This week we turn our eyes to TV and analyze the pilot episode for Breaking Bad, the great series about Walter White, high school teacher and meth cook. Written by Vince Gilligan and starring Bryan Cranston as Walt. And here’s the links:
And now the script of the podcast!
Hi, I’m Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where every episode we do a deep dive into a movie or TV show. And to go along with this analysis, I publish a chart of the story we’re covering on the storylanes.com website, a chart I produced while preparing the episode. You don’t need to look at that chart – the podcast is standalone. But if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, check it out at storylanes.com.
This week we’re doing our first TV episode. And to start, we’re doing the pilot for BREAKING BAD. It first aired in 2008. It was written by showrunner Vince Gilligan, and stars Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, and RJ Mitte. It’s generally thought of as one of the better pilots out there, so this is going to be a fun one.
As usual, this podcast assumes you’ve seen the show. There will be spoilers. And there won’t be detailed explanations of plot points. Further, I’m going to assume that you’ve seen the entire series. There aren’t any big spoilers for the rest of the series, but I do make a couple non-specific comments about things that happen. So beware. And go watch BREAKING BAD if you want to listen to this podcast. And hey, there’s only 62 episodes. No problem, right?
BREAKING BAD tells the story of Walter White. Walt’s a brilliant chemist, but due to bad luck and bad life choices, he’s stuck teaching high school chemistry. He struggles trying to support his wife and teenage son, and to make matters worse, she’s pregnant. So he works his teaching job, but he also has a soul-deadening menial job at the local carwash.
And that’s not all that’s bad for poor Walt. His students don’t respect him, his wife pushes him around, and he’s the clear beta male to his brother-in-law’s alpha. And then he finds out he has terminal cancer with two years to live.
So Walt decides to put that chemistry knowledge to use and starts cooking meth. And that leads him down a rabbit-hole that turns him into a violent criminal and lets him regain his self-respect. He breaks bad, but he also rediscovers his manhood. Pretty literally, as we see in the pilot.
Now this is our first Storylanes episode about a TV show, so things are going to go a little different. All those screenwriting models we usually talk about aren’t meant for TV episodes, though we’ll take a look and see if they apply. But even beyond that, a TV pilot has to do different things than a movie.
You can find a lot of online info telling you what a pilot must accomplish. For purposes of this discussion, I’m going to talk about the following key points.
- A pilot needs to introduce the characters and their relationships. And character relationships are key to a TV series. People come back week after week because they like the characters and want to see their interactions.
- A pilot needs to introduce the premise of the show. What is the show about? Why should people watch it?
- A pilot needs to introduce the structure of the show. All the episodes in a TV series will tend to have a similar structure. The pilot needs to create that structure and serve as a model for it.
- A pilot needs to plant the seeds that will sprout throughout the series. Some of that is in the character relationships. But that’s not all – there needs to be enough here to carry a series over tens, maybe hundreds, of hours of entertainment. What’s going to sustain the show over that long term? What are the story engines for the series?
- And finally, the pilot still has to do most of the things that a movie has to do. It has to be entertaining. Because if the pilot is boring, nobody is ever going to watch the second episode.
So let’s go through these points. And they start with the characters.
There’s a few things to note about how TV characters are different than movie characters. First, there’s a lot more room for the characters to grow. A character doesn’t need a complete arc in the pilot – it’s enough to lay the groundwork to make room for a more full arc throughout the series. In fact, there had better be a bigger arc for the character: if characters complete their journey in the pilot, who’ll want to watch them in future episodes?
Second, while movie characters can certainly have depth, TV characters need it. Especially the main character of a series. Hopefully, the audience is going to be with these characters for a long time. Even the most entertaining two-dimensional character is going to get old after 20-30 episodes. TV characters need hidden depths, things the audience doesn’t know, new ways that the characters can change, more hidden layers to reveal.
And, of course, it never hurts to have a little mystery about our characters. Leave the audience curious, wanting to learn more. That curiosity will bring them back for future episodes.
But perhaps most important, TV characters need a wide set of relationships. Because much of the joy of watching a series is seeing how relationships between characters shift over time. Relationships are important in any story-telling medium. But they’re crucial in TV.
With all this in mind, let’s look at the characters of BREAKING BAD. BREAKING BAD has a strong central protagonist, Walter White. But it also has solid set of supporting characters with whom he has diverse and interesting relationships. Let’s take a closer look.
The first thing to note here is that Walt has a strong character arc in the pilot, but he’s really the only character with an arc. And that’s okay. The other characters are introduced, and they are intriguing. But this is only the beginning of their stories, not their entire stories – they will each have character arcs through the course of the series. All we really need for them here is a solid introduction.
