Why the greatest “Breaking Bad” Episode is also the most hated

  • With the release of “El Camino” on Netflix, now is the perfect time to revisit Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s journey in AMC’s critically acclaimed series, “Breaking Bad”.
  • But perhaps its most hated episode “Fly” might be the greatest bottle episode to come out of the show.
  • Here’s why an episode about nothing is in fact, about everything.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Nate Lee: The most impressive feat achieved by “Breaking Bad,” in my opinion, isn’t the cinematography, the writing, or even the performances, but its consistency. From the very first shot to its last, it’s a show that doesn’t waste a single moment, each episode serving a vital role in the story. And it’s this consistency that has allowed for some of the most memorable episodes in television. But it’s also the reason why my personal favorite and perhaps one of the show’s greatest episodes doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves. And it’s not an episode with a major character death or a bombastic action sequence, but an episode about nothing.

The episode that I’m referring to is the 10th episode of season three, “Fly.” It’s also perhaps the series’ most polarizing episode, some hailing it as one of the show’s greatest, while heavily despised by others. The plot is simple. Walt discovers that a fly has entered his lab and becomes obsessed to get rid of it, while his partner, Jesse, tries to argue against this unreasonable obsession.

Jesse: Hey, what happened to your head?

Walt: Nothing, I’m fine.

Jesse: You didn’t hit it really hard?

Walt: My head is not the problem, Jesse. The fly is the problem.

Nate: That’s it. There are no subplots or big action sequences. What we see is just these two characters in a lab trying to catch a fly. Consider the fact that the episode dropped right in the middle of a season progressing at an otherwise breakneck speed, and it’s easy to see why many weren’t so happy with it. A part of it, I think, has to do with what the episode is: what’s known in the industry as a bottle episode.

“Outer Limits” narrator: You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits.

Nate: First coined by the creator of the ’60s TV series “The Outer Limits,” bottle episodes refer to episodes that could be produced cheaply by restricting the number of actors and locations. Although it’s been around for some time, the series that really broke new ground was none other than “Seinfeld,” in the episode “Chinese Restaurant,” where the entire plot revolves around Jerry and his friends just waiting for a table at a restaurant.

Host: It’ll be five, 10 minutes.

Nate: NBC initially refused the episode, arguing that there was no real story to keep viewers engaged. It was only after Larry David threatened to quit the show that the episode was approved and went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed episodes in the entire series. It was even used as a joke in the later season.

George: Oh, forget the story.

Jerry: You gotta have a story.

George: Who says you gotta have a story? Remember when we were waiting for that table in that Chinese restaurant that time? That could be a TV show.

Nate: Since then, bottle episodes have popped up everywhere, sometimes as a creative tool.

Jeff: Tell your disappointment to suck it. I’m doing a bottle episode.

Nate: And in the case of the “Fly,” due to the budget. Nearing the end of the season, the series was hopelessly over budget, and showrunner Vince Gilligan and the writers were forced to come up with an episode set in one location to save the cost of moving their production trucks, hence the story of two characters trying to catch a fly. What’s ironic is that the criticism against the episode is justified. The episode is really about nothing. It doesn’t move the plot forward in any way, and despite everything that happens, nothing is ever changed or resolved by the end.

To understand the purpose of the episode, I think it’s important to understand what influenced it. From Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose sonnets inspired the episode “Ozymandias,” to Walt Whitman, whose work served as a major plot device, “Breaking Bad” is chock-full of both cultural and literary references.

Jesse: Place is full of dead-eyed douchebags, the hours suck, and nobody knows what’s going on, so.

Group leader: Sounds kind of Kafkaesque.

Jesse: Yeah. Totally Kafkaesque.

Nate: While “Fly” borrows from several different materials, the most prominent is “Waiting for Godot” by legendary playwright Samuel Beckett, a play about two men, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for an individual named Godot, but we never find out who Godot is, and, spoiler alert, Godot never arrives. Instead, the play is really about the various philosophical contemplations the two share over the absurdity of their situation. “Fly” and “Waiting for Godot” share this similar absurdist tone. Like “Godot,” the story is never about the fly but the two men, Walter and Jesse, trying to find meaning in it. And, similar to how the identity of Godot has been the subject of debate for many years, the fly is also capable of many different interpretations, from Walt’s guilt for the death of Jesse’s girlfriend to the loss of control over his own operation from Gus Fring’s influence.

What Vince Gilligan and the writers receive in return for the lack of bombastic action and an almost glacial pacing is a moment to explore these two characters, something as simple as how the two approach a problem. Walt uses what he knows, his knowledge in science and logic, to solve a problem.

Jesse: What positive? Positive what?

Walt: Pressure. I’ve turned the ventilation up to keep the outside out.

Nate: And when it doesn’t work, he begins to seek out needlessly dangerous and riskier methods, while Jesse acts almost instinctively without putting much thought, reluctantly helping Walt without fully understanding the danger, their stark difference in character resulting in a constant state of conflict we will see repeat again and again. In fact, the entire plot is designed to show their toxic relationship, the two unable to accomplish a simple common goal without hurting one another, and the issue is only finally resolved when Jesse is left to work on his own, Walt unable to see the end of the chain of events he himself has caused, all of which will come back to haunt the two throughout the rest of the series.

Jesse: Just tell me you don’t give a s— about me, and it’s either this… it’s either this, or you’ll kill me the same way you killed Mike.

Nate: And their dialogue in the episode reveals a lot about how the two perceive one another. We get not one but two of what I think are some of the greatest monologues in the series, one from Jesse about his aunt who hallucinates an opossum in her house from the cancer that has metastasized to her brain.

Jesse: But it was good that that was when we decided to, you know, take her to the doctor ’cause then we knew what was up. You know, got her some treatment, meds so she wasn’t stressing all the time. It was a lot better after that. She was a lot happier.

Nate: Jesse’s story is one inspired by his concern for Walt, being the only one in the room to see the fly as a manifestation of something else, while Walter’s monologue is that of something entirely different: his regrets.

Jesse: Perfect moment, for what? To drop dead? What, you are saying you want to die?

Walt: I’m saying…I’ve lived too long.

Nate: It’s brilliant writing that shows what the two characters desire from one another. For Jesse, it is a sense of connection, and for Walt, a chance at redemption.

Walt: I’m sorry about Jane.

Nate: The writers of “Breaking Bad” accomplish all of this with just a fly. In fact, you can actually see the entire plot of this series in just this one episode. Walt’s personal obsession getting Jesse reluctantly involved, leading to a series of dangerous decisions, and throughout, we see Jesse’s many emotions towards him ranging from frustration, anger, and eventually resentment. Walt eventually realizes how much he has hurt Jesse and attempts to come to terms with it, but in the end, nothing is resolved, everyone more damaged than when they began. “Fly” is an episode that, in a lot of ways, embodies the genius of “Breaking Bad”: its ability to take a simple concept to discuss something much greater than itself, an example that shows that great television can be achieved without the need for big character moments or bombastic action sequences, but a focus on the story it tries to tell and an understanding that sometimes what seems like nothing could, in fact, be about everything.

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