The Might to Choose
Chris Wisniewski on Breaking Bad (episode: “…And the Bag’s in the River”) and A History of Violence

David Cronenberg’s 2005 film A History of Violence and the third episode of the AMC series Breaking Bad both climax with scenes that hinge on a dinner plate.

This is not the only thing that A History of Violence and the Breaking Bad episode in question, “…And the Bag’s in the River,” have in common. Both are expertly plotted and paced pulp genre pieces with self-conscious and self-reflexive visual flourish, and both toy with Big Ideas—the nature of morality, the banality of evil, masculinity and its limits, the secrets that lie barely hidden beneath the veneer of domestic tranquility of the American suburb. But their most striking commonality may be those symbolically overburdened dinner plates, which seem to point toward profundity while hinting at a dead-serious moralism that may or may not be fully earned.

In A History of Violence, the plate signals the fall and restoration of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), an unassuming Indiana family man who has been exposed as a former gangster named Joey Cusack, and who, in the course of the movie, heads to Philadelphia to murder his criminal brother (William Hurt) and thereby expunge the last vestigial remnants of his original identity. He returns home, both disgraced and reconstituted, to find his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), teenage son, and young daughter at the dinner table. Shamed and guilt-stricken, he tears up as he reclaims his unoccupied seat at the table. His daughter brings his plate; his dinner of meatloaf, peas, and carrots is served; the family is remade—wordlessly.

A History of Violence looks back on its protagonist’s original sin and charts his sordid journey toward something that resembles redemption. By contrast, “...And the Bag’s in the River” points ahead to and marks the moment at which Walter White (Bryan Cranston) takes the most definitive step in his transformation from a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher to the criminal drug cooker known as Heisenberg. In this early episode, written by show-runner and series creator Vince Gilligan, Walt becomes a murderer. Having lost a coin toss to his meth-cooking partner and protégé Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walt has the duty of dispatching Krazy 8, a drug dealer who is handcuffed to a pipe in Jesse’s basement. Walt demonstrates great reluctance in the task and befriends their prisoner, even making him a bologna sandwich and cutting away the crusts for good measure. While delivering the sandwich, Walt, who suffers from terminal lung cancer, passes out from a fit of coughing, and the plate he’s using to carry it shatters. Later, after a lengthy conversation with his captive, he nearly releases Krazy 8, until he realizes with mounting horror that a jagged piece of the plate is missing: Krazy 8 has swiped it, with the intention of stabbing him with it.

Walt is left with a choice to become a killer or be killed. The conundrum would prove typical of the show, which thrived on its propensity to put Walt in impossible situations that required incremental ethical compromise as a continual price for his escape from near fatal circumstances. Over its five seasons, Breaking Bad constantly framed Walt’s moral transformation as an accumulation of successively awful acts born of one initial bad decision—like a tsunami originating with a small ripple from a pebble cast into an ocean—each transgression a necessary evil that contributed to a slow descent into monstrosity justified, in Walt’s twisted logic, by survival instinct. When Walt sees that a piece of the plate is missing, he knows what he “must” do—and so, like Tom, né Joey, he becomes a killer.

The plate is a device to move the plot of the episode and series inexorably forward, but Gilligan’s teleplay gives it metaphoric heft. “...And the Bag’s in the River” features flashbacks to an unspecific moment in the past when Walt and his former lover and scientific partner Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) attempt to account for the entire chemical composition of the human body, element by element. They come up a fraction of a percentage short. Gretchen speculates that the missing component in their accounting may be “the soul.” Walt disagrees, renouncing her appeal to the spiritual, “There’s just chemistry here.” This conjecture about the missing piece of their chemical audit suggests questions that arise repeatedly in the series and quite pointedly in Walt’s decision to kill Krazy 8. Does Walt have moral agency? Or is each action just a reaction, a consequence made inevitable by outside circumstance? In weighing his options, Walt literally sketches a list of pros and cons. Against killing Krazy 8, he cites morality (“Because it is wrong”) and “Judeo Christian values,” but the other column hinges on the apparent necessity of the act, “Because he will kill you and everyone you care about.”

Gilligan’s plate and Cronenberg’s aren’t deployed to the same effect, nor do they resonate in the same way. They do, however, take on meaning in a manner that both invites and demands that the viewer reflect on mise-en-scène and plot beyond the apparent thrill of the generic trappings that surround them. Those plates beg us to look more deeply, to take these texts seriously and grapple with the intellectual and ethical questions they raise. If art television, as the current received wisdom would have it, is the new art cinema, a comparison of Breaking Bad and A History of Violence might help to reveal the logic behind—and limits to—the artistic claims made by and on behalf of critically revered exemplars of each.


