then bust on over to Slovis's interview with Huffington Post, where he walks you through six specific shots in the fifth season and the decisions that went into them.
Breaking Bad's camera is almost a character all its own: it's psychic, it has a dark sense of humor, and through its big round eye, it manages the entire experience of the series. Let's take a closer look:
When the Huffington Post article describes the gas can shot in Season 5, they briefly touch on one of the most signature features of the series: it loves to stick its camera into things, attach it to things, and generally put it in places you wouldn't expect. Check out this montage to see what we're talking about.
These "point of view" shots do more than just make things look cool (and make you kind of motion sick). Did you notice how almost every POV shot involves putting things in or taking things out of a container—the dryer full of cash, the beer from the fridge, the gas from the gas tank, the axe from the trunk, and so on?
What does it all mean?
Well, anything you want it to.
But if you give us a second to put on our film critic berets, we'd say it could be a visual metaphor for the theme of concealment and uncovering that runs through the show. The same way that people are always keeping secrets hidden or exposing them, the show is constantly showing you the process of things being hidden or exposed. This theme of hiding and discovery is reflected again and again in the major plot devices of the series: the ricin cigarette behind the wall socket, the snub-nosed pistol Walt hides in the car wash vending machine, the money in the crawl space and the storage unit, Gus's poisoned tequila, the well that Mike dumps his guns in… the list goes on.
It also has another neat effect: to cleverly transition from one character's perspective to another. We're thinking of that scene in "Buried" (Season 5, Episode 10) when Lydia calls in a vicious attack that wipes out everyone at Declan's meth lab. In that scene, everything we see up until that point is everything Lydia sees; in other words, we're seeing things from her point of view. But then when Todd calls her up to escort her away, she doesn't want to see any of the carnage, so she closes her eyes as Todd walks her through the field of dead bodies.
Teasing and foreshadowing
Every Breaking Bad fan knows about the famous "flash-forward" sequences at the beginnings of some of the episodes:
- The pants flying through the desert at the beginning of the pilot
- Walt walking away from the burning building in "Crazy Handful of Nothin'" (Season 1, Episode 6)
- The pink teddy bear in the swimming pool in Season 2
- The broken glasses in "Bug" (Season 4, Episode 9)
- The one-year-later scenes with Walt in Season 5
But the camera actually plants clues and hints in even subtler ways. In the first scene of "Box Cutter" (Season 4, Premiere), Gale puts down the green box cutter that the camera lingers on. Later in that episode, the camera knows right where that box cutter's going—across Victor's throat.
And in "Hermanos" (Season 4, Episode 8), when Gus goes to visit Hank and be questioned, the rising elevator makes a dinging sound—just like the one Tio Salamanca uses to kill him at the end of the season—as the camera zooms in on his fingers, which are anxiously tapping away.
But probably the biggest tease of all is the devastating slow-pan at the end of the Season 4 finale, when the camera slowly shows us the Lily of the Valley plant next to Walt's pool, and lets us connect the dots: Walt poisoned Brock. Interestingly, nobody's in that shot; we're not in any character's perspective, we're just being led along by the show itself to look at something.
P.S. If you cut back an episode to "End Times" (Season 4, Episode 12), when Walt is spinning his gun around, the camera moves sideways specifically to show us where it's pointing: at the Lily of the Valley. Ah, foreshadowing. (And sure enough, some enterprising YouTuber sleuthed it out before the finale aired!)
The camera is opinionated, and it's got a pretty good (and really dark) sense of humor. The main technique it uses to get laughs is something called the smash cut: it's when one scene is suddenly interrupted by the next scene, usually in a way that comically highlights the differences between the two.
There are plenty of examples, but we'll just mention three that sum up Breaking Bad's grim humor:
- When they're cleaning up Victor's blood later in the "Box Cutter" episode, the camera pans down to the swirl of blood that Walt's mopping up; the camera then smash-cuts to a swirl of ketchup being mopped up by a french-fry in the same counterclockwise way, before panning up to reveal that Walt and Jesse are at a diner. Not only is this a darkly funny and efficient segue, it also makes a symbolic connection between blood and food.
- At the beginning of "Half Measures" (Season 3, Episode 12), a shot of the streetwalker Wendy servicing one of her clients smash-cuts to a beer can exploding in a plume of foam.
- In that same episode, we see probably the most plot-relevant smash-cut in the series. Hank, who's recently been shot by the Cousins, refuses to leave the hospital until he's recovered, but Marie makes him a bet: he has to leave the hospital if she can "make the groundhog see his shadow" (um, just watch the scene if you don't know what we're talking about). Then the camera smash-cuts to Hank, being wheeled out of the hospital by a smugly triumphant Marie. Happy Groundhog Day, Hank!