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 - DAWN
Early morning. A faint glow in the sky. Silence except for the THWACK... THWACK of the NEWSPAPER GUY driving past.
INT. WHITE HOUSE - KITCHEN - DAWN
Walt sits alone at the kitchen table, staring into space. Deep in thought. Considering something carefully. He rises, picks up the phone and dials. Keeps his voice low.
WALT: Hank? Hey, it’s Walt. I didn’t wake you, did I? (a beat) Good. Listen, I’ve been thinking. Could I take you up on your offer? The ride-along?
This is as good a place as any to ask an obvious question: What is a scene?
John August and Craig Mazin of Scriptnotes, if I remember hearing correctly, both contend that a scene is just something that is predicated by a new slug-line.
But if that’s true, then a spot in a movie where someone stalks from room to room looking for something is potentially dozens of scenes.
Or every time there’s an establishing shot of Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment, that too is a scene.
Maybe they were describing scene for directors and producers, in which case, yes, each one takes up oodles time and energy and consideration.
But to say that a scene is just anything that falls under a slug is a specific definition that says almost nothing.
The process of analyzing Breaking Bad is not for me to show off what I know but to inspect what I don’t know. Toggling between the original pilot and the filmed pilot is instructive because I’m seeing very deliberate edits.
If a scene is the pursuit of a desire by a central character made interesting by an obstacle and ending with one of three completions, then what makes the above scripted moment a scene?
Let’s back up:
When does a scene begin?
I’d venture to say that if the definition I’ve chosen to inherit is accurate, then “the first seconds after the cut” is about as helpful as “anything under a slug line.”
If a scene is the pursuit of a want, then the beginning of a scene, it seems, must be the first action that the central character of a particular scene takes toward his or her want.
So if you’re jonesing to make a Tarkovsky or Malick type epic, that’s wonderful, but ten minutes of bubbling brooks followed by fifteen minutes of hypnotizing wagon wheels does not a scene make.
So Walt walks in the kitchen, looks around, and calls Hank to go for a ride-along.
But if you just need function—what Mamet would despairingly call information—you could just cut to Walt in the car with Hank. There must be a reason to keep this scene. It must be an important moment when Walt realizes that he wants to go on the ride-along.
I’m not qualified to say what’s wrong with the scene as written, but I am qualified to say that what’s written on the page is different than what’s shot.
Instead of the kitchen, Walt is by the pool. The pool is Walt’s Walden. It’s where he goes to be in his head. The language of Breaking Bad will reinforce this bond between Walt and his pool throughout the series. So that’s one point for extra significance.
He’s lighting and letting burn dozens of matches, throwing them into the pool. While it hasn’t been set up that Walt feels most comfortable here, it’s safe to say that tidy, responsible homeowners like Walt don’t throw dozens of drain-clogging matches into their pools.
He watches them burn and tosses them away.
He doesn’t have a tangible want, per se, but he does have an emotional need. He wants to be comforted. The solitude comforts him. The monotony of the matches comforts him.
But suddenly the solitude and monotony cease to work as viable comforting tactics.
He finds a new tactic but holds onto the need.
Then the scene carries on basically as written, with Walt looking for comfort by breaking the solitude and monotony.
So what makes this a superior scene is that, as minor as it was, Walt was challenged and changed.
He starts with a need and tactic only to find it’s stopped working.
So he tries a new tactic.
And that carries us over into the next scene.
In the original there’s no such obstacle.
So adding to Almosting’s means of analysis is that the character must have a WANT OR EMOTIONAL NEED
So for this scene
UNDERLYING EMOTIONAL NEED: Comfort
HOW DOES HE PLAN TO GET IT? In solitude and monotony
THE OBSTACLE: The comfort of solitude and monotony wears off. He can’t bring himself to light one more match.
COMPLETION: HE CHANGES TACTICS. Time to look for comfort in something new.
THEREFORE: HE GOES ON A RIDE-ALONG TO A METH LAB BUST.