Bottle Month: Breaking Bad’s “Fly”

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]


Written by Sam Catlin and Moira Walley-Beckett; Directed by Rian Johnson

Original Airdate: May 23, 2010

Welcome to another installment of Bottle Month, where I take a look at famous bottle episodes from some of television’s best shows. Last week, I covered Firefly’s “Objects in Space”. This week… Well, read the title.

I frequently make fun of Breaking Bad, and with good reason. Most of the unofficially official “Greatest Shows Ever” exist on their own sort of qualitative plane, transcending typical viewership on a cloud of critical adulation. Breaking Bad does not have this luxury. The series is so insanely popular – with viewers spanning from fans of The Sopranos to those of NCIS – that any time someone professes the series to be “for intellectuals only,” I just roll my eyes. People like that are caught up in their own personal, incredibly constricting bubble of what quality TV entails, and the perfect response is typically a good, healthy dose of snark.

That’s not to say I don’t view Breaking Bad as an intellectual show – any more than I can deny that there are plenty of intellectual people who regularly watch NCIS. But anyone who denies the all-spanning effect the show has had on all corners of TV viewership need look no further than a little episode called “Fly”.

The fan reaction to “Fly” has always fascinated me. To some, it’s a miniature masterpiece, a two-man play that rivals anything you’ll see on a Broadway stage. To others, it’s a complete snooze, an utter waste of 46 minutes that haughtily sneezes in the face of one of television’s most tightly-paced shows. Love it or hate it, though, there’s no denying that “Fly” is one of the most instantly recognizable individual episodes in the densely serialized world of Breaking Bad.

Personally? In case you haven’t guessed, I love the episode. Season Three of Breaking Bad is one of my all-time favorite seasons of television, not merely for its breathtaking pace and terrific character work (this was the first season of the series that really began to explore Skylar as a character, and, not coincidentally, it was also the first season when the show’s many Skylar-haters began to take form), but because of its willingness to experiment, playing fast and loose with story and pulling the rug out from under us on more than one occasion. The climax of “One Minute” and Mike’s monologue in “Half Measures” are some of the most memorable moments of the series. So much goes on, so many stories and characters developed – and still, the show has time to devote to “Fly”.

“Objects in Space” fit all the criteria of a bottle episode, but “Fly” outdoes it in terms of tight focus. The episode is a two-act play – no characters appear in speaking roles outside if Walt and Jesse, and most of the action is confined to a single (if rather large) room. There is little room for physical progression, but plenty of room for character interplay and introspection. And that’s exactly what this episode gives us.

In an interview with The AV Club, Vince Gilligan explained his reasoning for producing the episode: “Even if financial realities didn’t enter into it, I feel as a showrunner that there should be a certain shape and pace to each season, and the really high highs that you try to get to at the end of a season — the big dramatic moments of action and violence, the big operatic moments you’re striving for — I don’t think would land as hard if you didn’t have the moments of quiet that came before them. The quiet episodes make the tenser, more dramatic episodes pop even more than they usually would just by their contrast.” Structurally, “Fly” underscores the more powerful moments occurring shortly before and especially after its relatively low-key events. But the episode itself is far too rich to simply be remembered as the “quiet” episode.

Start with the tidy little plot, which at first seems to have been pulled out of an old Three Stooges short. Walt becomes obsessed about killing a miniscule housefly that’s found its way into his meth lab, and ropes Jesse into helping him catch it. What begins as a disarmingly funny but simplistic story featuring an abundance of uneasy slapstick humor morphs into something much darker by the third and fourth acts, getting to the core of Walt’s psyche and his tenuous relationship with Jesse.

This is probably the part where you’d expect me to launch into a heady discussion about how Walt’s obsessive hunt for the fly illustrates his denial over cooking meth for a man like Gustavo Fring, or how it shines a light on his inability to admit his own mistakes, or that the fly represents his own buzzing conscience. But I’ll resist the temptation. (As I said last week, these “Bottle Month” articles are not typical episode reviews, and besides, if you want to read a philosophical dissection of this – or any other – Breaking Bad episode, there are many, many websites that can assist you.) Instead, we’re just going to focus on the character interaction, and how it works into the series at large.

