Bottle Up and Explode
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"We are who we are, Mr. White."-Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)

Boil a show down to its most basic elements and what are you left with? Sometimes, not a whole lot. Sometimes if you're left with just the sets already in place and the cast members your audience already knows, there isn't much to work with. As we saw when we looked at Frasier a few weeks back, occasionally a bottle episode is seen as a chance to just coast for a week on built-in chemistry and built-on sets. Sometimes, however, boiling down a show to its most basic elements can provide writers with a chance to reevaluate the state of the show and characters time to ponder the situations they have put themselves into. As I have said before in this space, at their best, bottle episodes can show us the boundless potential of television. And there is little doubt that Breaking Bad's "Fly" is among the best.

Written by Sam Caitlin and Moira Walley-Beckett and Directed by Rian Johnson, the entire episode takes place on existing sets, and the vast majority of its runtime is passed in one room, with only two characters: Former chemistry teacher turned meth manufacturer Walter White (Bryan Cranston, who has won three consecutive Emmys for the role, all well deserved) and his ne'er do well former student turned drug dealing partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Over the course of the series the relationship between these two characters has been tumultuous at best; at times they have both needed each other, at others they have wanted nothing more than to get the other out of their lives and they have rarely, if ever, truly trusted each other. The dynamic of their ever evolving relationship changes subtly, but importantly over the course of the episode, in which Walt shuts down the cook after spotting a fly in their lab, and refuses to begin working toward their 200-pounds-a-week quota again until the contaminant is dealt with.

As Walt endeavors ever more obsessively to track and kill the fly, Jesse plans to shut down Walt so he can get back to work, and the two are locked in another of their epic struggles for supremacy and (more importantly) for control. Walter White cares about little more than his ability to control everything around him, and with his life spiraling out of his control over the last few seasons (as a terminal cancer diagnosis inspired him to turn to meth manufacturing to make enough money to support his family after his death, which has lead him to murder both actively and passively and to cause the deaths of 167 people in a plane crash he was indirectly responsible for, before being indirectly responsible for an assassination attempt on his DEA Agent brother in law), Walt is grasping at straws to find something he can exert definitive control over.

Jesse, meanwhile, has never cared about much more than making money and, not being particularly intelligent, has never been able to find another reliable way to make cash. Jesse's association with Walt has made him plenty of money but has cost him a large amount of his soul: he has lost his family (Who refuse to speak to him because of his illegal associations), weathered addiction and lost the love of his life to a heroin overdose (which, unbeknownst to him, Walt could have prevented but chose not to in order to keep Jesse under his thrall). Jesse has since gotten clean, and learned self-acceptance through his sponsor. Unfortunately, though, in Jesse's case, that self-acceptance has made him realize, repeatedly that "I'm the bad guy." After briefly refusing contact with Walt earlier in the season, Jesse has been drawn back in by the promise of becoming a millionaire, and has also started stealing some meth from their cooks to sell on the side. Jesse knows who he is at this point in time, and he is willing to be that person entirely.

Walt, on the other hand, is just beginning to realize how far he has fallen. Unlike Jesse, Walt has always been able to rationalize all of his actions. He started cooking to provide for his family, and everything that has happened since has made perfect sense to him as a result of that. But, having gone into remission recently and having been kicked out of his home by his wife, who is seeking divorce, Walt has lost all of his reasons for doing what he does and has started to realize that there have been some serious consequences for his callous, unthinking actions.

Their ever-evolving relationship shifts over the course of the episode, as each admits to mistakes they've made and both try to search out the literal and metaphorical problems in their relationship. Jesse sees Walt's desperation as insanity, and expresses concern that his cancer may have spread to his brain. Walt's response is heart breaking. "I'm healthy. No end in sight" he says. "That's great," Jesse responds, almost sincerely. "No," Walt laments. "I missed it. There was some perfect moment and it passed me right by." Walt has realized that he has crossed lines and gone way too far in his efforts to satisfy his pride and grow his fortune. "Are you saying you want to die?" Jesse asks. Its never that easy for Walt though, and he responds, "I'm saying I've lived too long."

Finally out of rationalizations, the obsessive, controlling Walt has looked back on the detritus he has created and pinpointed the exact night he should have died to avoid creating any more chaos than he would have deemed necessary. In a heartbreaking soliloquy, Walt admits that if he had died without leaving his home on the night that Jesse's girlfriend Jane died (when Walt refused to turn her over as she lay choking on her own vomit next to an unconscious Jesse), he would have died with his reputation and his soul intact, with the love of his family, and with enough money to support them after he died. He comes close to confessing his sin to Jesse too, whispering (As Jesse climbs dangerously atop a ladder to attempt to kill the fly) "I'm sorry" again and again, but never going quite as far as admitting that he was responsible for Jane's death. Walter has learned guilt, but he is yet to seek true redemption.

Eventually the two give up and decide to go home and get some rest. "What about the contamination?" Jesse asks. "Its all contaminated" is Walt's loaded and tragic response. As the two leave the lab behind, Walt warns Jesse that if he has been stealing meth, he should stop, because their ruthless superior would kill Jesse in a second. Walt is reaching out to Jesse, showing him he cares in the only way he knows how, and trying in his own little way to begin to make amends for the crime he now realizes he has committed. But unlike Walt, Jesse knows who he is, and refuses to take Walt's olive branch, instead shutting down and denying that he has been stealing. Walt returns home to get some sleep, only to hear the buzzing of a fly as he is dozing off. Walter White is now awake to all of the awful things he has done, and he cannot leave behind the questions and regrets that torment him, nor, try as he might, can he destroy them. His efforts to do so have been futile, and now he must learn to sleep with that buzzing forever in his ears.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

3/11: "Spin the bottle," Angel

3/25: "In the Closet," Sealab 2021

4/8: "Once Upon A Time," The Prisoner

4/22: "A is for Aardvark," Bewitched
Tags: Breaking Bad
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