“Fly” belongs to a club of my very favorite types of TV episodes. They’re the types of episodes that feel like small plays, the types of episodes where it seems like the writing staff comes up with a challenge to give themselves and then spends its time trying to meet that challenge. Properly speaking, this is a “bottle show,” but it’s a bottle show unlike any other. The usual way to do a bottle show on a series like this is to trap some portion of the regular cast in a small room and have a threat pacing around just outside. Think of, say, “Lost’s” “Lockdown,” which featured Ben and Locke trapped in the Hatch together, or that “24” episode where everyone had to spend their time in one small room because of a toxic attack on CTU. That sort of thing.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (May 23) “Breaking Bad” after the break…]
“Fly” is something completely different. It’s an examination of one man’s descent into the abyss. It’s a bleakly comic hour about something we’ve all done and something we’ve all driven ourselves to madness trying to do. It’s an hour that constructs some of the weirdest action setpieces the show has ever come up with. It features exactly two of the show’s regular cast members (though Anna Gunn’s voice makes a brief appearance). It takes place, for the most part, on one set. It feels, for all the world, like a Broadway play. It’s the sort of thing where the protagonists aren’t really the protagonists. The writers of the show are the protagonists, and you’re almost daring them to get away with it, hoping against hope that they’ll somehow make what sounds like an inherently undramatic premise dramatic. And I’d say “Breaking Bad” succeeds here, but I won’t blame you if you disagree.
Because, you see, “Fly” is just about that: It’s about killing a fly.
Yeah, that sounds like it’s not the world’s most promising TV episode idea. And, to be sure, there are moments in the episode when it feels like it’s all going to fly off the rails. I’ve seen this episode compared to “The Sopranos'” episode “Pine Barrens” (by none other than Hitfix’s own Alan Sepinwall), and I don’t think that’s so far off the mark, though this one seems unlikely to have fans of the show asking – up until it ends, no less – whether Walt ever got the fly in the end. (We get a pretty definitive answer to that question.) Both episodes are breaks from where the show was at that point in the season. Both episodes are more comedic than the average episode. Both feature plenty of philosophizing. But where “Pine Barrens” was a kind of attempt to break some of the darkness of a pretty dark season via some comedy, “Fly” just keeps piling on the pitch black. It’s an episode about going mad without ever quite realizing you’re doing so.
It’s here that I’ll pause to make the weekly reminder that “Breaking Bad” is really the best directed show on TV. This episode was directed by big-screen indie sensation Rian Johnson, of “Brick” and “The Brothers Bloom,” and his work isn’t so intrusive to constantly call attention to itself, but it definitely keeps the hour moving along, and his choice of shots is often very evocative. Think, for example, on the quick dolly in on Walt’s face as he’s lying on the cold cement after falling from the catwalk above. Or think of that final shot of the fly’s bulk blocking out the red light of the smoke detector, as good a metaphor for this season as I can think of. Or how the camera lingers on that cigarette butt with lipstick on it, a ghostly evocation of the girl whose presence will hang over the rest of the hour.
Or (and I could go on, but I should probably stop) the way Johnson and the episode’s editor establish such a sickeningly tense rhythm in that whole sequence of Jesse standing on the very top of the step ladder, perched atop two carts with wheels on them, the only thing making sure he doesn’t tumble to the ground a Walt that he’s already drugged with a hefty dosage of sleeping pills. It’s a nauseating sequence to watch, particularly as Walt always seems to be dancing around the edge of telling Jesse about his role in Jane’s death (and especially as Walt is drugged, and we don’t know what he might say), but it’s made even better via the constant alteration between extreme wide shots (to show the sheer danger Jesse is in) and very, very tight close-ups on Walt’s face, then Jesse’s face, then the fly, then something else. It’s just a marvelously constructed bit of television, and Johnson makes everything out of what must have been a crackling scene on paper already.
That whole scene, I think, speaks to just what makes the show worse. There’s never been a situation where Vince Gilligan and his writing staff couldn’t turn the screws just a little bit more than they might have otherwise, but they always know just how to pull out before things get too crazy. There’s really no reason to believe that either Jesse or Walt would go to these lengths to kill that fly, but the hour builds to that point so well and so perfectly that you don’t really question what’s happening. Walter is after contamination, both in the lab and in his own soul, and he’s dragging Jesse down into his quest as well. Really, Jesse being the one who risks life and limb for some half-assed notion Walt’s thought up is the show in a nutshell, and seeing Walt barely hanging on to the ladder while Jesse risks himself to accomplish Walt’s task is a visual representation of pretty much every episode.
Another thing that makes the episode work is the quality of the conversation Walt and Jesse have. At first, having the episode open with extreme close-ups on a fly (so extreme that you can pick out the individual eyes) while Skyler sings “Hush, Little Baby” feels rather disconnected from everything else that happens, even if we can remember that Skyler sang this song in last season’s “Phoenix.” But as the hour rolls along, it becomes obvious that this is Walt’s last memory tinged more with happiness than regret. It’s unlikely he could have pulled out of the drug dealing life and saved his family had he confessed at this point, but it’s obvious he feels this was the last moment when he was involved in that life for anything other than his own needs, the last moment when he was truly trying to provide for his family on some level.