As Walt’s arc starts, he is a broken man. He’s a good chemistry teacher, and he seems to enjoy it. But that’s about the only thing he has going for him. He gets little respect from the people around him. He’s in clear financial distress. And to keep his family above water, he has a second incredibly menial job that’s clearly beneath his capabilities.
Even Walt’s sex life is dismal: for his birthday, his wife gives him just about the most soul-destroying handjob ever committed to film.
There’s some good notes for the screenwriter here. This show pulls no punches in establishing just how low Walt starts. He doesn’t just work at a menial job. He has to clean the tires of one of his bratty students and have his picture taken doing it. His wife doesn’t just control him, she decides what he will eat and how he will get his sexual pleasure and what he should say to stand up to his boss – not that Walt will ever stand up to his boss. His finances aren’t just bad, his wife is reduced to selling things on Ebay and lying to bill collectors. There is no subtlety in this depiction of a man at the end of his tether.
And all that is before he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. So we have a guy who is at an incredibly low point in his life, and then he’s smacked down by fate. It’s a great example of the story-telling principle that one should figure out what is the worst thing that can happen to a character and then do it.
Now, Walt isn’t a complete loss. We get hints that he’s a smart guy who could be doing much better. We see how smart he is when he teaches. And when, on the drug bust, he casually knows more about the risks of the meth lab than Hank.’/[
And when we finally see Walt doing chemistry, he’s clearly good at it – superb, really.
Which introduces a little mystery to his character. What happened to this guy to bring him to this low point? That isn’t resolved in the pilot, it isn’t even explicitly asked. But it’s suggested.
And, we should note, while the series gives some hints to an answer, we never do find out the details. After having seen the entire series, we can make some educated guesses. But we never go further than that.
That’s an interesting note for the screenwriter. The value of a question like this is the mystery itself. It isn’t the solution to the mystery. Sometimes, in some special cases, we never have to give an answer. Though of course leaving a mystery like that hanging has its own potential problems and can annoy the audience. But if there’s enough else going on, maybe they won’t even notice.
Now curiously, some of the biggest indicators of Walt’s abilities and successful past that are found in the script were cut from the show. The script shows that Walt was part of a Nobel-winning research team. He was teacher-of-the-year over several years. But the reader of the script may know these things, but the watcher does not.
Then Walt is diagnosed with terminal cancer. And ironically, that’s just the thing that Walt needs to jolt him back to life. And what we see in the rest of the episode is Walt’s reawakening. By the end he has regained his manhood, as shown by the end of the episode, when he initiates rough sex with Skyler. It’s not explicitly stated, but it seems to be the first time in a long time that he’s taken the lead in his marriage.
Now Walt is not perfect. He’s not a two-dimensional superman. He’s damn good with chemistry, but not so good with anything else. We see him make dumb mistakes, as when he doesn’t sufficiently spread his purchases of meth components to different stores, instead buying them all in one place. He thinks he’s being smart by going out of town and paying cash, but Jesse quickly points out that he’s still being dumb. And as he juggles the gun, it’s clear that he has a lot to learn about life as a master criminal. This is another great aspect of this character – he’s kind of hopeless in areas outside his specialty. Which makes him more interesting, gives him depth. And leaves a lot of room for growth, something we’ll want to see over the course of the series.
There’s one other thing about Walt, and I must admit, I didn’t notice this the first time I watched the pilot. Walt is utterly amoral. He does a number of things in this episode that are morally suspect, even criminal, and he never once has second thoughts. He steals expensive equipment from his school. He deceives his wife and friends. He violently assaults young men in stores. (Obnoxious young men, but still.) And, of course, he makes meth, a harmful and highly addictive drug, and he murders two men.
Now Walt has reasons for doing what he does. When he assaults the kid in the store, he’s standing up for his son. When he kills the two men, he believes they’ll kill him if they can.
But the key point is that he never once shows any guilt for any of this, never shows an ounce of remorse. The show is called BREAKING BAD, but I think it’s pretty clear that right from the start Walt is already bad. He just hasn’t had the opportunity or initiative to act on his badness.
Walt is also at the center of the web of relationships in this show. Not surprising – he is the protagonist. We’ll talk about those relationships as we talk about the other characters.
The next character is Skyler. And to some extent, I think the defining characteristic of Skyler is how well she’s holding up under challenging circumstances. Sure, she has taken the lead in the White family home. She decides that Walt will eat veggie bacon to reduce his cholesterol. She decides that Walt has to stand up to his boss. She decides how much and what kind of sex Walt will get.