Say My Name

A History of Violence initially unfolds with a series of misdirects and red herrings. Two mysterious baddies, having killed several innocents in a nondescript motel, including a child, make their way to Tom Stall’s diner in Milbrook, Indiana. They threaten the staff and patrons, nearly murdering a waitress, before Tom kills them in gratuitously gruesome fashion. After his unnerving display of courage and physical prowess, Tom is hailed as a hero. Josh Olson’s screenplay, adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, provides no background on the men Tom kills and no information about why they seek out the diner or what exactly they’re looking to do there. The mini-drama of the “bad men” (as one character describes them) who meet their maker at Tom’s all-too-able hands, never receives explanation or justification; it simply serves as an inciting incident.

It’s only after this seemingly unmotivated attack on Tom’s otherwise tranquil existence that the real threat of the film rears its ugly head. A cadre of Philadelphia gangsters led by a man named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), half of his face scarred and his left eye made of glass, turns up at the diner. Carl orders a coffee from Tom, referring to him as Joey. “Who’s Joey?” Tom replies. “You are… Your name is Joey Cusack.” This invocation of an alternate name and, by extension, an alternate identity, undermines the artificial security that otherwise defines Tom’s life. Later, when Edie witnesses another extraordinary display of violence and begins to doubt her husband, she tells him “I saw you turn into Joey Cusack in front of my eyes.” Edie, like Carl, asserts an awareness of Tom’s split identity by invoking his original name, but Tom counters with an insistence on self-authorship. For him, Joey Cusack is dead, and he holds on to this narrative of self-elision and rebirth when he confesses the truth to Edie: he went to the desert, he explains, “and killed [Joey]” before being “born again” as Tom Stall. These competing visions establish a tension that lies at the center of A History of Violence between Tom Stall as facade covering the “true self” of Joey and Tom as self-made man, a masculine ideal of husband-father-patriarch conceived and created—or resurrected and redeemed—by our protagonist.

Walter White, too, makes an attempt at self-authorship in Breaking Bad, conceiving a new self in the form of the criminal mastermind Heisenberg. Heisenberg is everything Walt is not—powerful, in control, the master of his own destiny, and the subject of no law (moral, political, or civic). From this perspective, Walt’s creation of Heisenberg stands as counterpoint to the transformation of Joey Cusack into Tom Stall. Yet both serve as expressions of power and masculine authority. The heroes of Breaking Bad and A History of Violence are both struggling to define themselves over and against external forces that otherwise threaten to constrain their senses of self.

“...And the Bag’s in the River” takes place before Heisenberg is fully formed in the show’s chronology, but the interplay between Walt and Krazy 8 reveals the extent to which the destabilization of masculinity and identity around which the series centers were already in play. As Walt initially prepares to kill his captive, Krazy 8 calls him by name—”Walter”—and reveals key biographical details he knows about his captor. By using his name, just as Carl did to Joey, Krazy 8 asserts power over Walt, defining him as a teacher, a husband, and a father and not as a man capable of killing someone else. Walter White, like Tom Stall, is not a killer; he’s too mild and ineffectual to be a killer. Heisenberg, the self that Walt creates, is capable of the violence that Krazy 8 knows Walter White is not.

In a late episode in the series, Walt confronts a group of drug dealers whom he knows to be aware of his Heisenberg persona. “Say my name,” he demands, waiting for them to affirm his identity. The compulsive need the demand betrays may be Walt’s defining characteristic. In a crucial scene from the fifth episode of the series, when his family stages a kind of intervention to beg him to pursue treatment for his cancer, Walt refuses because he wants control. As he explains, he wants the ability to choose to die on his own terms, if nothing else. And in the series finale, he admits to his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), reflecting on all the havoc he’s wreaked, “I did it for me. I was good at it. And I was really...I was alive.” The assertion of choice and of efficacy and power thus become an assertion of self—of existence—one that stands at odds with the rationalizations Walt often provides for his ethical indiscretions: if Walt—and by extension, at times, the series—seems to justify his actions as necessary evils, he also uses the persona forged through these acts to restore his fractured masculinity, to re-make himself. He is the shattered 21st-century man, struggling to earn a living and hold his family together, made almost completely whole, sans soul (that missing piece), through radical reinvention.

Though A History of Violence and Breaking Bad follow opposite trajectories—one toward redemption, the other damnation—they both investigate whether the man makes the circumstance or the circumstances make the man. The question can be asked of many of the so-called “difficult men” associated with the new golden age of television—Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Jimmy McNulty, and the like—who are all, like Tom Stall and Walter White, descendants of the flawed male heroes of Hollywood noirs, Westerns, and gangster pictures. Contradictory by design, they embody a rugged individualism and self-reliance while shouldering the burden, with varying degrees of success, of the husband, father, and breadwinner, the foundation of the American social order. They embody a deficiency and a mythology of the American male all at once.


