Breaking Down Breaking Bad

By Xoic · Mar 8, 2023 · ·
  1. [​IMG]
    I did a few posts about it back in the Hodgepodge thread, but now I want to devote some time and energy to really digging into it. And I'll start with this:

    The video is from this article: Our Favorite Lessons on Screenwriting from 'Breaking Bad'

    Once again I'm using the blog as a notebook where I can drop links and articles I'm learning from.


  1. Xoic
    That was an amazing video toward the bottom of that page, where Adam Savage interviewed Vince. I clicked through to see it on Youtube so I could Like it, and this one came up:

    I wish I could talk to some of these writers and ask them a few questions. One in particular—

    There's an epsiode in season 3 called Fly, directed by Rian Johnson, where Walt is tormented by a fly in the superlab. Nobody else is there while he goes into battle against it, and I began to think it wasn't even really there. But then Jesse came in and saw it. Well, there goes that idea. But then it hit me—"I wonder if it's a connection to Cronenberg's The Fly?" After all, BB is a show about metamorphosis, as was The Fly. And in both the MC was invigorated at the beginning of the process. Jeff Goldblum was flipping around doing gynmastic stunts and punching holes in walls, and Walt became a sexual animal for a while. Then in both cases it started going darker and really nasty. In The Fly the transformation was a metaphor for addiction, and really that's what it was for Walt too. An addiction to power and control. Vince did admit in the Adam Savage interview there was a deliberate connection with The Godfather. I'll bet the connection with Cronenberg's film was very deliberate as well.

    Another and somewhat darker connection I made with that episode—Walt really went super-paranoid about that one little fly, like it was going to totally destroy their product, and in fact he called it a contamination, in a really nasty tone of voice. I happen to know that Hitler thought of certain groups of people as cockroaches and a contamination. In fact this is apparently a common trait among totalitarian leaders. They seem to be perfectionists, and to have something very much like OCD, and as they rack up more and more crimes against humanity (their own as well as everyone else's) they begin to become more fearful of contamination creeping in somehow. Like that scientist in the one episode of Creep Show, for those who have seen it.
  2. Xoic
    The main thing I'm getting so far from all this writer's talk is how deep they go, how hard they work to test their ideas and really make sure they're coming up with the best ones they can. Several times they've said characters refused to do certain things and decided to go a different way. Adam asked if any actors had done that, and Vince said no, but I'll put that down to the excellent writing.

    Apparently Walt was originally supposed to accept the monetary help from his ex partners in Grey Matter, but the character didn't like that idea and suggested that he isn't really 'doing it all for his family', but because he loves the power and the control. And that's where it really got interesting.

    I've been going deeper and working harder to test my ideas as I move forward, but not to the levels they obviously do. Of course I'm just one guy, and I don't have a room full of amazing writers who seem able to merge into a hive mind and all connect their thinking. That seems to be exactly what happens in the writing rooms for certain shows. I get the feeling that's how it was on Buffy, under the tutelage of Joss Whedon.
  3. Xoic
    Acting Up

    I said back on the Hodgepodge thread that I have no idea how to break down the structure of a long-form show into acts. I now see that the entire series used a 5-act structure, and each episode also has a 5-act structure. Vince called it a 4-act structure, but then I saw his cards and for each episode there's a Teaser followed by 4 acts. The teaser must be the little snippets they show from the climax and then cut back to the beginning and show you how we get there. So the 5 acts of an episode are separated by commercial breaks. Good to know. Now the only part I'm not sure of is if each season has acts.
  4. Xoic
    I just realized something. Back in my Narrative vs Poetic Form series I broke down a number of movies that used a dialectic approach—shifting between the straightforward narrative style and a much more poetic approach. Breaking Bad does shift from the MC's conscious persona (Walter White) to his unconscious shadow-self (Heisenberg). But there's no accompanying shift in filmmaking approach from Narrative to Poetic. It remains in straightforward narrative style the entire time. It's mostly just a change in Bryan Cranston's acting technique that signals the change.

    The arc of the show is a gradual shift from mostly Walter White in the beginning, through sudden outbursts of Heisenberg when needed, to Heisenberg being almost completely in control by the end. Very much a Jeckyl and Hyde story.
  5. Xoic
    Another weird and basically pointless but fun connection—I know Jesse's name was changed shortly before filming began. I don't remember what it originally was. But the qestion is why did they change it? Was it so they'd have a Mr. White and a Mr. Pinkman? Maybe to connect it up with Reservoir Dogs, where the criminals all took color names like Mister White, Mister Pink, Mister Blue etc?
  6. Xoic
    Who is the main character of Breaking Bad, what is his major goal, and who or what is his antagonist?

