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 - EVENING
Walt’s Sentra (AZTEK) chugs into the driveway, parking behind a shiny new VOLVO SUV. Staring at the Volvo, Walt is not happy.
WALT: Oh, shit.
The front door of Walt’s house opens. Out steps a big, barrel-chested man with a bourbon in one hand. This is HANK, Walt’s brother-in-law. Hank raises his glass hello. He taps his watch and shakes his head -- you’re late.
This scene, of course, was amended in the final version to reflect the change that it’s Walt’s 50th birthday, replaced with the revelation of a surprise party. What hasn’t changed is the vertiginous reminder that Walt, at the moment, is not in control of his own fate. He’s not even in control of his own BIRTHDAY!
EXT. APPLEBEE’S - NIGHT
Deep suburbia. The shiny Volvo SUV is parked in foreground.
INT. APPLEBEE’S - NIGHT
Family night in this chain restaurant. Walt, Skyler and Walter, Jr. sit in a corner booth with Hank and his wife MARIE. Marie is Skyler’s sister. We see the resemblance.
HANK: Amir, this guy’s name is? Jesus. Call Homeland Security.
HANK: I’m serious. Call the FBI, see if he’s legal. Might not be. Ship his ass back to Camel-Land.
Hank shoots a winning grin at his nephew. Walter, Jr. snorts with delight as he chews a mouthful of hamburger.
SKYLER: (flat) I don’t know, Hank. Do they actually have camels in Iran?
MARIE: No. Horses. Arabian stallions.
HANK: Arabian what? Jesus. Camels, horses--a towel-head is a towel-head. You’re missing my...(interrupts himself)...And they’re not Arabian anyway, they’re Persian. But you’re missing my point here. This guy is treating your husband like uh, you know. Door mat. Here Walt is, got a brain the size of Wisconsin and he’s shampooing dried cum outta some teenager’s back seat?
WALT & SKYLER: Hank--
Knowing what I know of Walt’s future, it’s great to see him so censorious.
Consider this: What’s more humiliating than humiliation? Re-hashing it with the family and your Type-A, alpha-male brother-in-law over dinner.
HANK: (to Walter, Jr.) Sorry. You didn’t hear that. (to Walt) You say the word, I’ll go talk to this guy. I’ll set him straight.
Walt gives a pained little smile, shakes his head.
The great purpose this scene serves, albeit laboriously, is to set up the parameters that hedge Walt in at every corner. Hank might help Walt out with a speeding ticket, but he’s straight-shooter enough to make do-badding a little close to home.
HANK: You sure? Happy to do it.
WALT: No. Thank you. Let’s, please, let’s change the subject.
Hank shrugs and drains his beer. He winks at Walter, Jr., who grins. The teenager worships his fire-pisser uncle.
Walt can’t help but notice. Hank is everything Walt isn’t: bold, brash, confident.
Even his own son, who’s no prom king himself, doesn’t look up to Walt!
Skyler sips her white wine. Marie stares at her.
MARIE: You’re sure it’s okay to drink.
SKYLER: After the first trimester, yes. It was even in “Newsweek.”
MARIE: Well, I didn’t see that.
All around there’s a high horse staring down at you.
This part was replaced with Skyler not drinking, but Marie deflects a complement to Skyler from one of Skyler's friends, thus maintaining her high horse snootiness.
Marie disapproves. Prickly. Hank’s eyes are on the bar TV.
The above was completely replaced with a far superior scene. Rather than linger on what the audience already knows—Walt’s boss is an asshole—VG adds new dramatized characterization by having Hank hold court among partygoers while Walt plays the wallflower at his own 50th birthday.
But specifically Hank’s talking about guns. We the audience already know that Walt will, by the end of the episode, be wielding a gun, ready to shoot down the cops, but it’s fantastically dramatized when Hank forces Walt to hold his 40 caliber pistol, only to make fun of him for his meek grip on it.
A great and subtle exchange happens between Walt and Hank when Hank takes Walt’s beer from him in order to make a toast to Walt, then Hank keeps the beer and drinks it after his mildly derogatory toast. Hank is always center stage. Walt is always observing, waiting in the shadows of the wings.
