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The 12 Defining Shots of ‘Breaking Bad’

Before ‘El Camino,’ a review of the original show’s most groundbreaking visuals—and a reminder that it might be the best-looking show of the 21st century

Whether or not you think that Breaking Bad has a claim to being the best television show of the post-Sopranos era, a case can certainly be made that it’s the best looking. For five seasons, creator Vince Gilligan and cinematographer Michael Slovis cultivated an expressive, eccentric, scrupulously slick look apart from other narratively or thematically similar dramas. It’s not so much that Breaking Bad’s imagery was “cinematic” as that it displayed a belief in the ability of single frames to convey emotional and intellectual information, even on a small-screen scale. Even if, at times, the show’s color-coded production design and inventory of symbolic objects could seem heavy-handed, the overriding impression was one of thoughtful, mischievous showmanship, with every directorial choice calibrated to serve—or heighten—the material. Walter White’s ego and delusions of grandeur created a context for Gilligan’s aesthetic: From the very beginning, a kind of stylized megalomania was built into Breaking Bad’s DNA on a molecular level. We’re not sure if these are necessarily the 12 best shots in the history of the show—that’s something to argue about on Twitter—but taken together, they represent a startling mosaic of image-making.

“Cornered”

Screenshots via AMC

This bird’s-eye view of Skyler White visually renders her as a piece in a board game: It’s her move and she doesn’t know which way to go. It’s an inspired use of the famous Four Corners Monument that marks the quadripoint of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. The visual transforms the monument from a locus of American community into a symbol of paralytic indecision. Coming in the aftermath of Walt’s iconic “I am the one who knocks” speech—arguably his most explicit and chilling affirmation of villainy, as well as of his expectations that his wife simply buckle up for the ride—Skyler’s abortive plan to flee is as understandable as it is futile. She wants to go, but she can’t, and the circular shape of the meeting point as seen from above comes to represent a brand-new cycle of entrapment and despair.

“Crawl Space”

At times, the twisty plotlines and panoramic world-building of Breaking Bad gave it the feel of a graphic novel, and the last shot of Season 4’s screw-turning “Crawl Space” doubles down on a panel-style aesthetic of frames within frames. In narrative terms, “Crawl Space” is one of the tensest hours in the show’s history. Walter is being steadily encroached upon by his brother-in-law, Hank, which in turn leads to Gus threatening to kill his whole family. The solution—such as it is—is to go into hiding. This proposition will cost half a million dollars, which is a preposterous sum that Walter nevertheless has judiciously squirreled away for emergencies—or so he thinks. The revelation that the money is gone (and worst of all, used to pay the IRS debt of Skyler’s boss turned lover) provides the episode with its dramatic cliffhanger. The composition of the frame offers a squared-off, bird’s-eye view of Walter wedged into his crawl space, and conveys the precise, isolating nature of his entrapment and claustrophobia.

“Face Off”

When Roy Scheider shot the compressed-air tank being chomped on by Bruce the shark at the end of Jaws, he didn’t just save Amity—he inaugurated the great tradition of the exploding bad guy. A few years later, Brian De Palma gave John Cassavetes the same treatment at the close of The Fury; then the Coens followed suit with the Demon Biker of the Apocalypse in Raising Arizona, and next thing you knew, a trope was born. The calculus goes something like this: The more formidable the villain, the more satisfying the sight of them coming apart at the seams. Which is why the death of Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring, lured into a confrontation with his nursing-home-bound nemesis, Hector Salamanca, and unaware that the latter has consented to have a bomb attached to his wheelchair, ranks among Breaking Bad’s most ecstatic moments. It’s not that Gus had it coming so much as the grotesque, wonderfully pulpy staging of his send-off, which shows him emerging—hilariously, impossibly—from the blast only to reveal that his face has been half-flayed away, Harvey Dent–style. It’s a vivid visual metaphor for the character’s mixture of civility and savagery. The mask is ripped away to reveal what lies beneath.

“Fifty-One”

Swimming pools abound in Breaking Bad; over the course of the show, Walt fishes a dirty Band-Aid and a bedraggled teddy bear from the shallow end of his backyard setup. In Season 5’s haunting “Fifty-One,” Skyler briefly becomes Breaking Bad’s most significant waterlogged object when she walks serenely into the pool during Walt’s birthday party in a suicide pantomime that’s no less upsetting for being a self-conscious stunt without—seemingly—true intent for self-harm. The scene is shot from underneath and backlit through the water by deckside pool lights, and Skyler cuts a hovering, angelic figure similar to the Blue Fairy at the end of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. It’s possible that this enchanted image represents Sklyer’s idealized version of herself: a self-sacrificing martyr baptizing herself clean of Walt’s dirty empire.

“Fly”

“Everything is contaminated,” says Walter at the end of this canonical bottle episode, which was directed by Rian Johnson with a flair that belies its deceptively simple scenario of Walter and Jesse trying to capture an errant housefly before it gets into the mix at the lab. In a slyly underplayed anticlimax, Jesse ends up swatting the bug to death, but the episode nevertheless ends with Walt staring at a fly perched on an orange smoke detector light—confirmation that his troubles won’t be so easily solved, and an image with the nightmarish intensity of a hallucination.

