‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Fly’: The best bottle show ever?

A review of tonight’s riveting episode of “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I find out when they changed the spelling to “opossum”…

“No end in sight.” -Walt

I am going to talk to you for a few paragraphs about how the sausage gets made in television. If you’d rather not think too much about production logistics and budgets and whatnot and just focus on why “Fly” was such an unusual, incredible hour for this series, just skim until I start talking about “The Sopranos.”

But I want to start off with sausage-making because it was clear to me that “Fly” was what’s known in the industry as “a bottle show” – that is, an episode of the series shot almost entirely on existing sets, with a minimum of guest stars. The idea is to keep the budget as small as possible, so that you can then spend whatever money you saved on another episode down the road. (Or, in some cases, so you can compensate for a previous episode that cost more than anticipated.)

Last year, “Breaking Bad” tried to do a bottle show with “4 Days Out,” the episode with Jesse and Walt trapped in the desert after the RV’s battery runs down. The idea was that it would only feature Cranston and Paul and take place largely on the standing RV set and therefore be dirt-cheap. Instead, it wound up being one of that season’s most expensive episodes, as more and more of the action began creeping outside of the camper and into the desert itself, which meant lots of location filming, often at irregular hours (a lot of that episode, you may recall, took place around dawn and dusk to get a particularly beautiful light quality), and that costs man-hours, it costs crew overtime, and it costs simply to transport all the men and materials back and forth from the studio to the desert.

Still, the basic idea of that episode went to the core of “Breaking Bad” – that of teacher and pupil stuck together, getting on each other’s nerves, and revisting all the damage they’ve done to themselves, to each other, and to the world at large since they teamed up. So it wasn’t surprising that the show would try to revisit the basic conceit – nor that Vince Gilligan and company (here with Sam Catlin and Moira Walley-Beckett on script, and Rian Johnson directing) would find a way to do a bottle show as a bottle show. Having already spent the money to build the huge Walt-cave set, they were able to dwell inside it for 95% of an episode, with no castmembers other than the two leads (which is valuable, since most TV shows these days can only sign a few regulars to appear in every episode), and no other speaking parts.

And it was through that attempt at minimalism and frugality that we got the “Breaking Bad” equivalent of the “Pine Barrens” episode of “The Sopranos.” Only this one was, heresy though it may be, better.

Both “Pine Barrens” and “Fly” were black comedies about crooks out of their element (Paulie and Christopher lost in the woods, Walt and Jesse trying to play exterminator), but much as I love “Pine Barrens,” it stayed in that minor key. “Fly” started out as slapstick; one critic on Twitter compared it, not inaccurately, to Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner, and certainly Walt’s fall off the railing was as broad a moment as this show has had. But as Jesse realized the only way to control Walt’s obsession with the fly was to play along, it turned into something much darker, and deeper, and tenser, until we got to that riveting scene where Jesse is standing atop the rickety ladder, with his only support coming from a Walt who’s barely conscious from sleeping pills, and Walt is talking about Jane, and we wonder…

…will this be the moment Walt finally fesses up about what he did?

We’ve seen Walt make damaging admissions under the influence of anesthesia before, and I think we all assume that the series can’t end without that ugly truth coming out. But what would Jesse do in this moment when there are no witnesses and Walt would be defenseless to help himself? Or would the shock of the news be so great that Jesse would lose his balance and break his neck, once again sparing Walt of the consequences of his actions?

What an incredible moment, and what an incredible scene leading up to it, with Jesse telling the story of his aunt’s cancer(*), and that story (and the influence of the sleeping pills) in turn inspiring Walt to be reflective and to admit that he’s lived too long and hurt too many people. A fatal cancer diagnosis allowed him to justify becoming a meth-lord. But instead of his dream of a quick payday that wouldn’t harm anyone except the users, it’s become a long blood bath, and one that’s driven away his wife and will drive away his surrogate son if Jesse ever finds out the truth of what happened to Jane. Had Walt found a way to die that night before he left the house, things might have gone very differently. Jane wouldn’t have died – at least not that night, though Jesse fairly points out that the money from Gus probably would have led to an overdose within weeks – Donald in turn wouldn’t have caused the plane crash and Walt wouldn’t have been there for his surgery, and to make the damning second cell phone admission to his wife.

(*) Aaron Paul has been given a lot of opportunities to monologue this year, and there’s a reason for that: he’s great at it. Bryan Cranston’s best moments tend to come when Walt is silently reacting to something he’s just done, or that’s been done to him, but Paul’s gifts seem at their greatest when the show just steps back and lets the man talk. Doesn’t matter what the subject is – high school wood shop, a trapped opossum, his plan for revenge on Hank – it is always sensational.
Now where is he? He’s making more money than his family will be able to spend (even if he’s still getting royally hosed by Gus), but he works for a man so smart and ruthless that Walt’s death could come at any time without warning. His wife has once again made it clear that she hates and fears him. And every day, he goes to work with a reminder of all the deaths he helped cause because he was so afraid Jane would tell Skyler a truth that she found out anyway.

He is empty and broken, and all he has left is this fancy underground lair, and even that’s been contaminated – not just by the fly (who becomes the latest tiny thing to draw Walt’s obsessive-compulsiveness, ala the band-aid in the swimming pool or the alleged rot under the house or the uneven table leg at the hospital), but by his knowledge of all the danger that comes with the joint.

Jesse ultimately kills the fly, Walt gets some sleep, and the batch gets made, but the contaminant never goes away, as we see when yet another fly turns up on the smoke detector in Walt’s sterile fake apartment.

What’s left for this sorry pair? Jesse is still trapped back in time in his relationship with Jane, dwelling on any little memento of her (first the voicemail, and here a cigarette butt with her lipstick stain on it), self-destructively skimming meth from the batch and getting indignant when Walt gently warns him about it. And Walt has nothing but his cash and his lab and his paranoia, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if, sometime before this season ends, he blurts out the truth about Jane without need of pharmaceuticals.

And then Jesse is going to wish he hit him a hell of a lot harder with that ridiculous homemade fly swatter.

Simple episode. Cheap episode. Brilliant episode. A series high point. I love the explosions and the shoot-outs and the mind games, but all this show needs to achieve greatness are these two horribly flawed characters, and the two tremendous actors playing them.

What did everybody else think?