HANK: Oh, hey! Turn it up!
Hank WHISTLES. The college-age BARTENDER glances at him, confused. Hank hustles over and keys up the volume on the nearest TV SET. They’re all wired together. Everybody in the restaurant, like it or not, has to listen to...
Note how Walt can’t even get a class of twenty-some-odd students to pay attention to him, while Hank hast he confidence, if not the charisma, to wrangle an entire packed-out restaurant’s attention
... The local news. HANK, the man himself, is being interviewed on television. He’s polished and official.
HANK: (ON TV) -- At which point we apprehended three individuals and placed them in custody. I’m proud to say that the outstanding professionalism shown by my fellow agents of the San Bernardino District Office resulted in a substantial quantity of methamphetamine being taken off the street.
An on-screen graphic identifies him as “AGENT HENRY WELD, D.E.A.” The real-live Hank gives a smile and a nod, not just to his family, but to everyone in the place. Such is the force of his will that strangers APPLAUD him.
Boom. VG does a great job of setting the dichotomy between Hank and Walt. Hank himself points out Walt’s “brain size” above, setting them apart intellectually, though we could’ve done that ourselves, especially with the whole Nobel prize thing. So there’s the brain versus brawn divide, even more excellently illustrated in the filmed version where Hank forces Walt to hold a gun, which makes Walt infinitely uncomfortable. But it seems like Hank needs to exert almost no energy to get applause from complete strangers in the middle of their meal when Hank can’t even get an attentive glare out of teenagers who have literally nothing else to do.
Walter, Jr. holds up a hand, which Hank high-fives.
WALTER, JR.: Damn. TV does--add ten pounds.
HANK: Ah hah-hah. Sit and spin.
Hank rubs the corner of his mouth with his middle finger, flipping off Walter, Jr. They’re like two teenagers.
Walt eats french fries and tries his best to tune everyone out. Something on TV catches his eye.
It’s the spoils of this drug bust. Laid out on a table are bags and bags of crystal meth and several guns. But also...eight big SHOEBOXES full of CASH.
So here we have it. VG sets up Walt’s NEED (self respect, respect from others, intellectual fulfillment, the feeling of being a man, a jolt of testosterone, power, etc.) which all intangible, but then by establishing this MASSIVE WANT (LOTS AND LOTS OF MONEY!) we can visualize (and the writers can make visual) the journey he’s about to go on. Had VG not given Walt a concrete goal and just left Marvin Milquetoast to fight for respect, there would be nothing to hold on to.
Walt chews his food, watches. Despite himself...
WALT: Hank? How much money is that?
HANK: Almost seven hundred thousand. Pretty good haul.
The TV lingers on fat rolls of $20s rubber-banded together. It’s more currency than Walt has ever seen outside of a heist movie. He’s surprised.
WALT: That’s got to be unusual, right? That kind of cash?
HANK: Mmm. Not the most we ever took. (to the room) There’s no deficit of total morons in the drug trade. And they can make a ton of money, too. At least until we catch ‘em. But we catch ‘em eventually.
Well if a total moron can do it!
Hank flashes his great smile around the room. He notes Walt’s continued interest in the news report. Likes it.
HANK: Walt, just say the word and I’ll take you on a ride-along. You can watch us knock down a meth lab. (good-natured) ‘Less that’s too much excitement for you.
Walt forces a pained grin and shrugs -- maybe someday.
So VG set up an EXISTENTIAL NEED and a TANGIBLE WANT, which sets up a future for Walt, but only a slight one. He’s not over the edge yet. He’d like to quit his second job and still afford a hot water heater, but he’s not yet considering cooking meth as a way to get there.
Again, here Walt doesn’t own the scene. It’s Hank, who has stronger, more immediate wants, who overshadows Walt.
It seems that TV plays substantially looser than film. In a movie, by the 12th scene, Walt would already be tracking down Jesse Pinkman and buying supplies. The benefit of TV is that you can afford the time to have fun and loose scenes like this where Walt doesn’t play first fiddle and you can establish the world and circumstances.