If you’re already a fan of Breaking Bad then please excuse this choir-preaching. It’s 6 PM on the Tuesday after Sunday night’s ‘Crawl Space’ and I am still reeling. I’d like to hyperbolize (because, admittedly, I haven’t seen every episode of every show this year) here and say it was the most cinematic, compelling, dramatic, white-knuckle piece of television in 2011. And the season still has two more episodes.
These writers, much like the boasting of TNT, really know drama. Every decision or lack thereof taken by these characters has more weight than most shows on pay channels will in entire seasons and it’s on basic cable.
First of all, let us film nerds thank the creators and directors of this show for a return to small screen cinema. The show has always been known for using interesting camera placement and movement, and always at the right time, but in this particular instance it is the lack of movement that adds gravitas to the already harrowing situation. As Walt approaches the precipice of complete insanity and nearly complete villainization, we realize the true magnitude of how deep in the s**t he really is. Gus has threatened his family. Gus, a man with irremovable blood on his hands, has now threatened the death of his wife, his son and his infant daughter.
Interestingly, the heart of this scene is filmed in an extreme wide shot, encompassing the striking tableaux of Walt, Gus and his goons, backdropped by the sweeping desert beauty of New Mexico. As Mr. White understands the delicate balance of who’s life is worth more than whose, the clouds pass overhead in somber silence, eclipsing the entire setting, turning the men into stark silhouettes, harbingers of a fleeting mortal existence. It nearly detaches us from the reality of the situation, showing dramatically the escalation of stakes. And as the grim conversation comes to an end the clouds move again, like mute pallbearers dragging the shadows across the plains, revealing in blinding sunlight the dust-clad men, their cars, the landscape, now feeling more realistic than anything else. There is no return. Walt must do something. And quickly.
Meanwhile, Skylar has been doing her own dirty deeds to save exposing her husband’s criminal activity. But what she doesn’t realize is that in covering Beneke’s IRS tracks with the meth-money, the very money Walt has been saving to protect his family, is that she’s endangering their escape even more. They’re practically all dead.
The episode is entitled ‘Crawl Space’ and that is where we find our broken hero in the final minutes of the show. Walt has never more frantically torn through the city. First, to Saul’s to get the number of a magic man who can disappear them all from their lives and then to the underside of his home to collect the stacks of cash that will let them flee. But as he tears open the vacuum-suctioned clothing storage bags, it seems to be a bit light. Skylar used it. And now he has no exit strategy.
The next five minutes of this episode had me more anxious, more scared, more on the edge of my seat than any horror film I have ever seen. When Skylar admits where the money has gone to the gripping fear and loss that rushes over Walt causes him to scream the whimpering death-cry of a defeated man, which quickly turns into a deeply sad, insane laughter. As he writhes in the dirt of the crawl space my skin became taught and I realized I was rubbing my palms on my thighs methodically. Skylar can not begin to know what danger they are now in. As the score pulses electrically, Walt continues to cackle in concert. The addition of the ringing phone only compounds the aural assault, like the biting violins in Psycho, that creepily encompasses Mrs. White as she stalks the hallway with fear. When her sister informs her of Hank’s impending death we truly see how this is all coming to a head. No one is safe. No one is in control. There is no more reality as they know it.
Contradictory to the static cloud scene earlier, we see Walt exhausted with paralyzing fear and confusion, as the camera pulls out from directly above him. It rises higher and higher and higher, past where the ceiling would be, slowly and straight up, as the audio blurs into caustic static, as if we’re watching Walt being lowered into his grave. A grave dug by himself, with plenty of rooms for his loved ones. He has broken. He is no longer Walter White but completely transformed into the villain known as Heisenberg.
And like I said, there’s still two episodes left in this season. By far one of the most arresting hours of television I have ever seen. It showed me things I didn’t think were possible in the medium and within the realm of the fictional environment Vince Gilligan has created. I’d say it’s on par, if not surpassing, the quality and similar feeling I had when first viewing the episode of Mad Men, ‘The Carousel’. If ‘Crawl Space’ isn’t nominated for multiple Emmy’s next year, I would be whole-heartedly surprised and disappointed.
To not be watching Breaking Bad right now is to truncate the limits of television. It’s like deciding to view the world without a handful of primary colors. It’s on Netflix Instant, you sillies! Get on it!