Seitz Asks: What's your favorite single image from Breaking Bad?
Seitz Answers: Jesse trying heroin for the first time.
Breaking Bad might be the most visually intelligent drama on TV. Series creator Vince Gilligan, cinematographer Michael Slovis, and a rotating lineup of episode directors pack each installment with shots that are both functional and beautiful: a close-up of a charred, one-eyed teddy bear floating in pool water; Walter White's face staring out of the crumpled surface of a towel dispenser that he punched months earlier after his cancer diagnosis; a terrified Skyler lying in bed as Walt looms over her, his head sliced off by the top of the frameline so that he seems more monster than man.
My favorite shot in the whole run of the series, though, occurs in season two, episode eleven, "Mandala." It's the extended take of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) trying heroin for the first time. After he shoots up, the camera fixes him in an overhead shot lying on the bed next to his girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter), his face opens in helpless joy, and he begins rising up off the bed. Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese are masters of this sort of shot, and they learned the trick from an older master, Vincente Minnelli, who conveyed romantic delirium at a ball in Madam Bovary by placing his lead couple on a platform that whooshed them around the dance floor faster and more wildly than any of the extras.
Slovis got this shot by placing Paul on a camera crane platform that was slightly narrower than his torso. When Jesse succumbs to drug-fueled ecstasy, the camera rises slowly up over the bedroom. The smooth, somewhat mechanical "rising" effect lends an appropriately unreal aura to the moment; it's one of the few purely figurative images in a drama that's usually more realistic (or "realistic"). Its specialness is part of the reason I like it so much; it's an exception to the series' aesthetic rules.
Among Breaking Bad's many virtues is its ability to get viewers interested in the practical uses of cinematography — in how filmmakers can use the camera to enhance mood, comment on the story, or add another layer to characters simply by placing the camera in a certain position or moving it to re-frame the scene when something important happens. What's your favorite shot in the series to date?
There have been a number of video essays on the subject; we've embedded a selection here to jog your memory and help you participate in this geeky little exercise:
Gliding Over All: The Cinematography of Breaking Bad, Season 5.1
The Cinematography of Breaking Bad