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Wednesday, 21 August 2013

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mxyzptlk

Fuck it. I wrote this up about the diner scene in the latest Breaking Bad episode and posted it on IO9's Observation Deck, but am going to hijack your comments section for a bit to re-post it, because I'm digging how Breaking Bad is re-mapping the gangster cinema landscape.

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Indulge me here:

One of my favorite moments from this episode was the diner. Breaking Bad can be located in the tradition of the American gangster cinema, and it's been negotiating its place by creating a kind of visual dialog with other work in that genre. Back in "Gliding Over All," there was the assassination montage, which echoes the assassination/baptism montage from The Godfather. Water is the central image of both montages, and both scenes mark the turning point where the protagonists consolidate their power and take a final step over the moral line into the role of organized crime lord.

In "Buried," we get the diner scene, which is an inverted echo of the diner scene in Goodfellas where Henry Hill realizes that Jimmy is trying to set him up. The Goodfellas scene starts with Henry's voice-over describing his existential dilemma, which could just as easily be Skyler's inner dialog (but being an inversion, we don't get the voice-over -- and Breaking Bad doesn't do that anyway): "If you're part of a crew" (family), "nobody ever tells you that they're going to kill you" (bring you down) -- "doesn't happen that way. There weren't any arguments or curses like in the movies. See your murders come with smiles; they come as friends; the people that have cared for you all of your life and they always seem to come at a time when you're at your weakest and most in need of their help."

The Goodfellas scene cuts to a tracking shot of Henry Hill entering the diner from Henry's perspective, while in "Buried" the camera is on Skyler (so the camera position is inverted). Both scenes start with a hug, and the reverse shot shows Henry/Skyler's tension.

So clearly Skyler's in the Henry position, and she's also a stand-in for Walt, since she's just as involved with Walt's business at this point (just as Karen's just as involved in Henry Hill's business). And Hank is in Jimmy's position trying to suss out Skyler/Henry Hill. But just as Hank being a cop is an inversion of Jimmy's being a gangster, so to is their respective positions in the scene, on opposite sides of the booth.

And Hank sliding over the voice recorder is the token used to try to finalize the set-up, which matches Jimmy sliding over the matchbook with the info of who he wants Henry to wack in Florida. In both cases, Skyler and Henry realize that if they use that token, they're done.

In both scenes, the subject under suspicion figures out that the person across the table is going to bring an end to their extra-criminal dealings, and possibly them. But while Henry reacts calmly and cooly, Skyler -- in the inverted scene -- has the opposite emotional reaction and creates a scene, "AM I UNDER ARREST?" If it wasn't clear that Skyler pulls that act just to get away from Hank without making Hank any more suspicious than he already is, Anna Gunn admitted as much on Talking Bad, saying that Skyler's reaction was just as calculated as anything Walt might do.

Of course the circumstances are different in the two scenes, and it's not an exact match, but it doesn't need to be. The Goodfellas diner scene is one of those iconic moments of American gangster cinema, particularly because of the neat trick Scorsese pulled off with the background outside of the booth window. It's also a scene of recognition between characters who are trying not to give too much away to the person across the table from them while simultaneously trying to glean as much information as they can, and everything depends on it.

All Breaking Bad needs to do (and it doesn't need to do this, it's just choosing to) is gesture to that moment from Goodfellas through its own visual apparatus to recall what Scorsese managed to pack into his scene. In doing so, it simultaneously positions itself in relation to a touchstone of gangster cinema: "Here's Scorsese's take on two proxy family members pretending to be something they're not anymore to each other while also trying to figure out where the other person's at, and here's ours."

They're sitting on Scorsese's head.

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