Bryan Cranston

BREAK OUT: BREAKING BAD

4 TIGHTEN  YOUR BOLT

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The episode named Over from season two of Breaking Bad is not a crowd pleaser.  Those honours belong to the episodes that contain stunning set pieces.  Audiences like and expect circus tricks in their nightly TV, and there is no harm in that.  The episode of Over, though, concentrates on domestic drama and, whether intentional or not, it exists as an American imitation of Chekov.  Families in a Chekov drama are usually preparing for a celebration, commemoration or homecoming, a modest event that will unexpectedly redefine them.   In the episode Over a party is arranged by Skyler to celebrate how the body of Walt has responded to the treatment for his cancer.  In a Chekov play celebration and discomfort exist in oppressive disharmony.  Chekov relied on this device for a reason.  It exposed how his characters differed from what they presented to society.  The party arranged by Skyler is intended to please Walt but it only confirms his alienation from the life he has been living.

When Vince Gilligan pitched Breaking Bad to studio executives, he gave them the idea of a Mr Chips becoming Scarface.  The idea may have teased studio boss men but, because Walt has extreme alternative identities, it presented challenges for writers.  At some point Walter White would have to change and he would need his reasons.  A shortage of money was one option but this alone is inadequate and it does little to make Walt a complex character.  There are three instances when Walt decides to commit to manufacturing crystal meth.  The first of these occurs after Walt receives his initial cancer diagnosis and when he accompanies Hank on a drug bust.  The second follows the news that his cancer treatment has gone into exceptional remission.  The third happens when Walt relents and agrees to work again for major meth dealer Gustavo Fring.  Although Walt at this point insists he is ‘not a bad guy’ this third instance is the least difficult problem for the scriptwriters.  By then the plot has become complicated and the key characters are all capable of influence over the others.  They all have reasons.

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When Walt makes the initial or first commitment to manufacturing an illicit drug, the motivation for such a dramatic step is dubious.  The scriptwriters sidestep the problem.  They have Walt stare at an empty swimming pool and throw matches on to the surface of the water.  The TV audience watches troubled Walt think.  The viewers have to assume he has reasons and perhaps create some of their own.  The scriptwriters handing the problem over to the audience is a neat trick.  Let the viewers work it out instead of sitting there demanding explanations, one of the Breaking Bad writers must have said This trick, though, cannot be repeated or it cannot if a writer has any self-respect.  For the second instance, when Walt already has enough money to pay for his medical bills, more motivation is needed.  For that we have the the celebratory party, or Chekov style commemoration, and a sly scene at the end of the episode that is not really believable.  But, because the scene is so unusual a device, it is marked with defiant brilliance.

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To push Walt over to the dark side the scriptwriters lean on whatever is available.  TV critic Alan Sepinwall remarked that the episode of Over ‘wears its subtext on its sleeve.’  The phrase is smart and elegant but also post modern nonsense.  In Over we witness real engineering focussed not on subtext but characterisation and motivation.  And the bolts have to be tightened otherwise the series will come apart later.  It may be a coincidence but the engineering skill required by the scriptwriters is echoed by the mechanical efforts of Walt to fix his boiler and wood rot.  Walt will become a gangster, Skyler will indulge in adultery and Jesse will discover a moral centre.  Each of these three trajectories, which are rooted in the new beginnings identified in Over, will all have consequences for the other characters.

Rather than be sympathetic to a man suffering from cancer Skyler enters into a conspiracy with her son, in-laws and neighbours to organise a secret party.   The family of Walt consists of a decent but overbearing woman and a son who not only shares a secret with his mother but is too prone to use the easy option of Uncle Hank as a substitute father figure.  A claustrophobic party is made worse by the cloying speech of Skyler and the antics of Hank and Marie who tempt Walt Junior with empty headed selfies.   Skyler is not the Lady Macbeth that some Breaking Bad fans have assumed but, as she does with her impression of Marilyn Monroe in a subsequent episode, she can overreach herself.  All of this inspires Walt to feel resentful.

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Skyler also mentions to the guests the financial contribution of Gretchen and Elliot to the cost of the cancer treatment of Walt.  This is the ultimate insult to Walt.  His pride had insisted that he could not accept help from the super-rich couple and also obliged him to lie to Skyler.  When asked to give a speech, Walt refers to his cancer and the success of his treatment in the same way.  ‘Why me?’ asks Walt.  His incomprehension refers, to much more than the cancer and the treatment.  He is baffled by the life he is obliged to live.  What should be exaltation and relief is dry as dust bitterness inside his mouth.  Later, Walt provokes his son into drinking tequila.  Walt Junior vomits into the swimming pool.  The father is amused by his triumph.  He has no sympathy for a son who, because of the conspiracy with his mother, has been transformed into an enemy.

