The telling silences of Breaking Bad
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When Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston is introduced among his fellow nominees for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series at September’s Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, the following words will most likely precede his name: “I am not in danger, Skyler, I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think of me? No. I am the one who knocks.” This excerpt from the season-four episode “Cornered” is the type of Breaking Bad line that went viral the moment it was barked by Walter White, a bravura performance from Cranston that underlined the chilling intensity of his portrayal of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who’s “breaking” horribly, irrevocably bad.
Yet, in the event that the academy awards Cranston with his fourth Emmy for Breaking Bad, it won’t be for the “one who knocks” speech or the moment at the end of “Crawl Space” where terrified laughter twists his face into a grotesque rictus grin. If Cranston crushes Jon Hamm’s dreams for the fourth time, he’ll do so because of the loud moments that inspired image macros, but also because of the scenes where Walt stays completely silent. As noted by The A.V. Club’s Noel Murray in our video recap of television in 2011, there are pages and pages of season-four Breaking Bad scripts where Walt keeps his mouth shut. In the season première, “Box Cutter,” he does so out of fear, paralyzed with dread at the prospect of becoming a victim of the business he’s taken up to secure his family’s financial future. As that fear curdles into anger and plans for assuming Gus Fring’s control over all aspects of his methamphetamine empire (and then asserting that power over every other part of his life), Cranston’s quiet moments take on a new, sinister edge. We see the gears turning in Walt’s head, and they’re greased with blood. Wordlessly broadcasting this latest step in Walter White’s full transformation into the mythical kingpin Heisenberg is one of Cranston’s greatest achievements in the role.
Now it’s Anna Gunn’s turn to carry the silence. The fifth season of the show is affording Gunn the opportunity to turn the tides of opinion—with as few words as possible. In the pivotal scene of “Fifty-One,” Walter rehashes the peaks and valleys he’s experienced in the year since his cancer diagnosis. Before this half-coded soliloquy begins, Skyler excuses herself from the patio table to stare at the family’s illuminated in-ground pool. (Few shows know how to utilize a poolside exterior like Breaking Bad; see also: Walter flicking matches into the water in the pilot, the climactic scenes at Don Eladio’s villa in “Hermanos” and “Salud,” most of the cold opens during season two.) As Walt lays into the story of conquering disease and drug lords, he makes little mention of Skyler—and, in turn, director Rian Johnson slowly pushes a mute Gunn out of the frame. When Walt finally loops his wife into the story, she offers no reply, instead staring deeper and deeper into the water. Gunn remains as still as the pool before her—and then she wades in. Walt’s self-mythologizing has rendered Skyler blank, catatonic, and in that moment, she wants nothing more than to drown it all out and wash away the whole past year. That’s what we can infer, at least.
Gunn has long carried a look of wide-eyed shock in her Breaking Bad performances, and the show is now giving her a chance to put that state to unsettling effect. The writers are turning her character’s withdrawal into an emotional weapon as potent as any in Walt’s arsenal, a refusal to engage that pairs nicely with images of Skyler callously smoking around a spouse who’s recovering from lung cancer. (All the while ashing into his 51st birthday mug!) Here, the character lets her actions speak for her, amassing clouds of vapor that may as well form, Blue Caterpillar-style, into whole sentences. “You’re not the only dangerous one in this family,” they read. In silence, Gunn’s performance finds renewed power—even if it emphasizes her glazed-over expressions elsewhere in the series.
None of this would have any impact without juxtaposition, however. As such, every time Skyler refuses to respond to a family member, her cathartic “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” outburst in “Hazard Pay” grows a little less cartoonish. That scene in the car wash is a display of Breaking Bad’s skills in the art of silence in miniature: It’s tough to get a word in edgewise around Betsy Brandt’s Marie in the first place, but the topic of Walt’s recovery sends Skyler into a clamped-down, lighter-flicking hush, exacerbated by Marie’s sudden stream of opinions about where Skyler can and can’t smoke. If the people in her life are going to dictate to her even in the one place where she should be able to exert control (albeit in a building that was purchased with her husband’s drug money for the expressed purposes of laundering said drug money), then she just won’t acknowledge them.
Until, that is, it all gets to be too much, and the smoke from the cigarette may as well be steam caused by the pressure building up beneath the character’s dome, and she pulls a valve and lets all of her emotions billow into her sister’s face. It’s not the subtlest of reactions, but the volume of Gunn’s voice tells the viewer everything he or she needs to know about what’s going on in Skyler White’s life. And for all of the noise it creates, it’s also a fairly terse reaction; this is not one of Walt’s flowery speeches or verbose tirades; it’s a direct, succinct expression of terror, rage, confusion, and powerlessness. This is the character declaring the end of her timidity in the face of the runaway train driven by her husband. Season five of Breaking Bad is seemingly in love with railroad imagery (Walt’s declaration that “Nothing stops this train” in “Fifty-One”; The Great Methylamine Train Robbery of “Dead Freight”), and if Walt’s cars are going off the rails, then Skyler’s doing her damnedest to keep hers running smoothly and quietly, only making a big racket when an obstacle appears that might threaten the safety of her family.
“Fifty-One” features a brief return for “thinking Walt,” capturing Cranston staring at the fraying threads of Heisenberg’s porkpie hat while Jesse and Mike determine the fate of their inside-woman at Madrigal Electromotive, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. When the character breaks his silence these days, he does so with purposefulness and precision: Decreeing that no human life is too precious to get in the way of production in “Fifty-One” or stepping away from a later discussion in “Dead Freight” to turn his back on his associates then returning to poke a few holes in Lydia’s “tanker full of Methylamine” plot. He didn’t end up cooking meth in a mobile lab shrouded by a termite tent because he’s the type of character who acts impulsively. And if those big speeches that grab everyone’s attention prove anything, it’s that Walt’s planning his life several steps ahead of himself.
A series as well written as Breaking Bad will always be judged by the weight of its dialogue. But this isn’t a radio program; there are visuals that accompany those words—and few images from Breaking Bad are as enduring as a shot of Walter White’s hooded glare. (At the least, it has enough impact to sell DVDs.) If Cranston really wants to prove that he’s the best dramatic actor on television today, he won’t address the assembled members of the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences and their guests at the Emmy ceremony. He’ll simply lower his head, squint, set his jaw, and hold for a few beats. It’s through expressions like those that we truly know that Walter White is the one who knocks.