But she never complains. She does what is necessary to keep the family running – she sells stuff on Ebay, she deals with bill collectors. And she’s remarkably cheerful about it all.
I think it likely that this is not the life she signed up for. Once, Walt clearly had it all together. Skyler presumably met him at a time when his prospects were a lot better. We can’t imagine that she expected that life with Walt would require the extreme compromises that Skyler tolerates.
But in spite of that, she even celebrates the poor schmuck. She organizes a birthday party for him. And if that handjob was pretty grim, well, at least she gives him a handjob with a smile. The woman deserves a lot of credit.
And if Skyler is taking the lead in the family, well, someone has to. And Walt has largely checked out – he’s doing what he has to do, but not a whole lot more. So this time around, the thing that most stands out about Skyler is just how resilient she is.
I remember when the series was airing and Skyler grew unpopular in certain corners of the web. The fanboys didn’t like that she was negative about living as the wife of a drug kingpin. She had some qualms, she was afraid, she didn’t entirely trust Walt.
Of course, she was right about all those things. And in the pilot, at least, what stands out is just how cheerful she is living under circumstances that would try anyone’s patience. And living with Walt, who is, let’s face it, no great shakes as a husband.
Finally, Skyler’s relationship with Walt, as defined in the pilot, is loving, but also controlling. She is definitely the power in this family. Which sets the stage for future tension as Walt emerges from his depression and starts taking more control of his life. Which means taking control from Skyler – a potential source of struggle. It seems like a good relationship, but one with seeds of conflict. A perfect setup in the pilot.
Let’s finish off the White family with Walter, Jr. He’s a fairly typical teenage boy, self-absorbed, unaware of the challenges his parents face, easily swayed by what seems cool. But still, a nice kid, and one who clearly loves his parents.
Of course, he also has cerebral palsy. But he too doesn’t complain – he struggles to play the hand life dealt him. It’s a good trait.
But to the screenwriter, note two things about Walter, Jr. First, he really does stand out as a character. But second, there isn’t much to distinguish him except for his disability. By all means, think about giving your characters some defining trait like this. It makes them stand out, and you may not need a whole lot of other characterization.
Hmm… does that sound bad? It sounds a little bad to me. But I just don’t see a whole lot else that makes this kid stand out in the pilot, and yet, he does leave an impression.
Anyway, Walter, Jr, has fairly conventional relations with his parents. He loves them, but he also has some of the teenage need for independence going on here. But there’s not a lot of depth here, and his relationship with his parents doesn’t become particularly key to the rest of the series, except as it motivates Walt’s need to raise money to provide for his family.
I suppose I do wish that there was more to Walter, Jr. His relative blandness seems like a waste. It’s too bad that he’s not much more than the kid on the crutches.
Walter, Jr, does have a good relationship with his uncle Hank. After all, in a lot of ways Hank is a big kid. Walter, Jr, clearly finds Hank to be cool and likes joshing with him. But that doesn’t really pay off, at least not until several seasons in.
Okay, that’s the Whites. Let’s take a quick look at Walt’s extended family.
We start with Hank, Walt’s DEA brother-in-law. There’s a lot to parse here.
First, there’s the fact that Hank works for the DEA. For a series that’s going to be about Walt’s becoming a drug-lord, that’s a great source of conflict. And sure enough, the series will have many plotlines where Walt has to hide what he’s doing from Hank, and where Hank finally discovers it, and all the consequences of that. So Hank’s job in the DEA is a great seed for conflict throughout the series, even if it doesn’t lead to any particular conflict in the pilot.
Still, we might think that this is a big coincidence, that Walt the drug dealer should just happen to have a DEA agent in the family. But BREAKING BAD does something really smart here. It’s not a coincidence that Hank is a DEA agent and Walt makes drugs. Hank being a DEA agent is Walt’s entry into the world of making drugs.
Walt doesn’t come up with the idea of cooking meth on his own. He’s inspired by Hank’s bragging about making a drug bust, and the stories of how much money is in meth. In fact, Hank’s bragging about that is one of the key inciting incidents of the pilot.
So there’s a couple of important screenwriting tips here. First, plant as many seeds of conflict as you can in your pilot. You will want that conflict later. 62 episodes is a lot of TV, and you’ll need a lot of sources of conflict to carry you through all those episodes. It’s never too early to lay the groundwork for that conflict.
