How the AMC show became the most sumptuous series on television
We expect Mad Men's genius advertising executive Don Draper to wear the best suits, live in a to-die-for apartment furnished in Mid-Century Modern furniture, and dream up beautiful images to sell to an increasingly ugly world. Boardwalk Empire drips with luxuriant period details, while Dexter turns blood spatters into an art form. But over the last four seasons it's been Breaking Bad—set in mundane, sun-baked Albuquerque, and which has its main subjects a retired high school teacher and a small-time thug, hardly glamorous archetypes of either creative genius or diabolical evil—that's been the most visually sumptuous show in America.
Over the course of the show's run, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has moved from small-time meth cooker looking to provide a financial legacy for his family as he struggled with cancer to a drug kingpin twisted by his desire for the world to recognize his genius. The show's visual landscape has responded to Walter's transformation: Breaking Bad has framed episodes in enigmatic images that only become clear over whole seasons, used disorienting time lapses, and staged standoffs in color-saturated deserts. In its two-part final season, Breaking Bad has gotten even more gorgeous and surreal, its visuals reflecting the distortions Walter White causes in everything he touches.
The season started with a glimpse of the trunk of a car and a cartoonishly enormous gun, detritus from the post-apocalypse washed up in the American southwest. Even more ordinary objects and actions are transformed by the show's visual grammar, often by use of color that makes people or things look newly unfamiliar. In the premiere, the late Gus Fring's (Giancarlo Esposito) lieutenant Mike (Jonathan Banks) looks like he's feeding chickens on Mars.
And ordinary objects appear in tremendously unexpected places, like a shot of a Los Pollos Hermanos logo in a pristine office building very far from Albuquerque. Jesse's cheerful Roomba turns out to conceal a deadly secret.
This week, Walt and Jesse come up a new plan to begin cooking in houses that have been prepared for fumigation, giving us the eerie images of a medical tent set up in an otherwise abandoned home, a photo of a blissfully unaware family watching over Walt and Jesse's cooking, and later, our two main characters relaxing on a couch not their own, enjoying beers in hazmat suits while watching television. In the world of Breaking Bad, normality is prone to violent disruption, and everything we believe we know about people and organizations is subject to sudden reinterpretation.
Breaking Bad is also fundamentally a Western, and the show uses the wide-open spaces of New Mexico to frame grand spectacles that illustrate the scale of the emotional takes for its characters. In the premiere, as Mike, having learned that Walt killed Gus, rushes towards a confrontation with Walt and Jesse, the shot makes it look like their cars have collided instead of blowing past each other, enveloping each vehicle in a temporary dust storm. The scale of secrets and enmities between Breaking Bad's central players is so grand it can only be envisioned in collisions, represented by extreme weather.
Later, after Walt executes his daring attempt to erase Gus's surveillance files, he and Jesse leave an abandoned truck resting peacefully but at what ought to be an impossible angle up against a building. The cops who find it are utterly perplexed, unable to fathom how the vehicle got there, or what the people who got it there were doing. In the past, Walt's ability to use ordinary chemicals to upset the conventional wisdom of methamphetamine production or to defend himself from the industry's worst thugs was a wonderful, dark joke—in the immortal words of Walt's partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), "Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah, science!" But as Walt's motivations have grown darker, things like that unnaturally positioned truck suggest that he is disturbing forces both moral and natural.
The more mundane images have an eerie power to them, too. Hank, investigating the fire at the warehouse where Jesse and Walt used to cook, dons the kind of protective gear that his unknown antagonists wore at their work. It's striking to see Hank take on the mantle of Walt's twisted office in pursuit of the man he doesn't know is his brother-in-law. If one of the themes of this season becomes Hank closing in on Walt, it will be as if he who wears the protective breathing apparatus holds the power.
Walt can even turn breakfast food ominous, neatly stacking his bacon on a diner plate, ripping it in half, and rearranging it into a "52" to mark his birthday, an image that calls back to our first introduction to Mr. White, and that also happens to evoke a skull. Maybe as Walt's become more and more an image of the evil he's embraced, with the tight flesh on his shaved head showing the outlines of his cranium, he can't help seeing death's heads everywhere.
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