Direction doesn’t get noticed a lot in the realm of TV criticism, since most shows stick to an established template for their look and the true driving force behind most shows comes from a showrunner or executive producer whose creative vision always prevails. This is not to take away from the wonderful writers on Breaking Bad or anything like that, but one of the reasons the series succeeds so much is the way its directors have carved out a distinctive look for the show that’s like nothing else on TV. The series has been making good use of independent film directors (The Last Seduction and Red Rock West’s John Dahl—who’s directed episodes of Battlestar Galactica and True Blood as well—last week and Johan Renck, director of Downloading Nancy and numerous music videos, this week), but that also has to do with how the series chooses to shoot its desert locations.
I’ve actually been unable to find out if Breaking Bad shoots on location in New Mexico (from the look of the show, it wouldn’t surprise me if the series does), but the way it uses its outdoor locations really reminds me of the way you can just get swallowed up by the American West if you leave the highways and travel down dirt roads. Look at that wide establishing shot of Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) little red car pulled over to the side of a desert byway or the shots a couple of weeks ago of Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse picking their way through a desert wasteland. The color in this week’s desert shots was also ever-so-slightly oversaturated. The blue skies were bluer, and the reds of the desert dirt were redder. But it’s not just outdoors or in the wilderness where Breaking Bad’s directors show off their stuff.
It was fitting that Renck, most famous for those music videos, directed this week’s episode, “Breakage,” written by Moira Walley-Beckett, considering that the episode’s centerpiece was a jittery musical montage of Jesse’s fledgling drug-peddling business taking root in the Albuquerque underworld. Scored to a jazzy little number, the thing burbled along as Jesse’s lowlife pals sold their merchandise to a wide variety of society’s less-respectable denizens. The whole thing felt like it was slightly out of control and got ever-more so, from the sped-up pace of the action on screen to the ever-quickening rhythm of the cuts. The whole sequence pulsated with great shots, particularly the camera lurking around the corner in the back room of a pet store, coming around it to find a drug deal going down, the whole thing lit with the haunting blues of the fish tanks lining the room (if I were any better at screen-capping, I’d grab y’all a look at it, it was that great).
Renck’s influence over the episode didn’t stop there. He shot Hank’s (Dean Norris) process of bottling his own beer in a very similar fashion to the way we’ve seen Walt brewing up his latest batch of crystal meth. Many of the shots in this sequence deliberately echoed the Walt cooking sequences of season one, but with the framing less off-center. What Walt and Hank are doing is, at a chemical level, basically the same thing. They’re using everyday objects to create mood-altering substances. But Walt’s cooking is, of course, illegal, while Hank’s brewing is something anyone can do in their garage (including virtually every guy I went to college with, apparently). Or look at how Renck shoots Walt’s medical procedure early in the episode with virtually the same set of shots. Here’s another use of drugs, the episode seems to say. Using them to heal the sick. That sequence was followed up by a great little vignette of Walt sitting still in his chair at the clinic, everyone buzzing around him like sped-up insects in a Disney nature documentary from the 1950s. There were flourishes in the episode that didn’t quite work (like Walt tossing his “HOPE” button in a trashcan), but, by and large, Renck took this episode and made it his own, right down to its final moments of Hank tossing Tuco’s grill in a rich, muddy brown border river.
Renck, of course, isn’t the sole person responsible for the episode’s success. Walley-Beckett’s script for “Breakage” is yet another solid one in a season that’s beginning to seem like it might be one of the best in the history of the medium (considering Mad Men’s second season last summer was yet another one of those best-TV-seasons-in-history seasons, something is very much going right over at AMC, which seems to have the kind of confidence in its writer-producers only HBO has displayed previously).The acting, as always, was excellent, especially considering this episode was the first since the premiere to utilize all of the regular players in the same episode and also brought in a number of the series’s more important recurring players, including the introduction of the terrifically enigmatic Krysten Ritter as Jesse’s new landlady. I love the way Breaking Bad is expanding its world this season, bringing in new players at Hank’s work or in Jesse’s underworld digs or just around the edges of the show, as with the landlady. With its small regular cast, Breaking Bad could feel a little claustrophobic in its first season, when it often felt like the Bryan Cranston Show. By utilizing recurring players as well as it is and beefing up all of the supporting characters this season, Breaking Bad feels like a show that has an ensemble much, much larger than the six credited regulars.
The major thrust of “Breakage” has to do with Walt and Jesse trying to compensate for the loss of a reliable distributor for their product in the death of Tuco by following Jesse’s scheme of making himself over as the next big drug kingpin. Walt will still be in charge of cooking the product, but Jesse, who’s raised the suspicions of the DEA, will recruit some of his friends to take care of selling it. All of this might work well enough but for the fact that Jesse’s friends don’t seem terribly smart and seem a little too interested in consuming the product and the fact that when it comes to intimidating the drug buyers of Albuquerque, Jesse’s no Tuco. Yet. As a new player on the scene, Jesse is uniquely susceptible to the titular breakage, the cost of doing business (Jesse compares it to how K-mart has to factor into its profit margins the fact that some goods will arrive broken, hence the title), as we see in one of the more unsettling TV sequences I’ve seen in a good long while. One of Jesse’s pals sells a packet to a scary-looking woman, who immediately bolts from an unseen threat, yelling “Police!” The seller follows the woman into a building, where he’s immediately stopped by a shifty junkie holding a knife to his gut. The woman enters and cackles madly as the seller is forced to give up his money, the whole moment lasting just a little bit too long after the money has passed hands, the knife still at the gut, the woman still cackling. It doesn’t sound that unsettling on paper, but the makeup job done on the woman made her look like something that had dragged itself out of some untold hell dimension, and actress Dale Dickey (credited only as Spooge’s Woman on the AMC site) makes those cackles somehow unearthly.