The Kids Are Alright

In terms of masculine crisis, Breaking Bad and A History of Violence can both be viewed, despite their contemporary settings, as neo-Westerns. The show’s setting of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Gilligan has explained, “makes me think of old Westerns. I watched hundreds of Westerns growing up, and I like to think of our show as a modern-day Western. I’m not sure what I mean by that. There are no 10-gallon hats or six shooters, no horses and whatnot . . . I guess Breaking Bad is a postmodern Western.” Cronenberg made similar claims on behalf of his Indiana-set film, admitting to Amy Taubin in Film Comment, “We thought of the Western—and yes, of course, how political do you want to get? The western myth of the homesteader with his gun, defending his family and piece of property against other men with guns.” However different they may appear to be, both Breaking Bad and A History of Violence share settings that suggest an open landscape, and more pointedly, they tell stories that unfold at a precipice, a threshold to a metaphoric frontier, just shy of the dissolution of moral order and domestic stability.

In the classic Western, the male hero stands between tranquility and chaos, security and bloodshed, home and the proverbial range. Walt/Heisenberg and Tom/Joey occupy this same border. They can even be seen as metaphors for it. They justify their violent behavior as protection for their families, at the same time that they themselves are directly responsible for introducing the threats that destabilize their domestic spaces; they guard a door that opens to a lawless world but are also guilty of opening that door in the first place.

“...And the Bag’s in the River” visualizes this tension in the scenes between Walt and Krazy 8, which feature a number of low-angle two-shots of Walt, standing vigilant at the stairs that lead out of Jesse’s basement, and his captive, frame right, the wide-angle lensing emphasizing the distance between them. These scenes suggest a good old-fashioned Western standoff. So too does the confrontation between Tom and Carl outside the Stall house midway through Cronenberg’s movie, intercut as it is with point-of-view shots from an upstairs window in the house, meant to suggest Edie’s perspective and effectively demarcating the domestic space she occupies from the outdoor space, occupied only by men, where a literal shootout is about to occur. Cronenberg’s deft use of frames as borders between interior, domestic space and external space becomes a dominant visual motif in the film, just as the New Mexico desert landscape becomes a signifier in the early seasons of Breaking Bad of the criminal underworld Walt/Heisenberg enters.

These nods in the direction of genre, however, are knowing and self-aware, complemented and undercut by concurrently unfolding domestic melodramas that have an archly comedic quality. “...And the Bag’s in the River,” like much of early Breaking Bad, flirts with dead-end plot threads that, in a typical network series might otherwise become fodder for serious drama but here function as diversionary relief. In this episode, Gilligan and his team of writers first reveal that Walt’s sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt) has a shoplifting problem, as she walks off (quite literally) in an unpurchased pair of shoes right under the nose of a distracted sales associate. The episode’s B-plot, meanwhile, is structured around a misunderstanding between Skyler—naively concerned that her husband’s protracted absences and lies, as well as his association with Jesse, are signs that he is smoking pot—and Marie, who takes Skyler’s inquiries about marijuana use to imply that Walt and Skyler’s son, Walt Jr. (R.J. Mitte), might have picked up a drug habit. The plot thread is an amusing non-starter: Marie’s DEA agent husband, Hank, pulls a scared-straight stunt on Walt Jr. while taking him out for ice cream, but the teenager, it seems, is just fine and would remain so—happy to enjoy his daily bowl of cereal or the promised scoop of vanilla—except for the corrosive effects of his father’s criminal actions. Similarly, A History of Violence devotes a significant amount of screentime in its first two acts to an overwrought subplot about Tom and Edie’s son, Jack (Ashton Holmes), being bullied at school and reciprocating with a physical attack. By the movie’s third act, though, the subplot is dropped altogether, revealed to be little more than a mostly inconsequential refraction of Tom’s more urgent entanglements. In both instances, the son plays foil to the father, and the comparatively low stakes of the kids’ stories introduce a level of humor and artifice, a deliberately false note that, in their sense of play, throw the grave central plot into sharp relief.

Even Skyler and Edie, though confounding and compelling characters as written, and portrayed skillfully by Gunn and Bello respectively, never seem to take on narrative weight, serving instead as loci of domestic anxiety. Each woman eventually will choose to make herself complicit on behalf of her husband, to lie to figures with legal authority by way of protecting her husband’s criminal identity. One can read these characterizations as implicating the very foundations of the American family unit, but they do so through the sins of the American male. Neither Breaking Bad nor A History of Violence is about women or even the family directly but only by proxy. As is typical of too much American art cinema and television, these particular texts have mostly got men on the mind.