But second, you can get away with a coincidence if you don’t make it a coincidence. Give that coincidence a cause. And even better, consider reversing the real cause in the in-story cause.
It’s pretty clear that in coming up with this series, Vince Gilligan probably first thought to have Walt go into cooking meth, and only later decided to put a DEA agent in his family. Because after all, that would be a great source of conflict.
But Gilligan reversed the in-story logic. Hank was a DEA agent before Walt started making drugs. And Walt started making drugs because Hank was a DEA agent. There’s no coincidence there. It’s a terrific way of introducing this key source of conflict without resorting to coincidence. Screenwriters, take note.
And I should note, I’ve already done something like this myself. I have a TV pilot that I wrote in which I started with a disabled protagonist named Callie Grant who is in a wheelchair. I later decided that she should also have a murdered father to provide good plot seeds. So I put Callie in a wheelchair in a car crash where hackers murdered her father by taking control of his car and crashing it. And in that crash, Callie was disabled. In my mind, Callie was disabled first. But inside the series, the logic is reversed and the crash that killed her father also put her in the wheelchair.
Now back to BREAKING BAD.
The other thing to note about Hank is that he’s kind of the anti-Walt. Walt is reserved, intellectual, and unsuccessful. Hank is bombastic, bordering on offensive, in personality a jock with no intellectual pretensions, and successful at what he does. He’s a great contrast to Walt.
Still, he and Walt get along. But one gets the feeling that’s because Hank doesn’t see Walt as any real competition. Walt’s not good at the things Hank cares about. Though Hank has respect for Walt – he is one of the only people to say anything nice about Walt in the pilot, when he teases Walt saying he “has a brain as big as Wisconsin.”
But Walt clearly resents Hank. Hank grates on him, and there’s some envy in the way Walt responds to Hank.
And, of course, the relationship between the DEA agent and the drug dealer is a terrific plot seed for future conflict.
Hank’s wife Marie is Skyler’s sister. She only has one notable scene in this pilot, with Skyler. But she leaves a good impression in that scene. She’s clearly uptight and interfering, and while she and Skyler are close, there’s tension in that relationship. So while Marie doesn’t have a huge impact on the pilot, she is put in place to be a factor in the rest of the series.
But she doesn’t really have any special relationship with Walt. Her key relationship is with Skyler.
The final character of note is Jesse, who will become Walt’s partner and occasional antagonist throughout the series. In fact, after Walt Jesse is probably the most important character in the show.
Now Jesse is introduced through coincidence. Walt goes on a drive-along with Hank to a drug bust and he sees his former student fleeing the bust. And now Walt has an entry into the world of meth.
It’s a coincidence, but it doesn’t seem like an egregious one. Walt just happens to see someone he knows on the bust. That coincidence itself doesn’t drive the series, though their relationship does.
Anyway, Jesse is also an interesting character. On the surface, he seems like a complete goof. We first meet him falling backwards out a window with no pants on. (Hmm… being without pants is a theme in this show. At times both Jesse and Walt end up pantsless.) And he likes to pretend he’s a big deal, but from the way Krazy-8 responds to him, it’s clear that Jesse isn’t the tough dude that he thinks he is.
But Jesse does know a thing or two about the meth trade. In this world, he is Walt’s mentor, and he’s Walt’s entry into this world.
Though in the pilot, he’s also a nice source of comic relief.
In a lot of ways, the relationship between Walt and Jesse is the most complex in the series. There’s some conflict there from the fact that Walt flunked Jesse in high school chemistry. And there’s a mutual lack of respect, as when Jesse mocks Walt’s finicky chemistry methods. Though that changes when Jesse sees the results.
Still, there’s complexity and depth to this relationship, and it only grows over the course of the series.
So the first requirement of the pilot: introduce the characters and the relationships. BREAKING BAD does a great job of this, introducing in Walt a complex and fascinating protagonist with both strengths and weaknesses, and introducing additional five significant supporting characters, each distinct, and each except for Marie with a complex relationship with Walt. BREAKING BAD does what it needs for the pilot.
The second purpose of the pilot is to establish the premise of the show. And this pilot does that quite well. The premise of BREAKING BAD has been explained by Vince Gilligan as Mr. Chips becomes Scarface. And the pilot takes Walt on that journey, starting him as a dispirited schoolteacher and leaving him an emboldened meth cook par excellence. While it would be an exaggeration to say that he’s already reached Scarface-levels of drug kingship, he’s clearly on his way. And we can see how it’s going to play out – with Walt combining his amazing chemical skills with a certain naivety and awkwardness in other aspects of criminal life, and with much of the entertainment coming from seeing those two sides of him collide.
