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Bringing Breaking Bad into focus

Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film, so we intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film School, The A.V. Club’s column about film and television. In each installment, we explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers. 

What is this? 

Try squinting, that might help. It doesn’t, but it could; normally when something appears out of focus, that’s what your brain does: It assumes the eyes are the problem and demands they squint to bring the whatever-it-is into focus. That’s not the case here, however, because the image itself is the problem. (Want a headache? You’re welcome.) So why is the image unfocused? 

The reason is incredibly complex, but can be understood quite simply: It is not within the depth of field of the lens with which it was shot. The complexity of what determines the depth of field of a particular lens is something we will address later; for now, all that matters is that under a given set of conditions, a given lens is going to have a certain depth of field. Anything too close to it will be unfocused, as will anything too far away. 

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that this image was shot with a depth of field of 5 feet to infinity, which means that the distance between the camera and whatever-this-is must be between .01 and 4.9 feet away. It could be a sheet of paper flush against the camera, setting up a zoom or pull-out so the audience can read what’s written on it; it could be a hallway wall 2 feet away that’s preparing the audience for a whip pan to the left that reveals, at the hallway’s end, a sharply focused image of a familiar character. 

Or it could be the bottom of an empty pool, shot from about 4.9 feet away. By opening with an unfocused extreme close-up of the empty pool’s concrete interior, the director of this episode of Breaking Bad—relative unknown Bryan Cranston—momentarily disorients the audience. 

There’s something unsettling about seeing the unfocused image and hearing the skittering of skateboard wheels before we even know where we are, which is here:

As is common on Breaking Bad, the opening scene of “Blood Money” is sequenced backward: Instead of opening with an establishing shot and moving into a close-up, it begins with an extreme close-up and only shifts to the establishing shot after spending two minutes fixated on the Lords Of Dogtown and their wheels, which it immediately returns to…

The focus here is shallower than the opening shot, but instead of disorienting us as to where we are in the world, the blurriness of the focus combines with the blurriness created by the speed to make the anonymous skater appear to be moving dangerously fast. It’s a brief, but important moment, as the first shot of an episode—especially an episode of Breaking Bad—sets the tone for all that follows. 

The tone being set here is riddled first with uncertainty (“Where are we?”), then with pointlessness (“Who are these skaters?”), and potential hazard (“Why so fast?”), before finally answering the question the opening shot asked (“Why are we wherever ‘here’ is?”). Once Cranston moves to the crane shot of Walter White’s backyard, we’re able to place ourselves spatially and temporally. 

We recognize the once meth-blue pool in which Pink Bear and Skyler White floated; we notice the absence of the Lily of the valley Walter used to poison Brock Cantillo; and we know that the second half of season five begins where the first half did: one year in the future, closer to Walter’s 52nd birthday than his 50th. 

Breaking Bad relies more heavily than most shows on what are called “tight singles,” or shots in which a single character occupies the majority of the frame in shallow focus. The background is usually out of focus because it’s unimportant—if you’re watching a show set in a coffee shop, you don’t need the background in focus to remember where the characters are—but in Breaking Bad, the relationship between the planes of focus (foreground, midground, background) typically matters. When Walter enters his house, for example, Cranston shoots himself in a tight single:

Because the audience has already seen the graffiti on the outside of his house, it doesn’t pay special attention to the graffiti behind Walter. Moreover, Cranston’s camera suggests its insignificance by focusing exclusively on Walter. What matters here is his general reaction to the state of his former home, not his particular reaction to the graffiti. At least for the next two seconds…

When Cranston directs himself to do what few actors would willingly: put his back to the camera and stare at a wall. The scribbling on the wall is still out of focus, but the stage has been set for it to come into focus, which it does with a jump cut—

—to a medium shot taken with a lens of a longer focal length, as evidenced by the fact that everything in it is in focus. The longer the length of a lens, the flatter the image will appear. In this case, Cranston opts for a longer lens because he wants to shorten the perceived difference between the mid- and backgrounds; he’s flattening Walter White and his nom de cristaux graffiti as a way of reminding the audience that they’re the same person. (And, given what happened at the end of “Gliding Over All,” he’s providing insight into the party responsible for the damage to Walt’s house.)

But who spray-painted “Heisenberg” on the wall? It couldn’t have been Walter, since Cranston played with the focus in a way that made it clear White was discovering the graffiti for the first time. The director is not going to tell us directly, instead forcing the audience to follow Walter on his walk-of-discovery down the hallway of his old house. Eventually, he looks out the window:

Maybe they did it? Probably not. How would they have known who he was? The curtains of his abandoned house are out of focus, but the teenage boys skating in the empty pool aren’t. It’s almost as if Cranston is creating a visual vocabulary for the process of realization here: Things are out of focus, then snap into focus once they become known or knowable. This technique is so common (and commonsensical) that it wouldn’t be worth pointing out if it weren’t for the payoff. 

And there is a payoff. This episode is teaching the audience how to watch it; it’s indicating through camera-work and focus alone what is and isn’t significant in the scene. So far, the lesson is that people in this episode will discover something they can’t process in Walter White’s house—in this case, who wrote “Heisenberg” on Walter’s wall—walk down a hall, then look outside to try to make sense of their newly shattered world.

All of the above happened before the opening credits. Here’s what happens after: First, Hank Schrader discovers something he can’t quite understand—

—then he walks down a hallway…

Which—as when Walter walked down it earlier—is out of focus, as if to communicate that this world is, well, out of focus. Given what happened in the teaser, it’s obvious where Cranston’s headed next, the window:

It’s out of focus, because Hank isn’t about to come to terms with the fact that his brother-in-law and the man he’s been hunting for months are one and the same—which Cranston went to great lengths to remind the audience of earlier. Learning the true identity of Heisenberg isn’t something Hank’s just going to be able to handle in the few seconds he spent walking down the hall…

His world makes no sense at all anymore. Cranston cuts to an off-balance close-up of Hank’s bewildered mug to hammer home the point that the realizations are coming too furiously for him to comprehend, which is why he can’t focus on Walter in the previous capture. The human brain can only accommodate so much new information at a time.

Unless, like Hank, you sweep away that curtain and there it is, in all its contradictory finery: Walter White, family man and meth kingpin. The problem wasn’t with Hank’s head, but the translucent scrim on the window; he doesn’t have any problems accommodating this information, he just needed to see it clearly. It was never out of focus. It just wasn’t ever entirely in focus. 

And lest someone think that these two epiphanic hallway scenes aren’t as related as I’m suggesting, consider this: When Hank pulls aside the screen and sees Walter on the back porch, what word’s in his head? Of all the possible combinations of letters in the history of the language, which ones are the ones in his head right now? I’ll give you a hint:

It’s like it’s all come into focus now, or something.