Welcome to our newest bi-weekly column, Prime Time, where different writers pick some of their favorite past shows and talk about what made them standout from the crowd. To read past installments, go here.
It would be very easy to simply credit Breaking Bad as lightning in a bottle and leave it at that. After all, much like Walter White’s ascent to the top of the crime world, Malcolm In the Middle star Bryan Cranston comes from such a polar opposite area of the television world that his character turning out to be so iconic seems like a happy accident. Almost. However, I suspect that if Walter White were here, he would want to exact Breaking Bad’s greatness down to a formula, something he could re-create if need be for his own benefit. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do today. Dusting off the old high school textbook for a moment, we’re going to use the scientific method to see if there is in fact, an exact alchemy to why the opera of Walter White was perhaps the greatest television crime story every told.
Question: How did Breaking Bad mold its iconic characters, set pieces, and aesthetics into one of the greatest television shows of all time?
Research: Series creator Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad to be something of an anti-
television show. Tiring of stagnant character arcs that essentially left the characters in the same place fifteen years down the line, he wanted to create a show where the protagonist shifts into the antagonist. As he often puts it, he wanted to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. However, in order to do that, Gilligan had to find a believable Mr. Chips, which is where he first encountered problems.
Cranston was Gilligan’s first choice for the role, as the two had worked together on an episode of The X-Files. However, the studio was not convinced due to Cranston’s more recent turn on Malcolm in the goofy father role. The perfect Chips for certain, but absolutely no obvious hint of Scarface. Actors such as John Cusack and Matthew Broderick were approached for the role of Walter White, but after screening the X-Files episode for the executives, Gilligan ultimately got to take his casting gamble and was sent off to Albuquerque, New Mexico to get filming. Meanwhile, relative unknown Aaron Paul was cast as White’s burnout sidekick Jesse Pinkman, who was originally intended to be killed off in the finale of the first season. However, when the creatives started to grasp not only Paul’s acting ability but his rapport with Cranston, that decision was quickly scrapped.
Hypothesis: Breaking Bad success comes from two main sources. The first is the incredible acting and characterization of every single player, main and supporting. The second is the level of filmmaking craftsmanship that went into it. This was never a show directed like television, but rather one long film with a unique look and tone that feels like a drug-fueled collaboration between Martin Scorsese, and David Mamet.
Experiment and Analysis: Breaking Bad is a show full of fantastic sequences, but to me there are two polar opposite scenes that most completely define exactly what exactly Gilligan created here. The first is perhaps the very best of the stylishly violent suspense pieces, and the other is a very simple sequence that comprised entirely of dialogue.
One of this show’s masterful elements is how little it needs to create a suspenseful sequence. In fact, this famous scene involving criminal mastermind Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) deciding how to punish Walter and Jesse for murdering one of his employees works more with silence than anything else. After all, Fring’s intimidation factor comes from Esposito’s chilling calm about the work that he does. He isn’t interested in going on Tarantino style monologues about how and why he kills people. He just does, and Walt and Jesse know it. So as he slowly and silently puts on his lab coat and grabs a box cutter, there are no wasted words on his end. We know exactly what is coming, but we aren’t sure to whom. Walter is certainly trying to angle things away from his end but can not know for certain. Each second feels absolutely critical, even as Gus simply stands there observing Walter. He ultimately ends up only slitting his henchmen Victor’s throat with the box cutter, but the sequence extenuates a palpable sense of menace that has run through the whole show and sends it into overdrive.
This is a scene that on a technical level could not be more simple, and understated. It’s two men, sitting in a room, and talking. However, it also perhaps the most important moment in the entire story. It takes place late into season three, and Gus’ camp wants to take out Jesse due to his erratic behavior. As such, Gus’ enforcer, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks in what is truthfully my favorite performance of the entire series) is attempting to talk some sense into Walter by telling him a little story. It’s a tale of how when he was a beat cop, he would frequently be called to the aid of a woman who was constantly being abused by her husband, who Mike describes as looking like Bo Svenson from Walking Tall. Eventually Mike got sick of it, and on the way to taking the husband to the drunk tank took a detour to the empty desert to kill him. He got pretty close to going through with it too, but after threatening him decided to take him to jail in the service of “trying to do the right thing.” Two weeks later the man caved his wife’s head in with a blender, and Mike forever regrets taking a “half measure when he should have gone all the way.”
We’ve heard this whole “you can’t let the liabilities live” spiel in a thousand other things, but never quite like how writers Sam Catlin and Peter Gould have framed it here. Instead of being some passionate speech from a crime lord who has everything riding on eliminating loose ends, we hear it from a disconnected grunt who is just doing this as a job. In the hands of a lesser actor, this story would be told in a reverent and emotionally charged manner, but Banks’ delivery is very understated and borderline clinical. This isn’t a story that’s supposed to make the audience feel sad for the poor, scared woman, but instead have them understand and possibly become scarily oriented with the mindset needed to survive in this world. It’s the moment where Walter realizes exactly the kind of man he’s going to have to be in order to escape those who want to kill him and rise to the top of the criminal world. He cannot simply take a half measure and mediate with Gus, he’s going to have to kill and ultimately to some degree become Gus. This layered and subtle narrative heft is something that very few television shows have been able to pull off, but here in this simple little scene, Breaking Bad cemented itself as a master of it.
Conclusion: As it turns out, the hypothesis did prove correct. Breaking Bad does mesh it’s stellar and filmic writing, directing, and acting to create the masterful package that changed TV drama forever. However, there’s also one more key element. Relatability. At some point in anybody’s life, they consider the possibility of doing something evil. Even if it’s never acted on, there is
always a repressed fire inside every person that if set against the right variables could be let off at any moment. Walter White is the man who takes that to the logical extreme and burns that fire until cancer itself has to come in and extinguish it. He’s the embodiment of the repressed, mistreated, and under-served people of American culture, and through this epic crime saga, he manages to finally serve himself.