This video essay is a co-production of Press Play and RogerEbert.com.
Season 2 of Breaking Bad is about the speed and exhilaration of being reborn, as well as the mounting pressures and heightening dangers that come with transformation. Dave Bunting’s video essay is a free-fall montage, each scene seamlessly drifting into the next: an aimless array of violence, fear and the desire for escape.
Breaking Bad asks if we are simply the product of circumstances beyond our control, or if we are in fact agents propelling our own destiny. In Season 2, Walt’s transformation into Heisenberg is triggered, but is also incomplete. Is Walt a man driven by selfless devotion to providing for his family, or is he actually motivated by his own hunger for power? Season 2 is built around a charred stuffed animal’s descent from the heavens. At the start of each episode we see bigger parts of the same strange and startling image. In Bunting’s essay, the heart of Season 2 is not the mystery of what this object is or where it will land, but the center of a father’s grief and how one mistake born of that grief ends up being a catalyst for even greater disaster.
Choices may often be perceived as the catalyst for change throughout Breaking Bad, but the show often demonstrates that our agency is not merely limited; it is profoundly influenced by circumstances well beyond our control. But while Walt’s transformation is not necessarily the product of his decisions, Walt does bear responsibility for his choices. In Season 2, Walt’s decision to let Jane die indicates a major shift in Walt’s moral compass and challenges the viewer to continue to identify with him and root for him as a hero in this story.
The cinematography of Breaking Bad shows tremendous scope, as well as intimacy—we see both the gorgeous desert landscape and a close-ups of Walt’s deeply lined face as he struggles through chemo. Scenes of Walt and Jesse cooking and spending time in the desert together highlight the tremendous differences between these two men—in size, gait, age, sense of style, and use of language. But as the season progresses, their hazmat silhouettes on the horizon become less and less distinguishable. Here, intimacy, like moral decision-making, is two parts circumstance, one part actual individual choice. Still, in Bunting’s video essay we see the ways in which Walt and Jesse differ when confronted with moral choices. When separate, Jesse is often depicted as crouching over, wide eyed and overwhelmed—his preference is always to slip back into the candy-colored dream world of comic books, puppy love, and drug experiences, where he doesn’t have to deal with the weight of his own decisions. In contrast, in Season 2, we see the beginning of Walt‘s transformation into “the one who knocks.” Alone, apart from Jesse, he is hard-eyed, diligent, the master of his own destiny, whether he is holding a gun, pushing a cart, or standing naked in a fluorescent-lit supermarket.
In Season 2, deserts are torn apart by man-made explosives, and lovers float away from each other in drug-induced dreams. Many characters like Skyler and Hank often seem to be in the periphery, outside the kinetic, often volatile relationship between Jesse and Walt. This sense of a rapidly disintegrating sense of reality and moral sensibility is exacerbated in time-lapse scenes, often used when Walt and Jesse are cooking, but also capturing the otherworldly backdrop of the Southwestern American sky. These sped-up scenes feel flushed and out-of-breath, like time is racing and the entire world is out of control.
In Bunting’s masterful distillation of Season 2’s central
themes, the audio is just as important as the visual. The repetition of Donald’s
air traffic directions—resolute, measured, unemotional—becomes the backbone for
the unfolding human drama, connecting these seemingly disparate stories and
showing how human choices create disaster in a way that no butterfly wing ever