A History of Auteurism

The knowingness that undergirds this series and movie goes a long way toward justifying their baser qualities—the stomach-churning violence and the pervasive whiff of machismo that permeates them. Each assumes a posture of critique that insulates it from a certain line of criticism. “Mr. Cronenberg’s film isn’t the usual bloody cinematic joy ride,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her New York Times review. “A master of conflicting, contradictory moods, Mr. Cronenberg has a history of turning genre, particularly horror, inside out and upside down, and he applies his cool intelligence and prodigious craft to the action movie like a French deconstructionist moonlighting as John Woo.” Dargis was certainly not alone in making an argument on behalf of Violence’s seriousness and its aesthetic and political value predicated on Cronenberg’s authorship. The tonal shifts and bravura filmic flourishes—starting with a masterful tracking shot at the movie’s opening—in this logic serve as auteurist fissures, ruptures that connote a certain artiness, a too-be-readness.

This is nothing new. If you’re familiar with any serious film criticism from the past half century, you’ve encountered a variation on this argument before. And one needn’t take a stand on the validity of auteurism as a framework for discussing movies to acknowledge the way it continues to dominate discussions of current works of international art cinema; those of us invested in movies as art continue to latch on to the director as artist.

Less remarked upon, though, is the way in which serious criticism of television has co-opted this approach. Breaking Bad, like A History of Violence, gets praised for turning genre inside out and upside down; in this discourse, however, the artist behind this deconstruction is the show-runner rather than the director. In reviewing the series finale of Breaking Bad, Alan Sepinwall—who wrote some of the most insightful and rigorous weekly recaps of the show that could be found anywhere—refers to the series as “his [Gilligan’s] show” and speaks of the ending as if it was wholly and exclusively conceived by its executive producer. Another similarly thoughtful writer on the series, Matt Zoller Seitz, argued “he [Gilligan] came up with something that evoked the closing moments of Cheers.” Such claims of authorship may or may not be earned. Certainly, Gilligan did write and direct the finale. But what of his collaborators in the writing room, whom Gilligan has always been careful to credit as his partners? Or the cinematographer Michael Slovis, who must surely deserve a great deal of credit for the singular look of the series? And what about Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul or Anna Gunn? If filmmaking and television production are both collaborative processes, the latter, in part because of the tight timelines and budgetary pressures under which television episodes get made, has tended to have the stronger reputation for being the product of numerous creative contributors, even when those individuals are working in the service of an executive producer’s vision. Even that title—executive producer—connotes a kind of industrial or corporate reporting structure, one that is sometimes underacknowledged in the increasingly vital sphere of weekly television criticism.

It would also be ungenerous, however, to diminish Gilligan’s accomplishment with Breaking Bad. Gilligan did have a writing credit on the first four episodes of the series, including “...And the Bag’s in the River,” and nine of the series’ episodes after that. He has spoken articulately in many interviews over the years about his vision for the show, not just as a writer but as the person finally responsible for its look and feel, content and tone. One can make similar claims on behalf of the showrunners of great dramas such as David Chase and Matthew Weiner, and those behind some of our most acclaimed comedies, including Tina Fey and Dan Harmon. But the question of where Gilligan’s vision ends and the contributions of his many extraordinary collaborators like Slovis, Cranston, directors Adam Bernstein and Michelle MacLaren, and writer George Mastras begin is rather beside the point and also impossible to answer. There is nevertheless something powerful and comforting about grafting an auteurist art cinema frame onto art television criticism.

This makes sense for us as critics and consumers of works we take to be art—or perhaps want to be art, movies and shows that excite and provoke, that sometimes satisfy, sometimes pander, and sometimes challenge. Just as the excessively operatic quality of the family dinner that ends A History of Violence can become, when viewed from the auteurist perspective, a Cronenbergian intervention that justifies the whole, so too do Gretchen’s speculation about the soul as the missing piece of her and Walt’s chemical puzzle and Walt’s dismissal of it—”There’s just chemistry here”—become an early hint of a reckoning with larger moral issues, the nascent Gilligan worldview. This emergent artistic sensibility has the potential to justify the plaudits piled upon a show that, at its worst, plays as a ridiculous thrill ride. If one wants to take Breaking Bad seriously—and it is so compelling and exhilarating that it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to do so—it is perhaps best to start with one image each episode shares, the one that closes every installment: Executive Producer Vince Gilligan.