Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Bottle Test

with 33 comments

Earlier this year, while watching the entire run of Breaking Bad for the first time, I finally saw “Fly,” which is generally considered to be one of the show’s definitive episodes. It takes place almost entirely in the secret meth lab, as Walt and Jesse go to increasingly elaborate—and dangerous—lengths to kill a pesky fly that ends up symbolizing everything that has gone wrong with both of their lives. And while the conceit was divisive at time, I think it’s easily one of the strongest episodes of the series, and more riveting than many of the show’s busier, more conventionally plotted installments. Part of this is because it focuses squarely on its two most compelling characters, without the digressions to relatively weaker players like Skyler or Marie who tend to sap the momentum. But it’s also a reflection of the inherent strength of one of the most fascinating conventions of episodic television, a form of storytelling that, at its best, offers us nothing less than a distilled version of the shows we love: the bottle episode.

A bottle episode, as viewers of the “Cooperative Calligraphy” episode of Community or the nerds on TV Tropes already know, is an episode of a television series that takes place mostly on one set, and often with only the show’s regular cast. Bottle episodes are usually a budgetary measure, born out of a need to save time or money, but as is often the case when constraints are imposed, the results can be remarkable. My own favorite example is the X-Files episode “Ice,” which, aside from a couple of establishing scenes, takes place entirely in an abandoned research base in Alaska. The result seems designed to economize in more ways than one—the plot is essentially an extended riff on The Thing—but it’s also the first great episode of the series, and one of the best the show ever did. It established the fact that the show’s true strengths had nothing to do with elaborate conspiracies or special effects, but with the ingenious working out of tense, surprising premises. And it’s no accident that the show’s storytelling became immediately more confident after “Ice” established what the series could really do.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’d argue that the ability to deliver a great bottle episode is a measure of a show’s quality. Only a show with supreme confidence in its cast, its premise, the technical qualities of its writing and direction, and a willingness to embrace constraint and simplicity can pull off an episode like this. And if we apply this hypothetical test to an actual show, the resulting thought experiment tells us a lot about the series in question. It’s hard to imagine a show like Glee, for instance, with its obsession with burning through ideas and plotlines as quickly as possible, generating the necessary focus to keep its primary cast in a room for forty minutes while still keeping our attention. (“Blame It On the Alcohol” is a great example of a potentially promising bottle episode that chickens out halfway through.) Conversely, while Mad Men has never done a true bottle episode—“The Suitcase” probably comes closest—the prospect of keeping these characters in a single location is undeniably enticing.

Which only demonstrates that part of the appeal of the bottle episode is that it’s really an allegory for the act of making television itself. Any television series, after all, really amounts to a bottle episode being played out in real life over the course of many seasons: it involves a group of actors, writers, and other professionals thrown together on a few standing sets, often without a lot of advance preparation, so that it’s anyone’s guess what will come next. This is especially true of comedy, in which the dynamics present in the pilot will often evolve in ways that nobody could have anticipated at the time: a secondary character will turn into a breakout star, supporting players will fall flat or rise to the occasion, and unusual pairings and combinations will arise under the endless pressure of producing new stories. The more interesting the ensuing collisions, the better the show will be. And none of this would happen if the process weren’t already taking place in a bottle—and unfolding before our eyes.

Note: If this is your first time here, please take a moment to visit my author page and learn a bit about my novel The Icon Thief.

Written by nevalalee

August 14, 2012 at 10:02 am

33 Responses

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  1. I concur

    Excellent observation….

    P.S. I was drawn here by the words ” the bottle” I have a short that I’m currently writing entitled just that and it occurs (technically) in a bottle environment

    Serendipity perhaps…

    sagacitygnosis

    August 15, 2012 at 1:10 pm

  2. I love Community, and I love shows that test the “norm” of storytelling in ways like bottle episodes. Any show that can surprise audiences has got to have some merit!

    TravelingByTaste

    August 15, 2012 at 1:13 pm

  3. I really MUST start watching Breaking Bad. Too many people keep telling me how amazing it is — and I do love talented storytellers — and the tales they tell! “Fly” sounds like a compelling, symbolic tale.