    These are interesting questions, and I guess it depends on how you look at it.

    A case can be made that Walter White and Heisenberg are antagonists. Or maybe not, they do seem to share the same goal, just very different methods. No, I take that back, they don't have the same goal. WW's goal is to put away enough money to keep his family afloat long after he's gone, until the kids are through college. Heisenberg's goal is to constantly increase his power, money, and glory. He does that under the pretense of 'doing it all for the family'.

    In a sense it's a lot like Black Swan, because Heisenberg is Walt's repressed shadow self, his dark side, who was never seen until the moment he realized he was dying. Apparently it took that massive shock to crack open Walt's unconscious and let the monster out.

    I dont' have any fixed ideas on this yet, the thought just occurered to me a few moments ago. I'll explore it in here.

    What I was setting out to write when I started this post was that Walter White is the protagonist, and Heisenberg is his antagonist. I'm sure Heisenberg doesn't see it that way.

    In another sense though, it could be said that they're two parts of one man's psyche, and they're struggling for control over him. Without Heisenberg he wouldn't be capable of accomplishing any of the amazing things he did, he would have just died the wretched, lifeless, beaten man he was when we first saw him.
  7. Xoic
    Family and Masculinity Themes in a modern Western

    Every one of the main characters connects strongly to the theme of Family.

    Walter of course is doing everything for his family. He has a strong desire to protect and provide for them, a man's job in the traditional world he grew up in. That traditional world, as well as the status of a man as the protector and provider of a family, has been severely under attack since the early 60s, and by the 2000s, when the show was set, the traditional family had largely fallen apart and middle-aged men had been largely devalued and turned into whipping boys all across society. In the show it seems to be only in the worlds of the police, DEA, and crime where men are tough and strong and stand up for their values to the death.

    In some sense Breaking Bad is a modern Western. It's set in New Mexico, much of it takes place out in the desert, on Native American land in fact, and the Mexican Cartel is one of the big enemies. The Western deals with heroes and villains on the edge of a shrinking frontier, being gradually replaced by encroaching civilization, in which men no longer need to be heroes, all that is bureaucratized and given to authorities such as the police and managers and politicians who make rules everyone must follow to make society safe. In many Westerns we see the early part of that process, when law and order hasn't been established yet, or a little later, when it's in its infancy, but exists only in the bigger towns like Dodge City. Men went armed everywhere, and were expected to deal with their own problems or the problems of their families or compatriots, either alone or in small groups. But what we see in Breaking Bad is civilization having taken over completely. As I said, it's only criminals who still behave like it's the Wild West, and the lawmen who fight them. And the lawmen are more and more held to certain standards the criminals aren't, making it harder for them to fight effectively (shades of Dirty Harry). We're in the process of outlawing masculinity itself, so only the outlaws will be masculine.

    That's pretty much the starting point of Breaking Bad, and Walter White represents the modern de-masculinized male—beaten down, bereft of his masculine pride, and pretty much everyone's laughing stock. This connects up powerfully with the family theme, because his major goal is to provide for his family, and so far he's been a failure at it. In order to do it, he's going to have to awaken Heisenberg. And that doesn't happen until Walter White realizes he's dying. For a time they both exist in there, taking turns at controlling the shared body, with Heisenberg growing increasingly evil and controlling as the show goes on.
  8. Xoic
    Breaking Backstory

    In Walt's back story we learn that he was once a brilliant chemist and, together with his friend and a young woman named Gretchen who was a student of his, they formed a company called Gray Matter. Gray because the other man's name is Schwartz (German for black), and Walter's name is White. There's even a strong intimation that at one time there was a thing between Walter and Gretchen, but now she's thrown him over for his friend (I don't remember if they married before or after Walt was ousted from the company?), and they somehow tricked Walt so he lost his position and was out of the company altogether. I assume it was because of his nice-guy trusting nature, the qualities that made him Walter White as we see him in the beginning of the show.

