Warning: SPOILERS for Knives Out and Breaking Bad ahead!
Back before his wildly divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi turned some fans against him, Rian Johnson was a far less controversial figure, probably best known for his debut Brick and the popular sci-fi flick Looper. Perhaps Rian Johnson’s biggest claim to fame though was his directorial efforts on Breaking Bad. The director’s latest film, Knives Out, may be nothing like the tale of Walter White, but the whodunit does have a scene that mirrors one in Breaking Bad.
What I wanted is to eventually get to a place where we become nervous in terms of how far Marta’s willing to go to cover her tracks. And is she willing to hit a place where she’s going to do things just as bad as what the family is doing in order to win at the end of the day. I basically gave her the Walter White choice of like watching Jesse’s girlfriend, watching Jane dying and he can do the right thing and save her or he can just be passive and do nothing.
Although the audience possesses the knowledge that Harlan’s death was an accident and are firmly in Marta’s corner, Rian Johnson wanted doubt to creep in. As he explains on Behind the Curtain, Rian Johnson wanted us to question Marta’s actions by putting her in a desperate situation that forced her to make hard choices.
At what point would the means by which Marta covered her tracks be a bridge too far for the ends to justify? So Rian Johnson mirrored Breaking Bad in Knives Out by giving Marta Cabrera a Walter White choice.
Creator Vince Gilligan always described Breaking Bad as taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface. For that transformation to happen, Walter White had to make a series of choices along the way that took him from what he was to what he would become. One of the most pivotal of those choices and one of the first times, but far from the last, that the audience didn’t take Walt’s side and began to truly see him for what he was, was the death of Jane.
When you have the power to save a life, what choice do you make? In Season 2 Episode 12 of Breaking Bad, titled Phoenix, which it should be said was not directed by Rian Johnson, Walt makes the choice to allow Jesse’s girlfriend Jane to die when it was within his power to save her. As a sleeping Jane choked on her own vomit, all Walt had to do was turn her on her side to save her life. He chose not to.
Marta faced a similar choice in Knives Out with Edi Patterson’s Fran. Rian Johnson goes on:
And that felt interesting also in that moment with Marta where she’s watching Fran die and she’s a nurse and she has a medical bag and she can save her but Fran has just told her, ‘I know it was you. I’m gonna make you pay.’
As far as Marta knew at the time, Fran had just threatened to not only expose her, but to exact some sort of vengeance on her. Like Walter White, Marta had a choice to make as Fran lay there dying. She could save the life of someone that might represent a serious and immediate threat to her freedom and well being, or she could do nothing, ignoring her instincts as a nurse to help someone in need, thereby protecting herself.
Unlike Heisenberg, Marta makes a different decision, performing CPR on Fran and calling 911, thereby saving her life. That choice tells us that there are some lengths Marta won’t go to, even to save her own life. It is in that moment that we know for sure that this choice, that none of the Thrombey family would make, validates Harlan’s decision to give Marta his fortune.