Walt’s obsessive nature has made him into a far different man than he was at the start of the series, and he is rather more difficult to identify with. It is thus that Jesse plays audience surrogate for much of this episode (a role he has taken on a few times in the past and will inherit many times more for the remainder of the series), questioning Walt’s sanity in his relentless quest to swat a simple fly. The contrast between Walt and Jesse’s respective attitudes to the fly situation makes for some incredibly sharp comedy, but it turns out to make for some brutally affecting drama as well.

One of the most admirable things about “Fly” is its ability to smoothly transition from one tone to another, going from comedic farce to emotional character study without the viewer even realizing the change. And the character material, when we get to it, is as juicy as anything the show ever delivered, and a sign that Breaking Bad should never be viewed as pure popcorn entertainment.

One of the biggest complaints leveled at “Fly” – outside of its general anomalousness in the series – is that it appears to be building toward a stirring climax in which Walt reveals to Jesse that he is in part responsible for Jane’s death, only for the episode to pull back and give us a far more subdued conclusion. I understand this frustration, but I don’t view the episode’s climactic bout as a tease. Rather, it is meant to show us just how deep and dark Walt’s self-obsession goes – his “confession” never had anything to do with Jane’s death, but to his meeting with Jane’s father earlier that night, and how his life reflected on Walt’s own loyalty to his family. In Walt’s mind, it’s all about him – nothing he’s done can be considered “wrong”, since it was all done with what he’s perceived are good intentions. And Walt can make no mistakes, as his perfectionist attitude has ruled out any potential of failure in his so-called hero’s quest.

It’s all very powerful stuff, even if you factor out the fly. And for a long while – mostly during the episode’s third act – said fly is nowhere to be seen. The little fellow simply existed to lure our two main characters together in one room and get them inside each other’s minds. And despite the simple setup, there’s nary a dull moment – Catlin and Walley-Beckett craft evocative dialogue, Johnson elevates the series’ already-striking visual sense to claustrophobic levels, and Cranston and Paul sell every last bit out of their material.

When the titular fly is at last swatted, we the audience feel a wash of relief – partly for the sanity of our characters, and partly for the fact that we can finally leave the confined space of the meth lab. But in ridding themselves of the fly, has anything changed for Walt and Jesse? The former makes an impassioned speech about his concern for his young partner, whom he won’t be able to help if their employer discovers that Jesse took any of the product. But it’s clear that Walt is, once again, attempting to shift the blame onto someone else, and that he can’t grasp the idea that it was he who made the mistake.

The fly in the meth lab may be gone, but its buzz has not quite faded. And indeed, the episode ends with another fly appearing in Walt’s bedroom, lit up by the insomnia-inducing light of his smoke detector. It’s as though the episode itself is directly telling us, “This accomplished nothing.”

But we know better. Plotwise, “Fly” may not by the most crucial episode of the series, but it’s as important to understanding the brilliance of Breaking Bad as “Phoenix” or “Face Off” or “Ozymandias”. And to pass it off as simple filler is to misunderstand the beauty of one of television’s very best shows.

Tune in next week when we find out what the money is for in Mad Men’s “The Suitcase”.

7 thoughts on “Bottle Month: Breaking Bad’s “Fly””

  1. [Note: Other Scott posted this comment on December 8, 2015.]

    I think “Fly” is where we see Walt at his absolute weakest and most frustrated. He left the mundane for the exciting, only for it to step back into the mundane again. His biggest worry is suddenly a fly in the lab, something not even close to the explosiveness he had to deal with in Season 2. And to do all the immoral things he had to do just to get back into the same rut weighs on him, and we see his self-loathing in his near confession to Jesse. This is the part of the series where Walt hates himself, and “Fly” is the clearest, most emotionally rousing picture of that.

    But yeah, dull, waste of an episode.

