In which I attempt to better understand the art of scene writing through a close reading of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
As in the last post, I will again turn my sites to Status Games. It’s especially interesting because here it’s mostly visual cues rather than dialogue that signal slight shifts in status, which are more subtle than in the last scene.
EXT. WOODS - DAY
It’s a second day of cooking for Walt. He’s out here alone with the Winnebago, having just arrived. He puts his coat hanger on the awning and strips down, hanging up his good clothes. As he ties on his lab apron...
First, Walt being an out-of-shape, middle-aged man wearing just an apron and tighty-whities lowers his status because it signals vulnerability.
Add to that the fact that he’s obviously past his prime, wears glasses, and his hair is thinning. These aren’t always signals of lower status, but in a scene that revolves around physical intimidation, they are.
... An Oldsmobile Cutlass arrives. Stops thirty feet away. Walt stands his ground watching it, wary. Squints at it.
Three men in the car. A little hard to see. Walt relaxes slightly when he realizes Dupree is one of them.
Driver’s door opens. Krazy-8 climbs out, stands his ground.
Notice the visual cue Gilligan placed here to emphasize the status game at play: “stands his ground,” which immediately sets it up as a showdown.
KRAZY-8: Nature Boy!
In the filmed version, Krazy-8 says “You some kind of nudist or something?” Where “Nature Boy” is neutral, even complimentary if you’re a pro wrestling fan, the revision is far more condescending.
KRAZY-8 (CONT’D): You must be the cook! (off Walt’s silence) That is some stone-fine cheebah, ese! You wanna come work for me?
“Work for me” is an invitation to take a step down in status.
WALT: (a beat) I’d be happy to sell to you. If the price is right.
But Walt won’t accept this lower rung on the ladder.
KRAZY-8: “Price Is Right.” Yeah, man...COME ON DOWN!
He holds up a plastic Von’s bag. This is the CASH we saw blowing around in the Teaser. Krazy glances around, casual.
KRAZY-8: So. You’re out here all by yourself, huh?
Moving back to the central focus of this status game, physical intimidation, Krazy-8 makes a non-so-subtle reference to Walt’s vulnerability.
Walt doesn’t like the question. Doesn’t answer. He’s watching the Cutlass now -- wondering why Dupree, sitting in the back seat with the third man, hasn’t moved.
Walt is here starting to realize the nature and stakes of the game. Not answering is its own defensive status move, a refusal to play into the previous move.
The third man, EMILIO, climbs out now. He’s got a look on his face that tells us he’s just realized who Walt is.
EMILIO: Shit. You’re that guy. (to Krazy-8) The D.E.A... he was there with the goddamned D.E.A!
A sudden shift in the balance of power! While it was tenuous and tense before, now shit’s totally out of whack.
One nuanced status-thingy that was keeping Walt and Krazy-8 relatively on balance is now thrown off -- they’re not both living outside the law, and in this world, the law is lower than the outlaw. Losing this leveling-up identity, Walt will fall into a hole that’ll be hard to climb out of.
OFF Walt -- uh-oh. Confusion all around. Rising anxiety. Emilio turns on Dupree, still seated in the car.
EMILIO: Goddamned rata snitch!
Emilio’s reaching for his gun. That’s enough for Dupree -- he throws open the far door, takes off into the woods.
DUPREE: RUN, MR. WHITE! RUN!
Dupree signals their helplessness, lowering Walt’s status for him.
As he yells this over his shoulder -- BAM! Dupree plows headlong into a TREE. He collapses, knocked cold.
Walt doesn’t go anywhere. Krazy-8 pulls his gun immediately, points it at him. Pistols drawn, the two cousins look back and forth between unconscious Dupree and Walt, who’s got his hands up.
Here’s a visual cue of status: Walt’s pose of submission and the duo’s power-posing with glocks out.
Motionless silence. The cousins expect feds to come swarming out of the trees at any second.
A moment to assess the solidity of status.
None do. The cousins relax a touch. Dupree softly MOANS.
EMILIO: Asshole. (to Krazy-8) Cap ‘em both. That’s what I say.
Krazy-8 lights a cigarette, thinks about it. Walt stands nervous, but stoic. He’s already come to grips with dying, and he’s not going to plead for his life.
Walt’s pride is the biggest thread weaved throughout the series. He won’t beg for his life, but he doesn’t want to die. This means he has to think of something else. The brilliance of Breaking Bad is that no matter how tightly the vice presses, Walt always outsmarts the force.
Krazy blows smoke, studies Walt closely.
KRAZY-8: Yo. You really cook that batch?
Krazy-8 shows his hand, and this is enough for Walt to latch onto, a crag in the edifice to pull himself out.
Walt nods, his hands still raised.
KRAZY-8: You an artist. It’s a damn shame.
Krazy-8 here reveals his WANT beyond revenge: to cook meth as good as Walt’s and Walt reacts immediately.
He raises his pistol, about to fire -- Emilio, too.
WALT: W-What if I showed you my secret? Every cook’s got his recipe -- what if I taught you mine? (off their silence) Let us both live, I’ll teach you.
The last sentence is a red herring as much for the audience as for Krazy-8. This is what Gilligan and the Breaking Bad writers are so good at: explaining a plan and undermining it, either through complications or outright deception. What would be the fun of watching the plan you heard explained then carried off without a hitch?
Emilio looks to Krazy-8, who’s weighing it. It’s attractive. Off Krazy, blowing smoke:
As Matt Stone and Trey Parker explained their secret to good storytelling, this moment is a “therefore” to carry the established dramatic tension into the next scene.