“It was really an experiment from the beginning,” Bryan Cranston reflected in the debut episode of “The Writers’ Room.” The actor was referring to the motivating impulse behind Vince Gilligan’s creation of “Breaking Bad”: to test the viability of a radically mutable protagonist in a medium that has long bound its characters to stasis. Yet he could have been alluding to many of the principles structuring the show’s narrative, production, and reception. Scientific experimentation is the narrative device that fuels Walt and Jesse’s production of meth and their consequent need for constant, seat-of-their-underpants scheming. The characters’ experimentation with illicit substances and behaviors interacts, often explosively, with said. All of this tests the limits of audience identification and investment in American family values. The great experiment that is online streaming (specifically Netflix) is largely responsible for the show’s slightly belated amassing of fans.
“Experimentation” conjures an open field hospitable to felicitous connections (at least for me—I’m a humanities scholar). Not so in the world of “Breaking Bad.” What I find so mesmerizing about the show is the dance it stages between the euphoric sense that anything is possible and the dreadful realization that chance will always be—has already been?—ruthlessly cut short.
The deliberate pacing proper to AMC dramas manifests in “Breaking Bad” as a give and take between prolonged scenes detailing conversations, confrontations, and processes, and time-lapse sequences that distill time and labor. This play with duration is precisely what allows the various forms of experimentation to coalesce, and it is supplemented by the recurrent inclusion of extreme close-ups and high- and low-angle long shots. To risk a binaristic reduction, the former micro shots tend to indicate a possibility (even if threatening) while the latter macro shots signify its shutting down. The exacting interplay between duration and shot scale reaches its apotheosis in “The Fly” (3:10), a bottle episode that pits Walt against his smallest foe. Unfolding entirely in the lab, the episode opens with a sequence vaguely reminiscent of Stan Brakhage’s “Mothlight” (1963) and proceeds to detail, in numerous, protracted scenes, Walt’s attempts to a kill a fly. It is experimentation at its most avant-garde—and most banal.