Experiment as Plot

Curator's Note

“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.



I really enjoy the possibilities that your post suggests. On many levels, the show is about experimentation: with the TV serial form, with a chemical process, with ethics, with the aesthetic juxtaposition of humor and graphic violence. You've also taught me something new about process here, namely that the fast-forward montage sequences of traffic or weather changes allow Gilligan to spend more time focusing on the smallest parts of this battle, the nuances of conversation and reflection. One of my friends says that his favorite parts of Breaking Bad are the hanging silences and the uncomfortable pauses. The narrative earns those by moving quickly through time in other parts of the show.

I really like how you've explored "experimentation" here. I've heard Cranston speak about how the writers are purposefully bucking televisual norms by ignoring the long held tradition of "static" characters. Although I love the show I find myself experiencing what I can only describe as displeasure as I watch Mr. Walt's "badness" bubble to the surface.

Thanks Pete and Maria! Pete, I wonder how much overlap there is between what I'm calling experimentation and you're calling process? Seems like a lot, probably! I felt imprecise when I wrote that the hyper time-lapse sequences condense time and labor and you're right, it's more often weather and traffic. I'm so used to this device being used to collapse time and, to an extent, it does work in this way to transition between scenes in the show. But perhaps it's more useful to think of it as a spatial effect, with the sequences being dense doses of setting. To that end, it's a really efficient way to further sediment the story in Albuquerque. Those uncomfortable, silent moments are some of my favorites too, especially the ones that linger in the White's thickly carpeted home.

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