A comparison of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos through their respective stand-alone quirky episodes. Most really good shows have one of these. Read on to discover how plot detours lead straight to the meaty sublime.
When I go for a new show, I go HARD. I don’t tend to let the recommendations of others lead me to new addictions. This is mostly because I have an ego problem where everything I watch is awesome and everything you watch is stupid. But my best friend campaigned so hard for Breaking Bad that I forced myself to move past the lukewarm experience of the pilot episode and give it a real shot. Now my days and nights are bathed in the warm glow of a laptop screen and so many simmering pots of meth. Total immersion. Helpless obsession. Thanks, “best friend!”
She recently reminded me of this episode, “The Fly,” which was supposed to come near the end of Season 3 – but I had no memory of seeing it. Call it exhaustion or just A FUGUE STATE, but I had finished Season 3 already before realizing my mistake. I have a thing about seeing a show in perfect chronological order, and I was also just emotionally gutted from the finale, so this was a big deal. I immediately had to backtrack and snap up this lost gem.
It’s a little sad I didn’t see it before the finale, because although it’s one of those rare stand-alone masterpiece episodes, a little isolated narrative island, it does important work for the show and the season in particular. Firstly, “The Fly” exposes our anti-heroes Walt and Jesse with the results of their criminal activities and pivotal decisions thus far. We see just how broken Jesse is, still crumbling under the weight of Jane’s upsetting death (and more importantly, the loss of a pure and simple love). A sick kind of energy animates him everywhere except in his eyes. He hangs off the edge of the earth, and Walt is his only tether.
But Walt, that dubious mentor, is another story altogether – completely conflicted, sliding down a muddy, bloody road to hell and struggling with SERIOUS dead ends. There’s no way out of his doomed business arrangements. His family life will never be happy or normal or even satisfying. He is the sole bearer of terrible knowledge and responsibility concerning Jane’s death. And most interestingly, Walt still wants to die. It’s been hinted at before, but Walt is the only one who saw his cancer as a blessing, an excuse to let his id run wild and leave this world with a bang and a flurry of crisp dollar bills. Now that the cancer is no longer a threat, Walt has to deal with his self-hatred and the fact that maybe…he deserves to die anyway.
“The Fly” also shows us how things are, and how they will be. This is the episode that solidified the loyalty between Walt and Jesse, and retrospectively (for me) added a lot of dimension to the finale. Here we get a taste of those still waters running deep; all their trauma and poor moral choices have led them to each other, to a fierce emotional place where defending each other, defending the partnership, is paramount. To lose the other would be a surrender of their own identity. That subtext lends a raw and touching desperation to their dialogue – and the episode is ALL dialogue. For two people who rarely discuss things at length, much less themselves, this was a real departure.
That’s why I thought about “Pine Barrens,” that completely brilliant Sopranos episode, so much during “The Fly.” For those who haven’t watched The Sopranos…well, first of all, GET RELIGION. Your life sucks without it and you don’t even realize it. But anyway, “Pine Barrens” is the archetype of “The Fly,” much as The Sopranos is the archetype of Breaking Bad. The episode is a precious calm bubble inside an intense fictional world. Plotwise, it provides a respite from the proverbial “crazy shit going down” by distilling its story arc into stark simplicity.
Imagine driving down a dangerous, busy highway. Narrowly avoiding an accident, you turn onto an abandoned side street. You spend only a few minutes outside the action, but it’s enough to refocus you. Staring at the highway in both directions, you can observe the chaos for what it is: road ragey drivers, the glint of hard metal, burning rubber and high speed. Episodes like these two are side streets. They’re textually pointless but subtextually indispensable; the story’s just a flimsy vehicle for serious character psychology. And once our characters are back on the highway, they’ll never forget how surreal and frightening it looked while they were outside.
“Pine Barrens,” like “The Fly,” takes place near the end of the third season. Silvio has the flu, so Chris and Paulie resentfully make his collections for the day. One chump, Valery, refuses to surrender the cash quietly; their tense conversation quickly devolves into flying tempers and bullets. Long story short, Valery gets shot and stuffed in the trunk, and Chris and Paulie drive to the Pine Barrens in South Jersey (a giant snowy forested expanse) to bury him. But Valery, a former spy, survives and manages to lay the smackdown on the two before escaping. Thus Chris and Paulie, two unpleasant characters with a sour history, are left to fend for themselves in the tundra. Their existential despair and spiral into madness is at turns hilarious and disturbing.
The episode worked on so many levels. Firstly, it encapsulated the darkly comedic tone that elevated Sopranos beyond just a wise-guy mob show. The mentor/mentee (or awkward friends) relationship between Chris and Paulie mirrors that of Walt and Jesse in many ways, but the Italians are a hell of a lot funnier. Chris bedgrudgingly respects Paulie because that’s the way familial allegiance and criminal hierarchy works, but he also resents being told what to do. And Paulie is, beneath his veneer of mafia professionalism, an insecure middle-aged weasel. Their sniping is often light relief to the heavy drama/action surrounding them, but if there’s one thing Sopranos makes clear, it’s that one wrong remark can land you six feet under. The key word that stands between Chris and Paulie, like a monolith, is distrust. Throw these two in an abandoned truck, in the dead of winter, with no food, for hours, and you’ve struck GOLD.
In one of these special extended moments of isolation, painful truths are revealed. The two become delusional with panic, imagining the other is hatching a murder plot with intents of cannibalism. “Don’t make me pull rank on you, kid,” Paulie snarls. “Captain or no captain,” drawls Chris with his signature defiance, “right now we’re just two assholes lost in the woods.” With no Tony, no criminal empire, no one to whack, they’re just the pathetic byproducts of two lifetimes of bad decisions. And after this encounter – after they’re rescued from the wilderness and the proverbial narrative holding cell – things are never the same. “Pine Barrens” echoes in a million little ways, from Chris’ drug addiction to the disintegration of order among Tony’s most trusted advisors. What seemed like an irrelevant jaunt was actually a tool to expose the scary cracks that we, as viewers, only imagined we saw in the periphery.
So back to Breaking Bad: what I loved about “The Fly” was that it brought real…pathos into the mix. Despite all the wrenching sadness and talk of life’s dead ends (Walt: “There is no room for error anymore”), the dedicated fan could also spot satisfying emotional payoff between our two beloved cooks. Without that sense of futility, exhaustion, irreversible damage, would Walt ever confide in Jesse about his marriage? Would Jesse ever let himself talk as long and sincerely as he did, about his dead Aunt Jenny? And most importantly, would the two have ever revealed those unprecedented levels of loyalty and tenderness towards one another? Swear to God, my heart swelled just watching Walt hold that ladder for Jesse, gazing up at his foolhardy young arms waving that fly-swatter around. Apologizing for the pain he knew he caused. Watching the knowledge rise in Walt’s eyes: that if he had never come along, maybe Jesse’s soul would be whole. And Jesse’s obvious respect, maybe love, for Walt was so poignant and raw and tangible. Their relationship, usually too complex to parse, suddenly also seemed precious and essential. That groundwork made Jesse’s actions in the finale not just terrible and pitiable, but ABSOLUTELY INEVITABLE. He knew he was killing the last of his goodness inside when he shot Gale, but letting Walt die was not an option. Damn.
Okay, this went on for way too long. But my thoughts runneth over, for real. “The Fly” was genius to me, and inspired me to think back to more classic literature masquerading as television. To write an episode like “Pine Barrens” or “The Fly” takes utter courage and conviction in the story – the mini-story, and the big story. This is art, BITCH!