“Gliding Over All”
September 2nd, 2012
It’s actually been two seasons since I’ve written regularly about Breaking Bad—neither last summer nor this summer allowed tackling a show weekly for “fun,” and I’ve now become accustomed to watching the show without having to take notes. It’s a tense show, and something about it becomes less tense when you watch it with a computer screen between you and the television.
I did want to drop in on what we could ostensibly fall the mid-season finale, as “Season Five” will continue on into next summer. “Gliding Over All” is far from the best episode of the season, designed as an epilogue to the half-season and as a transition point into what’s to come. However, while the episode aims to appease cliffhanger fans with a revelation in its final seconds, the episode is more interesting for the way it quite literally glides over months of time. The season started with a marker of time, with Walt’s birthday bacon numbers clueing us in to the fact that Walt’s acquisition of a dangerous weapon was a year into our future. While time has always been a key theme in the show, it’s become more prominent this season, no more so than in this contemplative finale.
Breaking Bad is known for its time-lapse transitions between scenes, a shorthand way of distinguishing that time has passed. Normally, though, it covers a single day, a collection of shots from around New Mexico allowing us to understand that we are moving from one time to another. During the montage set to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” in “Gliding Over All,” three months pass, with money piling up, meth flying across to the Czech Republic, and Walter and Todd settling into their new existence. The montage answers some questions about how we’re going to move quickly enough to get to the flash forward that opened the season: after the show took over four seasons to get through a single year, a single montage travels a quarter of that time, making Walt’s date with a very big gun a nearer future than it was previously.
It’s a fascinating montage, risky in its risk-averseness. It’s a risk for a show known for reveling in the dense atmosphere of the day-to-day to suddenly gloss over a lengthy period of time: it goes against what we perceive as the pace of the show, and it suggests that the period of time in question is suddenly drastically less dynamic than what came before. Just look earlier in the episode, when Walt stares at his watch for three minutes as Todd’s uncle’s connections complete the work of eliminating the nine loose ends. In four minutes, nine lives are ended, an entire DEA investigation is destroyed, and countless people’s lives are affected in immeasurable ways. When you skip over three months, you miss the three minutes, and I do think that’s something of a copout, or a shortcut.
However, it works for me precisely because the show is trying to ask a question: what happens when cooking meth becomes mundane? Throughout the montage, there are scenes of Walt in the shower, or sitting in his chair, just completely nondescript moments. With Lydia handling logistics, and Todd proving a diligent second-hand, Walt just has to sit back, do his job, and watch the cash flow in. All this time, Walter has lived on the thrill of the day-to-day, on responding to threats against him, but through a collection of—arguably contrived—circumstances he has been given the chance to sit back and relax.
While “Gliding Over All” rushes itself to reach that point, it’s a pivotal state for the character to face, and an important catalyst for the remainder of the series. Those brief moments of stasis in the midst of such a drastic temporal shift give us a glimpse of the minute details we would otherwise miss: while we still don’t get to see the deeper ripple effects of the prison murders, or hear whether news of the blue meth’s appearance in the Czech Republic has reached the DEA, we do learn that none of this is reaching Walt in his isolation. The montage isn’t Breaking Bad’s attempt at portraying the passage of time for the audience: it’s Breaking Bad’s rendering of Walter White’s memory of those three months.
It’s still unclear how much of that time we’ll return to, if any, in the second half of the season, but Walt’s scene with Jesse offered a compelling parallel. Jesse’s experience of that three-month period hasn’t been that different, given that we find him asleep on his couch (which he nearly sets on fire with a lit cigarette), a suitably mundane moment. However, where Walt has filled the rest of his days with cooking meth, Jesse has filled the rest of his living in fear of it. He’s thrown out his phones, disconnected his home line, and continued with his minimalist interior design aesthetic. Jesse hasn’t been able to move on with his life, not really: even though he knows the nine are dead, that he grabs a gun before he answers Walt’s knock at the door—he is the one who knocks, after all—suggests three months of anxiety over when his past will come back to haunt him.
Of course, “Gliding Over All” ends with Walt’s past coming back to haunt him, a conveniently placed loose end—foreshadowed by its earlier appearance—in the form of a Walt Whitman poetry book gifted to Walt by Gale discovered by Hank. It’s a discovery that changes the entire dynamic of the show, and a discovery that does come close to suggesting that this season was really all about putting the pieces into place for the “real” final season anchored by Walt vs. Hank. Ultimately, they believed this position required time, time the narrative style of the show didn’t have time to roll out naturally, leaving the expanded time-lapse as their best option.
This is not the first time that Breaking Bad has played with time, of course: the second season was built on glimpses of an unknown future, and this season followed a similar path in the premiere. However, I would argue that time has been a far more concrete variable this season: whereas the plane crash was an uncertain future, with no clear sense of when we’d reach that particular moment, season five has a clear timeline, made more clear by the passage of time that takes place in “Gliding Over All.” It also doesn’t hurt, of course, that the season will be divided by time, with roughly ten months to go before we begin the final eight episodes.
There is something risky about skipping over time as the writers did here, but I’d argue its true impact won’t be understood until we see what role time plays a year from now. There’s a difference between time passing and time being passed over, and that will very much depend on how we see the characters react and respond in the new present that we only got to visit briefly in “Gliding Over All.” Sometime between now and a year from now, roughly eight months needs to pass in Breaking Bad’s narrative—how I feel about the temporal flux of this mid-season finale will very much depend on how that time is handled in the series’ final act.
- I loved Lydia’s café meeting with Walt both as a parallel to her meeting with Mike earlier in the season and as a parallel to Walt’s visit with Jesse later (with both Walt and Jesse preparing backup plans should the meeting in question go awry).
- I am not convinced that Hank would have been able to piece together Walt’s involvement based on the poetry book, or that Walt would be stupid enough to note rip out the dedication in said book.
- Michelle MacLaren is always great, but giving her two big money montages—the murders and the time-lapse—is almost unfair to other directors. Absolutely knocked those out of the park.
- Last week, Walt’s meeting with Mike had me filled with dread knowing that Walt was about to kill him. This week, the final party by the pool had me certain that someone was about to get shot: just look at how slowly Walt Jr. is walking by the pool, or the shots of Holly in her little car. It’s built to suggest something is about to shatter their tranquility…and then it’s Hank heading inside to take a shit that ultimately steers us in the direction of a different kind of cliffhanger.
- I just saw mention of this on Twitter as I hit publish: tied to the question of time as it relates to the show as a whole, do we think the flashback during the final scene was necessary?