The brilliance of a ‘Bad’ shot

Ursula Coyote/AMC

Every camera angle and move in “Breaking Bad” is deliberate. The AMC show, which recently returned for its final string of episodes, is one of the most carefully filmed series on TV, and that’s saying plenty in the era of “Mad Men,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and “Game of Thrones.” The artful framing, the slow creeping up on a subject, the lingering in a person’s face, they all work intimately with the dialogue to make “Breaking Bad” a complete experience.

The first episode of season 5B unfolded like a visual essay. When DEA agent Hank sees Walt for the first time after knowing he is Heisenberg, understanding at long last that his nebbish brother-in-law is the famed meth-maker, he sees him through opaque curtains. The truth, the shot seems to say, is coming clear. When we first see Jesse in the episode, he’s sitting and staring emptily while a bad-trip light show plays on the large TV screen behind him. It’s an externalization of his internal horror, compounded by the nattering inanity of his friends’ “Star Trek” rap.

And on and on, brilliantly, if you watch what you’re watching. Michael Slovis, the “Breaking Bad” director of photography, confidently works in concert with, or in ironic contrast to, the psychological action of the scenes. Slovis doesn’t let his style overwhelm the substance of the script so much as he supports it, adds accents to the meter. One scene in the first episode that has stuck with me is when Walt comes to see the depressed Jesse, knocking ominously at the door of Jesse’s roach-filled home. As Walt lectures Jesse about Jesse’s guilty feelings, calling him “son,” they sit together on the couch. Slovis gives us a profile of Jesse with Walt behind him, just as Walt says, “You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you, the past is the past.” At that moment, Jesse is in perfect focus, but Walt is blurry as he goes on justifying their blood money and lying about Mike being alive. He looks like a devil perched on Jesse’s shoulder, a fuzzy voice of twisted reason.


In that exchange, they are presented as a pair of shaved heads that are like Janus masks, both caught in their pasts, both unhappy.