Shot Analysis: On Breaking Bad’s Iconic Imagery
Shot Analysis: On Breaking Bad’s Iconic Imagery
The first half of the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad was littered with overt film references. Despite the intricate plot lines, and sometimes dizzying action sequences, several characters managed to make time to sit down and enjoy a classic film. And can you blame them? If anyone could use an escape from reality, it’s certainly the characters on Breaking Bad. Early in the season, Mike settles in after a rough day at work to watch The Caine Mutiny (1954), a World War II film about a mutiny aboard a U.S. Navy battleship. The nature of the film highlights Mike’s struggle in the first two episodes to keep his crew from talking to the DEA. In a later episode, Hank asks Walter Jr. if he would like to watch Heat (1995), which coincides with Walt’s attempt at his own Heat-like heist on a locomotive carrying the all important meth-making ingredient, methylamine. In another sequence, Walt, Walt Jr., and Holly sit around the television enjoying the “family” classic Scarface (1983). The Scarface reference serves as a reminder of the ongoing threat of danger to the White family, and also allows Walt to deliver the portentous, possibly prescient line: “Everybody dies in this movie, don’t they?” Mike sits down to enjoy another classic, The Big Heat (1953), while Hank and the DEA serve a search warrant on his apartment. The Big Heat reference feels less transparent, but could certainly be read as an omen of Hank’s future: “When a cop kills himself, they want a full report.”
At the same time that they were making these overt film references in the scripts, Gilligan and company’s superb shot direction imbued Season 5 with the aesthetic clout of some of cinema’s most iconic imagery.
Each of the aforementioned film references ends up highlighting an ongoing theme, or foreshadowing a future event. This herculean attention to detail plays a large part in making Breaking Bad so enjoyable to watch. It’s a rare thing for a television show to exhibit such a high level of film literacy in its writing, and rarer still for one to trust that its audience can follow it down the rabbit hole of references. And this film literacy extends well beyond the show’s writing. At the same time that they were making these overt film references in the scripts, Gilligan and company’s superb shot direction imbued Season 5 with the aesthetic clout of some of cinema’s most iconic imagery.
Part 1: The Tarantino Trunk Shot
Breaking Bad’s writers have long been known to tip their hats to the work of Quentin Tarantino. The most obvious point of reference may be in the show’s borrowing of the Mr. White moniker that Tarantino made famous in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Consider also the Denny’s scene in season 4’s “Boxcutter” episode. Recall how Jesse and Walt shared breakfast, wearing their new ill-fitting clothes–all after unexpectedly having to dispose of a body. Though the context is not quite the same, the scene certainly mirrors the diner scene in Pulp Fiction (1994) in which Jules and Vincent share breakfast after disposing of Marvin’s body.
Breaking Bad’s fifth season opens with a reference to Tarantino’s iconic, out-of-the-trunk, camera shot. Tarantino first employed the technique in Reservoir Dogs, in a scene where Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Pink are shot from inside the trunk of Mr. Blonde’s car. He went back to it again in Pulp Fiction. In comparing the two works notice that, while the shots are nearly identical, the context differs significantly. In each scene, the men are clearly on the verge of some criminal business, and are shot from the perspective of their guns. But whereas Jules nonchalantly quips, “We should have shotguns for this kind of thing,” Walter appears overwhelmed by the firepower of his newly purchased M60 machine gun. Jules and Vincent are veteran hit-men; Walter White wants an instruction manual. The use of the trunk shot acts as an acknowledgement of Tarantino’s influence on Breaking Bad, and gives the scene a heavy, cinematic feeling.
Part 2: Hello Darkness My Old Friend
Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) represented a watershed moment in film history; and, it is often cited for its stellar use of underwater cinematography. In the famous pool scene, Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is goaded by his parents to show off the the scuba gear that they have gifted him for his graduation. It’s a gift that he didn’t want or need, and serves only as a symbol of his father’s disposable income. “If it doesn’t work, I’m out two hundred dollars,” he gleefully notes while parading his son in front of the family’s circle of friends. The long shot of Benjamin sitting solitary at the bottom of the pool represents not only his character’s psychological isolation from his family, but also his disenchantment with their moral and social values.
It is fitting then that Breaking Bad would use a similar technique to highlight Skyler White’s isolation from her own family. In episode 504, “Fifty-One,” Skyler excuses herself from Walt’s birthday dinner and walks fully clothed into the family pool. Director Rian Johnson holds the camera on Gunn’s expressionless face, and expertly captures the melancholy bluishness in Nichols’ scene. The incident happens while Walt shares one of his many untruthful stories. In a way, like Benjamin, Skyler too is forced into the water. While her choice to sink into the pool certainly represents a rejection of Walt’s greed and mendacity, it also suggests the ways in which his actions have isolated her from the family. Because Skyler must corroborate Walt’s lies at every turn, she is unable to carry on the truthful, sisterly relationship she once had with Marie. The scene communicates her utter detachment from her family; and, Johnson couldn’t have picked a better moment to reference Nichols’ iconic scene.
Part 3: The Leone Close-Up and Long Shot
The show has always worked best when it plays itself up as a modern Western; and, the first half of Season 5, especially, focused on the terrible things that some men will do for a few dollars more.
Italian director Sergio Leone was famous for his juxtaposition of long shots and extreme close-ups, a style that has been heavily imitated over time. Breaking Bad employs the technique to great effect in several episodes throughout the series, perhaps never better than in Season 5’s “Say My Name.” Director Thomas Schnuaz opens the scene with two groups of men meeting in the New Mexico desert, and the camera oscillates between long shots of the sprawling landscape, and close-ups of the major players. The scene ends with an extreme close-up of Walt, acknowledging with pride that he is the great meth cook, “Heisenberg.” Notice the similarity between Cranston and Eastwood’s faces, the squinting eyes and downturned lips.
The use of Leone’s technique firmly establishes Breaking Bad in the tradition of the Western genre. Like many many of Leone’s films, Breaking Bad is, at its core, a straightforward morality tale. The show has always worked best when it plays itself up as a modern Western; and, the first half of Season 5, especially, focused on the terrible things that some men will do for a few dollars more.
I would love to hear your own thoughts on the fifth season of Breaking Bad. Also, check out Press Play’s video on the cinematography in Season 5.