This week Jef, Pete and I decided to celebrate the mid-season premiere of Breaking Bad by rewatching one of the best episodes of the entire series, Season Three's "The Fly."
The first time I saw it, I remember being blown away. It is one of those episodes that stick with you, maybe even haunt you.
The episode finds a sleep-deprived and emotional wreck Walt (Bryan Cranston) becoming increasingly obsessed with the fact that a fly has found its way into his and Jesse's (Aaron Paul) hyper-clean, technologically advanced meth lab. The majority of the episode then follows Walt try and catch this fly, and in the process, he and Jesse reach a new level to their relationship. And that's basically the episode. There is a whole ton of background information about why the tension is so high and why Walt is quickly unraveling, but if you don't know about all that, you probably haven't watched the show and you should stop reading this and go forth and watch post haste!
ABBY: This is my favorite episode of Breaking Bad. It's so beautifully done, simple yet incredibly effective. Nothing really happens, yet everything happens at the same time. What did you guys think of it?
JEF: I'm a big fan of bottle episodes where everything more or less takes place in the same location and all the action is character driven. They need to be few and far between, but not only do Walt and Jesse get some fantastic progress in their relationships to each other, it helps the lab itself become almost a living being. Part of the draw is protecting the lab, and the attack of the fly personalizes what is otherwise just sterile metal.
PETE: I like the way it builds. You start with this miniscule annoyance that -- through the course of the episode -- expands to encapsulate everything that's taken place in the series to that point. By the end, you're almost as exhausted as Walter.
ABBY: Walt really begins to lose it in this episode. The fly is obviously a metaphor for the situation and how Walt perceives the situation. What is the metaphor for you?
JEF: I don't think it's a metaphor, I think it's an avatar. When you spend your life day in and day out under a crushing fear of failure and a sense of regret, you assign traits to things. If I can just kill this fly, it will all be alright. I do the same thing with video games. If I can just kill this boss, if I can just get 100 percent completion, then somehow the rest will work out.
PETE: Jesse's line about Walter not being his boss gets to the heart of the issue. Walter knows things have gotten out of hand, largely due to his actions, and holding up the cook is the only way he can fool himself into thinking he has any control left.
ABBY: Jesse tells this story about his aunt dying of cancer and that she starts to lose it, similar to what Walt is doing. Walt then tells him that he's in remission and it's not that. Do you think Jesse is perceptive, or perhaps has enough insight, about why Walt might be freaking out?
JEF: Yes I do. He's not smart enough to realize his "subtlety" is about as subtle as a tuba concerto, but he knows there's a connection.
PETE: I love Jesse, and I normally wouldn't have given him credit for such insight except Vince Gilligan is a goddamned genius.
ABBY: The monologue Walt gives about the day he thinks he should have died is touching and then crazy. If Walt had to die at some point throughout this show, knowing it well enough, when would you say he should have died? I think, actually, it may have been somewhat apropos if he died in his pool when the plane crashed. But then we wouldn't have had two more seasons!
JEF: This is my first episode, but I did a little back reading and I think it would have been the moment Skyler told him to leave... it just seems like that's a good moment to drop it all.
PETE: For me, I'd have been fine with him dying after it was revealed that he poisoned Andrea's kid.
ABBY: Yes, Pete! Do you think Walt saying he should have died that night (the night Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, choked on her own heroin-induced vomit and he just watched) because this was when Skyler finally caught him and his second cell phone or because he had past the point of no return by watching someone die and being alright with it?
JEF: It would be hard to imagine a lower point to cash out at. Besides the complete failure of the social instinct that makes us human, the fear of repercussions is always worse than the repercussions themselves. Walt was just remember one incredibly black moment when death would have been preferable to continuation.
PETE: To that point, every death Walter caused (Krazy-8, Tuco, Gus' two dealers) was at least explainable, necessary even, in the context of trying to provide for his family. Jane ... not so much.
ABBY: But maybe he rationalized allowing her to die as it sort of "saves" Jesse? You totally thought Walt was going to tell Jesse that he watched Jane die, right? If he did, what do you think would have happened?
JEF: A severe fly-saber beating?
ABBY: I didn't know until this time around that this episode was directed by Rian Johnson, who directed one of my favorite movies ever, Brick, and well as more recently Looper. What about the episode, stylistically, did you like? I love how contained it is. Life inside the lab looks so small and constraining.
JEF: I liked that it essentially a horror movie setting (two people in increasingly hostile interactions, an external menace driving them crazy, guilt, etc.) but that it never feels that way. It avoids any sort of trope that would spin it off into that direction, and I think that's a mark of a really skillful director who doesn't take the easy way out.
PETE: Jef mentioned the "bottle episode" aspect, and that's what I like. Aside from a few shots of Skyler and Holly and some exteriors at the laundry, all the action takes place in the superlab. The funny thing is, the reason "Fly" is so self-contained, according to Gilligan, was because of how over-budget the series was at that point.
ABBY: There is an article in this Sunday's New York Times that is an interview between various television "show runners," Shonda Rhimes (Scandal), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), etc. Anyway they discuss the 22 episode season of network television versus the 13 episode season of cable and how with network you have extra time to goof off, so to speak and with cable you don't have as much room to experiment because every episode counts that much more. I think "The Fly" is an excellent argument against that. It's an experimental episode for sure, nothing happens, it barely moves the plot along until the very last moment when Walt confronts Jesse on stealing meth. Other than that, it's all character development, but it's a really important episode to the season as well. How did they manage to pull that off?
JEF: Perfectly. I would much rather have 13 good episodes than 22 of various quality. There was a lot of filler in Buffy and comparatively less in something like Mad Men. You'd think with more episodes that they could experiment more, but I've never found that to be true. It just tends to make them formulaic.
PETE: Network TV "experimental" episodes are largely bullshit. No one at CBS is experimenting with NCIS. "Fly" may not advance the plot, per se, but it serves a larger purpose in showing us the last vestiges of Walter's humanity draining away.
ABBY: This was like the first show we've watched this summer that I feel like we couldn't make fun of. Or can we...?
JEF: Not me. This show is great, but I won't watch it regularly. It's just too sad and too real. It's like Requiem for a Dream. Very fine piece of art that I hope I never see again.
PETE: Can we not make fun of the fly's death scene? That was the most dramatic onscreen insect death since Jiminy Cricket went down in a hail of machine gun fire in I'm No Fool With Automatic Weapons.
Next week we suck it up and watch Doctor Who (Oh, wonder who picked this one?) "Vincent and The Doctor" Season 5, Episode 10. Watch along with on Netflix and make us feel bad about our analysis.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.