Sep 25, 2012

Breaking Bad

I had no interest in watching Breaking Bad when it first began its run. Yet another story about the drug trade sounded boring and unpleasant to me. But after AMC ran a Breaking Bad marathon this summer, I finally gave it a shot. I found I’d been missing one of the best dramas in the history of television.

To understand why a TV show or movie works, you have to start by identifying the story challenges the author faced at the beginning of the writing process. First, show creator Vince Gilligan had to overcome the same audience expectation I had, which is that this was going to be another boring, predictable story about druggies. A second challenge was one all TV writers must solve: extendability. Instead of a two-hour movie plot, Gilligan would have to come up with a huge number of plot beats, over multiple seasons, derived from the business of selling drugs.

This challenge would become even harder when Gilligan decided to use an average guy to drive the story. This wasn’t going to be Miami Vice on the border of Mexico. So what’s the story?

Gilligan’s grand solution to these challenges came when he realized how to do a crime story that uses the unique power of TV. The crime genre, unlike the detective form, is often told from the POV of the criminal. Gilligan’s great insight was that, with TV, he now had an entire season to show what it means and feels like to be a criminal.

American television, like Hollywood film, puts tremendous emphasis on a high concept premise to set the story apart from everything else on the market. Gilligan has said, “What was interesting to me was a straight arrow character (Walt) who decides to make a radical change in his life and goes from being a protagonist to an antagonist.” His initial pitch to Sony was, “I want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface over the life of the series.”

That’s a brilliant premise, and one that included in its single line how this story idea could support a long-running series. Notice Breaking Bad is the mirror opposite of The Sopranos. The Sopranos is about a mob king who kills by day but sees a psychiatrist and has trouble with his family at night. Breaking Bad is a high school teacher by day who becomes a drug lord at night. Both play with the contrast of sensational crime vs. the common everyday to generate a skewed but fascinating reality.

The choice of which genre to use for your story idea is just as important in TV as it is in film. The Detective story is by far the most popular genre in TV, not just in America but worldwide. Crime, with a few notable exceptions, is not nearly so hot. But notice how the Crime form in TV allows writers to do things they could not do with Detective. Because Crime is from the point of view of the criminal, we feel what it’s like for this average man to see and do progressively more terrible things, to watch while a man is beaten to death, to face certain death at the hands of a drug boss, even to kill a man in cold blood. As they say on the show: “The cost of doing business.”

And with TV Crime you can show how becoming a criminal affects that person’s most intimate relationships. Over the course of Breaking Bad we see in minutely calibrated detail how Walt’s lies and criminal actions drive his wife away and destroy the family he is trying to save.

In all of my genre classes I talk about the importance of not simply hitting the basic story beats of your form, but of transcending them, so that the story is original. This is just as essential for success in TV as it is in film. And this is one of the key strategies Gilligan uses on his show.

All transcendent Crime stories deal with moral accounting over a lifetime. The focus is not on a single crime, but rather on how the criminal’s actions tally up on a lifetime board where some final settlement must be made. Transcendent crime storylines detail the playing out of karma. (For all the story beats of Crime, as well as how to transcend the form, take a look at the Detective, Crime and Thriller Class.)

The premier movie artists of transcendent Crime are the Coen brothers, in films like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. What’s unique about Gilligan is his ability to adapt transcendent crime to the TV medium, by having the crime come out of the hero’s sickness and buried hubris, and by showing that the nastiest war of the show is within the family.

Like the Coen brothers, Gilligan also plays with the black comedy elements that so often come with transcendent Crime. This was especially true in the early episodes of the first season when Walt and his partner, Jesse, are comically incompetent at this new business of crime. But we also saw it in the opening episode of season 5, essentially a comedy caper where the guys rig up some high-powered batteries to knock out an incriminating computer in the police station.

Of course the linchpin in Gilligan’s story strategy is his extremely complex and contradictory hero, Walt. Walt begins as a brilliant but nebbishy normal guy, a character grounded in a reality that every viewer recognizes. He is an everyman, pushed around his whole life and trapped in a job that is beneath his talents. Then he learns he has cancer. This bombshell makes him take stock and take control of his life.

For a transcendent Crime show, this is a brilliant stroke. Notice that by starting Walt as a normal and moral person, Gilligan prevents the viewer from mentally shoving the hero into the crime or gangster ghetto. Crime isn’t something those “other” people do. Crime is the crucible where everyman Walt must face a series of moral tests. And the decisions he makes, the methods he uses, lead him down a path to hell.

It’s a path filled with contradictions. Walt starts to become hooked on the intellectual game of it all. On the plus side, he starts to become assertive, his own man, even as he faces death by cancer or by murder. But then Walt comes to feel that he is an artist, a master chef. The hubris that was buried deep inside him long ago starts to bubble to the surface, until finally in season 5, Walt is a full-blown Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As so often happens with a well-drawn character, the seed for Walt’s flowering as a complex and contradictory character lies in his ghost, the event from the past still haunting him in the present. In the first few episodes of season 1, Walt hints at the fact that he was screwed out of a wildly successful chemical business. Now he teaches chemistry to high school students. But deep down he believes he is a genius and deserves to be a rich businessman, too. When all the original rational reasons for making and selling drugs are long gone, it is this pride and resentment that will guarantee Walt’s eventual death.

The single biggest challenge for any show runner and writing staff is how to sequence the episodes. In other words, how do you segment and sequence the plot over an entire season? By watching all the episodes of this show in such a short period of time, I had a clear window into how exceptional the story build is in Breaking Bad.

Again, much of the credit for this has to go to Gilligan’s original conception and structure of the show. By starting Walt as a moral everyman, Gilligan is able to sequence the plot based on the hero’s moral challenges. Each episode tracks both an escalation of trouble for Walt and a moral decision that is more complicated than the one that came before.

This escalating moral sequence is hung on the premise line of the show: from Mr. Chips to Scarface, from protagonist to antagonist. Notice this gives a natural endpoint for the series. As Walt goes to greater extremes to reach his obsession, his rationales become emptier, and he finally runs out of options. As Gilligan says, “Breaking Bad is not engineered to last indefinitely. It is engineered to end at a certain time and place. Having said that, I’m not entirely sure what that time and place is.”

This focus has been a tremendous benefit to the show, allowing it to build not just within each season but from first season to last. But the cost is starting to be felt. Breaking Bad has shown us the making of a master criminal, but now that he's here, he’s not as much fun to watch. It’s not just that he’s become extremely unlikable, especially to his wife, Skylar. He’s not as compelling. With so much hubris, it’s obvious what is going to happen to him. So the plot has suffered as the final season moves toward its inexorable end. The only question for me is: who will kill him. My bet was on Jesse. But as Walt has become more monstrous to his wife, I now believe that Skylar will have the opportunity to prevent his death, but won’t.

If you’re interested in writing for television, you must study this show. In my TV Drama Class, I go into great detail about all the elements that go into a great TV script, from tight structural weave to lean, powerful dialogue. You’ll find those same elements in any episode of Breaking Bad.

If you’re a screenwriter or novelist, study this show for mastery of story. Because no matter what medium you work in, it’s all about being the best storyteller you can be.