So the pilot does its job here, and the premise is firmly established.
The third thing a pilot needs to do is to establish the structure of the show. Before we speak specifically about how the pilot does that, let’s talk about the structure of the pilot.
And here we find one major difference between analyzing a commercial TV script and analyzing a movie’s screenplay. In a TV script, we don’t have to guess at how the story is broken into acts. The act breaks are already identified in the script.
Now note, not all TV scripts have act breaks defined. TV shows for streaming don’t always specify the act breaks. But if there’s commercials, there’s act breaks. And they are indicated in the script.
The BREAKING BAD pilot script has four acts and a teaser. The teaser takes only three pages of the script. Most of the acts are 14 pages, but act three is only 12.
The teaser uses a technique called an in media res opening. That means that we start in the middle of the story. We see some action from that middle, then flashback some period of time to the beginning of the story. The show then takes us forward until the opening, which in this script happens about halfway through act four.
A good in media res opening will leave the audience with a feeling of WTF. It will seem utterly bizarre. The challenge for the rest of the piece is to lead the audience to that moment and have it make sense.
A lot of movies and TV shows use this approach. Think JOHN WICK. Or FIGHT CLUB. Both start with scenes deep into the film and then flashback to an earlier time.
The BREAKING BAD pilot uses this technique, with a particularly effective in media res teaser. A middle-aged guy wearing only tighty-whities and a gas mask drives a Winnebago through the desert. Two dead bodies and a lot of liquid slosh around in back. He wrecks the Winnebago, makes a video giving a last message to his family, and pulls a gun as sirens draw near.
Wow – now that’s an opening! The image of Walt in his underwear and gasmask is incredibly compelling. His bizarre behavior completely pulls me in. I want to know how this guy got to this place.
Which is important. Because let’s face it, the first act of BREAKING BAD is a downer. Walt’s life is just so utterly soul-crushing that I might not want to keep watching if I didn’t know what a weird turn it would take. That’s one of the advantages of a good teaser – it can give the story a jolt of energy that can sustain it through a dry opening.
And, of course, that teaser seems so different from what we first learn about Walt. So when I see just how dispiriting his life is, what a nebbish this guy is, it only increases my desire to find out how he ended up in that Winnebago.
And so, the first act, which is all set up. And what it sets up is how bad things are for Walt, ending with his collapse.
But in this act we also meet the other key characters. Everyone but Jesse – he doesn’t show up until act two. And Marie doesn’t make much of an impression yet, she only hovers in the background in a couple of scenes. But we get to know Walt and get our first big impressions of Skyler, Walter Jr, and Hank.
The other key thing that happens in this act is that Walt hears Hank talk about the meth bust and how much money is in meth. This serves as the inciting incident of the pilot and of the series. Although Walt doesn’t go down the drug kingpin path until he gets his cancer diagnosis, hearing Hank talk is what gives him the idea. You can hear it in his voice.
WALT: Hank, how much is that?…
And then Walt goes to his job at the carwash, and he collapses. And we’re out of act one.
Act two is Walt’s start into the wonderful world of meth. Two big things happen here. He gets his diagnosis, and then he makes his first contact with Jesse. So now Walt is on his way.
In act three, Walt gathers what he needs to cook meth. He gets equipment, gets money to finance the Winnebago, and sends Jesse off to get it. And then we see how Walt is changing when he beats up a bully who is taunting his son. Putting a plan in place to change his life is changing Walt. He is regaining his manhood, which leads him to act out violently.
Of course, it’s also part of the preparation to enter the world of meth dealing. Because Walt is going to have to change into a different man to survive in that world, as he will learn in act four.
And here is act four, the climax. Walt cooks meth. Walt kills two men through the magic of chemistry. We’re back to the teaser, but the action here doesn’t really live up to the promise of the trailer. The sirens we heard are only firetrucks, and they ignore Walt. It’s kind of a disappointment.
But Walt has made it through his tough moment. So he goes home, cleans off all the nice new money he got, and, emboldened by his adventure, he celebrates by grabbing Skyler and having her. His transition from nebbish to tough guy is complete.
So, a teaser and four acts. And the acts are setup, Walt creates a plan, Walt gathers what he needs to implement the plan, and Walt implements the plan and deals with the consequences. A nice clean structure.
And note how much time is spent on Walt getting ready to cook. It’s most of two acts, almost half of the show. The show takes its time to set things up, before giving us the big finish. But thanks to the teaser, we know that something big is coming, we know to be patient.
