In which I attempt to better understand the art of scene writing through a close reading of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
EXT. WHITE HOUSE - NIGHT
The lights are off. It’s late.
INT. WHITE HOUSE - MASTER BEDROOM/BATHROOM - NIGHT
Walt, dressed for bed in sweats and a t-shirt, checks himself out in the bathroom mirror. He’s not loving what he sees. He pulls at the skin under his eyes. He COUGHS a little.
In the bedroom, Skyler’s in her nightgown, sitting at the computer. She’s following the final moments of an auction on eBay. Walt pads into the room, sits down beside her.
WALT: Which one’s this?
SKYLER: (eyes on the screen) That faux-Lalique vase I picked up at the flea market.
WALT: How’s it doing?
SKYLER: I met my reserve and there’s still two minutes.
Walt nods, sits watching. Without taking her eyes off the screen, Skyler reaches over and slips a hand into Walt’s sweatpants. Walt smirks, surprised.
WALT: What’s up?
SKYLER: You tell me.
Even with his wife, Walt’s uncomfortable with sex. They’ve obviously done it in the last six months. Though that may have been the only time.
Skyler plays with him, out of sight below frame. A beat.
SKYLER: What are you doing tomorrow?
Seems facetious at first but is actually exactly how humdrum this is for them.
WALT: (shrug) Actually, I was thinking about, um. Maybe drive to Caltech.
SKYLER: You’re not gonna mow?
WALT: Yeah, I’ll mow. JPL’s got an exhibit of Mars rover photographs. Supposed to be, the detail... just really amazing. Really beautiful.
SKYLER: I just need you to mow at some point. I’d do it myself, except it always throws rocks at me. I think it needs a new bag.
WALT: I will mow. First thing.
Skyler glances at Walt’s crotch. Good-naturedly:
SKYLER: What’s going on down there? Is he asleep?
Can you get more humiliated than a perfunctory, distracted, humdrum hand job on your big 5-0? Yes. Your wife can taunt your underperforming penis.
WALT: I’m just... we gotta be careful of the baby.
Dude’s a scientist. He knows people can have sex with pregnant women. What a maroon.
What is Walt’s WANT? What I’m learning through this exercise is the attention to the quotidian that television can dramatize without needing to be goal-oriented. What screenwriting encourages is that every scene in a movie be boil-downable to WANT>OBSTACLE>COMPLETION, but there are scenes so far—this one in particular—which just hint at deficits, divots in what should be the smooth road of life, without charging dead ahead. This entire first act is largely chunklets of a very complex web of lack that add up to one great want.
SKYLER: Don’t worry about the baby. This is for you. We’re only doing you tonight.
Obscured by the computer, Skyler gives Walt a vigorous handjob with one hand and works the mouse with the other.
Oh yeah. Vigorous and distracted. So. Very. Sexy.
SKYLER: Just relax. Just... close your eyes and let it...
Skyler glances again at her husband. Apparently, there’s no mighty oak sprung from whence the lowly acorn lies.
SKYLER: Just close your eyes.
It’s funny to note that she keeps saying “close your eyes” which is equivalent to “cede control.” Walt is not a man who likes ceding control.
Walt does so, concentrating. Trying hard. Tugging away, Skyler’s attention drifts back to the computer. Completely.
Their entire marriage in miniature!
SKYLER:... That’s it. That’s... it. There you go. Keep going. Keep going. Keep it going. Keep...(reacting to the screen) Yes! Fifty-six.
Walt’s eyes open. The thrill is gone.
Nothing like an unsatisfying dry palm to make you wanna go cook meth, huh?