Money Shot analyzes the best scenes from TV and film. Today, we’re talking about Breaking Bad’s most underrated moment.
The best part about Breaking Bad was when, as an audience member, you had no earthly idea how the characters could get out of a particular situation. The show excelled at not only always being one step ahead of its viewers, but also pulling off a plausible conclusion to the downright absurd holes the characters — mostly Walt — dug for themselves. This kind of open-ended action that simultaneously gave the audience enough narrative closure but enough of a reason to want to immediately tune in to the next episode to see what happens was never pulled off with more ecstatic insanity than in “Crawl Space.”
Specifically, the final shot of the eleventh episode of the show’s fourth season represented the show in one insane nutshell. In a single, slow, cacophonous pull-back of the camera, everybody in Breaking Bad was doomed. And it was glorious.
Two specific story-beats inform the impact of the final shot of “Crawl Space.” Walt (Bryan Cranston) ferries Hank (Dean Norris) around trying to innocently lead his brother-in-law in the wrong direction because the former DEA agent wants to uncover Gus Fring’s drug operation, which Walt fuels with his potent blue meth. Hank is actually doing his by-the-books sleuthing perfectly, and has accurately pieced together the puzzle that connects the disparate points of Fring’s operation. After Walt tries to throw Hank off with a stakeout of Fring’s chicken farm, Hank unexpectedly asks Walt to drive him to the industrial laundry that secretly hides Fring’s superlab. “We’ve got one hell of a place to hide a meth lab,” Hank says, before a panicked Walt drives past the entrance and deliberately causes a car accident to neutralize the situation.
This is the first time Walt puts his immediate family in danger to save himself, a selfish flaw that would haunt the character up until the end of the series. Walt’s decisions, mistakes and all, here begin to pull his secrets apart at the seams.
Hank, recovering in his bed, informs Walt that he’s getting a “gimp mobile,” a car with hand controls so he won’t have to drive him around anymore. Walt suddenly finds himself becoming expendable to Hank, but also to Jesse (Aaron Paul). He’s been able to replicate Walt’s meth formula on his own, and also informs Walt that Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) knows he’s been bringing Hank to snoop around. Fring’s cronies then kidnap Walt and bring him to the middle of the desert for the second key story beat.
Walt, thinking he’s about to be executed, faces something far worse. In another of the episode’s iconic shots, Fring stands over a kneeling Walt in a wide open tableaux of clouds crawling above the New Mexico desert. Instead of killing Walt in cold blood, Fring fires him, demanding that he cannot interfere with the drug empire anymore or face retribution.
“I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter,” Fring threatens, coldly. It’s among the most chilling moments of the entire series, and forces Walt to an extreme. He calls crooked lawyer Saul Goodman to get a guy who knows how to disappear people. Once given instructions to be prepared to leave within an hour, along with about a half-million dollars for the service, Walt rushes home to gather his family and the fee only to discover that his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) has given most of their hidden meth money to her boss, Ted Beneke. Unbeknownst to Walt, Skyler has forwarded the money to Ted so he can pay an IRS debt that could expose Skylers implication in Walt’s meth money.
Cue: the final shot.
The way that a bruised and battered Walt deals with the situation is, weirdly enough, to laugh. The pulsating music gives way to a feedback screech worth of the best Sonic Youth records, and then the shot cut to black. The camera move, performances, sound design, and music all serve the moment. Its a perfect bit of mise en scene that should be taught in film classes.
Breaking Bad was a show defined by its tension, drama that could immediately be alleviated by a bit of black comedy. This scene, and this shot, is the show’s comedy at its bleakest. Walt is seen through the open door of the crawl space, while the camera slowly pulls up. It’s here that Walt realizes, because of the Hank and Fring incidents, he is no longer in control. He almost looks like he’s being buried alive, delaying the inevitable death that he’s caused by his manipulations of everyone around him. It’s no surprise that this shot foreshadowed the final shot of Walt’s death in the series finale.
Its Walt’s moment of self-realization, and it’s the lowest point of his life. But he doesn’t resort to silent introspection or outwardly weeping. He can’t help but laugh at the absurdity that he’s wrought. The audience and the characters in the show don’t know how to feel except absurdly energized, and that’s what Breaking Bad did best. And while the show would continue to reach other highs, it didn’t get any better than ‘Crawl Space.”