As the credits rolled on the last episode of Breaking Bad’s fourth season, my withdrawal symptoms were immediate and severe. I had discovered the show fairly late in the game and watched all four seasons online over a few weeks time. Knowing season five was still a ways off, I did the only thing I could. I went right back to Episode 1.1 and watched the entire series again. That’s right, all four seasons, straight through. Again. I know that’s bad. What’s worse is both times I made the same mistake.
I skipped The Fly.
For some reason, I had decided there was nothing worth seeing in that episode. For some reason, I thought it was the one episode where the show faltered, got lazy, ran off the rails, failed to advance the story. I think I’d been influenced by something I’d previously heard or read about the episode. Whatever the source of my mental contagion, on my first run through the series I watched Walt chase his winged nemesis throughout the lab for about ten minutes, then skipped ahead to Episode 3.11, Abiquiu, thinking I hadn’t missed a beat. I chalked up The Fly as a blemish on an otherwise perfect series.
On my second run through the series, I skipped The Fly entirely.
I now realize that was a very stupid thing to do.
And I did it twice.
I know this because when the credits rolled on season five’s series finale, with Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” pouring through the Breaking Bad shaped hole in my TV heart, I suffered the same immediate and severe withdrawal symptoms. And again, I did the only thing I could do. I went right back to Episode 1.1 and started over.
(Yes, clearly I have a problem.)
But this being my third trip through the show in less than a year, I ran out of gas around Episode 3.1. By then I’d logged 124 hours of this show just on rounds one and two. If this were day job, I’d have two full weeks of Monday through Friday work under my belt. Now here I was on round three. Surely there was a better use of my time. My problem was that I could not let go of these characters. Nor did I want to.
So it seemed a good time to give The Fly another go.
In fact, the idea of watching an episode I hadn’t seen already was kind of exciting. New gas in the tank, so to speak. Even if the episode did suck.
Now that I’ve finally seen it, let me say unequivocally, with absolute certainty, The Fly does not suck. It is one of Breaking Bad’s finest episodes, and one of the most important. Here’s why.
The Pivot Point of the Series
In this episode, Walt laments that he’s lived too long. He says he should have died already. He feels there was a perfect time for him to die, and he missed it. Ideally, he says, it would have come after he’d earned enough money to provide for his family but before his family found out how. When was this moment? he wonders.
After working this through like one of his mathematical formulas, he pinpoints it as the night he was sitting at home watching television, when on the baby monitor he heard Skyler singing a lullaby to newborn Holly. If he’d just died right then, he says, all would have been well. He would have seen the birth of his daughter. He would have the money to leave for his family. And his family wouldn’t know where he got it. A peaceful, perfect way to go.
More importantly, he would not have gone out for diapers later that night. And therefore not have taken a bag of cash to Jesse and Jane. Not have gone into a bar afterwards and met Jane’s father. Not have caused hundreds of deaths. Not have been found out by his wife.
In essence, Walt realizes it was that night when he not only missed out on death, but passed a point of no return in life. His secret out, his family life ruined, the tipping point in his transformation from humble family man Walter White into murderous meth man Heisenberg was irreversible.
Of course, Walt the character doesn’t know of series creator Vince Gilligan’s intentions for him, but the viewer does. If not at the time the episode originally aired, certainly by now it is fairly common knowledge that, from the outset, Gilligan’s arc for Walt’s character was to turn him from Mr. Chips into Scarface. That this episode falls where it does in the overall arc of the series speaks to Gilligan’s genius in executing his vision. The Fly is episode number ten in season three, making it number 30 overall. With 62 episodes total over five seasons, this tipping point occurs at almost exactly the halfway point of the series.
That is simply masterful structure.
And if we allow, as some have suggested, that the final two episodes of season five are really more of an epilogue, not unlike the final chapter of the Lord of the Rings, it is exactly the halfway point to episode 60, in which Heisenberg/Scarface is destroyed. Given that assertion, the whole series folds into two perfectly measured halves. A first act featuring Mr. Chips, a second act featuring Scarface. Pivot-Point, The Fly.
Genius with a capital G.
Structure Within The Structure
As if that were not artful enough, Walt and Jesse exchange roles as The Fly plays out. At the beginning of the episode, Jesse fails to understand Walt’s obsession with the fly, finding the whole pursuit ridiculous. Midway through, he’s had a change of heart, as evidenced by the sack full of fly-catching goodies he brings to help Walt, who is losing interest in the pursuit. By the end, it’s Jesse who is obsessively pursuing the fly and Walt who has given up.
Essentially, you can fold this episode in half, just as you can fold the series on this episode.
Near the end of the episode, as Walt is lapsing into unconsciousness from the sleeping pills Jesse slipped him, he suggests they forget about the fly and finish the cook. When Jesse asks “what about the contamination” and Walt replies “it’s all contaminated now,” he’s not just talking about the cook itself. He’s once again lamenting about his whole plan for cooking in the first place having fallen apart.
A few moments later, Walt lapses into unconsciousness. And then Jesse finally kills the fly. This is a symbolic death for Walt which has come at the wrong time, just after he realizes he’s missed his chance to die a real death at the right time.
Now if, like me, you were a complete dumbass and skipped this episode (which I hope you did only once), you spent the second half of the series not knowing for sure that Walt knew Jane’s dad was Jane’s dad. You could infer this, but you didn’t really know this. Knowing that Walt knows, and seeing in The Fly how it affected him, adds yet another layer to this incredibly rich story. But perhaps most significantly, you learn that Walt told Jesse he was sorry for the tragedies he caused that night he went out for diapers.
Walt’s confession, if even it can be called that, was incomplete, and insufficient. However, this was the only instance throughout the entire five seasons where Walt expressed any honest remorse for what he’d done. This could have been a turning point for Walt. He could have confessed completely (though of course Jesse would not have forgiven him). He could have chosen to end his descent into darkness right there and face the consequences, whatever they might be. But as he had made clear earlier in the episode, it was too late. Not because it was actually too late, but because he’d decided it was too late.
That, I would argue, would be the actual moment where Walt truly “broke bad.”
Others may say differently. Some have said he broke when he crashed his car into Gus’s men. Others have said it was when he strangled Crazy Eight in Jesse’s basement. Still others say it happened in the very first episode, when he suffocated Emilio in the RV with toxic fumes.
I would argue it happened right there in The Fly. Right smack at the mid-point of the whole series.
In a way, I’m glad I’m a dumbass who discovered The Fly so late in the game. Had I watched it in sequence, I doubt I would have recognized it for what it is. I might even appreciate it more, having not seen it until now.
One thing I know for sure, it definitely does not suck.
Oh, and here is the best version of “Baby Blue” you will ever hear on ukulele.