The Top 10 Greatest Western Moments In BREAKING BAD
“In the desert you can remember your name”–A Horse With No Name
(Used in Breaking Bad‘s Season 3 Ep. 2 “Caballo Sin Nombre”)
Last week’s second-to-last hour of Breaking Bad, “Granite State,” may have been one of the series’ most enigmatic episodes–and one that requires a few viewings to see it as more than a deep breath before the finale. Which it still is, but at least the second time around you’ll notice how Walter is rubbing his hands near the fire as if he’s a puppeteer-god looking down on the destruction he’s created. Last week, I said that Holly being dropped off at a fire station has to carry some significance, and I’ll stand by that.
“Is Skyler in a better place?”
Breaking Bad can be considered one of the best modern-day Westerns, which by the end of “Granite State” it turned completely into. I missed the opening credits, so I’d thought that John Ford directed the last 10 minutes with Walt at the bar. But then I remembered he’s been dead for 40 years. And now I’m calling her Executive Producer/Director Michelle MacLarentino. It’ll catch on. So in honor of Sunday’s finale “Felina,” we are counting down the Top 10 Greatest Western Moments in the show’s history. Only in Season 5 did the “Western” theme really start to happen, or at least, become obvious. There are some moments in earlier seasons that hinted at the series’ Western influences–even if they don’t even involve guns, a desert, or both.
10. No Mas (Ep. 3.01)
As in every great Western, the enemy is less-than-human. We side with the heroic outlaw (we’ll call him Walter White, though you might want to call him “antihero”), and the danger of anyone who dares to challenge them is as skin deep as their cowboy boots and gun. Of course, we come to see the “Cousins” as just a bit more than that, but since they serve this basic function in Season 3, their first episode is my #10 pick.
The first time we meet the Cousins, they drive up with a Mercedes on a dirt road in the desert. They step out with skull tips on their boots and start crawling up toward a shrine to Santa Muerte–in English–“Saint Death.” They pin up the now famous sketch of Heisenberg. The same episodes ends with the Cousins riding in the back of a truck, with one incredibly talkative passenger who gets super quiet once he sees those skulls. I’m not sure we ever find out why, except for the fact they love explosions and killing people, and especially explosions that kill people, but they shoot everyone inside the truck and then blow it up.
9. Grilled (Ep. 2.02)
Before the impressive desert scenes around the closest Vince Gilligan can get to Monument Valley, we already had a dramatic shootout as early as Season 2, also involving Hank. This time, he was after Tuco Salamanca (so named perhaps as an homage to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), who brought Walt and Jesse down to Mexico as his prisoners. As far as they knew, they were never seeing New Mexico again. The sight of an angry, wounded Tuco was not something Hank was expecting–and at least as frightening as Jack.
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8. Over (Ep. 2.10)
Just when he thought he was out.
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7. Half Measures (Ep. 3.12)
By the end of Season3, our other outlaw, Jesse Pinkman, is distraught over the death of Tomas–the son of girlfriend Andrea Cantillo. He knows he played an indirect part in his death, which was carried out by the two Gus Fring dealers that he is prepared to duel. But right when each side draws their weapons, Walt comes riding in.
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6. Pilot (Ep 1.01)
The very first shots of the first episode capture the simple beauties of the desert just outside of Albuquerque: a cactus, a steep rock formation, a dirt road, pants falling from the sky. When we meet Walter White (and Jesse, though we don’t know who he is yet), we don’t know why he’s driving like a madman through the desert. But it’s all so stunning, and it looks like a great place to shoot a TV show. So we’ll go with it. Little did we know.
When the pilot first aired, it would’ve been hard to really see it as a Western. Walter White looked very much out of place. A chalky white, middle aged man in a rolling meth lab in the desert does not a classic Western make. But looking back, it’s as if we are seeing Wyatt Earp-in-training, with the shootout at the O.K. Corral not far down the road.
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5. Say My Name (Ep. 5.07)
Up until the end of Season 4, Walter and Jesse’s business was, according to Mike later in this same episode, doing just fine and making as much money as they ever needed. But Walt had to come along and blow it all up. In this first real desert standoff, Walt finally lets us see his pre-occupation with name. He couldn’t let anonymous donors let money trickle into his son’s “charity” website, and he certainly won’t let anybody think that the Cartel killed Gus Fring.
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4. Granite State (Ep. 5.15)
In our collective efforts to dissect every shot of Breaking Bad in search of foreshadowing and clues to the significance behind what happens, we forgot perhaps the most obvious piece of evidence: the theme music. The ending of “Granite State” was one of those moments where, despite what he’ll try and tell you, Vince Gilligan knew from early on (as in Season 1) how it was going to play out.
After the deflating realization that all his work will be for nothing, Walt calls the DEA and asks to speak with the agent in charge of the Walter White investigation. After telling them who’s calling, he goes to the bar to have one last drink and await the arrival of the cavalry.
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But then he decides to go out in a blaze of glory.
3. Ozymandias (Ep. 5.14)
A 7 page scene where a main character dies in the desert. Sounds like a Western to me. But since that’s not enough, writer Moira Walley-Beckett had Jack ask specifically if “the cavalry” was coming, and Hank replies, “You bet your ass the cavalry’s coming.” Maybe Jack really thinks the DEA has an actual team of cavalry on horses ready for pursuit, or maybe he just realized where he was and thought it was a fitting use of the term. In any case, though, the “Cavalry Western” is a sub-genre of the classical Western, which by all accounts are captured in the desert scenes of “Ozymandias.” Also, the silent quick cuts of the rock formations in To’hajiilee call back to the very first shots of the pilot, but this time, we accept these shots not as beautiful scenery, but as a temporary relief from the horror that just took place.
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2. Dead Freight (Ep. 5.05)
In this “making of” video, Vince Gilligan even says that the railroad they use in “Dead Freight” is the same one used in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Just because I like Back to the Future 3, doesn’t mean I don’t know what makes a good Western. And that is a good old-fashioned train robbery.
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1. To’hajiilee (Ep. 5.13)
At the exact coordinates that Walt and Jesse first cooked, Uncle Jack refuses Walt’s change of heart, and shows up with his mind made up. It’s not that this is one of the most violent events in the series (it is), so much as that it represents for Walter the consequences of his decisions, and what he outlined in front of his chemistry class: “growth, decay, then transformation.” With 5 seasons in the rearview mirror, Walt can point to a whole lot that has happened and say “if this just went differently, none of us would be here right now.” And I’m sure he’s also thought that a whole lot in the episodes that followed.
Because the shootout is shown mostly in slow-motion, it is hard to judge exactly how long it lasts. By my timer, the scene itself is about 40 seconds long. Without slow-motion, maybe it’s 25 seconds. And then it concludes in the following episode with shots being fired for exactly another 5 seconds. The famous 1881 Gunfight at O.K. Corral was 30 seconds long.
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Quickly she grabbed for the six gun that he wore
And screamin’ in anger and placin’ the gun to her breast
Bury us both deep and maybe we’ll find peace
And pullin’ the trigger, she fell ‘cross the dead cowboy’s chest
–Marty Robbins’ “Feleena” (from El Paso)