Aired: May 23rd, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
When I first noted that I was limiting this list to a single episode per series, someone (it was either Jeremy Mongeau or Timothy Yenter – you should be following both) noted on Twitter something approximating “Heh, you should pick “Fly” to screw with people’s heads.” I should have saved the tweet, because I had already decided on “Fly” at that point, and got a good chuckle out of it.
I am aware that not everyone will agree with this choice. Those paying close attention may have noticed that, in going in chronological order, I passed over the sheer intensity of “One Minute,” and in picking “Fly” I’m ignoring the stunning pair of “Half Measures” and “Full Measure.” I love all of these episodes, just as I loved Breaking Bad’s third season as a whole, and yet some part of me gravitates to “Fly.”
You may have also noticed that I am attracted to episodes which are somewhat different – in fact, to this point, everything but “Sweetums” could be defined as distinctly atypical for the show in question, suggesting that I’m easily distracted by gimmicks. And yet with “Fly” the gimmick is the lack of distraction, the degree to which the show is stripped down to its most basic qualities in an effort to find something that might have otherwise gone unseen. The result is a fascinating glimpse at what it means to be contained, what it means to be contaminated, and definitive proof that Breaking Bad is simultaneously one of the darkest and one of the most hilarious shows on television.
“Fly” is clear evidence that Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston deserved their paired Emmy Awards in September – sure, Paul probably deserved the Emmy the year before, and Cranston could have spread the wealth a bit to the category’s growing list of hugely talented bridesmaids, but this two-hand play is nothing but Paul and Cranston. And while it may be a “bottle episode” in regards to location, it has to sell so much more: it needs to be about these characters’ histories, about those moments which make their relationship so complicated, and this is not a show which turns to exposition in those moments. This is a show that embeds those moments in glances and conversations, monologues mixing with mumblings to form tension through simply the ebb and flow of human behavior.
The fly, of course, is irrelevant: it may as well be imaginary, for all the true threat it represents to their operation. And yet the fly becomes that symbol of contamination, the symbol of everything in Walt’s life which makes it complicated and messy. This is a man who has been forced to look past so many things in his life, who sleeps at night knowing that he has been at least partly responsible for some terrible shit. He lives with those because he is a survivor, because he in some ways feeds off the danger, and yet this fly is just annoying. It becomes a nemesis, something that he should be able to defeat and yet which lingers on. If he can’t kill a simple fly, how can he pull his marriage together? And, perhaps more importantly, how can he make up for the fact that he allowed the woman Jesse loved to die in front of him, arguably causing the death of hundreds more?
It is this final point which becomes the ticking time bomb in “Fly,” as Walt’s deteriorating consciousness brings him closer to revealing the truth about what happened to Jane the season before, and yet the episode does not depend on it. While that may be the moment where the episode transforms from a fascinating conversation between its two protagonists to a moment of pure tension as we wonder whether this will be the moment where the secret we share with Walt reaches the one person who will never forgive him for it, that conversation is not simply fascinating because of this “excitement.” In the hands of Cranston and Paul, even seemingly inane small talk has a sense of pace and momentum, and an episode which literally doesn’t go anywhere ends up seeming more dynamic than half of the dramas on television.
I am always in love with episodes that serve as a sort of proof of a series’ success, a sort of guidepost which identifies how well a show is drawn. No other episode captures the strength of Breaking Bad’s serial narrative than the degree to which two characters trapped in a room searching for a fly is as important as the life-changing events related to vehicular manslaughter which punctuated the series’ more exciting hours. “Fly” asks the question of what happens in the absence of the micro-management necessary to maintain the lives these mean have chosen to lead: when Walter’s hopped up on sleeping pills, and when Jesse’s guard is down after hours of hunting a fly that just won’t die, what do they talk about? What do they do? Who are they? And, specifically, who are they in a season where they are charting two separate paths to self-destruction with the other party none the wiser?
And yet, at the same time the episode asks these all-important questions which allow Cranston and Paul to do some series best work, the episode is also hilarious in its early stages (as this wonderful “Breaking Bad with Laugh Track” video indicates) without losing its core of sadness and tragedy, and Rian Johnson’s skillful direction lends the episode visual interest which makes a potentially sterile set feel organic and lived-in. Similarly, although much of it depends on the actors, Sam Catlin & Moira Walley-Beckett’s script is a tightly-wound bit of restrained theatricality that deserves equal praise.
I understand that many people do not enjoy this episode, and I am open to the notion that we all interpret television differently, but if you don’t enjoy this episode you and I are watching Breaking Bad for different reasons. While the stakes may not be naturally high, the episode makes them high, and while it seems quiet it never loses the sort of intensity which comes from the series’ sense of narrative, and in this case literal, proximity. A gripping, fascinating pivot in a truly fantastic season of television.