Breaking Bad avoids political polemic yet the series depends on the notion that the subsequent violent mayhem and generally bad behaviour from Walt could have been avoided if the USA had a half decent public health service.  This notion feels like a political statement and makes the show open to Marxist analysis.  For Marxists, Walt exists as an example of how capitalism, whatever the abundance it creates, will, because it insists on mandatory excess, ensure that poverty is never ending.  Walt and Skyler have an inadequate budget but this not untypical American family has two cars, a house with a swimming pool, clean clothes every day and a full refrigerator.  At the party Walt, Hank and Walter Junior drink from an excessively large bottle of tequila.  Sister-in-law Marie has to complement her blessings for the unborn child with an expensive and inappropriate diamond tiara.  That she is compelled to steal the tiara is another story but both sincere goodwill and personal valediction can only be confirmed for Marie through materialism and consumption.  Capitalism equates to affluence, or at least it does in the Western world, but because that affluence defines status we are all victims of poverty.  And that is before we think about alienation and spiritual deprivation.

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The performance of Bryan Cranston changes in the episode of Over.  His accent becomes more blue collar.  Cranston sounds as if he has stepped out of a Western movie.  The confrontation between Walt and  Hank at the side of the swimming pool resembles the showdown that exists in Westerns.  If Walt is to claim whatever he needs, authenticity, good faith, feeling alive or perhaps some excitement, he will have to assert his masculinity.  He needs to become the Western hero that is idolised in American culture.

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When Walt meets two low life drug dealers at the end of the episode, he observes a not too bright and far from wealthy would be entrepreneur buying drug equipment in the local supermarket.  Resenting the ignorance and arrogance of two people he regards or recognises as inferiors, Walt confronts the drug dealers.  After the alienation that he experienced at the party Walt understands that his needs and desires will no longer be satisfied with the rewards of being a schoolteacher or through living a suburban lifestyle.   Walt realises what his life has been lacking and what the really ambitious and fortunate not just pursue but take.  Walt wants what the real winners have always had.  This includes territory, power over others, status, economic freedom, hope and the ability to not be intimidated by anyone.  The bad guy has arrived, and so has the cowboy hero who confronts his brother-in-law and who feels that his son will have to drink tequila if he is to be a worthy successor.   No wonder Vince Gilligan told his cameraman that he wanted the series to look like a Sergio Leone movie.  The Marxist Italian filmmaker not only changed the look of the Western.  Leone was the man who insisted that the cowboy heroes had always been bad guys.

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Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here. 

 

 

 

 

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BITTEN: BREAKING BAD

2 LIFTING THE PIANO

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Californian sunshine is fine for outdoor Hollywood shooting locations but film scripts are created indoors.   Sharp film scripts need not just attentive and corroborative writers but, because of Hollywood temperatures, modern air conditioning.  The scripts of Breaking Bad were written in something they called the Writer’s Room.  Photos are available of what happened inside.  Located in a modern office building the room looks like a smaller version of where Hank lectured his DEA crew and in his quieter moments had troubling thoughts about his brother-in-law. In the photograph of the Writer’s Room there is a rectangular table.  On the walls around the table are notice boards that contain maps and diagrams of important locations such as the meths laboratory.  Other boards have the plot details and character development for individual episodes in that season.  Each episode has its own board, and on average about 60-65 index cards are attached to each board.

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In the 1960s Bill Shankly brought success to Liverpool Football Club and helped it to become world famous.  Shankly was an admirer of tough guy actor James Cagney.  Remembered for pithy quotes because of his pugilistic style Shankly once said that a football team required seven men to lift the piano and four to play it.  A football team does not have a piano but we know what Shankly meant.  Creative performances depend upon industry.  Writing a TV series requires not just poets but also engineers. The writer working alone can persuade himself that his efforts are poetical rather than industrial.  Sitting around a conference table and alongside eight others, a writer will understand what pays the rent and why he or she has abandoned the attic to sign up to a project and settle for engineering responsibilities.

