Breaking Bad is already on this list, although, this episode review debuted before the show’s proper entries. In another entry, I questioned whether or not there is a “bad” episode of Breaking Bad. This wasn’t actually the episode that I was thinking of (I was thinking of “A No Rough-Stuff Type Deal” with Marie’s kleptomania subplot, which is the dumbest thing in the entire series), but, I also remember hating this episode the first time I watched it. When I re-watched the series to build up to the finale, I actually found that I kind of liked it. I watched it again to write this review and I genuinely got something more out of it that I hadn’t before. So, I’m pretty mixed on this, and it looks like a lot of other people are too, since this is by far the lowest-rated episode of this show on any viewer-based polls. IMDB puts this as the only Breaking Bad below 8/10. It took me a while, but I figured out why, and, it’s actually pretty connected to the reason why people were so divided on The Last Jedi: Because Rian Johnson is a visionary to the extent that sometimes he forgets that people care about the context of his vision.
Alright, quick review: Breaking Bad is the story of cancer victim Walter White (Bryan Cranston) going from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to meth kingpin. His sidekick is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a drug dealer and user who is just as likely to screw something up as he is to save Walt from whatever predicament he’s in. The acting by the two in this show is top notch, winning 7 out of 10 possible Emmy awards during its run. At this point, Walt and Jesse have a high-producing meth lab under distributor Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). The show had been having a huge amount of action, tension, and character development in all of the episodes leading up to this, which is why this episode stands out so much: It’s slow and has no real character development. Granted, part of this is because the show was so far over-budget that they had to shoot this episode in a single location on no budget, but that only explains one of those things.
The episode starts with Walt having insomnia and staring at the smoke detector. It’s clear that he hasn’t been sleeping for a while. He and Jesse go to cook meth for the day, and while they reach the “official” goal, they still don’t reach Walt’s calculated yield. Walt, believing that there is something wrong with the process, becomes obsessed with a housefly he finds within the facility, worried that it will contaminate his immaculate facility. Walt falls off of a catwalk after trying to swat it, hurting himself, which also keeps him from sleeping. The next day, when Jesse returns, Walt insists that they kill the fly before they do anything. Jesse, believing that Walt’s insomnia is making him crazy, suggests they go outside for a bit, but Walt uses this as a way to lock Jesse outside while he tries to kill the fly. Jesse turns the power off from outside, then, when Walter agrees to let him back in, goes to get some flypaper and sleeping pills.
While the two wait for the fly to get stuck, they talk, and this is the meat of the episode: Walt brings up that he should be dead by now. This is a guy who had cancer, started down this path, ostensibly, because of his desire to help his family become secure before he died, and now, he’s talking about the fact that he’s lived too long. He thinks about when he should have died, and realizes it would have been after he had the money for his family, after his daughter was born, before his wife found out the truth, and before he had his expensive surgery. Walt is really asking “what is the point of still going forward?” He determines the best time would have been the night that Jesse’s girlfriend Jane died.
Walt then tells Jesse that he actually met Jane’s father randomly in a bar the day that she died, and wonders about the odds of meeting two connected people on the same day despite knowing neither before that. Essentially, Walter is pondering the show’s writing and the believability of such a coincidence. This is pretty unique, but also kinda dumb. It’s like when John McClane asks about the odds of the same guy in the same situation at Christmas twice in Die Hard 2: It’s pointing out the insanity of something that we already were agreeing to believe. That’s the opposite of convincing the audience to suspend disbelief, it’s ridiculing us for having suspended it. But, at least, it’s in character for both Walter and McClane, so it’s not too bad.
This also is kind of a weird moment for Walt because Jesse doesn’t know that Walt allowed Jane to die choking on vomit after an overdose (he could have saved her, chose not to). Walt almost admits to what he’s done, but ends up avoiding an actual admission. In the meantime, the pair keep trying to kill the fly before Walt finally succumbs to the sleeping pills that Jesse slipped in his drink. The fly then comically lands on Jesse’s shoulder and he swats it easily.
The next night, Walt still can’t sleep, and a fly lands on the smoke detector. Because f*ck you, that’s why.