    Great analysis of a bottle episode here…love it!

    Mikalee Byerman

    August 15, 2012 at 1:13 pm

  4. just saw “fly” this past weekend!

    healthygirlandthecity

    August 15, 2012 at 2:04 pm

  5. I love this show. I thought the “Fly” episode was just ok… I would probably put it as one of my least fav episode list. I just felt it drug on too long, it was almost annoying to watch.

    vincemiller

    August 15, 2012 at 2:18 pm

  6. I wasn’t aware of the term “bottle episode”, so thanks for the explanation! The reference to Breaking Bad is what caught my attn, as I just started watching every season a few months ago. I’m almost caught up with this new season. Love it, and I love knowing that “Fly” was a bottle episode.

  7. I appreciate a good bottle episode, but the Breaking Bad one completely slowed down the action. I see how it was important. I was very upset with it though.

    Bottle episodes feel more gooder when they’re comedies. Community had a pretty good one.

    Mooselicker

    August 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm

  8. I love Breaking Bad, but I did not see this episode in such depth. I was so focussed on the next action scene. So now I feel a challenged to watch this again and see it from your point of view. Thanks.

    akamissi

    August 15, 2012 at 3:40 pm

  9. thanks man, I appreciate the learning something new everyday vibe!

    I’ve never heard breaking bad so thoroughly dissected! Nice article I enjoyed it =)

    If anyone would care to follow me! I’m an aspiring author looking for lit crit! please read and be honest,

    Namaste

    groovyscone.wordpress.com

    groovyscone

    August 15, 2012 at 4:13 pm

  10. Thanks, everyone! Really enjoying the comments so far, and I’m glad to see that so many people liked the post.

    I’m especially interested in the comments from viewers who weren’t that impressed by “Fly.” At the time, it was a controversial episode, and I can see why it isn’t to everyone’s taste. That said, it would have been all but unwatchable if the show hadn’t established its characters so completely. Even as bottle episodes go, it’s pretty extreme, and the fact that it succeeds at all is a huge testament to the show’s creative staff, and especially to Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul.

    nevalalee

    August 15, 2012 at 4:17 pm

  11. One terriffic bottle episode that came ot mind the moment I started reading this post: Intersections In Real Time from Babylon 5, arguably one of the strongest episodes in the series.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersections_in_Real_Time

    Jim Adcock

    August 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm

  12. Excellent blog, I really enjoyed your insight. Keep up the good work. Please visit http://www.mynutritioninsight.com for information and disease prevention and healthy food and drink recipes.

    monalisasurvives

    August 15, 2012 at 4:37 pm

  13. Bottle episodes as a kind of litmus test for the quality of a series . . . yup, I like that. Breaking Bad is a phenomenal show. I was lucky enough to sit about 5 rows from the stage during the Breaking Bad panel at Comic Con this year. UN-real.

    californiacurls

    August 15, 2012 at 4:56 pm

  14. Great post. FRIENDS did almost one bottle episode every season and those were generally regarded as their best episodes. That could be because they often involved flashbacks with the characters as their comical former selves though. They’re some of my favorites no matter the reason. Oh and I love that episode of Community. Very successful example.

    theyellowranger

    August 15, 2012 at 5:06 pm

  15. I love bottle episodes, and you’ve just named two of my favorite shows already. Upon thinking about it, Firefly’s last episode was basically a bottle episode.

    rachelannpierce

    August 15, 2012 at 5:55 pm

  16. F yeah Walter White! <3
    I understood "Fly" after some thinking and research, but I found that episode to be dull. I'm excited that this season of Breaking Bad is getting into the real good stuff!

    Nicole

    August 15, 2012 at 9:01 pm

  17. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad and I’ve been predicting what would happen next as each episodes starts. This is so hyped up as a great show. Instead it’s filled with characters that you stop giving a shit about it. The Fly episode is a typical bottle episode for that series. An episode that makes you so bored that you want the entire lab to blow up and everyone die. Anything less is failure.