    So even in the world of business men are expected to be men, the tough and shrewd and most ruthless survive, and the nice guys get thrown to the sharks. Walt was a powerful cog in the Gray Matter machine, but he got destroyed because his friend was less ethical than he was, and out he went, to drop from being one of the world's leading and most respected chemists, to a nobody teaching high-school science and getting made fun of by his dull lackluster students. No wonder he became powerful and ruthless as Heisenberg! The show seems to be saying this was the only route left open to him if he wanted to be able to provide for his family and protect them. It can no longer be done if you're a decent man who follows the rules, even if you're brilliant. Back-stabbing bastards will ruin you just because they can. So I guess it's an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" kind of a thing.

    He had a fall arc before the beginning of the story. There was a Tragedy there, but it isn't the focus of Breaking Bad, which begins after the fall and documents his rise to infamy and ruthless power. A rags to riches story arc, with its own fall at the end, but I think he achieved his goal of providing for his family and keeping them safe, and he was living on borrowed time anyway, it was never in doubt he was going to die. So his death isn't really a tragedy, is it? I'm not sure, I haven't got there yet, and I don't remember my one previous watching all that well. Just trying to think my way through this convoluted story.
  9. Xoic
    How Jesse relates to the Family theme

    When we first meet Jesse, he's in his underwear, just as Walt was when we first saw him. Just one of the interesting connections the show makes. In Jesse's case it's because he was having a sexual fling with a neighbor girl, next to the house where he was cooking meth with his partner Emilio. He has no family at this point, he's young and unattached. He's also one of WW's former students—one of the worst ones. A failure and a schlub with no propspects. Apparently what he needs is a father figure, which Walt becomes to him. When we meet his childhood family a little later, it becomes clear he was once promising, but became the family scapegoat, maybe when his younger brother was born? It seems like Jesse couldn't get the guidance and love he needed, so he started acting out, becoming a little juvenile delinquent out of rebelliousness. When he first meets Walt he makes fun of him just like Walt's students do, but it becomes clear, even though he hides it for a while under his rebellious guise, that he quickly comes to value WW's skills and methodical way of approaching things, which makes him so effective now at what he does. Walt is no longer the goofy fumbling buffoon Jesse always knew him as, now he's strong and dedicated to his goal and will stop at nothing to achieve it. Walt has become a strong and self-made man, he just had to break bad in order to do it.

    Jesse becomes more and more like Walt as the show goes on, even learning to cook meth nearly as well as him. He also sheds his stupid meth-head attitude and mannerisms. Note his original phone answering machine had that stupid hiphop-sounding message filled with Yos and other absurd phrases to try to sound hip and cool, but later he changes it to something much more sedate. His clothing also changes from too-big hiphop gear like something from a music video to much more suitable stuff. And he cuts his hair shorter and shorter, ending up not quite as hairless as Walt, but very nearly so.

    Jane (Krysten Ritter) was his first attempt at finding a woman to settle down with, a step toward family. At first he might have just wanted to hook up and do drugs with her, like he was doing with some random girl when we first met him, but he fell in love rapidly and obviously wanted much more than that from her. But she was drawing him away from Walt, so Heisenberg had to end that situation. He did it by watching her choke on her own vomit. The conflict is so unbelievably strong in this show!! Then a season or so later he finds another woman, again drawn to her first by drugs, but then finds out she has a little boy. At that point he no longer wants her doing drugs. Jesse really loves children. That's very clear throughout. That's the source of his connection to family. And he gets very close. He's basically living with the girl and her son, when the son gets poisoned because he was peripherally involved in the drug trade.

    I took a long time writing all this, and put in a lot of detail, but that's to show just how perfectly everything is worked out by the writers. I said near the top that they made really excellent choices and that's a huge part of why the show is the best ever. Look at the way Jesse is so skillfully woven into the themes, especially family and masculinity. In the beginning he put on a big show of being a tough guy in a hiphop way, like he got it from watching music videos, but after a while he's faced many of his very real fears and become a killer himself. He grows up to a large extent, and is on the verge of creating a family when that's snatched away from him by this ugly drug trade he's devoted his life to. It sucks everyone in and destroys them.
  10. Xoic

    I'm going a little out of sequence here, I'll be getting back to how certain characters relate to family, but I have other things to say too, and I want to do it while the ideas are fresh. Stagger things a bit.

    Chemical bonding is another theme of the show. People in a sense behave like molecules or elements and form bonds with each other. Some are positive bonds, some negative, and some are very unstable and volatile. One big clue to this is shown in the credits:


    BR is the symbol for Bromine, and Ba for Barium. Bromine is used in flame retardants and fire extinguishers, and Barium is added to fireworks to obtain a green color (which is the color of drug money I believe). Two opposing chemical elements.

