It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about a television series. Actually I’ve only done it once before, with a fantastic shot from Twin Peaks. In general tv shows throughout the decades haven’t been particularly well known for their cinematographic quality, so it’s understandable I’ve not written about tons of tv-series.
But then again; the times have changed. Even since the rise of HBO, with its classic shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, things have changed. HBO used to be a pioneer and one of the only sources of great television. But now quality is all over the place. AMC, Showtime, Netflix, FX, etcetera. Even at home in the Netherlands, series have grown in quality and are a respected form of entertainment nowadays.
Towering above them all, in my opinion, is Breaking Bad (2008-2013). It’s probably the most consistently brilliant show I’ve ever watched and actually becomes exponentially better throughout its five seasons, ending so perfectly, nothing can touch it. To me it’s a masterpiece that can stand next to the best classic movies.
And as a piece of cinematography it’s undeniably classic as well. Breaking Bad is a series that is filled to the edge with innovative tricks, techniques and methods of visual storytelling. And it’s so much more than just point-of-view camera’s, wide angles or flashy moving camera tricks. Every outstanding shot is grounded in its story, its context and its environment. Cinematographer Michael Slovis, correctly estimated that the style and quality of the series was bold and bright enough that it could support such flashy cinematography without it feeling pretentious or overblown.
Nowhere does the show really feel like reality. It’s more colorful, stranger, brighter, more vivid and weird. The series, from the outset, had this style figured out and stuck with it. The somewhat absurd premise –see your chemistry teacher turn into Scarface– called for it, and it worked.
A uniquely weird style
In that sense, Breaking Bad has a certain stylistic connection to Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks, of course, is more overtly weird and dreamlike and even a bit more tongue-in-cheek, but it also had this way of just slightly twisting its reality and making it a bit more unique, weird and colorful.
Compare, for example a dialogue scene of Twin Peaks, with the pizza-shot of Breaking Bad and you can see a similar approach to how both shows used their mise-en-scene and composition to make ordinary objects and moments appear a touch more surreal and weird.
Towards the end of the series, I have to say that I started to notice outstanding shots more often than in the first few seasons. Maybe Michael Slovis became more daring or perfected his style throughout the season, or maybe I just became more and more keen on spotting the unique shots and tricks.
The One Shot
Anyway, if I want to honor the cinematography of this series, my choice for a One Shot would definitely have be picked from one of the latter seasons. When you look at the cinematography in season 4, 5a and 5b it just moves from highlight to highlight. And out of all the dozens of brilliant close-ups, wide angles and weird compositions, this one stands out to me as a personal favorite.
This is the final shot of the second-to-last episode of season 4. Season 4 showed main character Walter White slowly being broken down physically and mentally as he came into a clash with the powerful drug lord Gustavo Fring. He gradually lost his control and humanity throughout the season as he became more and more desperate and maniacal until this climatic episode showed Walter almost literally burying himself in his own grave.
The whole scene surrounding this shot is amazing in its rising tension and sense of dread as Walter, fearing for his live and the lives of his family, frantically searches in a crawlspace for a pile of money to buy himself and his family out of this danger. When the money appears to have disappeared Walter loses it and ends up sobbing and hysterically crying as he lies beneath his floor. His wife Skylar is terrified of the mental collapse of her husband and then gets distracted by a phone call, leaving Walter by himself.
A slow thumping soundtrack pushes on our eardrums and a searing noise begins to be audible. The camera hangs over Walter and slowly elevates upwards. More and more the entrance to the crawl space becomes a frame within a frame. And it seems to have captured Walter, locking him inside.
As the camera continues to rise the soundtrack also swells with undefinable noise. And the camera keeps rising and rising. The shot goes on longer than you expect and Walter’s expression is slowly becoming stilted and numb. The camera seems to move through the ceiling, really exaggerating the tunnel vision of the shot and the isolation of our character.
Nowhere in the series does Walter look more alone, more trapped and isolated, than in this shot. Technically it looks marvelous, right down to the slight camera-shake which seems to shake in tandem with the music and relates the emotionally fragile state of Walter. Besides the obvious visual strength of the shot it also works so perfectly as an end to the middle act of the season and introduce the final act. Walter is now trapped, with no way of escape left to him. He is cornered and has no choice but to fight for his survival.
This feeling of Walter that he has no choice, fuels his inhumane actions from then on out. His choice to risk the lives of kids, deal with nazi-gangsters, betray his relatives and partner, all stem from this character turn. He seemed to have decided that he had literally been beaten and had to adjust his moral compass to come out of this alive.
Because the change in his character becomes so strong throughout the remaining episodes/seasons we really needed to feel how strongly he was pushed in that direction. And a shot like this one is what you would need to really, visually, express his ultimate desperation and loneliness. Without this shot, his further development might have not felt as logical and understandable.