Now how does this set up the structure for the series?
There’s several things that are done here in the pilot that will become a pattern for future episodes. First, BREAKING BAD episodes always have a teaser. And that teaser is often an in media res opening. Later in the series, entire seasons would use an in media res opening – the first episode starts with a scene that isn’t reached until near the end of the season. Think of season two, which starts with a pink teddy bear floating in Walt’s pool. We don’t find out how the bear got there until the end of the last episode of the season.
Next, the point of view character is usually Walt, but not always. He’s the point of view character in most of the scenes in the pilot, but Skyler and Jesse both have scenes where Walt is not present. Likewise, throughout the series we usually follow Walt, but occasionally we’re with Skyler, Jesse, or some other character.
Then think about the story of this episode. Walt juggles family responsibilities with his first steps into the meth trade. He leads this double-life – the dedicated family man and the guy who cooks meth. And that life as a meth cook require that Walt use his chemistry to deal with some pretty rough customers, with fatal consequences.
All of these things will become staples of the series. The structure of the entire series is about Walt jugging these two parts of his life, and his using his chemical skills to become more and more of a badass. Over time he uses his chemistry to make explosions, create poisons, and, of course, produce high quality meth. If you think about the key moments of Walter White baddassery, he uses his chemical and scientific superpowers to overcome deadly adversaries. (Okay, he does occasionally resort to other types of gadgeteering. But he’s still using scientific and technical skills to defeat his enemies.)
So the pilot does a great job of establishing the structure of the series.
But before we go past structure, let’s take a closer look at the pilot’s act breaks. For commercial TV, the act break has one overriding purpose: it is meant to get the audience to come back after the commercial break. It often does this by ending the act on a cliffhanger.
Think about it. In commercial television, the break for ads is the ultimate destroyer of narrative momentum. We suddenly leave the story to listen to people trying to sell us stuff. To overcome that loss of momentum, there needs to be something pretty strong going into the break. And that’s what an act break is all about, and why designing good act breaks is one of the big challenges in writing for TV.
So let’s look at how BREAKING BAD does this.
The Teaser ends with Walt standing there, gun in hand, waiting for the sirens to arrive. A solid cliffhanger.
Act one ends when Walt collapses. Again, a solid cliffhanger – we want to know why he collapsed and what will happen next.
Act two ends when Walt threatens Jesse with exposure if Jesse won’t become Walt’s partner. Not quite a cliffhanger. But it does leave us wondering what’s going to happen next, when Walt starts cooking meth.
Act three ends when Walt takes down the bully in the clothing store. Again, this isn’t a cliffhanger. Walt has chased off the bully.
But the act ends in a moment of exhilaration. We don’t come back because we need to see what’s next. We come back because we’re excited by the transformation that we’re watching. And we want to see more of it.
Each of these acts ends with something big. Each gives the audience a reason to keep watching after the commercial. This is something that commercial TV shows need to worry about that movies don’t – there is no specific moment when a movie might lose its audience, but a commercial break represents a clear loss of story momentum. Something needs to carry the audience through. The BREAKING BAD pilot does a good job here.
Now let’s move back to our list of things that a pilot needs to do. The fourth is that a pilot needs to lay the groundwork for the series, to plant the seeds that will sprout over the course of several seasons.
This involves establishing specific problems and conflicts that can be ongoing. And we’ve seen several examples of that. The potential long-term conflicts that Walt has with Skyler, Hank, and Jesse. Walt’s cancer. Walt’s need to make money to provide for his family when he dies.
But the other thing that this involves is what is called a story engine. This is a term used in discussing TV shows. The story engine is the thing that keeps the series going. It’s the source for a never-ending string of episodes.
There’s many kinds of story engines. One example is in a type of show called a procedural. In a procedural, we watch a group of professionals deal with a series of cases, with each episode providing one or more new cases.
The clearest example of this is a cop show where every episode there is a new crime to solve. Another example is a hospital show where every episode introduces a new patient with some new medical problem. Or there’s shows like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER where the story engine was the Hellmouth which provided a never-ending string of supernatural threats, known to show writers and fans as the monster-of-the-week.
But that’s not every show. In some shows, there is some large issue to be resolved, a problem too big to solve in one episode. Perhaps there is some evil mastermind who must be defeated. Or a major crime ring that is too entrenched to eliminate in an hour-long show. Or really, anything that will take an entire series to resolve.
