In preparation for the return of Breaking Bad, we’ve been revisiting our favorite episodes from the past four seasons. And while the cinematography takes on new richness with every rewatching (the lines! the silhouettes! oh god, the warped POV shots!) and the costume choices seem more inspired, the one visual element that has jumped out most prominently this time around are all the reflections.
There are standard mirror shots, for sure, those go-to shots of characters gazing into their own reflections — like in season two’s “Over,” when Walt punches out a shiny paper-towel dispenser because he can’t bear the sight of himself. More often, though, Breaking Bad uses oblique reflections: We see characters’ images in shiny table tops, their clothes mirrored back in gleaming kitchen counters, their profiles distorted in dirty car windows. Faces and bodies bounce back off hubcaps, off Walt’s eyeglasses, off tacky lamps, off the door of an office microwave, off cell phone screens, the immaculate machinery of the meth lab, or the chrome around the combination lock on Saul’s safe. Occasionally, characters regard themselves in these reflections, but more often, the images are there just for us, adding a subtle layer of visual noise that’s a little distracting and sometimes a little disorienting or misleading. This is, after all, a show about distracted, disoriented, frequently mislead or misleading characters.
We don’t just see the characters in reflection, though. The brutal Albuquerque landscape gets its fair share of mirror imagery, too, often in the sides of cars — where it looks bubbly and almost alive — or as the horizon bounces on sinister black-lensed sunglasses. (Those shots appear pretty often, but they appear in back-to-back scenes in season four’s penultimate episode “End Times.”) Deserts are characterized not by heat but by extremes, and that’s certainly true of the people who populate Walter White’s world, too. Each is their own kind of hostile environment, able to support life only under very specific circumstances. It’s hard to tell if they’re reflecting the desert or if it’s reflecting them.