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. BLUE-COLLAR NEIGHBORHOOD - MORNING
A different morning -- these things take time to set up. We’re in a neighborhood not unlike Walt’s. A non-descript Ford is parked at the curb, blended in with the other cars.
HANK (O.S.): It’s down there on the cul-de-sac. White? Kinda redwood-looking trim?
INT. FORD - MORNING - CONTINUOUS
Hank sits behind the wheel. A subordinate agent, GOMEZ, is beside him. Hank is pointing out the TARGET HOUSE to Walt, who sits in the back seat in an ill-fitting bulletproof vest.
HANK: See it?
Tiny house, a block down the street. Not at all noteworthy.
It’s funny because I just read somewhere that movie dialogue is never just talking: it’s always some form of argument, which makes sense if each line of dialogue is an action intended to get the character closer to their want, and each character has a distinct set of desires. Even if they’re aligned in their basic desires, they have different ideas.
So in the script we have basic exposition. Nothing special. In the final product, Hank and Gomez quibble over the name of the color of the house, then they quibble about knowing the name of the color of the house. We get characters going after a thing rather than characters spoon-feeding each other information.
Hank wants to feel superior. Gomez wants to take the piss out of Hank. Walt is literally and functionally in the backseat, as far as his role in the scene is concerned. He’s an observer.
WALT: (quiet interest) That’s a meth lab.
HANK: So says our snitch. Says some dude who goes by “Cap’n Cook” lives up to his name in there. Got himself a three pound flask and keeps it bubbling day and night. Says he always adds a dash of chili powder. (to Gomez) Ah, you exuberant Mexicans.
GOMEZ: Uh-uh. “Cap’n Cook?” -- that’s a white boy’s name. Dopey as hell.
HANK: Yeah? I got twenty bucks says he’s a beaner.
GOMEZ: You’re on.
Again, this little insignificant moment is filled with conflict. Here we have a second argument, and there will only be more. It’s the personal tit for tat that moves the scene forward and lets us sit with the characters more than the actual bust.
A yellow SCHOOL BUS chugs into frame, driving past.
HANK: Ah, here we go. Finally. (into his radio) School bus is clear. You got the green light.
An affirmation comes back. Hank starts his engine.
HANK: (smiling, to Walt) Watch this. This makes ‘em shit.
Out of the distance, we hear a BIG ENGINE REVVING, speeding our way. A TRUCK roars past, heading for the cul-de-sac. Hank slowly follows it in his Ford -- just so Walt can see. Hank hums Ride Of The Valkyries, channeling “Apocalypse Now.”
With Walt as his bring-your-son-to-work lackey, Hank gets to indulge his desire to impress and be admired. On top of that, he’s competitive on every topic.
Walt’s POV: as seen through the windshield, the lead truck goes speeding into the target house’s driveway. An ENTRY TEAM of six agents jumps out, looking like they just came from the set of a sci-fi movie -- they’re covered head-to-toe in CHEMICAL SUITS and RESPIRATOR GEAR. They carry carbines and shotguns. One man lugs a battering ram.
HANK: Meth labs are nasty on a good day -- but when you mix that stuff wrong, you wind up with mustard gas.
WALT: Phosgene gas (sic), I think.
Again! Conflict. Minor, but it’s a conflict that makes this chunklet far better than if Hank had gotten his facts straight and just given us information. He’s trying to impress Walt, but Walt is actually much smarter than Hank, at least in these matters, so Hank has an obstacle, which he’ll just sidestep and continue blow-harding.
Also interesting how meekly Walt says something he knows for sure compared to how confidently Hank says something he's shaky on.
HANK: Yeah, exactly. One whiff’ll kill you. That’s why the moon suits.
Walt nods, watches the entry team take position at the door.
INT. TARGET HOUSE - KITCHEN - CONTINUOUS
To call this a shithole would be an insult to shitholes everywhere. There’s filthy clothes, overflowing garbage, rotting pizza boxes dating to the Clinton administration... along with stacked cannisters of plumber’s lye and Coleman stove fuel. A rambling, Rube Goldberg lab of hoses and buckets stands out against the knotty pine panelling.
A Mexican man, EMILIO, sits at the kitchen table, listening to headphones -- oblivious to the o.s. BANGING at the door. He’s got an enormous mound of RED POWDER in front of him, and an even bigger pile of MATCHBOOKS on the floor.
He scrapes off the striker strips and collects the powder. This is a source of red phosphorus for meth production.
BOOOM! The front door busts open. Feds pour in, pointing guns and breathing through their masks like Darth Vader. Emilio nearly pisses himself. He starts to run for it, but doesn’t get far. The agents hold him down, cuff him.
I was wondering why the action here is so minimal when it seems like a big opportunity, and this is what I came up with: we don’t know or care about anybody in the scene. If it doesn’t involve Walt, Hank, or Gomez, it’s inherently less interesting, and since the purpose of this scene is “…therefore Walt finds his business partner.” a melee would only distract us from Walt’s journey.
EXT. TARGET HOUSE - MORNING
Hank, Gomez and Walt wait in the Ford. The RADIO crackles.
AGENT: (RADIO V.O.) House is clear. We’ve got one suspect in custody.
HANK: Copy that. The suspect... might he be of the Latin persuasion?
AGENT (RADIO V.O.): Si, Senor.
In the filmed pilot Emilio’s last name is Koyama, so Hank wasn’t completely right. Hank doesn’t let this stop him from collecting the boodle.