Now that’s BREAKING BAD. Walt needs to provide for his family, and putting together that much money is going to take more than one batch of meth. And even when Walt gets enough money, there’s more to resolve: how will he deal with the tough customers that he finds himself connecting with due to his drug dealing? How will he justify the fact that he’s suddenly gotten all this money? What does his drug dealing do to his relationships? How does he avoid legal retribution?
It all comes down to Walt’s decision to cook meth. His drug business is the story engine of BREAKING BAD, as motivated by his family and his impending death. And this pilot introduces that story engine and gives us a glimpse of how it’s going to complicate Walt’s life.
A side note: BREAKING BAD is an example of what is called a serialized show. The series tells one continuous story. It’s not something you’d want to jump into the middle of – what comes before is a key part of what is happening now.
By contrast, with a procedural show it’s a lot easier to just jump in. You can start watching a cop show on any episode – the story is self-contained, and while you may be missing some nuances in the character interactions, everything you really need to understand appears right in the episode.
There’s also hybrids of the two. I mentioned Buffy’s monster-of-the-week structure. But every season Buffy also faced a Big Bad and dealing with the Big Bad would take several episodes in a serialized manner. Further, the characters in Buffy developed over the course of the entire series. So you could drop into a monster-of-the-week episode and have a largely self-contained experience, but it helped to watch the entire series to see how characters developed and season arcs resolved.
Serialized shows are becoming more popular in this era of streaming. And procedurals were a great fit for old-school commercial TV when people couldn’t always choose to start a new show with the first episode. But dealing with that subject is beyond the scope of this episode.
We’re finally at the last thing that a pilot needs to do, and that is to tell a story that is sufficiently compelling that viewers will want to tune in again next week.
I certainly think we have that here. We get a self-contained story of Walter White’s first forays into the drug world, one where we see a strong character arc, entertaining action, terrific suspense, and an ultimate triumph. But not so complete a triumph that we don’t want to find out what happens next. And not a character arc that is wholly resolved – Walt has made a lot of steps, but he’s still got big problems and a long way to go.
So overall, I think the BREAKING BAD pilot clearly succeeds as an entertaining story.
So, what else is worth noting here?
Well, I find it interesting to look at how BREAKING BAD stacks up against our usual screenwriting models. Clearly, since this is an hourlong episode of TV and not a two hour-long movie, we’re not going to have a perfect match. But with that caveat in place, I think the models do pretty well.
And as always, if you don’t know what I’m talking about when I talk about three-act structure or Save the Cat, you might want to check out episode one of the podcast where I describe these screenwriting models.
First, there’s three act structure. BREAKING BAD has four acts. It’s right there in the script. So you wouldn’t think three-act structure applies.
But if you’ve been listening to this podcast, you know that I think the films that most closely adhere to three-act structure really have four acts. And that can be applied in reverse here: if we combine acts two and three of BREAKING BAD into one act, we get a reasonable match with three-act structure. There is a setup act that contains an inciting incident, in this case Walt hearing about how much money there is to be made in meth. We get the first half of the second act, in which Walt learns something about the meth business and partners with Jesse. There is the second half of act two (or the script’s act three), where things get more serious as Walt starts taking concrete steps and concrete risks like stealing from his school, liquidating his retirement fund. And we get a final act where everything comes to a head, Walt has his major confrontation with the drug dealers, and he emerges triumphant with his prize.
The midpoint here isn’t that dramatic. In a lot of ways, the end of act two is the least dramatic of the act breaks. It just ends with Walt having made his deal with Jesse. It certainly isn’t the explosive midpoint of a film like ALIEN.
So three act structure kind of applies, as long as we apply its own definition of acts.
Similarly, most of the Save the Cat beats are here, though they come in a jumbled order. Not all are present – once again, there is no real debate. Walt never seems to have any doubts about making meth – once he gets it into his head, he’s pretty much going to do it. Especially once he gets his diagnosis.
And there’s no B story. Which is quite unusual for a TV show – TV shows almost always have a B story. But there’s not really one here, beyond some things about Walt’s relationship with Skyler. But that’s so closely tied into Walt’s character arc that it’s hard to say that it counts as a separate subplot.
But some of the beats are here, and some of them more clearly present than we’ve seen in the films we’ve looked at. An example is the statement of the theme. BREAKING BAD has a clear and explicit statement of the theme, and it occurs when Walt is teaching his class. “Chemistry is the study of change…”
And that’s the theme of BREAKING BAD in a nutshell: thing’s change.
Walt’s dark night of the soul comes awfully early, right after his cancer diagnosis. This is when he is at his lowest point, where all hope seems to be lost. So that’s a huge difference from a movie, where the dark night of the soul typically comes past the halfway point. Here we’re only in act two.
