Breaking Bad has become identified, and rightly so, with its harrowing ordeal episodes: "Cat's in the Bag," "Four Days Out," and now "Fly." The latest example of this genre takes it in a stunning new direction. "Fly" features — and takes to a new level — the Aristotelian unity of time and place, the arc of self-realization, and the bonding between characters that characterize the examples from Seasons 1 and 2. My husband called it a "microcosm" of the series in a tweet after we watched the screener last night, and predicted that it would prove divisive among fans. Because unlike "Bag" and "Four," "Fly" boldly organizes its one-act morality play around something insignificant and accidental. This isn't life and death, either of our antiheroes or of their antagonists. This is irrational obsession.
But that very fact shows where we've come in the series, and in Walter's central speech, where he heartbreakingly speculates on what would have been the perfect moment for him to die before he got to this nadir, he articulates that exact point. "Fly" asks the Season 3 question: "Why am I doing this?" The question arises in the context of a pesky fly in whose pursuit Walter spends about twenty-four dedicated and sleepless hours, enlisting Jesse after a fruitless night and arguing that their cook required absolute standards of cleanliness incompatible with the presence of a fly. (He's unconvinced by Jesse's reasonable response that dirt is immaterial when you're making a destructive, addictive drug: "We probably have the most unpicky customers in the world.") There was always an answer to the question before, or at least there was in Walter's head. He couldn't articulate it to Skyler, of course, and his failure to communicate what he understood so clearly is pushing him toward the realization that it might not have actually been so clear: "There must exist certain words in a certain specific order that would explain all this," he insists with the desperation of a man at the end of his rope. "All this" being how we got here, the decisions made with their comprehensible rationales, the steps from the school parking lot to a gleaming lab where Walter churns out thousands of pounds of horrific poison for a huge paycheck.
The larger question, however, is whether there was ever an answer to the question "Why am I doing this?" that could pass muster in the cold light of day. There's some kind of twisted logic to what Walter has done, in the sense that there has always been an overarching reason he has given himself for becoming a meth cooker and then a meth kingpin: "I had to have enough to leave them; that was the whole point," he tells Jesse (and reminds himself). And that means that he had to protect that operation against threats. It being a criminal operation, the threats came in the form of people who could expose it. One kind of rationale governs killing a person like Crazy Eight, a killer in his own right who would do the same to Walter if he could. The story Walter tells himself to justify Jane's death, for which he's equally responsible by a mortal sin of omission, is more convoluted. And in "Fly," Walter pinpoints that moment as the one where his answers became untenable to himself. "Jesse, I'm sorry," he nearly whispers as he clings to the ladder from which Jesse is pursuing that ugly fat fly, as dangerously as Walter ever did. "I'm sorry about Jane … I mean, I'm very sorry." Jesse takes it as an expression of sympathy, but Walter means it as a request for forgiveness. It was wrong, he's admitting. It went too far. It destroyed everything. It has made the question "why am I doing this?" absurd — as absurd as the answers Walter gives to Jesse's insistent questions about why the fly needs to be caught — and it is the half pound on top of the 200-pound bin of meth has made Walter's life meaningless. "I'm saying I've lived too long," he admits.
As written by Sam Catlin and Moira Walley-Beckett, "Fly" offers Walter a chance for clarity and Jesse a chance for connection. As directed with verve and invention by Rian Johnson, it's a visually stunning ride on the chaotic wings of the titular insect. "Fly" would have been stellar even with more conventional direction, but with the unhinged images and bold juxtapositions Johnson provides, it's one of the most distinctive hours of television we're likely to see this year. Johnson gives us Walter's magnified view of the fly after it landed on his glasses' lens, a jaunt with the fly as it careens around the lab toward its fate, and POVs from the ceiling (with Walter's flung shoe approaching) and from inside a plastic grocery bag full of fly-catching apparati. And it's not just empty style. The fly's irrational path, elusiveness, and connection with dirt and death all vividly convey the point at which Walter finds himself. One of my favorite shots is the floor-level close-up of the shoes that Jesse takes off of Walter's feet when he puts him to bed, with Jesse going to work in the distant background. And then there's the arresting final imagery, with the fly appearing on the blinking red light of the smoke alarm, indicating Walter's inability to leave behind or kill the questions that torment him. "It's all contaminated," he tells Jesse, resigned, as he begs him to stop pursuing the fly. That insect is not the problem. But it's a potent symbol for how ugly and persistent Walter's problems have become.
