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. DRESSING ROOM - NIGHT
It’s tight in here. Familiar CRUTCHES lean against the wall. Walter, Jr. sits on a bench, struggling to pull a stiff new pair of off-brand jeans over his bare legs.
SKYLER: (O.S.) How you coming in there?
WALTER, JR: Fine.
Anything but. Young Walter works at it valiantly, but the design of this room is giving him trouble. He won’t ask for help and his folks know it. After a while:
SKYLER: (O.S.) You want me or your Dad?
WALTER, JR: (gives up; annoyed) Dad.
The door opens and Walt enters. Not a word is said as Walt leans down and his son wraps his arms around his neck. While Walter, Jr. holds on, his dad lifts him a little and works the jeans up onto his thighs and waist.
It’s intimate in a way that’s tough on a teenager, but Walter, Jr. keeps his dignity. Walt handles it well, too.
WALT: How do these fit? You like these?
Walter, Jr. shrugs, nods. Walt zips up his son, buttons him.
Not much to say about this part. It’s like an establishing shot. It gives view of a normal family coping with disability.
INT. DEPARTMENT STORE - NIGHT - MINUTES LATER
We’re in a Target or somesuch. The men’s department. Walter, Jr. stands before a mirror, balancing on his crutches as he appraises his new jeans. Skyler and Walt stand behind him. Walt’s thoughts are distant as he watches his son.
SKYLER: Don’t get ‘em if they’re too tight.
WALTER, JR: They’re--pre--shrunk.
SKYLER: They always say that, then they shrink anyway.
Except I could say, from Walter Jr’s POV: how do you make the most embarrassing and annoying teenager activity — buying clothes with your parents — even more embarrassing? It’s even worse for him because he needs help getting dressed!
The more cringe-worthy, the more we appreciate Walt flipping his shit, even though he objectively looks like a psycho. Counter-weighing Walt’s often psychotic reactions with reasonable emotional stakes will continue to make him a sympathetic character.
As Walter, Jr. considers, we hear a faint o.s. COMMOTION.
JOCK: (O.S.) Big boy pants. I got new big boy pants. Mommmeeee...
Walt snaps out of it, turns and looks. Twenty feet away, partially hidden by clothing racks, are three GUYS, probably just out of high school. They’re laughing hard, making a token effort to keep their voices low.
The biggest among them, a tall JOCK, is gimping around, playing “retard” and cracking up the other two. They glance our way -- it’s clear they’re making fun of WALTER, JR.
JOCK: Mommmeee, zip up my big boy pants.
And of course, the other way to make an outsized reaction seem reasonable is to make the enemy utterly detestable. The nicest objectively villainous character is still a tick worse than the most psychotic and horrendous hero.
Choked LAUGHTER and WHISPERS. Walter, Jr. hears. He sets his jaw and ignores it, his face burning.
Skyler is livid. She’s about to go give these guys bloody hell, but Walt touches a hand to her arm, stops her.
WALT: No, don’t.
Before she can ask why not, Walt walks off in the opposite direction. He disappears down an aisle. Is he looking for the manager? A security guard? What’s he doing?
Skyler is dismayed he’s not standing up for their son. Frustrated. Until she notices:
NEW ANGLE -- the jock is still flogging the joke as WALT enters frame behind him. Unbeknownst to everyone, Walt has quickly looped around, stalking up behind these guys.
One of the most thrilling things about Breaking Bad is that there’s always a plan, but the details are almost never revealed until after, and it’s very very satisfying.
JOCK: Oh no. Oh no. I pinched a loaf in my big boy pa--
Wham! Walt kicks the back of the jock’s KNEE, dropping the big guy painfully to the floor. Before the startled jock can get up, Walt stands full-weight on his ANKLE. Leverage.
JOCK: AAHH! Whu -- what are you DOING?!
WALT: What’s the matter, Chief? You having trouble walking there? Stand up. Don’t be a retard. Stand up and walk.
JOCK: AAAHH! GET OFF ME!
Walt raises his foot. The jock scrambles to his feet, towering over Walt.
JOCK: I’ll mess you up, man!
The kid’s nearly a head taller. Doesn’t mean jack-shit to Walt, who gets in his face. Walt looks slightly crazy.
WALT: Well, don’t keep me waiting.
The jock is already backing off. His two friends are spooked, as well -- tugging at him to leave.
JOCK: Screw you. Freakin’ psycho.
B.M.O.C. limps off with his tail between his legs. Skyler and Walter, Jr. stand staring, amazed. They’ve never seen anything like it. Certainly not from their husband and dad.
Standing here, Walt feels a kind of power -- one brought on by an absence of fear.
Off him, realizing more and more that he likes it.
END ACT THREE
Walt’s TANGIBLE WANT isn’t necessarily to have a quiet afternoon with his family. He’s spacing out at the top of the scene. He’s just kind of there.
The Jock’s presence shakes him from daydreaming to action, to wanting something that aligns with his EMOTIONAL NEED — Walt’s overarching emotional need that will drive the story from beginning to end is simply Validation.
This is precisely the testosterone boost that Walt’s been searching for, and his thrill-seeking will only get more intense — obviously.
If there is an good rule of thumb in screenwriting that I’ve come across, it’s that you must constantly make things bigger.
If Walt’s starting point is pummeling a jock at the mall, his next action won’t be talking shit to a cheerleader. It couldn’t even be pummeling another jock.
The next act of this sort will be poisoning two gangsters while held up at gunpoint which will soon be outdone when he strangles the one who didn’t die with a U-lock and dissolves his body in acid.
One thing I’ve learned in the course of these blog posts is that the primacy of the emotional need isn’t always key. As in the last scene, Walt’s emotional need is secondary to his tangible want, while Jesse’s EN and TW are neck and neck. In this scene, Walt’s EN is just waiting for a TW to pounce.
I suspect that the extent to which a disparity exists between the Emotional Need and the Tangible Want, the more fertile the scene is for subtext, as in the case above.
The OBSTACLE is also of no importance. It’s no sweat off his balls to cock-slap the jock.
My hunch is that, as a narrative device, Walt needs a taste of validation, and that will be his drug of choice here on out. So it’s not necessary that this first grab at validation be difficult: it simply needs to be addicting.