And the fun and games section, which in this case is when Walt is stealing from his school and running around getting ready to cook, comes rather late, after the midpoint, where in Save the Cat Snyder has this before the midpoint.
Similarly, the bad guys don’t close in until the final act, when the drug dealers look like they’re going to kill Walt and Jesse, which leads to another all-is-lost moment before Walt uses Chemistry to gain the upper hand. This is extremely late – we’d usually expect this to happen right after the midpoint.
So many of the Save the Cat beats are present, but not in the usual order. It works here, but perhaps that’s because, as a pilot, this episode must do double-duty: it both tells a story and sets up the show. So some of these beats are mostly about the story contained in this episode – such as the moment when it looks like the drug dealers will kill Walt. But some are about the series as a whole, like when Walt gets his diagnosis.
I’m not sure whether this mixed-up order of Save the Cat beats would work as well in a movie. I’ll have to give that some thought. Hopefully one of these days I’ll find myself analyzing a film where that’s the case, and I can see how it turns out.
But the key thing we should note is that the BREAKING BAD pilot is clearly a story-telling success. So if it doesn’t match Save the Cat, then our takeaway should be that Save the Cat is not universal truth. It’s okay for the screenwriter to use Save the Cat’s list of beats as a starting point, as things that can be useful in story construction. But things that don’t necessarily all have to be there, or there in the same order.
One last note on Save the Cat beats, and that’s the opening and closing images. There actually are a good paired set of opening and closing images here, and that’s Walt lying in bed awake at the start of Act One, compared with Walt rolling Skyler over and taking her from behind at the end of the episode. Both are set in bed, but one is a picture of impotence and the other all manly virility.
Of course, that opening image doesn’t happen at the start of the episode, but rather is the first shot after the teaser. Which is something we’ve seen before. The whole point of the paired opening and closing images is to provide a visual representation of how the world was changed by the events of the story. Save the Cat says this needs to be the opening and closing images of the film, but I think it can work just as well if the images are not necessarily the first and last shots of the film, but instead just come close.
Similarly, the Hero’s Journey beats are largely present here. But the Hero’s Journey has the hero facing a major ordeal, then has another something to overcome on the road home. That’s not really present here – Walt has only one major obstacle to overcome, and that’s the drug dealers who want to kill him. Other than that, Hero’s Journey largely applies.
There’s even one Hero’s Journey beat that has gone missing in many of the movies we’ve analyzed. Walt has a real mentor in Jesse. In fact, the strange relationship between Walt and Jesse, in which each is a mentor to the other, is one of the curious aspects of this series. In any event, when Walt meets Jesse, he is meeting his mentor in crime. And his protégé in life.
Okay, I think that largely covers BREAKING BAD. As I noted, it’s generally considered one of the great pilots. And you can really see why. It’s an incredibly entertaining hour of TV, but it also sets up a terrific premise for a series, creates compelling characters including the fascinating Walter White, sets up character relationships that are rife with the possibilities of future conflict, invites us into a world that will provide an endless source of struggles, creates a strong through-line for the series, and sets a solid episode structure that can be adapted to a wide variety of episodes. It’s a great start to a notable series.
So, what’s the screenwriter lessons here?
First, a pilot is a tricky thing. It has to have a great story to hook the audience. But it also has to lay the groundwork for an entire series. BREAKING BAD’s pilot does both of these things. But it also manages to be the series in microcosm – you can see the entire series laid out in this one episode, and that’s kind of cool. Maybe not necessary, but definitely cool.
Second, having Hank’s status as a DEA agent become the reason that Walt makes meth is terrific. It turns what might have been a shaky coincidence into a nice story beat. It’s worth the effort trying to find a causal link between what seems like two unrelated facts.
Third, and this is another thing we’ve seen before. The standard screenplay models that we’ve looked at should be seen as sources of inspiration, but are not iron-clad laws. The beats of the Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat can help build a story, but they really aren’t all necessary. And they don’t even need to be followed in any particular order. Don’t get locked down to one way of writing a story, but take ideas from everywhere.
And that’s BREAKING BAD. As always, I hope you enjoyed this episode and learned something. I both enjoyed it and learned from it.
Next week, we’re going back to the 80’s. And since we’re going back, what better film to do than BACK TO THE FUTURE. I’ve heard this called a perfect movie. Next week, we’re going to find out if it lives up to that reputation!
Until then, this is Joe Dzikiewicz and the Storylanes podcast. Check us out at Storylanes.com. Talk at you later!