In which I attempt to better understand the art of writing through the slow process of close reading, in this case, episodes of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
EXT. COW PASTURE - DAY
Deep blue sky overhead. Fat, scuddy clouds. Below them, black and white cows graze the rolling hills. This could be one of those California “It’s The Cheese” commercials.
Except those commercials don’t normally focus on cow shit. We do. TILT DOWN to a fat, round PATTY drying olive drab in the sun. Flies buzz. Peaceful and quiet. Until...
... ZOOOM! WHEELS plow right through the shit with a SPLAT. NEW ANGLE - AN RV
This might seem unimportant or obvious, but check out how VG sets up immediate conflict between the setting and the characters. He could’ve jumped right inside the RV, but instead he took an opportunity for juxtaposition, which makes it that much more strange.
And he starts with action! Movement! And we must follow.
Also note that the way he describes things plants us firmly in the era. Mentioning the “It’s the Cheese” commercials plops us into an unmistakable contemporary suburbia, even though we’re in an empty desert. Had he jumped right into the RV with Walt in a gas mask, we might think for a second of Mad Max.
Is speeding smack-dab through the pasture, no road in sight. A bit out of place, to say the least. It’s an old 70’s era Winnebago with chalky white paint and Bondo spots. A bumper sticker for the Good Sam Club is stuck to the back.
Another range of references that make for an amusing juxtaposition. I think this is the essence of conflict as it is the essence of comedy.
The Winnebago galumphs across the landscape, scattering cows. It catches a wheel and sprays a rooster tail of red dirt.
I’m just gonna spitball everything I can think of w/r/t pulling things apart, even if they seem so obvious as to be idiotic:
Here’s a question worth asking before any slug: Why should I keep reading? In this case it’s obvious. What the hell is the RV tearing ass away from? What’s the panic? That’s a good reason for starting with frantic action.
What’s the WANT of this chunklet? the RV wants to get somewhere. It’s pretty simple.
INT. WINNEBAGO - DAY
Inside, the DRIVER’s knuckles cling white to the wheel. He’s got the pedal flat. Scared, breathing fast. His eyes bug wide behind the faceplate of his gas mask.
Oh, by the way, he’s wearing a GAS MASK. That, and white jockey UNDERPANTS. Nothing else.
Now we’ve got a crazy person to worry about. The dude sets up some serious questions. Not only is he dressed like a crazy person, but he’s having difficulty driving and the fog in his gas mask is worrisome because he’s driving a cumbersome vehicle.
Buckled in the seat beside him lolls a clothed PASSENGER, also wearing a gas mask. Blood streaks down from his ear, blotting his T-shirt. He’s passed out cold.
What happened to that guy?
Behind them, the interior is a wreck. Beakers and buckets and flasks -- some kind of ad-hoc CHEMICAL LAB -- spill their noxious contents with every bump we hit. Yellow-brown liquid washes up and down the floor. It foams in a scum around...
... Two DEAD BODIES. Two freshly deceased Mexican guys tumble like rag dolls, bumping into each other.
So now we have a slew of questions that we’re at least curious about even if we’re not consciously asking them:
1. What are they running from?
2. Why the gas masks?
3. Why the chemical lab?
4. Is the passenger dead?
5. Who killed those two guys? Whoever it was, are they coming after the driver and passenger? What kind of war is this?
6. Is the driver actually deft and unbothered enough to not wreck this thing?
Completing this picture is the blizzard of MONEY. A Von’s bag lies leaking twenties. Fifteen, twenty grand in cash wafts around in the air or floats in the nasty brown soup.
Loads of money always raise the stakes.
CLOSE on the driver’s eyes. He’s panting like a steam engine. His mask FOGS UP until finally he can’t see.
Why keep reading? Because of all the above worries, of course, but VG closes with the most active worry: the fogged up mask and the risk of wrecking this hunk of metal.
What’s the WANT of this chunklet? This guy wants to clear himself of some serious misstep or mistake and whatever is pursuing him.
What the OBSTACLE? His buddy is passed out. He’s got a lot of things to deal with. His mask is fogging. He can’t drive this thing.
EXT. COW PASTURE - CONTINUOUS
The Winnebago comes roaring over a berm and down into a deep gully. Too deep. BAM! The front bumper bottoms out, burying itself. WAAAAAAH! The rear wheels spin air.
The engine cuts off. Silence again. The Winnie’s door kicks open and out stumbles underpants man. He yanks off his gas mask, lets it drop.
He’s forty years old. Receding hairline. A bit pasty. He’s not a guy who makes a living working with his hands. He’s not a guy we’d pay attention to if we passed him on the street. But right now, at this moment, in this pasture? Right now, we’d step the fuck out of his way.
This is probably not the kind of guy we expected in the RV.
I apologize for being so obvious all the time.
Underpants man looks at the RV. End of the line for that. He listens hard. Out of the silence, we hear...SIRENS.
