The Scene That Gets Me

 Posted by on July 11, 2012 at 1:30 pm  Breaking Bad, Past Seasons, Themes
Jul 112012
 

Note to new viewers of Breaking Bad: the following contains Season 2 spoilers.

The scene in Breaking Bad that gets me isn’t just one scene. It’s a series of flash-forwards, presented in a slow build across the opening shots of Season Two. All four feature a pink teddy bear.

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.

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  17 Responses to “The Scene That Gets Me”

  1. What a heartbreaking post. I saw it earlier and didn’t have a chance to read it through. Now that I’ve read it, I can’t believe nobody has responded, at least to your tone and sorrow. Having been close to a few public tragedies myself, I understand how it is we can connect with seemingly simple objects and see them as portals to the pain and confusion of the past, and that there becomes an odd comfort in that connection. For all the deserved criticism “The Killing” got for its many flaws, I thought it did the oddball way grief can undo a person in unexpected ways very well. The land-mine quality of random objects or sounds or signifiers that can send you from sorta steadying to completely lost in grief again – those moments in “The Killing” and the ever-sickening feeling the audience has when we see your pink teddy bear and worry what it is and will mean for the people in that world – these are some of the most touchingly real treatments of grief I’ve ever seen. Thanks for the post. I’m sorry about your friend.

  2. Your reaction to Season 2 makes perfect sense. It reminds me of a great analysis by Stephen King (an authority on what keeps people awake at night if there ever was one) in his non-fiction meditation of All Things Horror, Danse Macabre. He discusses how the paranoid conspiracy theories that arose in the wake of the JFK assassination and the other dislocating events of the 1960′s weren’t some insane reaction, but, on the contrary, the attempt to find some sanity in an increasingly insane world.

    The example he gives is in Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, source of the various Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies. In the book, the first inkling we are given that something’s wrong is when Wilma, a nice, normal, middle-aged woman, goes to the hero, Dr. Miles Bennell, and insists that her Uncle Ira isn’t really Uncle Ira, that he’s been replaced by … something. Immediately we believe her because, well, what’s really scarier: Some kind of plot to replace people? Or some nice middle-aged lady quietly losing her mind FOR NO REASON AT ALL? Things that happen FOR NO REASON AT ALL are unsupportable to the sane reasonable mind. There has to be a reason for things, right? Right?? So we blame the killing of JFK on The Mob/CIA/Castro or whatever combination because to think otherwise is to admit that some poor nobody can sit in a window with his mail-order rifle and blow away the leader of the free world. Just like that. That’s just too scary for a lot of people to accept.

    Season 2 of BB is a corrective to all that. We start with an inexplicable horror and the show proceeds to explicate it. We see everybody’s actions, Walt’s, Jesse’s, Jane’s, Donald’s (played by one of my favorite actors, John DeLancie, another performer I first became a fan of when he was on the soaps. When he was Eugene on Days of Our Lives I would tell people “this guy is going to amaze people once he gets into movies or on a prime-time show,” long before he became Q on <Star Trek: TNG), and they all make sense to them (one of the great movie lines, from Renoir’s Rules of the Game: “If there is one scary thing in this world, it’s that everyone has their reasons.”). By showing how it all unfolds, the senseless mass deaths at least make sense. That, as you say, is better than the alternative.

    • Thanks, Melville. Very thoughtful comments — especially about unprocessed grief, and how it can reappear in the damndest moments.

      I’ve been hearing and reading quite a bit about a recent movie, Margaret, about unexpected tragedy and how a very young woman reacts to it. The director’s cut of the film, to be released on DVD later this summer, is said to be a masterpiece.

      In Margaret (set in New York City), the director apparently uses visual references to remind viewers of 9/11. I think it’s his intention to work with the title character’s unresolved feelings: explore what grief does when you don’t look at it. How people fail to connect, sometimes deliberately. What happens to people (in this case, a person) when something is almost too big, too sudden, too intimate to process.

      It’s hard to make something good from things that are truly awful. But I think Breaking Bad has succeeded in doing that, and not just in Season 2.

  3. Wow. Powerful stuff.

    I’m frankly amazed at how many BB fans don’t “get” the ABQ episode, or thought the plane crash was gratuitous and had nothing to do with the rest of the show. It’s actually the most powerful anti-drug message on the show; it shows the ripple effect of the drug culture and its casualties. Without Jane’s death, the crash doesn’t happen. Combo gets killed (because of Walt’s hunger for more drug money) and a grieving Jesse starts using meth again; Jane hooks up with Jesse and (using NA parlance) “goes out”; Walt decides to let her die rather than stop the meth gravy train. Doug did everything he could think of to keep Jane off smack, including dragging her to meetings, and the lure was just too powerful for her. (I had thought at first Doug might be a recovering addict too, but he had a beer in the bar with Walt, so probably not.) Of course he’d still be obsessing about it two months later; of course it would affect his work.

    • It represents all the Deaths on Walt’s hands due to his product.

    • Without Jane’s death, the crash doesn’t happen.

      Exactly. And this is what I love about Breaking Bad: its brilliant Jacob’s Ladder of cause and effect. It’s so intricate sometimes, the process of one thing leading inevitably to another, but the viewer knows it’s always moving. Right down to the last shot of the last season, when the camera zooms in one thing in one character’s backyard: a thing that explains so much of what has gone before.

