Singing the Praises of Breaking Bad’s Michelle MacLaren

Bryan Cranston and Michelle MacLaren

FULL SPOILERS FOR ALL OF BREAKING BAD FOLLOW

It’s a very sad time for Breaking Bad. It’s not because there are only three (!) episodes left to air, or that nothing will never be the same again, but it’s because last night’s episode (titled “To’hajiilee”) was the last Breaking Bad episode to be directed by Michelle MacLaren.

MacLaren’s name might not be a main staple of Breaking Bad like Vince Gilligan or Bryan Cranston are, but she is just as important as those two. Directing many of the series’ finest episodes and moments, MacLaren has been responsible for much of the greatness that Breaking Bad is known for. She definitely ranks among Breaking Bad‘s best directors (the only two who come close are Rian Johnson and Gilligan himself), and she could make the bid for the greatest working director in television.

It’s MacLaren’s range as a director that makes her such a gifted artist. Her work conveys every emotion present in Breaking Bad, be it depravity, devastation, insanity, dread, or even glee. MacLaren can make a smaller staged scene work wonderfully, but her expertise really excel when the ante is upped. Shootouts, mass murders, car chases, MacLaren can really do it all, and do it excellently.

In some of the episodes she’s directed, MacLaren has really nailed Jesse’s most emotional moments. He’s a character who has been through arguably the most throughout the show’s run, and he has the moments to prove it. Take the time he sat in front of his mega-speakers, in “Thirty-Eight Snub.” The way MacLaren has our point of view move away from Jesse really illuminates who he has become. We don’t know him anymore, and his behavior proves it. Another moment that MacLaren stages similarly, is Jesse’s monologue from his hospital bed, in “One Minute.” MacLaren again changes our perspective of Jesse, this time zooming in on him in one of his most broken and emotionally depraved moments. Now, much of the credit is due to Aaron Paul’s wonderful performance, and Thomas Schnauz’s great writing, but the way in which MacLaren executes it really makes the scene.

MacLaren’s talent also lies in the craziness that is Breaking Bad. Her tense and taut direction of the show’s most thrilling moments are what she gets the most attention for, and it is for good reason. In the opening minutes of “Shotgun,” Walter White is in his most frayed state of mind, and MacLaren conveys this sense of feeling incredibly. Shooting from the front of his Aztec’s point of view, the viewer truly experiences what Walt is going through, dangerously weaving in and out of traffic. There really is no calm moment in the scene, a decision MacLaren made right to really embody the moment’s state of mind. This scene was almost mirrored in “To’hajiilee” and it was just as excellent (if not better) as the episode whipped into its crazy-intense gear.

Car chases aren’t the only crazy things Breaking Bad and MacLaren do well; gunfights, shootouts, and murders are among the show’s best moments. When watching the notorious, eponymous scene in “Salud,” the viewer can barely believe what is happening before their eyes. MacLaren shoots the action up close and from afar, for the viewer to see what is really happening. By doing this, the action works incredibly well, and the very fact that mass murder has occurred flies by.

Another great MacLaren directed action scene is the parking lot shootout. I think it’s safe to say that there will probably (emphasis of probably!) never be a better scene on Breaking Bad than this one. In “One Minute” MacLaren is able to make even the simplest things seem like the most tense things in the world. A digital clock changing minutes, random people walking through a parking lot, Hank’s bloodied hand reaching for a stray bullet… They’re all the most important things in our lives when watching that scene, all thanks to MacLaren. She can even make an offscreen shootout (in “Buried”) terribly tense!

Action scenes aren’t always the most tense scenes that MacLaren has directed. In “Buried,” Marie finally finds out that Skyler has been in on Walt’s criminal life, and it is gut-wrenchingly intense. From the beginning of the scene, the camera cautiously “walks in” on the two mid-discussion. The two speak in silence and in sadness, and the way the scene is staged, this sense of emotion is conveyed devastatingly. From the beginning, the conversation is shot so closely and personally, it is like we are almost there with the two sisters. This sense of closeness continues on, and makes the end result even more devastating than it already is. MacLaren stages and shoots the slap, argument, and fight over the baby so well, it makes the viewer feel like we don’t even want to be watching, but in the good way, of course.

As I mentioned above, MacLaren’s last episode was “To’hajiilee,” and boy, was that a way to go out. There were so many perfectly staged and shot moments I could write another post dedicated to the episode alone. What should be noted is the last twenty minutes (obviously). Those last twenty minutes were some of the finest twenty minutes the show has ever produced! There was a car chase except with much more emotional depth and fraught tension! There was an incredible gunfight! But the most notable thing about the episode, is the lead up to that explosive shootout.

What’s interesting is that there was silence. Silence, is something that Breaking Bad excels at, more than any other television show. The silence was totally unpredictable coming from MacLaren, but as usual, she knocked it out of the park. Instead of serving as necessary lead up to the gut-punch that followed, the moment was incredibly emotionally satisfying. It was beautifully shot, fabulously staged, and had so much to it. MacLaren made the silence the most important aspect of an already vitally important episode.

But, Breaking Bad isn’t all murder, mayhem, and melancholly. The show can be fun, especially in it’s wonderful montages. And it just happens that MacLaren has directed the show’s best montage. In the (unembeddable) montage from “Gliding Over All,” MacLaren radically changes what we about know Breaking Bad. The montage, set to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” glides through months and months of time, an unprecedented move in the universe of Breaking Bad. But, MacLaren’s direction of the montage makes it seem like a regular Breaking Bad montage, and even a necessary Breaking Bad montage. Everything about the montage is so fundamentally wrong, and goes against everything Breaking Bad stands for, but it turns out that it’s the best montage the show has ever produced. And it just so happens that MacLaren is nominated for an Emmy for her work in this episode, and there would be no greater send-off gift.

MacLaren might not seem like the key to Breaking Bad‘s greatness, but she really is. The scripts are almost always great, and the acting is often the best on television, but what makes Breaking Bad works is it’s execution. And boy, is MacLaren a great executor. Earlier I said that Michelle MacLaren could make a bid for the greatest working director on television, but I think that bid could be extended to any medium.

Here are some other highlights of MacLaren’s work on Breaking Bad:

  • “4 Days Out” was the first episode I really loved, and it just happens to be MacLaren’s first directed episode on Breaking Bad. Coincidence? I think not.
  • “I.F.T.” Enough Said…
  • The montage in “Shotgun” detailing Mike and Jesse’s car ride.
  • The montage of the prison killings may be sick, but it works incredibly well.
  • Skyler and Hank’s confrontation in the diner in “Buried” was again, almost too much to handle.
  • The shot of Kuby and Huell lying on the bed of money in “Buried”!
  • THAT SHOOTOUT IN THE DESERT IN THE END OF “To’hajiilee”!!!
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