Now we’ve got a pretty good suspicion of what he was running from. So now we’ve got Marvin Milquetoast with three dead bodies, a fume-infused RV, and thousands of dollars in wet cash.
They’re faint, a few miles off -- but growing louder. Our guy knows he’s boned with a capital B. He HOLDS HIS BREATH and leaps back inside the RV.
What’s the plan!? Certainly not driving that thing. It’s toxic and destroyed.
What’s the WANT of this chunklet? Hard to narrow down because there are so many worries piled up, but it can pretty much be summed up in just wanting to get away.
INT. WINNEBAGO - CONTINUOUS
A chrome 9mm is clutched in the hand of one of the dead Mexicans. Underpants grabs it, tucks it in his waistband.
His unconscious passenger, still strapped in his seat, lets out a groan. Underpants leans past him, yanks open the glove box. He comes up with a WALLET and a tiny Sony CAMCORDER.
The passenger is alive! For all the tension that’s been building, we’ve now got perhaps a glimmer of hope. That he’s wearing a gas mask aligns him with the driver, so this could be a good thing. Except that Underpants seems to be heading for the hills.
What’s the WANT of this chunklet? He’s got things to grab, but the obstacle is that the RV is filled with toxic fumes related to the wrecked chem lab.
EXT. COW PASTURE - CONTINUOUS
Ducking outside, he starts breathing again. A short sleeve DRESS SHIRT on a hanger dangles from the Winnebago’s awning. Underpants pulls it on. He finds a clip-on tie in the pocket, snaps it to his collar. No trousers, unfortunately.
He licks his fingers, slicks his hair down with his hands. He’s looking almost pulled together now -- at least from the waist-up. All the while, the sirens are getting LOUDER.
At this point we might be wondering why he’s so concerned with appearances. I guess who would want to go to jail in their tighties?
But he does have a concrete want: to fix the fact of his near nudity.
OBSTACLE? No pants.
Underpants figures out how to turn on the camcorder. He twists the little screen around so he can see himself in it. Framing himself waist-up, he takes a moment to gather his thoughts... then presses RECORD.
The following is a fun little device to use to give someone a monologue without it seeming Shakespearean.
UNDERPANTS MAN: My name is Walter Hartwell White. I live at 308 Belmont Avenue, Ontario, California 91764. I am of sound mind. To all law enforcement entities, this is not an admission of guilt. I’m speaking now to my family. (swallows hard) Skyler... you are... the love of my life. I hope you know that. Walter Junior. You’re my big man. I should have told you things, both of you. I should have said things. But I love you both so much. And our unborn child. And I just want you to know that these... things you’re going to learn about me in the coming days. These things. I just want you to know that...no matter what it may look like... I had all three of you in my heart.
This is great. This is excellent. This man has higher stakes than just money and a passed-out buddy. He’s a family man. With an unborn child.
What he wants is to be safe at home with his family and for all of this dead-body nonsense to disappear. He wants to be understood.
Walt is also telling us right up front one of his greatest character flaws, which he’s facing in this moment of stress, but—once the moment has passed—will continue to ignore or justify.
AND it’s now pretty much confirmed that this guy is not some seasoned criminal who’s used to driving around with dead bodies, though we probably could’ve known that from his driving and panicking and that he’s just in underwear, which fact doesn’t logically confirm anything but gives us the impression of a schmuck.
The sirens are WAILING now, on top of us. WALTER WHITE, the underpants man, turns off the camcorder. He carefully sets it on a bare patch of ground by his feet. Next to it he sets his wallet, lying open where it can be seen.
He knows he’s going to lose this showdown. This is a bad decision. He wants out of all of this, but now the obstacle is a load of police in the distance.
CLOSE ON the wallet -- a photo ID card is visible. Walt’s smiling face is on it. It identifies him as a teacher at J.P. Wynne High School, Ontario Unified School District.
Walt pulls the chrome pistol from the back of his waistband, aiming it across the tall weeds. It glints hard in the sun.
Flashing red LIGHT BARS speed into view, skimming the tops of the weeds. Heading straight for us.
But it’s also absolutely fascinating that this guy who just used a camcorder to weepily say his last words, directed to his wife and kids, is also the guy who will stand in the middle of the road in his underwear holding a handgun at the ready for oncoming law enforcement.
Walt stands tall in his underpants, not flinching. Off him, ready to shoot the first cop he sees...
And what this decision does for the tension is incredible. How differently would we feel if Walt walked into the road with his hands up? While what Walt does makes very little logical sense—really, what does he think he’s going accomplish?—it makes total emotional sense. This guy wants out, and goddammit, he’s going to get out!
So this is just day one. I hope to get better and more insightful. I didn’t come in with a set of criteria or questions I definitely wanted to ask of the scene other than WANT, OBSTACLE, and WHY KEEP READING. The list will grow and be refined, I’m sure.