“Full Measure”

Or: “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” with a nod to the Beastie Boys—but no (crown) royalties. The moral implosion of Walter White is Breaking Bad’s main subject, but at its best, it found a way to inventory the collateral damage. The transformation of Jesse Pinkman from a stoned wastoid into a stone-cold killer is arguably the blackest mark on his former chemistry teacher’s transcript: After failing Jesse as a student, Walt systematically goes about destroying any residual promise the kid might have had. Convincing Jesse to preemptively kill Gale Boetticher in the wrenching Season 3 finale might be his most heartless bit of manipulation when you factor in not only the fate of the victim (Gale being a relative innocent in the show’s universe), but also the way it demagnetizes his protege’s moral compass once and for all. By shifting the focus from Aaron Paul’s anguished expression to place his weapon in sharp relief, Gilligan suggests a frightened young man who’s temporarily become subordinate to a gun; Jesse phases out of view and the gun gets its star close-up before a harrowing, definitive cut to black.

“4 Days Out” / “Gliding Over All”

It’s a cliché to have a tortured character look at themselves in the mirror in a time of crisis or anguish, and yet director Michelle MacLaren makes it work in Season 2’s “4 Days Out.” The scene lets Walter’s distorted reflection in a dented restroom paper-towel dispenser—dented from a fit of rage on Walt’s part—serve as an externalization of some inner fracture. Walt’s violent outburst punctuated what should have been a moment of relief—news that his cancer was in remission. His response indicated that the last thing Walt actually wanted was to recover. But three seasons later, the shot evolves even more: The paper-towel dispenser becomes a returning character in Season 5’s “Gliding Over All” as we revisit the same bathroom, a scene that consolidates Walt’s concision and power by using the passage of time to show the deepening of the character’s moral and physical decline. It’s also just funny to think that several years later, nobody’s bothered to replace the damaged dispenser, which is an apt summation of a dramatic universe in which nobody at any level seems to feel even the slightest twinge of accountability.

“Madrigal”

Every Stanley Kubrick movie after Lolita includes a key scene in a bathroom: Kubrick picked up on Alfred Hitchcock’s taboo depiction of a toilet in Psycho, and unlocked something voyeuristic and menacing about a traditionally private space. Certainly, the cherry-red accents in the bathroom that serves as a backdrop for this episode’s startling cold open is indebted to The Shining, specifically the scene when Jack Torrance has an extended conversation with a demonic butler; both sequences are color-coded to suggest that there will be blood. The stylization here is on-the-nose obvious and slyly funny (even the toilet paper looks crimson), while the choreography of the occupant’s suicide—death by automatic defibrillator—ranks high in Breaking Bad’s canon of startling, deadpan violence.

“Mandala”

Matt Zoller Seitz compared the crane-assisted shot of Jesse levitating in the wake of shooting heroin for the first time to the work of Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee: It’s subjective, kinetic, and unrealistic—a literal heightening effect. The physical ingenuity required to pull it off is one thing, but it’s really Aaron Paul’s performance that makes it achieve liftoff. It’s absolutely uncanny how Jesse seems to empty out in front of our eyes, as if the sudden absence of any weighty tension, or any conscious thought at all, is what motivates his float toward the ceiling. Few shows have traded in close-up images of anguish as much as Breaking Bad, but Jesse’s mask of serenity is more unnerving than all those other grimaces put together.

“Ozymandias”

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” is a meditation on hubris. It’s about the idea that even the mightiest rulers will fall, and be remembered by the incomplete traces they leave behind. Shelley’s blend of grandeur and abstraction resulted in a work so resonant that contemporary storytellers have consistently strip-mined it for meaning: Alan Moore’s Watchmen featured a sociopathic superhero who took on the name of the poem’s arrogant king. Gilligan’s allusion is equally direct and wonderfully playful, and riffs on the episode’s central image of “two vast and trunkless legs” that “stand in the desert” via a cameo by Walt’s long-lost khakis tucked into the corner of the frame. The mythic intimations don’t stop there, however: If the diminished meth mogul is on some level meant to be Ozymandias, the choreography of him rolling a barrel through the desert (containing the last $10 million of his empire) also evokes the luckless Sisyphus, doomed by fate to push a rock uphill. Walter’s trajectory is flatter but no less futile, and by collapsing past and present into a sort of purgatory, the shot achieves a form of symbolic perfection.

“Pilot”

We were just talking about Walt’s khakis. The pure, whimsical abstraction of this shot, taken from the show’s first sequence, represents an early high point in Gilligan’s overall project of defamiliarizing the everyday: It’s got the non-sequitur elegance of a surrealist canvas. Of course, it also means something, and works immediately to pique our curiosity about (1) the khakis, (2) their owner, and (3) how and why they’ve become parted. This is the first in an infinite series of abject, hilarious humiliations visited on a character whose pathology has a lot to do with anxieties about who wears the pants in his household. So yeah, clever stuff.

“Say My Name”

As with Gus in “Face Off,” Mike gets a death worthy of him in “Say My Name.” It’s not a grotesque, cartoony send-off, but a moment of gentle, poetic contemplation. Jonathan Banks’s ability to convey a core of thoughtfulness in a hardened, precise killer was always one of Breaking Bad’s true aces in the hole (thankfully carried over to the prequel narrative of Better Call Saul). The feeling that Mike has finally found peace at the wrong end of his own stolen gun (fired by his longtime collaborator/punching bag Walt) is as tender as the show gets, and in the middle of so many arid, lonely desert vistas, the lake-mountain-tree trifecta conveys a sense of respite, and even reprieve. Seen from a distance, the two could simply be friends resting in the middle of a hike, but their placement within the frame also hints that they’re twins—and that before long, Walter will be staring down the reality of his own mortality.