    The only thing thats BB has in common with Mad Men is both leads have bitch wives

    Don Draper's Secretary

    August 15, 2012 at 9:33 pm

  18. Seinfeld had a couple of ‘bottle’ episodes of a sort: the Chinese restaurant and the parking garage.

    Christopher Hurt

    August 15, 2012 at 9:37 pm

  19. Nice one… Impressed “FLY”!

    GG

    August 16, 2012 at 2:00 am

  20. Whoohoo! I’m so happy toat “Co-operative Calligraphy” got a mention, it’s one of my favourite Community episodes (though it’s a long list). Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!

    amb

    August 16, 2012 at 7:54 am

  21. damn! i was really interested in reading this but i can’t because i only started breaking bad last week! i’ll come back when i’m done, i’m only on season 2! x

    littlecitybot

    August 16, 2012 at 8:30 am

  22. @littlecitybot – I’m only on season 2 as well (finished second ep last night), but dared to read the post anyway, and i don’t regret it – IMHO no spoilers in the post, or the comments 9so far).

    Jim Adcock

    August 16, 2012 at 8:34 am

  23. I was also glad Breaking Bad had a bottle episode because the set-up is so perfect for it. The very process of cooking forces the two main characters to spend relatively long stretches of time with just each other’s company, particularly in the ‘mobile cook’ days of the first couple of series. They’ve had some great conversations in that time, like ‘4 days out’ when Jesse accidentally drained the battery of the RV in the desert – it brought all their issues and feelings to the surface, right before Walter learned he was in remission. I love how these two contrasting characters riff off each other, and Breaking Bad is so good at using their relationship to develop each character. Great series, great post! Thanks!

    debbiedoesdoodles

    August 16, 2012 at 9:00 am

  24. so much for the lack of spoilers….

    Jim Adcock

    August 16, 2012 at 9:37 am

  25. @Jim: Don’t worry—it’s not as big a spoiler as it seems!

    nevalalee

    August 16, 2012 at 9:46 am

  26. I remember that episode. Strange but good. Breking Bad finish this season. Very good stuff

    havelka78

    August 16, 2012 at 10:28 am

  27. Very Good Insights. http://www.fireicemagazine.com

    FireIceEditrix

    August 16, 2012 at 10:59 am

  28. “The Honeymooners” with Jackie Gleason was done almost entirely in that one room/kitchen. Occasional trips outside, but not often. FUNNY and Genius Jackie Gleason.

    sueannporter1

    August 16, 2012 at 12:43 pm

  29. The Goodies episode “The End” — the one where they’d spent all their budget already, so made up a script where the premise was they’d literally been walled into their office (Graeme’s fault). The most truly bottled bottle episode? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_(The_Goodies)

    I don’t think I’ve seen a single one of the other episodes mentioned above… guess I don’t watch enough TV.

    Darren Goossens

    August 18, 2012 at 6:55 am

  30. @Darren: That sounds like a classic example—I’ll need to check it out.

    nevalalee

    August 18, 2012 at 5:15 pm

  31. Very delayed response, but… SO sorry Jim! That dull sound you hear faintly in the distance is me smacking my forehead with a ‘DOH!’. Not sure how that total brain freeze happened there, sorry about the spoiler.

    debbiedoesdoodles

    August 21, 2012 at 10:54 am

  32. I think I’ll survive knowing he’s gone into remission before I get there in the plot (I mean, it makes sense, or else the series would be a LOT shorter…) Just ironic that it was in the reply immediately after I said there hadn’t been spoilers in the comments so far… :-)

    Jim Adcock

    August 21, 2012 at 11:11 am

  33. Indeed! Well as has been suggested, it isn’t a major spoiler, so hopefully hasn’t spoiled the next season or so for you… I’ll leave the major spoilers until a reasonable amount of time has passed and then post a quick synopsis of all the most dramatic climaxes on your blog ;)

    debbiedoesdoodles

    August 21, 2012 at 11:22 am


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