In which I attempt to better understand the art of scene writing through a close reading of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
INT. ER - EXAM ROOM - DAY
This scene actually takes place in the ambulance that is rushing Walt to the hospital. Walt actually asks the EMT to let him off at the street corner so he can walk home. Again, Walt requests control, is rejected, and he concedes defeat.
Walt is conscious, seems okay. He sits in a blue paper gown, legs dangling off an exam table. He’s alone, waiting. Absently tapping the table. He’s been here for hours.
This is not unlike the helpless Walt from the beginning of Act One, alone in a dark room.
Muffled RINGING. Walt reaches for his pants, fishes out his cellphone. “HOME” is yet again displayed on the readout. Walt considers, answers it.
WALT: Hey. (a beat) Yeah, sorry. I had it turned off. I was, uh... (a beat) Yeah, probably about an hour or so.
Amid the bustle out in the hall, two ER DOCTORS stand conferring. They’re looking at blood chemistry results -- first one man studies them, then the other. When one of them glances back our way, we realize they’re talking about Walt.
Walt sees this. He can’t hear what they’re saying, but it looks weighty. Walt is anxious. However, he doesn’t let it come through in his voice.
Note that the scene doesn’t start with a want. Presumably he wants to leave the hospital, but that is in no way communicated to the audience. He seems to have no opinion either way, unless egged by the desires of his wife.
What the ER doctors’ presence does is create a sense of worry and anticipation for Walt. Now we need to know what’s going on. He goes from helpless stasis to helpless anticipation, which is a more dramatically powerful place to be.
WALT: I’m at Caltech. I ran into an old professor, we got to talking. I should be home in about an hour. Okay.
This is also telling of Walt’s character and yet another good reason to cut what VG did of Hank’s babbling on about Walt’s work miseries. Walt would not have shared that information. He’s a cards-close-to-the-chest kind of guy.
Walt clicks off. He looks again to the doctors in the hall.
One man nods to the other, walks off. The remaining doctor puts on his bedside smile and enters Walt’s room.
DOCTOR: Sorry for the wait. You can put your clothes back on.
Walt climbs off the table, steps into his pants.
WALT: I’ve had it before. Low blood sugar. Stood up too fast.
He’s fishing. The doctor doesn’t saying anything, just fills out a form. Walt pulls on his shirt, buttons it.
Create anticipation and put your characters in a position to resolve that anticipation at any moment, but withhold! Like good sex.
WALT: Guess I should’ve had breakfast this morning.
DOCTOR: There’s a specialist I’d like you to see. His name is Dr. Belknap. I should have his...card here somewhere. Yes.
The doctor finds a business card, hands it to Walt. Walt stands in his socks, staring at the card for a long beat.
DOCTOR: (forced breezy) It’s probably absolutely nothing.
This reveal, suspected cancer, is okay, but it’s all dialogue, no visual storytelling, short-circuiting the real power of filmed storytelling. Instead of a slamming cards on the table, these are gingerly flipped.
The phone call is great and all, but it dodges the center of the action: What’s happening to Walt? And it doesn’t reveal a key trait of Walt’s: absolute secrecy.
We already know he’s pussy-whipped, so we don’t need to see him kowtowing to his wife’s schedule. This is an added benefit, which I now see, to changing the previous scene to taking place at the carwash. His work schedule accounts for the time that he’s at the hospital, will make his getting home when he does a usual hour. (We’re going to have to suspend our disbelief regarding the speediness of his MRI.)
What actually happens is Walt sits in the ambulance talking to the EMT:
The EMT fusses over gadgets and stethoscopes and medical doodads.
WALT: This is so embarrassing. I am fine. Honestly. It’s just some bug going around. First my wife had it, then my son, and now me. It’s just like a chest cold. Could be low blood sugar as well. I didn’t have the greatest breakfast. Hey can you do me a favor, can you just drop me off at a corner somewhere.
As opposed to the above scene, we start immediately with a big fat WANT: Walt wants to squeeze out of this tight spot.
This ramble is a great example of building anticipation through selective silence and action. The EMT is busy because something isn’t quite right, and Walt’s nervous chattering paired with the EMT’s lack of response add up to increasing worry as Walt goes on. Punctuated by the EMT’s curt response:
EMT: Uh, no. Sorry.
WALT: It’s just I don’t have the greatest insurance.
EMT: Take a couple of deep breaths.
Walt takes three hacking labored breaths.
Okay, something is in fact wrong. In screenwriting-speak we can expand the definition of "visual storytelling" or "image" to include actions and good acting.
So, from a writing perspective, Walt's coughing and wheezing is visual storytelling.
The opposite would be a complaint and explication of symptoms and me falling asleep and never writing this series because Breaking Bad wouldn't have gotten the green light with such sloppy writing.
Luckily, VG is far better than that.
EMT: Is there anyone you want us to contact for you?
WALT: (chuckles) God no.
Wowzers! This is a side of Walt we haven’t seen. The side that keeps his worries, emotions, and (soon to be myriad) secrets to himself.
It makes sense: his wife is such a frazzled worrywart, who would want to alert that beehive?
EMT: Lean forward for me, would ya?
EMT listens to Walt’s breathing, stethoscope to his back.
EMT: Mr White are you a smoker?
WALT: No. Never. Why do you ask?
Long pause on Walt. Long pause on EMT. Longer, closer pause of Walt.
CUT TO: Walt zipping into an MRI.
It’s amazing how good visuals and editing can slap you with new information without speaking directly.
WANT: Get out of the ambulance and not pay any medical bills. It’d be nice if my wife never heard about this.
NEED: Power. He’s powerless, and he wants control of his destiny. The medical community won’t allow this. His insurance company won't allow this. His piddling pay at his two jobs won't allow this. He's being tossed around in the system, which makes good sense why he would duck out and take over the underworld outside the system.
OBSTACLE: Something is seriously wrong. Beside, insurance or no, you are paying for this ambulance ride, buddy.
COMPLETION: And you’re paying for the MRI too sucker!