Because worst of all, Jesse makes a snap decision to throw away the moment of care symbolized by those shoes, the sharing of Walter's reality symbolized by his successful pursuit of the fly. Walter reaches out to him after their ordeal is done, warning him about the missing weight, which Walter has figured out Jesse might be skimming and selling on the side. But Jesse shuts down, denying everything. Doesn't he realize that Walter cares about him? Isn't he willing to return the favor outside of the crucible, out in the real world? Not yet.
And that painful moment illustrates why Breaking Bad isn't just its most intense episodes or dilemmas. I started this post by pointing out how justly celebrated this type of episode is, and what a concentrated and creative example "Fly" turns out to be. But I'm not inclined to save my highest grades until these ordeals come along. Breaking Bad is a remarkable show because of its capacity to craft top-notch chapters out of many different kinds of situations and intensity levels. There are fantastic episodes that are action-packed, contemplative, concentrated, diffuse, and even nearly static. Despite its hothouse environment ("positive pressure," Walter insists as he adjusts the ventilation to keep air trapped in the room), "Fly" turns out to accomplish almost nothing in moving the plot forward. But what a journey to get there. Whether in motion or repose, Gilligan and his team produce television whose riveting effect cannot be reduced to any one of the elements out of which narrative is constructed. As with chemistry, it's the interactions and changes — small or large, visible or invisible — that carry the deepest meaning.
- Walter knows when the perfect time for him to die would have been: watching the documentary about elephants, listening to Skyler sing "Hush, little baby, don't say a word …" on the nursery monitor. The moment before he made up the going-out-for-diapers excuse to go drinking, where he met Jane's father, where he decided to go back to Jesse's house. "I should never have left home, I should never have gone to your place," he ruminates, coming very near a confession. Yet he can't quite take responsibility; he has to put the unlikely events that followed in statistical perspective, just as he did at the school assembly with the plane crash: "Think of the odds! Once I tried to calculate them, but they're astronomical."
- Noel makes the following excellent point, which I would be remiss not to include: Walter's activities are meticulously documented to show his goal creep. He gets up in the morning to go to work at the meth lab, but one thing leads to another and he ends up shoeless and clinging to a railing with a broom swiping at ductwork. And that's the story of the show, isn't it — the little steps and shifts of aim that lead to actions that on their face are utterly crazy.
- Jesse's explanations for the missing .14 percent of meth weight: spillage, evaporation, "drops like on soda cans" (condensation) and "gunk left in the tanks" (vestiges, of which Jesse remarks, "I bet that's totally it").
- There are explosive moments of comedy, too: Jesse and Walt exchanging whacks on the head with Walter's improvised industrial-strength flyswatter, Jesse running through the laundry yelling for "el axo!", Walt crawling under the table to examine a potential fly carcass and announcing "It's a raisin," and Jesse's distract-Walter monologues including "since when did they change it to opossum?" and "did you know that there's an acceptable level of rat turds that can go into candybars?"
- Walter murmuring his apology while Jesse teeters atop a stepladder resting on two rolling cabinets, then Jesse whispering to himself, "I miss her though. God, I do." Quota of shattered hearts filled for the season; no more, please.
- Jesse suggests by telling a roundabout story about his aunt believing there was a possum in the house long after it had been exterminated (she named it Scrabble and whacking the floor with an umbrella) that Walter's Ahab-like fly quest might be the result of brain cancer, but Walter lets him (and us) know that he's still in remission as of his visit to his oncologist last week.
- "Ebola? It's a disease on the Discovery Channel where all your intestines slide out of your butt?"
- "You want them to actually miss you."