    “The Suitcase” is not a bottle episode. It’s a great episode, but not bottle episode.


  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on December 8, 2015.]

    But yeah, dull, waste of an episode.

    The “But yeah” part is… kind of irrelevant, I think.

    Also, who cares about how bottle-y “The Suitcase” is? Just so long as I get to write about it!


  3. [Note: Keith posted this comment on December 9, 2015.]

    “Fly” has nothing to do with Walt’s conscience, whether it be over his actions, or his association with a violent gangster like Fring. Walt, acting in his own agency, doesn’t believe he has done anything wrong. May be incapable of believing he can do anything wrong. Not because of the bullshit “family” justification that I don’t think he was ever delusional enough to really believe, but because he is a narcissist. That he now finds himself acting under the thumb of someone else has him screaming out to wrest back control. The one thing he has control over is the lab, so Walt’s obsession with the titular Fly is simply a manifestation of Walt’s desire for control. It’s the same desire that leads to the events of the last 2 episodes of the season. It’s the desire that really drives all of Walt’s behavior from the beginning of the series. “Fly” is just another manifestation of that, taken to an absurd degree as pointed out by Jesse.

    Beyond that rather obvious point, a point made perhaps less elegantly but far more forcefully throughout S4, this is a bad episode. Actively bad. Drug-induced near-confession? Hackneyed. Walt doesn’t notice the taste of a dozen sleeping pills in a small mug of Gale’s “best coffee ever?” I don’t buy that for a second. We don’t actually learn anything new about either character. Nothing in the interactions between Walt and Jesse changes their relationship or standing with one another in any way. “Fly” doesn’t fail for lack of action – it fails because it tries to be introspective, but comes up completely empty.

    I don’t think it’s filler. I think it’s a failure at being something deep and informative. Gilligan and Co. succeeded much, much better at character-driven drama by the time they got around to making Better Call Saul. Here, I see what they were trying to do, but it just doesn’t work.


  4. [Note: Zarnium posted this comment on December 9, 2015.]

    I know I liked this episode a lot and I was surprised to find out it was so controversial, but I’d have to watch it again to put up an adequate defense.

    Good analysis as always, Jeremy, though I think my interpretation was closer to Keith’s, even if I don’t agree with him about the quality.


  5. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on December 9, 2015.]

    While that’s definitely a valid interpretation of what the episode means to do, and while I agree it’s not groundbreakingly informative, I think the episode works perfectly well at what it sets out to do.

    “Fly” displays just how completely out-there Breaking Bad can be in its story while still grounding its sensibilities in its characters. This is a show that opened its pilot episode with a pair of pants floating down onto a highway. It’s such a strange series in that it uses seemingly mundane throwaway concepts to tap into the inner dementia of the world.

    Walt’s deep-rooted insecurities have been developed before this episode, and they will be further developed after, with nary a mention of what happened in “Fly”. But by bringing up those insecurities in the form of the most seemingly boring way imaginable, “Fly” shows us just how fully in control of its characters and world Breaking Bad is.


  6. [Note: buffyholic posted this comment on January 6, 2016.]

    Great article, Jeremy. And before delving into the episode itself, I just wanna say that I agree with what you said in the beginning about how some people seem too “snobby” in their shows or even movies. I had a lot of people and still have some telling me that what they watch is good and very intellectual while I just watch some fluffy thing.

    Fly is an episode of extremes, I think. You either love or hate it but I guess I´m in the middle. Very interesting episode and it was great watching everyting unfold but still, and I can´t quite put my finger on what it is, the episode is a bit uneven and off. I mean, I love character episodes but there´s something here missing.

    But the conversation between both of them about family, choices and loyalty is very, very good.

    Season Three is turning out to be freaking amazing!


  7. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on January 6, 2016.]

    Thanks, and I don’t think you’re alone in being on the fence about “Fly”. Many of my friends have conflicting feelings about it, although there are a few who outright hate it.

    Fortunately, I get to write Blog articles about it, and they don’t.


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