In which I attempt to better understand the art of scene writing through a close reading of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
IMPORTANT REMINDER: In the first draft of the pilot, Jesse Pinkman was actually called Marion Dupree.
EXT. BUNGALOW - AFTERNOON
Dupree sits on his front porch, drinking a long-neck beer and glowering. Walt’s Nissan putters into view, reverses and backs into Dupree’s driveway. Walt climbs out, jazzed.
The difference here is one of cool v. uncool. In some scenes standing v. sitting could indicate (respectively) dominant v. subordinate, but in this case Walt’s excitement, the fact that he’s “jazzed” butts heads with Jesse’s seeming apathy.
The teenager’s cool remove is well-documented, and even though Jesse’s older, he’s still a dick. It comes down to status game, Jesse playing higher than Walt, trying to prove his superiority, and his means is “playing it cool.”
WALT: Look what I got.
Dorkiest thing to say.
Walt opens his hatchback. Dupree doesn’t budge. Walt stares at him -- a teacher staring at a recalcitrant student -- until Dupree slouches down the steps.
WALT: Quit my part-time job -- I’ve got four hours to devote to this every afternoon. And...
Walt lifts a blanket, revealing his CARGO. Lots of goodies. Dupree peers at the stolen lab gear, pulls something out.
WALT: Ah. Kjeldahl-style recovery flask, 2000 milliliters. Very nice. You got your Griffin beakers, you got your volumetric. But check this out -- the pièce de résistance. Round bottom boiling flask, 5000 milliliters.
Big. Dupree wipes his nose with his sleeve, refusing to be impressed. He points to something else instead.
DUPREE: I cook in one of those. A big one.
This is Jesse trying to be impressive, trying to wow the old man and put him in his place.
WALT: This? This is an Erlenmeyer flask. You wouldn’t cook in one of these.
DUPREE: Yeah. I do.
Now we’ve got the test of smarts. Jesse thinks because he’s cooked meth he can talk down to a chemist.
But Walt is playing games.
WALT: No, you don’t. An Erlenmeyer flask is for general mixing and titration. You do not apply heat to an Erlenmeyer flask. That’s what the boiling flask is for. Did you not learn anything in my chemistry class?
DUPREE: No. You flunked me, remember? Prick? And let me tell you something else -- this shit ain’t chemistry. This shit is art. Cooking is art. The shit I cook is the bomb, so don’t be telling me!
See? Jesse thinks that his “street smarts” trump Walt’s actual hard-earned knowledge.
WALT: The shit you cook is shit. I saw your setup. Ridiculous. (firm) You and I will not make garbage. We will produce a chemically pure and stable product that performs as advertised. No adulterants. No baby formula. No chili powder.
DUPREE: Chili P’s my signature!
Walt shakes his head -- not anymore.
If you’ve seen Breaking Bad already this seems just par for the course. But it’s a HUGE character reveal. Walt is a stickler. He’s out for easy money, but he wants it the hard way. We’ll come to know him as a prideful man, but it starts here with pride for his product.
DUPREE: Yeah, well we’ll see about that. The hell’s all this?
He pulls out heavy LAB APRONS, GLOVES, RESPIRATORS. These are the respirators we saw Walt and Dupree wearing in the Teaser (Dupree was Walt’s unconscious PASSENGER, by the way).
This is interesting formatting I haven’t seen before, mostly because the end-at-the-beginning structure isn’t that common. But here I find it interesting that VG explicitly called back to the Teaser to hand-holdingly explain the progression.
WALT: Lab safety. We’re also gonna have an emergency eye wash station. These chemicals and their fumes are toxic -- or didn’t you know that?
Dupree holds up an apron, snorts.
DUPREE: Hey, you can dress up like a faggot if you want. Not me.
END OF ACTUAL SCENE, THOUGH THE SCRIPT GOES ON FOR ANOTHER CHUNK
Now Jesse’s “cool” pose butts heads with Walt’s meticulousness over yet another thing. It’s becoming clearer that Jesse’s want in this whole thing is to be in charge, and Walt keeps reasserting that No, Jesse is not in charge of anything because Jesse—according to Walt—is actually quite dumb.
This too would be just another conversation, but the resonance is that those fumes and toxins have sealed Walt’s fate. He’s not fucking around. And his meticulousness extends itself in the form of concern for Jesse’s health, which Jesse would never guess at.
Also I’m sure it puts a dent in the workable workday when your lab partner is running around screaming because his eyes are bathing in flame.
Walt glares at him, losing patience. Dupree roots through the piles of RAW SUPPLIES Walt has brought along.
DUPREE: Stove fuel…not enough of it. Lye. You got the generic crap. Red Devil’s better. Iodine, matches... also not my brand.
WALT: Somehow, we’ll manage. (points) Sinus tablets. That should be enough pseudoephedrine to produce the first pound. Then I’m thinking we can switch to a proper phenyl-2- propanone method.
Dupree’s not listening. Instead, he’s noticed something about Walt’s shopping bags. They’re all the SAME.
DUPREE: Wait. Tell me you didn’t buy all this from one single goddamn store.
DUPREE: Jesus! They know what you’re doing with this! Any goddamn retard they got workin’ a register’s gonna know you’re making crystal! You’re probably on some list now! (as if to a child) You buy -- your supplies -- piecemeal. One store at a time, one item at a time.
Walt looks worried now. Chastened.
WALT: It was way over in West Covina. I paid cash. Nobody seemed to...
Dupree considers Walt. Studies him like he’s from Mars.
DUPREE: Acting like some skippy little bitch. Like this is fun and games. This shit is shit you take -- serious.
Walt suppresses his anger, stares at him evenly.
WALT: Life and death.
This chunklet of scene was removed. Probably moved elsewhere because it seems familiar. I rewatched this episode four months ago when I started this series and haven’t yet rewatched Season 1. So sue me.
This is a mellow scene. Almost quotidian. Much of this chunk of story could’ve conceivably been told in the cut, i.e. if you see Walt stealing supplies then you see the ad hoc lab, you’ve got all of the middle without needing to write it. A screenwriter would’ve cut this scene or at least made it three lines long, but TV writers have different priorities.
I assume that’s why the bit about the identical shopping bags was cut. It’s conflict, but not the most valuable conflict because it won’t be revisited.
So why did VG leave it in? Movies are about stories and telling them efficiently, while Television, because it’s got so much more room to breathe, puts story secondary to characters. Here we see Walt as excited as we’ve ever seen him, and Jesse sulking and being a brat. It’s a bit of a hang-with-the-characters breather.
I’m only starting this series, but I assume VG and his crew will come to write far fewer expository scenes as the show wears on.
To impress and educate Jesse in meth-cooking matters.
In both versions, Walt’s emotional grab for respect is unsuccessful as is his tangible want. You could also say that his tangible want is simply to unload the supplies, which will in fact happen.
To let Walt know that he (Jesse) is in charge.
We’ll just say it’s postponed. Jesse asserts himself, and the scene ends with Jesse’s childish refusal to wear lab safety equipment.
This is key in writing a fraught relationship like Walt and Jesse’s—tit for tat, yes, but sometimes no one gets what they want.