There is a degree of self-consciousness in the mode of plotting… in the awareness that viewers watch complex programs in part to see “how will they do it?”… The operational aesthetic is heightened in spectacular moments within narratively complex programs, specific sequences or episodes that we might consider akin to special effects.” – Jason Mittell
For the narratively complex program viewer, television’s gratifying qualities, according to Mittell, extend beyond the realm of plot and can instead be focused around the idea of spectacle. In this case, complex narrative, in entire episodes or particular segments, will seek less to build upon character development and integral plot lines but opts to become innovative (though experimental might be a more appropriate term) in its style and presentation so far apart from the program’s norm.
One such complex narrative anamoly is the Breaking Bad bottle episode ‘Fly’, a 45-minute audiovisual experiment restricted to one location (an underground meth lab) and two “protagonists” in Walt and Jesse. Every other episode of the five season AMC series provides exposition on a number of storylines by featuring multiple characters facing multiple conflicts across multiple locales. In ‘Fly’, the program’s plot develops very little, if at all, considering the potential breakthrough the episode hints at providing (Jesse finds out that Walt was complicit in his lover’s death) never comes to fruition. One can theoretically have never watched ‘Fly’ in having watched every other episode of Breaking Bad and still have not missed a beat. From my perspective – that is, the perspective of a film and television studies critic – ‘Fly’ is a gift regardless of how the show’s plot is or isn’t developed in an entire episode. As Mittell puts it, gratification comes from discovering the solution to “how will they do it”, how Breaking Bad‘s producers are going to showcase a set of interactions between two characters in one seemingly dull setting for a mammoth 45 minutes.
I feel that this break in convention isn’t a random and entirely experimental choice; the episode does illustrate and comment on the world in which Walt and Jesse find themselves in. That we are trapped in Gus Fring’s dank, gloomy meth lab for the duration of ‘Fly’ helps the viewer empathise with Walt and Jesse, slaves to Gus as well as their crippling debts, addictions and personal ineptitudes. No longer do we have a seemingly uncontrolled freedom as we magically glide between the many settings of Albuquerque. We must instead share Walt and Jesse’s claustrophobia: potential allegories for the state this pair’s friends and families find themselves in. So while ‘Fly’ seems, on one level, a brave experiment, close analysis suggests that this episode fits snugly in the Breaking Bad fabula. That being said, I can empathise with viewers who look to their favourite programs for regular conventions and thus bear a distaste for ‘Fly’. My own friends have said they “hated that fly episode” and this stands as incontrovertible proof that “complexity and value are not mutually guaranteed” (Mittell, p. 30) and that these past couple of decades, whilst heralding a new and exciting mode of narrative complexity, may be remembered an equal amount for their contribution to everlasting televisual hallmarks as well as their trial and error in bringing these historical techniques to the small screen.
Mittell, J: Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television. Viewed on September 22, 2012 at https://docs.google.com/a/student.rmit.edu.au/viewer?url=http://justtv.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/mittell-narrative-complexity.pdf