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. CALTECH CAMPUS - DAY
Old Pasadena. Wide greenbelts and dark magnolias. The sign says “Jet Propulsion Laboratory.” Einstein was a visiting professor at Caltech, once upon a time. This place looks it.
INT. JPL - DAY
MARS fills frame, stark red rocks and red sand. We PAN OFF this blow-up of Martian terrain -- we’re in a hallway mounted with two dozen such photos, big and striking.
Small in the distance stands Walt. He’s not looking at any of these photos. He’s down an adjacent hallway, staring at something else, instead.
CLOSER ANGLE - WALT
He’s studying names engraved on an old plaque. It’s a list of grad students awarded a particular research grant.
Closer. “ORGANIC CHEMISTRY, 1988 -- Walter H. White.”
Walt stares at his own name on the plaque. We can’t read his thoughts, but we can guess at them.
EXT. CALTECH CAMPUS - COFFEE STAND - DAY
An outdoor snack bar. Walt sits alone. Around him, young STUDENTS pore over textbooks or quietly type on laptops. Walt sips his coffee and stares into space.
At the nearest table, a CHINESE GUY sits with two CHINESE GIRLS. They’re laughing and talking in CANTONESE. They keep their voices low so their gossip might not be overheard -- but it’s not like we have any idea what they’re saying.
Walt takes another sip of coffee, carefully sets down the cup. He looks at his hand for a long moment.
He notices his fingers are TREMBLING slightly. He makes a fist, squeezes it tight. Opens it.
The Asian students are talking a mile-a-minute, the two girls giggling. Walt glances at them, looks back to his hand. He presses it flat against the tabletop.
UP-ANGLE -- as seen through this GLASS TOP TABLE, Walt’s fingers stick to the surface. They pull loose with a slow, gluey SLURP.
CLOSER on Walt. He rubs his mouth, sneaks his fingertips to his carotid artery just under his ear. He’s feeling his pulse. The furtive whispering in CHINESE fills his head. He’s starting to breathe faster.
His cellphone RINGS. He glances at the readout screen. “HOME,” it says. Walt silences it, tucks the phone back in his pocket.
Rapid-fire CHINESE is all we hear. Now it gets drowned out by a sudden WHOOSH that makes Walt blink. It’s the whoosh of the nearby cappuccino machine. It’s unnaturally loud, like a jet engine. Walt’s had enough. Time to go.
HIGH ANGLE - DOWN THROUGH THE TREES
Magnolia leaves sway in f.g. We’re looking down at Walt, tiny in the distance, as he rises to his feet. He makes it three steps before he COLLAPSES, flipping an empty table.
Students look up, hesitate. The Chinese guy and a couple of others rise to help. Off Walt, lying on his face...
This scene was replaced entirely with Walt passing out while dollying a 50-gallon drum of some chemical cleaner around the carwash and watching the beautiful ass of some elegant woman picking up her freshly cleaned car.
What makes the carwash scene work better than the CalTech version is the CalTech version has no object of desire.
If Act One could be called “Walt never gets respect and he never gets what he wants,” what would the best ending to that sub-episode be?
It wouldn’t focus on the rapid chatter of Cantonese, which has nothing to do with anything. That’s just a contrivance of a stressor, but it doesn’t illuminate Walt’s problems and humanity. Just that he’s in a fragile state.
The ending of “Walt never gets respect and he never gets what he wants” would be a Nobel honoree working his second job at a car wash on a Saturday passing out on the sewer grating floor as he stares longingly at a very distant beautiful woman.
WANT > OBSTACLE > COMPLETION > BLAMMO.
But note that we’re not led to believe it’s lust. In the previous scene Walt couldn’t get it up and in the final version, Walt neither masturbates nor does he hit on his co-worker. You leave in the lusty side, you’ve got Lester Burnam and the stereotype of the henpecked, domesticated, suburban American man. You take out the lust, well suddenly something more worrisome is going on.