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. BUNGALOW STREET - NIGHT
We’re in an old neighborhood of Sears-Roebuck cottages up in the foothills. One particular bungalow is shabbier than the rest. Its paint peels off like sunburned skin.
EXT. BUNGALOW - BACK YARD - NIGHT
“THE CAPN” license plate gets covered -- Dupree is out here in the darkness, hurriedly draping his Daytona with a tarp.
An example of straying from logic that does more to affect the mood.
“Dupree,” otherwise known as Pinkman, would’ve gotten home long before this in the panic he was in. If Jesse really was tearing ass home, there’s no way Walt could’ve gone to the school to look up his address and get there right after Jesse pulled up and covered his car.
Logic is only of secondary concern. For this scene to work, Jesse needs to be in a panic and Walt needs to be in control. Jesse covering his car in a mad hurry tells us his want pretty clearly.
It’s the first time Walt is truly in control of himself and others.
He’s antsy as hell. Hearing FOOTSTEPS, he grabs a tire iron, crouches behind the car. The FOOTSTEPS slow, stop.
WALT: (O.S.) It’s me. I’m alone.
Testing the waters with this new definition of dialogue I picked up: Dialogue is an action that your character takes to get what they want.
If that’s true, what’s the action here?
Walt wants to gain trust in a situation where no one would trust him.
Walt appears out of the blackness. Dupree slowly rises. After a wary beat:
DUPREE: How’d you find me?
Less a question than an accusation. If Walt’s alone and the cops aren’t involved, then he’s got some explaining to do.
WALT: You’re still in our filing system. Your aunt owns this place, right?
DUPREE: I own it.
Walt nods. Whatever. He glances at the tarp.
Jesse’s want springs from a survival instinct. It’s neat to dig deeper and find that so does Walt’s, and their tactics both involve intimidation.
WALT: Nobody’s looking for you.
Again, trying to gain trust.
DUPREE: What do you want?
WALT: I was curious. (a beat; shrug) Honestly, I never expected you to amount to much. Methamphetamine, though. I didn’t picture that. (off the silence) Lotta money in it, huh?
Walt is fishing for information, for confirmation that what he’s after is a worthwhile thing, but also, he's trying to take Jesse down a notch. This is a power play, a status game. Walt and Jesse struggle, with different tactics, for supremacy.
Dupree peers into the darkness beyond Walt, wonders who else is out there. His hand tightens around the tire iron.
DUPREE: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
DUPREE: No freakin’ clue.
If Jesse’s primary want wasn’t survival he’d almost definitely be bragging right about now. But he has plenty reason not to trust Walt.
WALT: Huh. Cap’n Cook? That’s not you? (off his head shake)
Like I said, no one’s looking for you. I didn’t tell anyone.
Walt’s first defensive move is calling Jesse out on his bullshit. Until now he’s just tried to pacify and gain trust. Now he wants control.
By showing Jesse he knows more than Jesse thinks, Walt is taking control of the high status, forcing Jesse into a lower status.
Dupree grows more agitated. His voice stays low.
DUPREE: I don’t know what you think you’re doing here, Mr. White. If you’re planning on giving me some bullshit about getting right with Jesus or something, turning myself in --
WALT: No. Not really.
DUPREE: You ain’t “Welcome Back, Kotter,” so step off. No speeches.
Walt’s first move toward control is met with a teenager-ish defense strategy to buck any control from one’s elders. Jesse’s now asserting his independence.
He's also trying to win the status game by denigrating whatever Walt is trying to do by calling him "Welcome Back, Kotter." Name-calling to lift his status.
Dupree points the tire iron for emphasis. Walt should leave, but he doesn’t. Instead...
Force is a great way to steal a victory in a verbal status game.
And yet Walt don’t give two fucks. This will be the Walt we’ll come to know and love. The one with plans that wrap webs around his victims. Until now he’s been reacting to the moment. Now he’s distanced himself from his reactions and is calmly piecing things together.
WALT: Short speech. You lost your partner today. What’s-his-name, Emilio? Emilio’s going to prison. The D.E.A. took your money, your lab. You got nothing. Square one. But you know the business, and I know the chemistry. I’m thinking. Maybe you and I... partner up.
Second defensive move is to hold consequences over Jesse’s head. To flaunt Jesse’s new weakness. And in so doing, gain ground.
Cranston’s performance here is brilliant. He slows down the end of the speech. His voice threatens to crack. It’s like he’s asking Jesse to prom. The performance clues us in on a vulnerability and a nervousness belied by confidence. Just because Walt knows what he's doing doesn't mean he's in his wheelhouse.
Long, pregnant silence. Dupree can’t believe his ears.
DUPREE: You -- wanna cook crystal meth. (off Walt’s nod) You. You and me.
Laughter and basically shorthand shit talk is Jesse's plan for winning the higher status. He's street. Walt's white bread. Jesse seizes the opportunity at status.
Walt means it. Dupree breaks into a crooked, spreading grin. Before he can laugh out loud --
WALT: Either that, or I turn you in.
Trump card. Huzzah.
Dupree’s smile fades. Off Walt, serious as a heart attack...
END ACT TWO
WANT: Protect himself
OBSTACLE: Walt knows everything and might be accompanied by the police
TACTIC: Get rid of Walt by intimidation, both physical and verbal.
COMPLETION: He’s outdone, out-intimidated. He fails.
WANT: Jesse’s help
OBSTACLE: He needs to get Jesse on his side when there’s every reason in the world Jesse shouldn’t trust him.
TACTIC: Destroying Jesse’s confidence and blackmailing him
COMPLETION: By all appearances, Walt wins.
The last thing to notice about what makes this scene great is that as soon as the audience can just sense that Jesse’s lost the battle, VG cuts. He doesn’t wait for him to say “Okay” or “When do we start?”
All we need is a fading smile and it tells us as much if not more than any confirming dialogue. If Jesse said anything, the scene would officially drag.