The above screen cap (click it for the bigger picture) is brought to you from the greatest television show in the history of my television viewership: Breaking Bad, created by Vince Gilligan. Specifically, this is a moment from Season 2, Episode 9, which coincidentally is how far I’ve caught up thank the good lord for Netflix.
Now that I’m finally making up for lost viewing, I feel very guilty having not watched a single epic episode broadcast in real time on AMC. Concurrently I feel a little guilty watching it commercial-free and if not supporting at least acknowledging whoever it is that has sponsored this brilliance week in and week out since 2008. Better late than ever though, yo?
But I digress away from telling you a little bit more about the context of that moment. Suffice it to say, that RV out there on the horizon is the rolling meth lab of the show’s proantagonists Walter White aka “Heisenberg” and Jesse Pinkman. Let me digress some more: The incomparable Bryan Cranston plays Walter — as he’s known to his family and friends and students in the high school chemistry class he teaches by day. He’s known by Heisenberg, his nom du guerre, by various nefarious types and law enforcement — including the DEA (with which his brother-in-law is an agent for added complication). But his fake name is about all they know about him. Walter’s sidekick Jesse is played by the amazing Aaron Paul, and is a small-time drug dealer loser. Together they form the most dynamically dysfunctional drug-dealing duo for whom you’ll ever root.
Why is it that all-around good guy family man Walter suddenly “broke bad” (hence the title), hooked up on the hushhush with Jesse and turned into a cook of the best crystal meth ever, thanks to his skills as a chemist? Well it pretty much centers on his diagnosis with advanced lung cancer and a desire before he checks out to do an aboutface after 50 years of living and take control of his life in order to provide a big fluffy soft money cushion for his pregnant wife Skyler, and his cerebral palsy-afflicted teen son Walt, Jr.
Anything else you want to know, go find out for yourself (and that includes getting Netflix and starting from the beginning). Because now I want to quit digressing and talk about that moment pictured above from Season 2, Episode 9, titled “4 Days Out.”
The moment comes at a dire time for Waltar and Jesse who are inside that RV. Walt ordered a four-day-long marathon of a cook (hence the epi’s title) after seeing an image from his most recent CT scan and assuming the worst about the malignant mass in his chest. So the two of them loaded up the Winnebago and motored a million miles out into the New Mexico desert to crank out a metric tonne of the stuff — It was literally do and die, for Mr. White, so to speak.
They succeed in producing roughly $1.25 million worth, and that’s the good news (and yes, it’s slightly odd still for me to refer to the manufacture of so mega an amount of illicit drugs as “good news,” but that’s the inherent charm of the show). The bad news is a mistake got made by Jesse that allowed the motorhome’s battery to die. Then, the poor kid blows up the generator that would have jumpstarted their wagon — and to make matters worse uses their drinking water supply to douse the flames. An increasingly desperate Jesse finally convinces Walter — who’s coughing up blood at this point — to let him use his cell to call for someone to come get them, but that goes bust when the cell phone dies as they learn their rescuer is motoring down the wrong million-mile-long dirt road and doesn’t find them. The two spend untold hours trying to handcrank the exploded generator and trickle charge the RV battery but when that fails, all seems lost.
Thus we arrive at this desolate scene on the morning after with the RV bracketed by the endless desert landscape and unreachable blue horizon. The camera pans laterally and stealthily reveals the corpse of the coyote masked by the brush in the immediate foreground, and I got chills as the animal’s remains crept across the bottom of the screen. Paused it there and stared at such amazing cinematography. Such ridiculous creativity. They didn’t put a dead jackrabbit or an antelope there. They put the desert’s top predator — this country’s ultimate survivor.
Speaking of which, is there an Emmy category for television cinematography… er, televisiography? If not, there should be, because of this show — each episode of which is beautifully lousy with cinematic magnificence.
But beyond the overarching genius of making me unabashedly cheer for and like two characters who are doing so patently horrible a thing, here’s why this single scene makes Breaking Bad the Best Show I’ve Ever Watched. Because they didn’t have to do it. This establishing shot could have just been the dead RV in this deadsea of badland and it would have been a visual 10. It didn’t have to include that coyote down there in the corner, but it did. This episode’s makers went to the proverbial 11 by taking this compelling image and adding this doomsday symbol — not blatantly, but quietly camouflaged in the scrub. The devil is in the show’s details just as sure as its embedded in Mr. Walter White. And I’m along for the gloriously disturbing wild ride always ready to be blown away and always surprised.
And now a word about how I got hooked on the show. A promo for the current season a few weeks ago led me to record the premiere episode to the DVR, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, the playback was all fouled up. The audio was all skippy and jerky. So I deleted it and decided to go to its beginning via Netflix and see if it was worth playing catch-up. And now in my complete addiction I realize that the TV godz fouled up the recording I’d made for that very reason. Start from the start, they commanded. Bless them.
In the grand scheme of things, at an episode watched every couple/three days, it won’t be long until I’ve made my way through the backlog and I’ll be sitting before the TV each week, gobbling up the amazement with my eyes in real time, and finally properly recognizing those who are making this television magic possible.