      No detail goes missing, no bad deed unpunished, in this show. So satisfying. :)

    • Decisions, actions and consequences. BB does not show violence just to attract more young viewers who want to see, “Everything blew up. Yea, blew up real good.”

      “No detail goes missing, no bad deed unpunished, in this show. So satisfying.” Outstanding Anne B. I feel sorry for people who dismiss BB as some meth crazed series. If so, they are missing out on a series that shows both the good and bad in people along with terrible effect meth has on the people it comes in contact with both directly and indirectly. It is a great character study. It is smart and funny and heartbreaking.

      My prayers to you, Anne B, on your loss.

  4. I’m looking forward to BB discussions on BoK! Thanks Anne and Lipp sisters! The heartbreaker for me has always been Jesse. I viewed the airplane crash as said above, a demonstration of the ripple effect of the sale of the product. More importantly, I think, for the show is Walt’s reaction. I’m not the only one, I’m sure, who have noticed the similarity between WW’s and DD’s spouted philosophy of “move on” and “this never happened” and how the characters are haunted by the untruth of their supposed philosophy (I think DD believed it and WW never did).

    Check out Alan Sepinwall’s interviews with Bryan Cranston and Jesse Pinkman on Hitfix. No spoilers of upcoming season, but discussions about moments in all previous seasons.

    What will go wrong now that WW has gotten rid of the competition? How will he be able to distribute? You know with 16 more episodes that he’ll keep producing. My big worry is that Jesse won’t make it 16 episodes.

    • Knowing Walt, his ego won’t allow him to rest on his laurels, and he’ll go overstepping his bounds again and putting himself and other people in danger, Jesse included. Now he wants enough money to “disappear” himself and his entire family if need be; that will be his next goal, in addition to giving them all enough to live on forever.

      Next up: Walt tells Hank he’s Heisenberg. Hank doesn’t believe him. Mayhem ensues. It’s just the sort of bullheaded thing Walt would do on impulse.

      • I don’t know if Walt will tell Hank or not, but that would be consistent with his out of control ego and power trip. I believe Hank will find Walt and Skyler out. I have thought, for several seasons, that Walt’s/Skyler’s baby will end up with Hank/Marie.

        Gilligan is still coming up with different endings to BB. Remember, 2 mini 8 ep. seasons, not a 16 ep season straight thru. I can’t wait till Sun.

        • Baby Holly winds up with Marie over Walter’s carcass, AND Skyler’s incarcerated ass.
          Hope the show doesn’t end predictably with WW’s demise. He has to suffer for his indiscretations, blah blah. How bout non-linear thought. A Chinatown ending. Where the corrupt, and powerful bend the outcome to their will, by using their foresaid corrupt power.
          It’s the way the world is.

          • Well, other than the “Walt still has a form of cancer that is almost always fatal” thing. Remember, he only has about nine months or so of remission, that is how little time has actually elapsed; with cancer they talk in terms of 5-year survival rates, which are terrible for all types of lung cancer.

          • BB has never been about traditional endings to a season and I can’t see it here, either. Yes TK, I thought Walter would die and Skyler would be sent to prison–she is very involved now and is not an innocent. She could have taken off with the kids and didn’t I have thought, for some time, that Jesse will be responsible for Walt’s demise. Jesse was kidnapped into this way of lfe by WW. Jesse would have been happy just being a small time hood, imo.

            Jesse is close to Mike and Mike will play a roll in bringing WW down. Mike knows where all the bodies are buried.

  5. This morning’s news, which (at least here in Philadelphia) is all about the release of the Louis Freeh report on the horrible child abuse scandal at Penn State, couldn’t help but bring me back here. The report is like Season 2 in that it maps out who was really responsible for what happened at PSU, and give us some satisfaction in apportioning the blame.

    But what really gave me eerie pause was reading a letter that Penn State Coach Joe Paterno, who the Freeh report shows was horribly culpable in not reporting Jerry Sandusky’s abuse, thius enabling him to claim more victims, wrote to his team last December. This was after the scandal broke, after Paterno was fired. On his deathbed (he died of cancer in January) he was still defending his actions, insisting the scandal had nothing to do with him (something today’s report shows was clearly a lie):

    http://www.boston.com/sports/other_sports/articles/2012/07/11/penn_st_trustees_hold_call_before_report/

    On reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the horrible/funny speech that Walter White tries to give at the high school assembly at the beginning of Season 3, where he attempts to tell the students that the plane crash (which he knows he is ultimately responsible for) really could have been worse.

    Two men, both dying of cancer, both still trying to avoid taking responsibility for the actions they know led to horror.

    *shudder*

    • He died from guilt. The cancer was a manifestation of his culpability (M-love that word).

  6. Anne, I can not read your posts any longer. The lyrical beauty with which you describe your anguish is unassailable. Heart stopping, emotionally raw, yet sweetly subtle. The Great American novel is yours to create. You’re that good. I am pained by your loss.

    I’ve always had only one thought, with regards to the teddy bear. What child did it belong to? Which leads to asking: Did the child have it cradled in its arms at the end? Did that child suffer, or was it mercifully quick? Morbid. Sorry, if I’ve disturbed anyone who might read this.

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