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 the point in the pilot that we’ve all been waiting for: the showdown that the opening scenes promised! Boy oh boy!
EXT. COW PASTURE - DAY (REPEATED FOOTAGE)
Pastoral. Quiet. COW SHIT bakes in the sun, then gets RUN OVER with a SPLAT. We’re full-circle back to the Teaser.
The Winnebago galumphs across the landscape, scattering cows.
The above was cut, probably because there aren’t a ton of cows in the desert and running over cows isn’t generally smiled upon. (See: The fate of Milch’s Luck. Breaking Bad wouldn’t have even gotten that far.)
INT. WINNEBAGO - DAY (REPEATED FOOTAGE)
Walt drives in his underpants and his gas mask, his knuckles white on the wheel. Unconscious Dupree slumps beside him. Behind, the dead cousins slide to and fro amidst the sloshing ruins of the meth lab. Their CASH flutters in the breeze.
Isn’t it fun to have this mysterious scene filled in with the details?
On a technical note, I never thought about using the slug tag (REPEATED FOOTAGE). Good to know!
Walt hyperventilates. His mask FOGS UP. BAM! He crashes, violently JERKING FORWARD into lens. The frame goes BLACK.
EXT. COW PASTURE - DAY - MINUTES LATER
We start on BLACK, then PULL OUT of the barrel of Walt’s gun. We find ourselves where the Teaser left off -- Walt is aiming past us, standing in his shirt and tie and underpants.
Now we’re firmly planted in iffy territory. The cops are on their way. Walt’s been cooking meth and just killed two people. Gilligan didn’t even give us a full minute to feel we’d gotten our bearing -- and thank god for that.
In many ways, Breaking Bad resembles a good old-fashioned Western, but nowhere more than here.
SIRENS are wailing. We see RED LIGHTS flashing just over top of the weeds. They’re racing our way.
Walt has second thoughts. What the hell is he doing? He’s not going to shoot anybody. The ferocity leaks out of him. Despair settles in in its place.
Sirens -- BLARING. Fuck it. He sticks the muzzle in his mouth, winces hard. He YANKS THE TRIGGER.
Nothing. The safety’s on. Walt fumbles with it, trying to figure it out. This takes him just long enough that...
Another stroke of editing genius! The filmed version included the gun going off in the dirt. That’s because it’s not cinematic storytelling to simply hope the audience understands that Walt was one safety-click away from death. It’s much more dramatic to have the gun go off. And of course, there’s that oft-quote Chekhovian chestnut:
"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."
Chekhov was being a little strict here -- Gilligan waited until Act 4, and it worked just fine.
... The sirens are revealed to be FIRE ENGINES. Not the cops. Two big pumper trucks curve past us, following a dirt road through the pasture we didn’t see until now.
They roar on by, none of the firemen taking the slightest notice of Walt. They’re heading for Krazy-8’s brush fire a mile away. We can see the crooked column of SMOKE from here.
The SIRENS and the ROAR fade away. Gradually, the pasture grows silent again. Walt stares stupidly, the pistol dangling at his side. He lets it drop to the dirt.
If this weren’t such a delicately plotted character journey, the episode could end here. Maybe that’s a clue as to the difference between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” stories if any such dichotomy exists.
But Gilligan saw the future of television as a medium of long-form storytelling, so this thing couldn’t end without an excellent character change to top it off (in the next scene!)
He stands blinking, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Pure, dumb luck. Beginner’s luck.
As he stands here, the door to the RV opens behind him. Dupree stumbles out, pulls off his gas mask. Half his face is swollen like a balloon, but he’ll recover.
Dupree wanders over, stands next to Walt. Dazed silence.
DUPREE: What happened..? (nods toward the RV) W-What’d you do?
Walt is weirdly matter-of-fact.
WALT: Red phosphorus, when heat is applied...oxidizes and yields carbonyl chloride. Phosphene gas. One good whiff of it...
There’s the cap to that “buried payoff” I mentioned in the last post. Hank and Walt discussed phosphene gas way back in the beginning of the episode.
He shrugs, trails off. Folds at the waist and THROWS UP.
Dupree stands staring at nothing in particular. Walt rises, wipes his mouth. He picks up his WALLET and CAMCORDER.
WALT: Gotta. Gotta clean this up. Gotta... bury...
In the filmed version, “gotta bury…” was cut. This is a small change, but ending with “We gotta clean this up” tags the scene with a comedic note where “bury” would’ve ended it rather morbidly.
As Gilligan said here:
“A lot of people would probably disagree with me, but I see our series as kind of a comedy.”
Well for those who disagree, here’s Exhibit A.
Personally, it really rings my cherries when an intense drama can infuse believable comedy wherever it can. Whether it be Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul or Boogie Nights or almost anything by the Coen Brothers, I’m all for it.
Like this scene from There Will Be Blood. It's only because the bulk of the film is so serious that makes this unsuspecting little line of dialogue hilarious.
He slowly wanders back to the Winnebago. Dupree follows him. Off our two new partners, who have only barely survived their first week together...