Okay, here are the bad parts of the episode:
First, it seriously is slow. There’s very little action in the episode, and it doesn’t advance the plot of the series at all. It’s mostly about chasing a fly and talking, and there are a lot of long, lingering shots. Breaking Bad usually ends with me going “Wait, was that an hour already?” This one had me going “Gotta be almost done” like 5 times. This is not a good thing.
Second, by not having Walt actually say anything to Jesse about Jane, and by having him literally just contemplate stuff without ever trying to answer it, it avoids any actual character development, in an episode whose set-up says that it should have been almost entirely character development.
Third, it’s just ridiculous. The entire premise is that Walt is super-obsessed with killing a fly to the point of endangering himself and his lab. I get the allegory of it signifying Walt’s descent into madness and self-neglect in the name of making the best meth, but, this is Breaking Bad: It’s a show where the allegory has to be presented within a coherent story that works independent of that. Without the metaphor here, the episode is just weird. Shows like The Prisoner or movies like Mother! can do allegorical because they’re goofy from start to finish, and that means that the audience expects to be flexible. This show didn’t ever really do that before or after, so it falls apart.
Fourth, it’s just Jesse and Walt. Yeah, they’re amazing, but Breaking Bad had a lot of great characters and this episode featured almost none of them.
But, here are the good parts:
First, the dialogue is pretty awesome. It’s genuinely clever and the actors are, well, amazing. They manage to make everything seem believable, despite how ridiculous some parts are. Walt literally talks about when he should have died, and, in some ways, is talking about how the show should have ended already, but it comes off as deep, rather than just whiny. Also, it has the word “flysaber” in it, and that was hilarious. Actually, there’s a decent amount of humor in the episode, and most of it works. It’s just that Breaking Bad isn’t something I watched for the humor, so it doesn’t really help as much as they wanted.
Second, the cinematography was amazing. The shots in this episode are found only in this episode. The only other episode of the series where I thought the camerawork was this good was “Ozymandias,” which was another episode directed by Rian Johnson, only there it made everything so much bigger and more profound. Here, it’s making the mundane, a fly, into the foreign element and the viewpoint character at the same time. It really does work.
Third, and this is the big one, it’s the entire series. While doing these reviews, I’ve gotten used to trying to find episodes that embody an entire work, and this one actually does it, just not as directly as most. The episode’s premise is that Walt becomes obsessed with something and drags Jesse into it. Walt tries a methodical, scientific approach to the problem, and lashes out when they fail, while Jesse just doesn’t care that much and proposes ideas that would make everything worse. Both of them hurt each other in the process, Jesse goes between feeling bad for Walt and wanting to kick his ass, and Walt goes from thinking of Jesse as a tool to a partner to a liability to someone who he has ruined. It’s basically a microcosm of the entire show.
So, is it good or bad? Really, it’s gonna depend on what you look for in a show. Personally, I don’t like it as part of Breaking Bad because it’s just awkward in how it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the show. On the other hand, it’s a well-crafted hour of television, it just needed to be part of a different universe so it didn’t feel so out of place. It’s not like “Pine Barrens” from the Sopranos, where it’s just an odd circumstance that the characters are dealing with in the way they usually would, this is an entirely out-of-place episode within the framework of the show.
So, I wish I could give you an answer, but I don’t have one. I think it’s like The Last Jedi: You’re going to love this for what it is, or be pissed off that it is so different than both what was expected and what it’s a part of.
Okay, fine, if I have to give an opinion: This episode is bad.
If you are making an episode of a show, you still have to have to obey some of the core promises of the show. There are a ton of “anti-episodes” on this list, but they all work within the framework of the show. Rian Johnson even managed to do that in the other episodes of the show that he directed, so he knows, or can be taught, how to do it. This doesn’t feel like an episode of Breaking Bad, and that’s a fundamental sin against it. It’s like finding a Monet in a museum of Modern Art: It’s beautiful, but it’s not what you were there to see. If you’re the kind of person who would love that, then you’ll love this. If you’re the kind of person that would bother, then this episode will bother you.
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Okay, so, someone put part of the episode to “Yakkety Sax” (AKA The Benny Hill Music), and I’m going to just put that up instead of the episode: