In which I attempt to better understand the art of scene writing through a close reading of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
In improvisational theater, "status" refers to the power difference in the relationship between two characters.
A character in a high status behaves dominantly towards a character in a lower status. A character of low status is subordinate to the higher-status character, accommodating his or her actions to the other's cues.
The current status the characters have between one another is recognizable in the body language, actions, and manner of speaking of the actors.
Jesse (aka Dupree in the original pilot) comes in high status and bit by bit, he’s taken down to size.
When we come into the scene in the filmed pilot, the first thing to notice is Gilligan’s stroke of genius -- playing a videogame is not intimidating. But training an attack dog on a dummy in your living room near a picture of a bare-breasted cartoon character riding a motorcycle is in fact quite intimidating.
Though Jesse will use a similar oneupmanship in the Dog Version as the Videogame Version, we’ll quite obviously immediately notice that Krazy-8--owner of a viciously trained dog--is not one with whom to fuck, a fear the videogamer would not instill.
In other words, Gilligan framed Krazy-8 as the one with initial high-status.
INT. KRAZY-8’S HOUSE - MORNING
Brand-new giant screen TV. Otherwise, this place looks like a cross between a frat house and a crack house. KRAZY-8, a young, hard-looking Mexican, sits on a sofa dotted with cigarette burns. He’s playing NBA basketball on his PS2.
The front door stands open -- but the screen door, all heavy reinforced steel, is shut. Visible through it, Dupree wanders up onto the porch, cups his eyes and peers in.
DUPREE: Yo, Kraze! How you doin’, my man?
Krazy-8 glances over flatly, returns his attention to his video game. Dupree twists the doorknob. Locked.
DUPREE: Can I come in?
See? Jesse is immediately wary, whereas Dupree is overconfident. Jesse has to work to step it up in status, where Dupree comes in wearing high status on his sleeve.
A beat or two as Krazy-8 keeps playing. Finally, he reaches over, grabs a garage door clicker. He BUZZES Dupree in.
Dupree bops into the living room, all smiles. He’s acting like he and this guy are tight -- which they are not. Dupree takes a seat, watches the video game.
DUPREE: I got this game. The Laker Girls all have titties like pine cones. Yo, I’ll show you a trick move. You hit the x-button simultaneous with the --
“Super-purebred,” as Jesse says, whatever that means. He’s trying to work himself up out of his low status -- instilled by fear of the dog -- through oneupsmanship.
Gilligan took a functional scene, one that’s supposed to simply take us from Point A to Point B, and he made it dramatic through status games.
KRAZY-8: -- Shut your mouth and show me your money.
Two status moves in one: he takes Jesse down a notch by lowering him to “buyer” status, and he doesn’t even turn to face Jesse to do this. Diss.
DUPREE: I ain’t buying, ese. I’m selling.
Dupree tosses a tiny BAGGIE on the coffee table. It’s a “tina” -- one-sixteenth of an ounce of meth. One hit.
DUPREE: Tell me that ain’t the finest scante you ever laid eyes on.
Jesse climbs back up the status ladder not only by reversing the buyer/seller roles, but also by implicitly calling Krazy-8’s meth dogshit.
Krazy-8 glances at the baggie, keeps playing. Glances at it again. Pauses his game and picks it up. Studies it closely.
DUPREE: Huh? See? Crystal so big, look like somebody broke a window. Look like you’d cut your nose off. Try it.
Krazy takes a whiff of the open baggie, considers. He scoops a taste into his pinkie nail and snorts it up his nostril.
DUPREE: BOO-YAH! See? What I say?
Krazy squints his eyes, rubs his nose. Jesus -- rocket fuel.
KRAZY-8: That’s alright. (eyeing him) So, what? You back in business?
Krazy-8 won’t give Jesse the pleasure of a compliment, which would lower his status, even though we know from Jesse’s ecstatics from the last scene that this is also the best meth Krazy-8’s ever seen too.
DUPREE: Hell, yeah I’m back! With a vengeance! Nigga gotta make a living! And with your cousin gone away and all... (changes gears) And listen homes, about that. It really broke me up about Emilio. Dude is like my brother. (mournful) He okay? You talk to him?
Jesse shifts gears here, realizing that he’s playing too high. So he tries to level with Krazy-8, level as in literally playing face to face status-wise.
KRAZY-8: Yeah, I talked to him. He says when the feds came, you were out stickin’ it in some neighbor lady.
DUPREE: (shrugs; smiles) Hey, you know. I got lucky twice.
But Jesse can’t help himself! He has to brag, even about being lucky.
KRAZY-8: Yeah? I dunno, man. Emilio..? (dark) He thinks maybe you dimed on him.
As we all know from The Sopranos, the ultimate takedown is to be accused of being a rat. Jesse now has to climb out of a status hole.
Dupree’s expression clouds over, surprised and offended.
DUPREE: That is bullshit. That is bullshit, Krazy-8! I should kick his punk ass for even thinking that. Next time you talk to Emilio, you tell him for me.
But of course Jesse goes a bit too far, over-defending himself and running off at the mouth.
A TOILET FLUSHES o.s. Krazy-8 nods toward the sound.
KRAZY-8: Made bail this morning. You can tell him yourself.
The bathroom door opens. Into the room walks EMILIO, the guy we saw get busted. He looks bigger now, somehow. And angry.
EMILIO: Go ahead, pendejo. Kick my ass.
Dupree is suddenly none too comfortable. Emilio advances on him, but Krazy-8 shakes his head to his cousin -- hold up.
The final draw in this status game is force. Jesse’s not much of a fighter, which should be obvious. He’s outnumbered. He can’t back up his high status talk. This officially ends the status game and the scene.
Krazy-8 turns to Dupree, dangles the baggie. Shakes it.
KRAZY-8: Where’d you get this? ‘Cause I know damn well you didn’t cook it.
Off Dupree, not so cocky now:
Force isn’t always the trump card. Some of my favorite movie scenes involve a cocky character who’s not only immune to force, but beatings and intimidation just seem like fuel for the fire.
I’m thinking specifically of the scene from Fight Club -- which I only dimly remember -- where Tyler’s laughing hysterically as he’s getting his ass kicked.
And of course the brilliant showdown between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper from the Tarantino-penned True Romance.
If you watch this scene, you’ll notice that by the time Hopper asks for a cigarette, he pretty much knows he’s as good as dead. So his monologue about Sicilians being “part eggplant” is his attempt to maintain high status to the point of his death. In this case, Walken killing him is actually a status-lowering move -- he can’t outsmart what this guy just told him. He has to use force.