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.
If anyone cares to read along and discuss, that would be amazing.
No president ever slept here. No millionaire ever visited. This is a three-bedroom RANCHER in a modest neighborhood. Weekend trips to Home Depot keep it looking tidy, but it’ll never make the cover of “Architectural Digest.”
We’re in Ontario, California -- the Inland Empire. LEGEND: “ONE MONTH EARLIER.”
Obviously it was switched to Albuquerque because of the tax incentive.
INT. WHITE HOUSE - MASTER BEDROOM - NIGHT
Dark and silent. SKYLER WHITE, late 30s, sleeps peacefully. Beside her, her husband Walter is wide awake.
Walt reaches over and presses a button on his Sharper Image alarm clock. It projects the time in glowing blue numbers on the cottage cheese ceiling: 5:02 AM.
Walt lies motionless. Brain churning. He presses the button again, staring straight up. 5:02 turns to 5:03.
Close enough. Walt rises without waking his wife. He exits.
WANT: To go back to sleep.
OBSTACLE: It’s too late to go back to sleep and too early to be awake. (I know that feeling well.)
COMPLETION: He gets up, i.e. He doesn’t get what he wants. This will not be the only scene wherein Walt doesn’t get what he wants.
INT. WHITE HOUSE - SPARE BEDROOM - NIGHT
We hear an o.s. SQUEAK-SQUEAK as we drift through this room. We pass an empty crib, Pampers, a baby monitor still in its box. There’s going to be a new addition to the family.
We come upon the source of the SQUEAKING. It’s Walt balanced on a Lillian Vernon stair-stepper, just three easy payments of $29.95. Walt plods up and down in the darkness like he’s marching to Bataan.
Glad I decided to watch the episodes I pull apart as well as reading them. Notice that this scene-let MIGHT have tangible wants (to get healthier, to wake up with activity) but it doesn’t have an obstacle or a completion.
In the filmed version, Walt notices hanging on the wall—in what probably was his office and is now being converted to a baby room—an award for his contribution to Nobel-prize winning research. Looking at it, he gets off the stair-stepper.
So in that version his WANT is to feel good/better about himself.
His OBSTACLE is his own pathetic means and methods.
And his COMPLETION is to realize that what he’s doing is futile.
In J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, in which a self-contained luxury high rise breaks down into class warfare, following one of the main characters from the lower levels to the luxury suites up top, Ballard’s narrator remarks that no amount of hours logged on a stair stepper would’ve prepared him for these actual stairs. This is Walt’s transition exactly.
INT. WHITE HOUSE - BATHROOM - NIGHT
Walt sits down on the edge of the tub. We’re watching his face in the bathroom mirror. He masturbates. Judging by his expression, he might as well be waiting in line at the DMV.
Walt double-takes, catching sight of himself. Distracted, he examines the sallow bagginess under his eyes. He draws at the loose skin under his chin.
Staring at himself long and hard, Walt loses his erection. He gives up trying, pulls up his sweat pants.
This was also cut from the final version, and I think with good reason.
First, Lester Burnham already owns this depressing tableau of aging suburban male.
And second, later in the episode he loses a boner while Skyler tries to give him a hand job, which gives his impotence a far more potent dramatizing.
EXT. WHITE HOUSE - NIGHT
INT. WHITE HOUSE - KITCHEN - MORNING
Walt is dressed for work -- Dockers and a short-sleeve dress shirt courtesy of Target. An American flag pin on his tie. He and Skyler eat their breakfast in silence.
Another great rewrite on this scene.
Walt’s cough is evidently persistent and has been around a while. Skyler comments, “Did you take your echinacea?” Everything in this scene is designed to emasculate and domesticate. Foreshadow Walt’s diagnosis.
Since we don’t get Walt’s cancer diagnosis until much later in the episode, it helps to have a ma nishtana or “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”
Today is Walt’s 50th birthday, visualized with crappy veggie bacon arranged in the shape of the numerals of his new age.
This smashed against the preceding frustrated exercise scene makes for a very depressing birthday. The visual accrual of facts here makes the stakes visceral: an aging, underpaid, frustrated genius versus just an old schlub with a hard-on problem.
Skyler glances up, sees Walt puzzling over his bacon.
SKYLER: Sizzle-Lean. We need to think about our cholesterol.
Skyler’s cute in a way most guys wouldn’t have noticed back in high school. But not soft-cute. Not in the eyes.
She’s dressed for staying home -- she’s five months pregnant and just beginning to show.
SKYLER: When’ll you be home?
WALT: Same time.
SKYLER: I don’t want him dicking you around tonight. You get paid till six, you work till six. Not seven.
This gives a tiny little setup to the surprise party coming Walt’s way.
Seventeen year-old WALTER, JR. enters the kitchen, dressed for school, hair still damp from the shower. The CLICK... CLICK of his forearm crutches precedes him into the room.
Walt and Skyler’s son is a sweet-faced teenager who appears to have cerebral palsy. He moves slowly and awkwardly, and grinds his teeth as he labors to talk. But he’s a smart kid.
Just seating himself at the table is a trial for Walter, Jr. His parents don’t give him the slightest help. They treat him as if he were able-bodied, which is how he wants it.
SKYLER: You’re late.
As you might’ve guessed, I’m a big fan of how this scene turned out, though the pieces are all basically here. There’s more banter in this scene’s final version.
Walt Jr complains about lack of hot water and tells his mom—though it’s indirectly at his father, the bread-winner, since his mom is a pregnant stay-at-home—to buy a new hot-water heater: this foreshadows the Whites’ MONEY PROBLEMS.
There’s also more of a warm rapport between parents and son, more familiarity, good-fun sarcasm, which equals Walt Jr being more of a character than an object of pity.
He shrugs. She gets up, serves him breakfast. Walter, Jr. squints at the plate she plops down before him.
WALTER, JR.: What’s--that?
SKYLER: Sizzle-lean. We’re watching our cholesterol.
WALTER, JR.: Not--me! I want--bacon!
SKYLER: Eat it.
Walter, Jr. picks at his breakfast, annoyed.
WALTER, JR.: What’s this--even--made of?!
He looks to his dad for backup. Walt shrugs, ambivalent.
WALT: Eat it.
Walt doesn’t have a definite, tangible want in this scene other than to please (or appease) his wife. He’s having a deflated morning. We might infer that he actually wants real bacon, but the part of him that wants to improve his lot in life succumbs to veggie bacon. Like the stair-stepper to actual stairs—complacent stasis compared to actual progress.
Instead Skyler's and Walt Jr’s wants override Walt Sr’s.
Skyler wants domestic bliss and health—we might imagine this impulse is bolstered by a late pregnancy. Walt acquiesces—he’s Mr Crackers, remember—so VG uses Walt Jr as Skyler’s obstacle.
His youthful defiance is, at least at this mild starting point, Walt’s Id and Skyler, with her veggie bacon and stair stepper, is his Superego.
This sequence, especially in its filmed version, is a perfect lesson in how to deal with a down-on-his-luck, unmotivated, castrated character: let the two extremes of his personality fight around him.
If you want to paint blue but don’t have any blue, paint red and green.