This might be a mistake, but it looks like they both put down $20 bills, then Hank hands Gomez a bill and says that he deserves a ten-spot. But there were only two bills to start with.
At any rate, the argument carries a through-line for the scene with Hank victorious not by matter of fact but by force of personality. He’s the opposite of Walt.
Hank triumphantly puts a hand out. Gomez grumbles and pays him his twenty.
HANK: Cheer up. You people still got J. Lo. (grins at Walt) How you doing back there, buddy? This sure as hell beats spending your day clapping erasers, huh?
Walt smiles, acts agreeable. Hank turns to Gomez.
HANK: I made the mistake of watching “Jeopardy” with this dude one time. He is a stud, Gomez. He’s a brainiac. BEEP! “What is E equals MC squared, Alex?” BEEP! “What is, like, freaking... Shakespeare? Hamlet?” I’m telling you Walt, you shoulda gone on that show. You’da cleaned up.
GOMEZ: Right on, man.
HANK: (to Gomez) Shit, you don’t know the half of it. Two big companies wanted him while he was still in college. He coulda written his own ticket.
Hank looks to Walt for confirmation. Walt stares out the window, barely shrugs -- and changes the subject.
The above was all cut. It’s all exposition with the only conflict being Walt’s unease. We’ve seen a lot of Walt’s unease so far, so it’s expendable.
Plus we already know this with the addition of his Nobel honor in the future baby room. The specifics don’t matter as much as the aura.
WALT: Hank? Do you think I might get to go inside? See the lab?
HANK: Yeah, tell you what -- we’re gonna go peek our heads in, check it out. Stay here a minute.
Hank and Gomez exit the car, leaving Walt behind.
This is a fulcrum in the scene because Walt doesn’t have a desire that he’s actively pursuing. Hank was the one who carried the scene, so when Hank leaves the car, the scene deflates with Walt just kind of daydreaming.
Walt’s pleasant demeanor fades. Spending time with Hank is hard for him. While feds in moon suits come and go across the lawn, Walt’s attention drifts to the HOUSE NEXT DOOR.
But we don’t need Walt to have a desire, but there but be an actively pursued goal if we’re going to give a shit, and here’s one good as any: survival.
He double-takes, noticing a high WINDOW get raised. It’s out of sight of the D.E.A. agents. Only Walt can see as...
... A DUDE dressed only in underpants backs out the window. He dangles for a moment, then drops eight feet to the grass.
This guy is white, gawky, early 20s -- picture a hip Shaggy from “Scooby Doo.” His sneakers come tumbling from the window, nearly hitting him in the head. Above him, a naked HOUSEWIFE leans out, boobs dangling, frantically tossing him his jeans, his socks, his Cypress Hill T-shirt.
The kid dresses at mach speed, peeks around the corner of the house. He’s desperate not to be seen by the feds.
Walt watches, jaw slackening. He can’t believe his eyes. He recognizes this kid. He knows him.
WALT: (to himself) God. Dupree..?
I’m really glad VG changed “Dupree” to “Jesse.”
This also sets up a question in the audience’s mind. It’s expositional for Walt to talk to himself, but it’s the only way to infuse the anticipation that will carry us over to the next scene.
I realize as I’m writing this that the question in the mind, that suspense or anticipation, is what inevitably makes the conjunction between scenes a therefore instead of a but. It seems obvious when picking it apart but when writing, it isn’t always. Not every scene can necessarily end with “What happens next!?” and those must inevitably be the “But” scenes. I guess. It’s an observation that we’ll have to wait to see bear out.
Another thing is it gives Walt a want, which is to confirm is recognition and quell his shock—you could say that the emotional need is somewhere between comfort and justice.
Also the following scene will start with Walt taking action on a desire, so it makes sense that we’d have to end this scene with a hint toward that want.
It’s like a psychic connection -- at this moment, the kid, MARION ALAN DUPREE, feels eyes on him. He turns and looks, even more shocked to see Walt than Walt is to see him.
Staring at Walt, Dupree swallows hard, puts a finger to his lips -- shhh. Keeping one eye on the D.E.A., he hurries to an old Daytona parked on the curb.
As it creeps away, Walt notes the license plate: “THE CAPN.”
Nobody sees any of this but Walt. He climbs out of the back of the Ford, watching Dupree go. He still can’t believe it.
This is where the scene ends because, even though Walt didn’t know it—and neither did the audience—his desire to find something for which he didn’t know he was looking has been successfully completed, so the preceding bit with Hank just acts to drag it out. No further need for punctuation because it's all in the next scene.
Hank surprises him, having walked up behind him carrying a shoebox in a big evidence bag. It’s stuffed full of CASH.
HANK: Hey, check it out, Walt -- these assholes like their shoeboxes better’n Bank Of America.
Walt stares at all that beautiful green, turns and glances back down the street. The Daytona is gone.
HANK: Whatcha looking at?
WALT: (a beat) Nothing.
HANK: Wanna come meet a bad guy?
Walt nods, follows him to the house. He’s not going to tell Hank what he knows.
As an aside about another dubious bit of decision making: why the hell is Jesse so worried about getting away if he’s not even in the house with the meth lab? He seems to be in the clear.
Even if Emilio snitched, the difference would be mere hours, especially since Jesse just goes straight home.
The only thing I could come up with is his license plate and the chance of the DEA noticing and impounding his car, but even that isn’t convincing. All this to say that if you add some urgency to a want, apparently you can get away with some logical question marks. Right?