Walt, of course, is facing money problems, particularly as he’s paying for the expensive experimental treatment AND covering the hospital stay he used to cook up his alibi earlier in the season. As he points out to Jesse, he’s back to square one in terms of raising money to provide for his family and he has absolutely no savings anymore. He doesn’t think much of Jesse trying to become a kingpin, but he also seems to realize that he doesn’t have time for someone else to emerge, nor does he want to go seeking out another Tuco. Late in the episode, he gives Jesse a gun so that Jesse can minimize the breakage incurred by doing business, but it seems like this is only a small bandage over a larger problem. Starting up any business is tough, but starting up a business that relies entirely on a bunch of people who aren’t the most educated keeping quiet in a field where one wrong move means either arrest or death can’t be easy. Breaking Bad likes to get into the specifics of how these sorts of things are carried out, and it’s going to be interesting, I think, to watch Walt and Jesse build a new criminal enterprise brick-by-brick.
The other major thrust of the episode deals with Hank, who’s trying to deal with his shooting of Tuco, which has led to a great promotion for him and a series of panic attacks, the first of which hits while he’s in the elevator at work. Hank copes with all of this by taking a day off of work to do his bottling, but he’s wound so tight that one of the bottles shatters in his hand. He tries to minimize his stress, but he can’t escape what’s causing it, and he seems unable to talk about it as well. Even at a family cookout (nicely intercut with Jesse’s meeting to plan his new business with his friends), he can’t escape the specter of the shooting, as Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) keeps trying to bring it up. Near the episode’s end, Hank is awakened by what sounds like gunfire. He roams his house, gun at the ready, so tightly wound, only to find that the beer he bottled earlier is exploding all over his garage. It’s a nicely tense and twitchy sequence, and it leads nicely into the episode’s closing shots, where Hank tosses the grill into the river. (“Breakage” nicely uses the fact that earlier episodes have used what seem to be flash-forwards to later events of the season to open their stories by showing two border crossers stumbling across the grill, seeming to suggest that Hank might meet a grisly end. When we learn that, nah, he just tossed it into the river, it keeps us off-balance as to what might be happening in all of those flashes involving the stuffed bear.)
The episode mostly ignored the crumbling marriage of Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn) after last week showed just how much Walt’s decisions had caused things to fall apart in that regard, but we did get a great miniature fight between the two, when Walt discovered her cigarettes from last week’s episode (seemingly after throwing up after he realized he was out of money). He tried to establish a sort of moral equivalency between her lying about smoking (only three-and-a-half cigarettes, she pointed out) and his lying about where he was when he disappeared, but she was having none of it (“Maybe I smoked them in a fugue state,” she snidely noted). While her relationship with Walt was crumbling, though, Skyler managed to strike a kind of new accord with her sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), whose shoplifting came between the two late last season. Skyler seems capable of forgiveness, but it seems unlikely she can excuse what Walt’s gotten involved in under any circumstances.
There’s a lot going on in “Breakage,” even if the pace remains as deliberate as the rest of the season has. The best thing about the episode, though, is the way it seems to turn this deliberate pace into a livewire sort of thing, purely through the way it sees the world of the show. The biggest complaint leveled against Breaking Bad is that it’s so slow-moving and despairing that every episode turns into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy of bleakness, but that ignores just how deeply the show seems to invest in these characters and the world they inhabit. Breaking Bad’s Albuquerque is a beautiful and dangerous place where malice lurks just about everywhere. By trying to take on this world on their own terms, Walt and Jesse seem to be playing out of their league. I suspect the rest of this show’s second season will be about them trying to figure out the new rules of the game on the fly.
Some other thoughts:
• I was thrilled to see Ritter, who’s apparently going to be starring in more episodes this season. She’s been in a few films in middling roles, but her work on Veronica Mars and Gilmore Girls was pretty great. She’s got an almost diffident presence that few directors are able to tap into, but she and Paul also have an easy chemistry that I expect the show will exploit.
• So everyone on the Internet went nuts about what happened on The Celebrity Apprentice tonight. I don’t watch the show, so ... what, uh, happened?
• I was sorry I didn’t bring up Dahl’s work last week, but I didn’t immediately recognize him by name and didn’t do an iMDB search on him. I’m thankful to the commentors here and at other Breaking Bad discussion forums for reminding me of who he is.
• The drug-selling montage was a nice counterpart to season one’s drug-selling montage in “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” that season’s penultimate episode.
• Hey, hurrah, Breaking Bad won a Peabody and got renewed for a third season this week. The ratings are up substantially over season one, which is probably mostly thanks to Bryan Cranston’s Emmy win, but I’ll take whatever I can get. Usually shows this slowly paced don’t do very well in the ratings, and, obviously, this isn’t a HUGE hit, but it’s nice to see that it’s cultivating a devoted following.
• Looks like we’re going to get to see more of Walt’s old chemist pals in next week’s episode. I’m looking forward to that because I still want to hear more of Walt’s backstory.
• Another random shot I enjoyed: Looking at the bowl of pretzels from a God’s-eye perspective as Jesse filled it, a few pretzels spilling over the edges onto the pure white counter. Renck uses color extremely well, and this is another example of it. I hope he gets more TV work on some of my favorite shows.
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