115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Play on TV: The Visual Design in the Breaking Bad Episode “The Fly”

Berniece Bruinius Alspach, California Baptist University

In the episode “The Fly” in the AMC series Breaking Bad, the director Rian Johnson uses a black-box theatrical design to highlight Walter White’s guilt and the tension and intimacy between him and Jesse Pinkman.  The stage movements and the dialogue operate more like a play than a television program, giving the audience an intimate visual and theatrical experience. 

Proposal: 

In season three of Breaking Bad, a poignant exchange between the characters Walter White and Jesse Pinkman takes place in their meth superlab located in the hidden underground at a local dry cleaners.  The episode is called “The Fly” because Walter is convinced a fly in the lab compromises the purity of their production of the blue meth.  Jesse discovers Walter has spent the entire night awake pursuing the fly.  The fly keeps Walter awake searching for a ways to get rid of it, like his feelings of guilt and remorse.  As the conversation evolves between Walter and Jesse throughout the episode, the audience becomes more aware the fly represents Walter’s haunting guilt for allowing Jesse’s girlfriend Jane to die choking on her vomit. Walter watches her choke and makes no effort to save her.  The fly nags him like a ghost reminding him of the pain he caused Jane, Jane’s father, and Jesse.

To set up the nagging presence of the fly, director Rian Johnson stages the episode like black-box theatre production, offering the audience an intimate visual point of view.  It is as if the viewer watches a short play in a small theatre rather than a television show.  The lighting in the lab is dark with subdued red hues.  The movements of both Walter and Jesse throughout the lab are subtle and suspenseful.  At one point Jesse is precariously standing on a ladder with a broom swinging at the fly as the effects of a sleeping pills take their effect on Walter.  Also, the dialogue between Walter and Jesse creates suspense.  Walter in his state of exhaustion begins to make comments that hint at his guilt. As he shares more of his feelings and Jesse responds, we think he will confess what he did to Jane.  Eventually, he tells Jesse he is sorry for what happened to Jane and sorry that Jesse is hurt and sad because of it.  After he tells Jesse this, Jesse is able to kill the fly, suggesting Jesse has forgiven him.  

The black-box theatrical design highlights Walter White’s guilt and the tension and intimacy between him and Jesse Pinkman.  The design and performance is set up in the background of the fly.  The pursuit of the fly shapes the dramatic tension and symbolizes the guilt that Walter carries for drawing Jesse into the world of the meth production and allowing Jane Margolis, Jesse’s girlfriend, to suffer and die.  The stage movements and the dialogue operate more like a play than a television program, giving the audience a visual image of the emotional baggage Walter White carries.  The dark visual setting suggests so many more hidden emotions Walter and Jesse are unwilling to express.  This innovative theatrical approach on television effectively parallels the symbolic meaning of the fly and Walter’s guilt and offers a more compelling dramatic and visual narrative than other episodes in the series and on television as a whole.

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