Note to new viewers of Breaking Bad: the following contains Season 2 spoilers.
The second time I saw the bear, I knew what it meant. I hoped I was wrong. I wasn’t.
Like every other character on the show (with the possible exceptions of Saul, Junior, and baby Holly), the teddy bear’s story is awful. A casualty of a midair collision between two planes in the sky over Albuquerque, the bear splashes down into Walter White’s swimming pool, where it loses an eye. By the time the bear joins the rest of the evidence salvaged from the debris field, its lurid pink is the only spot of color in the scene: everything else is shot in black and white.
There is an obvious allusion here. Director Vince Gilligan has said the scene is designed to recall Schindler’s List, so this is no coincidence.
The pink teddy bear does not remind me of the little girl in the red dress. Instead, each one of those scenes takes me right back to the year I was 22. That winter, a friend of mine boarded a plane in London and died less than an hour later, when it exploded in the night sky over the border between England and Scotland.
After that night, I would pretty much always know what a “debris field” is, the difference between evidence and personal effects, and all the rest of the language around these things (incident at altitude, passenger manifest, squawk code). I would not really want to know; at the same time I would totally seek that stuff out, because a part of me needed to know.
Even now, there are things about that 23-year-old event that — well, I might be the only living person who thinks about them. For example: I know that the son of the guy who played Larry Tate on Bewitched was one of only two people seated in the row behind my friend.
There is no reason for knowing a thing like that. No possible use for it. It’s not even information anymore. Why do I know it? How could it possibly matter?
In the year that’s passed since the nights of sleep I lost to the pink teddy bear, I’ve come to see its whole series of flash-forward scenes as oddly satisfying. For one thing, we are with Walter as he watches that midair collision. None of us is going through it alone. It’s something big and collective, not really like the TV coverage of 9/11 but not unlike it, either.
Also, the plane crash in Breaking Bad has clarity. It’s a daylight event, the direct result of human error on several levels. (Walter sees Jane dying of an overdose and does nothing. Jane’s father, an air traffic controller, is distracted by his grief when he returns to work. Jane’s father directs two planes into each other’s flight paths, and they crash.) It’s a clean case, open and shut. Better still, viewers know who’s really to blame: Walter White himself.
This is what makes it satisfying. The Breaking Bad plane crash is not going to require the use of an airplane hangar, a cast of God knows how many people, and a year or two of painstaking Humpty-Dumpty reconstruction, all just to get busy on the arrest and trial of a guy who might not even be culpable. This accident is not something that happens in the middle of the night above a town four stops north of your university on the railway line, while you’re upstairs in a rented house writing a goddamn research paper on the African novel. It is not the kind of plane crash that turns you into a bovine news junkie, obediently taking your shoes off for airport security, thinking Well, maybe this will help everyone get to their destinations safely.
The Breaking Bad plane crash has a narrative arc. It is a response to actions we have seen several people take. It is not the kind of event that kills your friend and leaves you thinking, The hell was that?, for decades.
It’s even got a witness: the pink teddy bear.
Which, I realize now, I kind of love.