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In the overall credits for the series nine writers are identified as contributors.  Only two of these have a job title defined with the one word ‘writers’.  Neither of these writers made it past Season Two.  They may have had more tempting offers from elsewhere, never have settled into the writing team or found better air conditioning.  The remaining seven were there for the long haul and were rewarded with expanded responsibilities.  In Breaking Bad The Official Book they are listed as Co-Executive Producer/ Writer/ Director.  Vince Gilligan was the head man and creator of Breaking Bad.    He is an enthusiast that likes people and, as a natural collaborator, he rejects the auteur theory in cinema criticism.   In a Breaking Bad Insider Podcast there is an instance when Gilligan remembers the occasions when in frustration he would yell at the others, ‘Why is this so hard?’  Belonging to a writing team gives individual members the confidence to write themselves into a corner, to embrace those moments when an audience will wonder just how the hell is Walt going to survive   Numbers are also important because the producers of Breaking Bad wanted enough material for 62 episodes, and that obliged writers to extend the lives and personalities of the strangers the writers unwittingly invented for a pilot.  Although it was typical of TV script production there is an irony in how Breaking Bad was written.  In the writing room there was the knowledge that the series would only succeed if individual writers accepted their dependency on others.  Success can only be shared.  This is what head man Gilligan preached to his team. In the TV series the opposite happens.  Dependency is the double edged burden that causes dissatisfaction.   Walt, like the gangsters he meets, wants the autonomy that is not possible in a family.  His relatives also chafe against the restriction of dependency.

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Not all the work on the scripts was done in the Writers’ Room.  After the result or script left the room individual writers took turns to take a script home and add extra detail and flair.  Gilligan refers to this element of the process as ‘jazzing it up’.  If Shankly is right, the jazz was that added came from a piano and not a saxophone.   Later, technicians were empowered to add effects that provided sometimes surprising emphasis.  Actors would make lines sound different and on occasions make amendments.  Bryan Cranston wrote a back story for his character Walt.  And there is always the editor to give a shape to the story not previously imagined by the writers.

Vince Gilligan emphasises the importance of characterisation to the scripts.  For each plot development the writing team would ask what was inside the head of the characters.  Gilligan insists that the spine of Breaking Bad was rooted in the writers imagining how the characters would have responded to the unpredictable events in their lives.  All TV film producers, though, claim that their series offers solid characters.  Opportunities for characterisation exist within the plot. Walt murders competitors and reveals aspects of his nature.  Not all scenes, though, are essential to a plot.  Instead, they reveal something about relationships.  Walt taking his son for a driving lesson is an obvious example.

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Even for the gifted maintaining the interest of an audience and staying true to the characters is not always possible.   Did Walt really have something below his quiet and anxious demeanour that enabled him to become a homicidal monster or was his behaviour shaped by the need for set piece drama necessary for a 62 episode TV series?  We can also be forgiven for having doubts about the panic attacks that Hank experiences after he kills Tuco, especially as later he faces death with real courage.  Sometimes the plot just cannot be ignored.  Vince Gilligan has admitted that Walt is a complicated character and not everything that is inside the head of his unusual drug dealer is understood by the writers.  This makes sense.  Characters need substance and to be interesting.  But they did not ask to be invented.  They are entitled to some privacy and mystery.  Not all the interesting ambiguity in a book or movie is created by the authors.  Gilligan regards Breaking Bad as a warning against the existence of unforeseen consequences.  If life is like that then so are movie scripts.  They have consequences and implications not imagined by their creators.

The timetable for writing an episode was ten working days that began in the morning and ended in time for people to go home to eat dinner.  The days began with the ritual of the order for lunch being settled.  The number of words in a TV script varies and depends on the amount of dialogue and how much is prescribed for the director.  It is rare, though, for a movie script to exceed 20,000 words, and writers reaching that limit is exceptional.  Edgar Wallace would write a 40,000 plus word thriller in a weekend when he needed to pay off gambling debts.  Nine people working on a 20,000 word script for a full fortnight should produce something decent.  But if it was that simple, the success and invention of Breaking Bad would have been repeated by other writing teams.  Who is sitting around the table is important.   The writers would also have had to respond to what was happening outside their workplace.  Season One was interrupted by a strike by Hollywood writers, and Season Two had to be reshaped when the actor who played hot headed Tuco had to leave the show prematurely.

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Gilligan insists that all his writers are equal.  He often claims ignorance when someone asks who had which idea.  ‘It emerged from the discussion,’ he says.  The notion of setting up a meths lab in a recreational vehicle began life as a joke when Gilligan asked what he would do if he failed at making movies.  Someone thought the idea had potential, someone else suggested using a school teacher would be better, another twisted the knife by giving the teacher a cancer, and so it went.  Breaking Bad ran for six years on American television.  In five of those six years it won best drama series in the Writers Guild Awards.   The show also earned three winners for the writers of individual episodes.  Somehow the team were able to ascribe credit to someone on the team.  For the sake of awards the principle of equality was abandoned.  But, as any football manager knows, the team is all important.  They all deserve to be mentioned.  The following people wrote the scripts from inside the Writer’s Room.  They are Sam Catlin, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Gennifer Hutchinson, Patty Lin, George Mastras, J Roberts, Thomas Schnauz and Moira Walley-Beckett.  The alphabetical order is deliberate.  And as work stopped on the show during the strike by Hollywood writers, and as Gilligan advocated equality on his team, I like to think that none of the writers crossed a picket line.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.