    But lo and behold, there are also symbols of elements in the names of the actors:


    I'm no chemist, amd I don't plan to go through and try to figure out if these elements have particular reactions with each other, but the idea is that the characters bond in different ways. In particular Walt and Jesse have a very volatile and unstable bond. When it's good it's very good. Not only do they work well together (at times), but Walt exerts a strong fatherly influence on Jesse, and Jesse in his turn helps to stabilize Walt at times. But sometimes they react violently with each other. Mostly because Heisenberg is unstable. In fact his bonding with any character has a tendency to be volatile and unstable.

    This bonding of characters as elements is shown in the name Gray Matter, the company created by Walt and his friend. Their names are White and Schwartz (black), hence Grey Matter. It's like each is a particle or a molecule—put them together and they bond and create this amazing company. But it went unstable, especially for Walt. His girlfreiend ended up with his 'friend', and together they booted him out of the company he helped start, and I believe they kept using his brilliant chemical formulae without crediting him or something equally dastardly.

    Then Walt bonded with Skyler, making her his wife and spawning a family. Later he bonds with Jesse to create the teamup that gives us the most chemically pure meth ever seen.

    And Walt keeps using his chemistry genius to solve their problems. He mixes up some highly toxic gas in the teaser for the first episode that kills the bad guys (one of them anyway), and later he makes Fulminated Mercury, that looks just like crystal meth but is highly explosive. He's able to get a small bag of it into Tuco's drug den, disguised as meth, and threaten to blow the place sky high.

    Again, I'm marveling at how skilfully all these various elements are bonded together to create a complex and yet clear story. Nothing about it feels shallow or stupid, and it rarely devolves to tricks like using a character simply as a plot device to accomplish something needed to advance the story. They always remain in character, though most of them are fairly complex.
  11. Xoic
    Hank and Gustavo

    Like Walt, Hank has a family and we meet them early on. But unlike Walt, Hank and Marie have no children. I haven't seen the followup show that I think is called El Camino, about Jesse, but I've read he and Marie get together and have a child. Meaning Hank was the reason they had no kids. Impotent, while being the most manly man among the good guys, and constantly strutting around like a rooster spouting off fratboy/jock witticisms to insult the manhood of all his DEA fellows and especially of Walt. An interesting inversion—Walt is supposed to be the non-masculine one, and yet he has two children, while hunky Hank has none. Complex characters.

    So that's how Hank relates to the themes of Family and Masculinity.

    Gus Fring, Heisenberg's arch-nemesis and shadow figure (If a shadow can be said to have a shadow) speaks of family, but we never see them. Probably he only talks about family to manipulate Walt because he knows he's a family man, and that that is indeed his greatest weakness. He says things to Walt like "A man must provide for his family" in order to get in his good graces or to embarrass him at times. Manipulation.
  12. Xoic
    Walking Dead



    The meth-heads, victims of the amazingly pure meth Walt and Jesse cook up, are sort of zombies, like something from The Walking Dead. They're terrifying to look at. Teeth rotting out of their heads, horrible skin lesions, hair falling out, frail and emaciated. Almost like lepers or something. They show the horrible toll meth takes on a society and on individuals and—dun dun duuuuunnnnn... family.

    Their houses are absolutely devastated. Empty shells, not cleaned for years, with junk left laying all over the place. And the ones who have children neglect them to an unbelievable degree. They ignore all their needs and just satisfy their own drug lust, like crazed lotus eaters incapable of taking care of anyone including themselves.


    I was looking for frame grabs from the show, but this seems to be a real meth house. Oh wait, maybe just an abandoned house? Looks like the meth houses in the show. I think I said earlier that a house often represents a person's life (was that in this thread?)—well, it can also represent the state of their family's life. They bring their kids up in this kind of filth, with absolutely no supervision (I'm talking on the show, but probably in real life as well). So this all ties in with the theme of family.

    And, since Gus Fring straight up said "A man must provide for his family", that becomes a motto that ties together the family and masculinity themes. To be a real man, you must provide for your family. I think that must be the premise. Here we see examples of the failure to do so. Oddly enough, aided and abetted by the meth Walt and Jesse cook and sell. Complex themes.

    Jesse started to become a meth-head at one point,and his house looked very much like this after his extended many-days-long party with people he didn't even know lying around on the floor drugged out of their minds, and writing on the walls. Plus at the end Walt's house looks somewhat like this, because it's riddled with bullet holes and abandoned after an attack. Very excellent use of themes and motifs woven throughout in many different ways.