Obviously, saying that it’s a masterful monologue delivered perfectly by Bryan Cranston isn’t really saying much, since most episodes of “Breaking Bad” boil down to that, but it’s also what ties the whole episode together. I’ve gotten down on the show in the past for the way it uses symbolism too cutely. Walt’s life is full of darkness, so the foundations of his house have started to rot, for example. Season two was full of little moments like this, and while they were kind of fun as parlor games, they always took me out of the moment and reminded me what I was watching was, after all, just a TV show. The symbolism in season three has been more complicated, with the assorted symbols the show has been building up (the eye from the teddy bear, for example) able to stand in for any multitude of things. And the fly is sort of the show’s Moby Dick in that regard.
Moby Dick, of course, is a symbol for just about everything in existence in the novel of the same name. Most properly, he stands in for the brute force of nature, to be sure, but he can also stand in for God or the unknowable or death or whatever you want. The best symbols are like this, sort of elliptical and avoiding easy meaning the more you chase them down the various paths they lead you along. The fly in “Fly” is like that. It’s a contamination, both literally and at its most obvious symbolic level, in that it gets in where it’s not supposed to be and messes everything up. But it also could stand in for Walt or Jesse, really, the irritant that pops in and gets in the way of everyone else. Or it could even stand in for Gus, or at least Walt’s growing sense that Gus is more than just a man who’s stayed under the radar this time and is, indeed, a very real danger to Jesse and himself (particularly as Jesse has started skimming off the top, and Walt knows about it). At the end, a fly blocks the red light of the smoke detector, and it suggests the bigger concerns that always eclipse the in-the-moment ones. The fly is maybe “Breaking Bad’s” most elegant symbol yet, in the way it so perfectly encompasses the show in a nutshell.
Honestly, though, the episode is mostly a wonderful way to examine every facet of the Walt and Jesse relationship, as Jesse initially thinks his boss has lost his mind and gradually gets drawn into his quest to kill the fly, if only to think about something else than everything that’s weighing heavily on his soul. Jesse’s actual concern for Walt is nicely expressed by the show, especially as he worries that the guy has completely gone around the bed or that his cancer is back. Sure, Walt’s high on sleeping pills when he is clutching the ladder Jesse has climbed all the way to the top of, but he’s only that way because Jesse is worried that he’s not sleeping, that his brain and worries are keeping him from being on top of his work or being the best meth cooker he can be. And when Walt is simply unable to continue, Jesse tucks him in and gets to the business of cooking, their roles essentially reversed.
Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston form the heart of “Breaking Bad,” and they haven’t shared as many scenes this season as they have in previous years. “Fly” does a good job of rectifying that, and it makes a persuasive case that both remain among the very best actors on TV. I try not to talk too much about awards chances in these pieces (particularly as the Emmys are perennially pretty stupid), but Paul has quietly been racking up a season that may be more consistent than his work last year, even if he doesn’t boast a standout episode (for Emmy “tape” purposes) as last year’s “Peekaboo.” In “Fly,” both he and Cranston may have finally found that episode. It’s a quiet one, to be sure, and that can hurt when it comes to winning awards, but it’s one that underlines that quiet with a current of menace. Just at the point when Jesse has decided to embark on a career path that can only be described (and charitably at that) as “suicidal,” he and Walt have repaired their relationship, meaning that when Walt tells Jesse he can’t protect him at episode’s end, you know that’s what it will come down to, Walt cashing in every favor he has to guard his surrogate son.
“Fly” is going to frustrate a lot of “Breaking Bad” fans, I fear, because it doesn’t basically nothing to advance the plot the season has been building up until this point, outside of a few small scenes and lines. It’s a curio, an episode that doesn’t really bother with momentum so much as it does just spending time with two characters we’ve come to know well over the last three seasons. But in its use of symbolism, the subtext of its language, and the way it plays the two guys off of each other, it suggests something like one of the very best plays, one that you go to and recall always as both an intellectually and emotionally stimulating evening. There have been more exciting episodes of “Breaking Bad” this season. There have been more consistent episodes. But I don’t know if there’s been a better one.
Some other thoughts:
***It’s hard to “some other thoughts” this one because it doesn’t really cut away to anything else, but let’s give it the old college try, eh?
***I like every little glimpse we get of the Laundromat Walt and Jesse work beneath and the way that none of the workers there seem particularly concerned about the fact that two men work in a lab concealed beneath a secret entrance under a washing machine.
***I have no idea if Anna Gunn gets paid for having her voice show up (presumably with the recording she did of that lullaby from season two), but even if she counts as an “appearance,” this is easily the episode of “Breaking Bad” with the fewest appearances by series regulars. If Gunn counts, it probably ties “Lost’s” “Across the Sea” for regular appearances with three. (I have no idea why I’m fascinated by this, but I am.)
***I love Walt’s seeming dementia when Jesse returns to find the lab hyper-pressurized, particularly seeing all of the appliances he’s covered in plastic wrap to make fly swatters.
This week’s question: How will Walt protect Jesse when his thievery – inevitably – gets out? I imagine he’ll threaten to turn Gus in to Hank, but that may prove a little too neat for the show.