In which I attempt to better understand the art of scene writing through a close reading of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
This is a great scene to look at how Gilligan uses three instances of setup/payoff for one big, amazingly satisfying culmination of the entire episode.
There are three seemingly distinct kinds of setup/payoff put to use here that I’ll try to differentiate:
- Setup/Payoff within the scene
- Buried Setup/Payoff
- Misdirected Setup/Payoff
Let’s take a look:
EXT. WINNEBAGO - MINUTES LATER
CLOSE ON Dupree, face-down and blotto. Emilio finishes hog-tying his wrists, then gives him a KICK in the head for good measure. Emilio walks to the RV in b.g.
INT. WINNEBAGO - CONTINUOUS
Walt prepares his tools and materials. Krazy-8 stands behind him, arms crossed, gun in hand, watching his every move. Emilio climbs aboard, joins his cousin.
WALT: Put out the cigarette.
Krazy-8 considers, then pokes his cig through the louvered slats of a window and flicks it outside.
This is a lot tenser in the filmed version because it’s Emilio who’s smoking and also justifiably much more pissed off. He’s a lot more reluctant to put out his cigarette, going so far as to blow smoke in Walt’s face before tossing his cigarette, which does double duty as 1. Intimidation and 2. A visual reminder of Walt’s recently learned death sentence.
EXT. WINNEBAGO - CONTINUOUS
CLOSE -- it lands behind the RV, a few red sparks flying. We CREEP IN on the butt as it lies smoldering in the WEEDS.
This is the setup within the scene. We pretty much know what’s going to happen, and if we didn’t, Gilligan included a quick shot of the smoldering cigarette in the dry grass.
INT. WINNEBAGO - CONTINUOUS
CLOSE -- POOF! A hot plate flames to life as Walt ignites the gas. Walt runs a finger across his neatly arranged jars of ingredients. He stops on one -- RED PHOSPHORUS.
Assuming that most of the audience isn’t intimately familiar with chemistry, we still don’t know how Walt’s going to get out of this. We see the red phosphorous, but it’s probably not registering what the payoff will be. This is the buried payoff.
Walt glances at... his RESPIRATOR. It’s lying way at the other end of the RV. Walt gingerly sizes up the cousins.
Emilio reaches over, wig-wags Walt’s earlobe with the muzzle of his shiny 9mm. Cold and menacing as hell.
EMILIO: Step to it, snitch.
The respirator shot wasn’t included in the filmed version, probably because it too loudly signaled the payoff, which is far more than sufficient in itself. But Cranston does a brilliant job of the nervous, meek man who knows he’s about to kill not one but two people. And it’s Emilio’s insistence that puts him over the top.
Walt makes up his mind -- it’s now or never. He unscrews the top off the red phosphorus bottle. He takes a long, deep, quiet breath... and HOLDS it.
He dumps the bottle onto the hot plate. It hits the flame with a sizzling WHOOF and smokes up. Walt ducks and RUNS.
So this is two kinds of payoff in one, but the “buried” payoff won’t be explained until the following scene -- remember earlier when Walt and Hank were talking about phosphene gas? That’s this.
But it’s also a great illustration of the “misdirected” payoff. If there were one thing that I learned as a writer by simply watching Breaking Bad it would be this: when a character explains a plan or lays out what will happen in the following scene, there will always be a complication of the plan -- either the plan was a lie (as in this scene) or there’s a wrench in the spokes.
EXT. WINNEBAGO - CONTINUOUS
Walt makes it outside just ahead of the cousins. He slams the door in their faces, leans his back against it hard.
BOOM! BOOM! They’re kicking the shit out of it from the inside, trying desperately to get out. We hear them COUGHING now. GASPING. The flimsy RV door won’t hold up long.
Suddenly -- BLAM!-BLAM!-BLAM! BULLET HOLES puncture the door, zinging just above Walt’s head. Still Walt stands fast, flinching and ducking lower. BLAM!-BLAM!-BLAM!-BLAM!
Keeping tensions running high by calling into question his success. But yes, he wins this battle.
The firing stops. The CHOKING SOUNDS get louder, more tortured. Horrifying. Tiny thin curls of RED SMOKE waft out through the bullet holes.
We hear a heavy THUMP. Then ANOTHER. Two bodies hitting the floor. Silence now. Walt shuts his eyes, breathing hard.
Walt recovers, stumbles over and checks on Dupree, who’s still breathing. Walt unties him. Thank God, they’re both alive. Just as Walt gets Dupree loose...
... He smells SMOKE. He turns, sees it rising thick and dark from behind the Winnebago. He runs to see.
NEW ANGLE - BEHIND THE RV
Krazy-8’s CIGARETTE has started a BRUSH FIRE. It’s ten feet across. Walt tries to stomp it out, but that ain’t working.
He yanks off his heavy lab apron, desperately tries to beat out the flames with that. No dice. In a panic, Walt stares up into the sky -- watches the SMOKE trail high overhead. Everyone within five miles can see it.
Perhaps sensing that the tension would be completely deflated after the murder, Gilligan set up this urgent escalation.
You might say, “Well, it’s not an escalation because the scene moved from almost-certain-death to almost-certain-getting-caught, but if you remember the very first scene and all the reminders throughout (in the form of Walt’s very explicit demands to Jesse and even Walt’s not wearing clothes to cook) death is not the worst thing that can happen to Walt -- being caught is the worst thing.
LOW ANGLE - DUPREE
Lies drifting in and out of consciousness. Walt -- in his underpants, black shoes and socks -- runs to him. Walt yanks a RESPIRATOR onto Dupree’s face, then drags him out of frame.
ANGLE - THE RV
The flames of the brush fire are licking the back bumper. The engine ROARS alive, the exhaust pipe belching blue smoke.
The fire is blocking the dirt road now. The Winnebago lurches forward and takes off overland. Walt’s clothes swing from the awning -- a tree branch knocks loose his TROUSERS.
In the filmed version, it wasn’t a branch but the force of air from driving so fast.
Breaking Bad was originally supposed to take place in SoCal, and since there are no trees in the desert, this obviously needed to be solved for. But Gilligan knows a good image when he sees it, and pants flying through the desert is much cooler than pants caught on a branch.