    Postscript—In the book I'm reading I learned the meth house for the show actually was a real house owned by a hoarder. They paid him or her well to be allowed to film in it a few times. But before filming they actually cleaned it up somewhat, because it actually looked too bad on camera. Too much chaos, not enough order. Aaron Paul, who played Jesse, said the place smelled intensely of cat piss, which really lent itself to some method acting. You almost couldn't breathe in there.
  13. Xoic
    Followup thought from last post—

    Frequently we see Walt and Jesse scrupulously cleaning their equipment after a cook, or checking it for cleanliness before one. Meticulous cleanliness—this is the diametrical opposite of the laxness of the meth-heads. It's the dialectic of order and chaos, but Walt is so overdetermined in his orderliness he's almost fanatical about it, to such a degree that he's insanely threatened by that single fly, and he almost killed himself trying to kill it.
  14. Xoic
    Toxic Masculinity

    The iconic doorway shot from The Searchers, a classic Western with very strong themes of masculinity and family. Here though the masculinity is of a very different sort than what erupts from inside Walt. This shot seems to show a division between two different worlds—the ineterior of the house, where the women rule indisputably, and the heat-shimmering desert outside, where men absolutely must be men, tough enough and indomitable enough to take on the native warriors and win. One young buck comes home all fired up on his toughness and acts a fool, refusing to obey the women, and he gets roughed up by the rest of the guys and put back in his place.

    When the camera pulls back from that shot, we see the interior of the house is all dolled up with doileys and frilly ruffles and fine trinkets. All very much decorated with the feminine touch. And the men, who were such tough sons-of-bitches outside, are all "Yes ma'am" and. "No ma'am". It isn't that they're cowed or emasculated. It's the division of labor that ruled the traditional world. Men were kings in their own domain, which was outside of the house, and inside the women were in charge, and the men made sure it stayed that way.

    But when Walt unleashed his hidden Heisenberg, it had been repressed in his unconscious for a long time, all pent up and pissed off. It had been simmering in resentment and hatred, denied any power in the external world, so it longed for it to a ridiculous degree. He came out a malignant narcissist, with a massive ego but all fragile, so a single comment he interprets as an insult must be immediately avenged (or served up cold in the future). He can be incredibly intelligent when it comes to chemical recipes and tricking enemies, until his fragile ego gets riled up, and then frequently he's actually dumb as a brick. He buys a souped-up brand new Challenger for his son's birthday, even though he's out of a job and supposed to be insolvent financially. His wife had to try several times to make him understand that their friends and neighbors, and particularly the IRS, would not understand where that flashy red sports car came from and how he afforded it. He only grudgingly accepted this obvious truth.

    Unlike the much more balanced men depicted in The Searchers, Heisenberg wants to rule the world, and he refuses to listen to his wife until she forces him to see the errors he's making. And even then he stares daggers at her, and disposes of the car in an incredibly stupid way that would have made it totally obvious it was deliberately set on fire if Saul's team didn't get to it 'before it was discovered' and clean it all up.

    I think Walt has been so denied any masculinity at all that he's broken, and what masculinity he has submerged in his unconscious is horribly twisted. It has no restraint and no tact. It wants to utterly dominate everybody with no discretion. It's truly toxic masculinity.
  15. Xoic
    Is there a Doctor in the House?

    Interesting coincidence. I'm on the last episode of season 4. Jesse believes the little boy (his girlfriend's child) has been poisoned with the ricin he and Walt made to kill Gus Fring some time ago. He rushes to the hospital all out of breath, tries to get into the boy's room where no visitors are allowed, and tells them to check for ricin poisoning. It's an extremely rare, almost unknown poison they would never think to check for.

    Well, the doctors tell the police, who send detectives to talk to Jesse and ask him how he even knows about ricin, and he says "I don't know, maybe I heard about it on House or somewhere."

    Didn't want to give it away too soon is all.

    House. A show about a narcissistic doctor, strongly based on Sherlock Holmes, who solves medical mysteries nobody else can solve. A super-smart narcissist. And the main character of the show, presented ambiguously—sympathetically and then very unsympathetically by turns. Very much the way Walt is shown in his own show. Yeah, definitely a deliberate connection. To one of my favorite shows.

    House is overall much more charming and likable than Walt. Walt is pretty harsh even when he's being good, though he does become very vulnerable and sympathetic.
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