I was slow to the party, when it came to Breaking Bad, so I’ve only just finished watching the show that everyone was raving about three years ago. When it finally came to terrestrial TV, I naively thought I’d just dip in to see what all the fuss about and move on. I switched on episode one and three episodes later I was hooked and looking for my next hit.
As the show progressed, I became more invested in the characters, often in spite of the awful things they did. And on reflection, as a writer, I began to wonder how Breaking Bad worked. What did it do that made us love it so much? I narrowed it down to a few key things that can be applied to any story.
Here be spoilers, so read on at your own risk.
“I love you Skyler. I’ll do anything for you.” These words (or words to this effect) are almost the first thing Walter White says and the sentiment is central to everything he does. We don’t know why he’s racing through the desert in his underwear, in an RV containing the bodies of three unconscious men, but we know he’s got a good reason for it. He loves his family. So what has driven him to this point?
When he decides to cook meth, it’s so that he can provide for his family, after he has been diagnosed with cancer and his insurance won’t cover the treatment (the fact that this show is a sad indictment of America’s healthcare system is another story). Walt wants to make enough money for them to live comfortably for years to come. He’s also on borrowed time, as a result of the cancer, so he needs to think big and that drives him to sink deeper into the criminal world of drugs and violence. So, when he kills someone, it’s out of desperation, because he loves his family – at least, at the beginning.
Walt isn’t the only one with strong motivations. Hank is like the sheriff in a wild west film He’s dogged and driven by the need to see the bad guys get a dose of justice. He’ll even sacrifice his career to be able to get out there and catch the bad guy. On the other side of the moral fence, Gus wants power, so that he can have revenge for an event from his past and Saul wants money. Mike wants to provide for his granddaughter to atone for his sins as a hitman. Jesse’s motivations are the hardest to pin down – he wants respect and he wants to be loved. Every character in the show has a core motivation and everything they do marries with that driving force and that’s why we stick with them. Of course some of those motivations change or others take priority, as the character arc develops.
The Fatal Flaw
Apart from the love of his family, ego and a need for recognition also drive Walt. He’s arrogant and he’s bitter about the career he gave up, which have made millionaires out of his previous business partners. His new role as the legendary Heisenberg fills that hole and feeds his ego.
His arrogance and self-belief in his abilities as a chemist get him through many tough situations, that would have seen the average chemistry teacher run away crying. However, it’s this flaw that never allows him to treat Jesse as an equal, which ultimately leads to Jesse’s betrayal of Walt. And midway through the series, Hank is about to give up the Heisenberg case, thinking that the latest death he’s investigating (actually Walt’s lab partner) was obviously the mastermind. Walt takes exception to this and hints that Hank may be wrong and Heisenberg could be still out there. This leads Hank to return to the case with renewed vigour, which brings the whole thing to a dramatic climax. Without Walter’s arrogance, the story would end quite quickly and the bodycount would be much lower.
Jesse becomes the antagonist, as his path strays further and further from Walt’s downward spiral. He is the moral heart of Breaking Bad. Jesse is one of the few characters, in Heisenberg’s world, who questions killing people. In addition, his soft spot for kids, especially boys, who represent the younger brother he is estranged from and can’t protect, proves pivotal at several points.
Jesse doesn’t kill with impunity. He can’t. He feels it and punishes himself for every murder of an innocent. He jeopardises the whole operation, when he takes exception to kids being used as drug mules and pointedly asks Walt if he’s really okay with it. When he has to murder Gale, Jesse gets high just to be able to do it. Jesse constantly throws a mirror up before Walt, so that we question the morality of his actions. Walt is never high to get through it and never shows remorse – Jesse bears that load for him and this places him at odds to everything Walt does.
Without conflict there is no story. Breaking Bad is a masterclass in conflict. You’ve got a straight-laced school chemistry teacher, who decides to cook and deal meth in order to raise money for his cancer treatment and to provide for his family, after he’s dead. What points of conflict could we have?
Try these on for size:
- His brother in-law is high up in the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) and specialises in shutting down meth dealers.
- Walt’s family aren’t going to take kindly to him becoming a drug baron. If they find out, all is lost. Plus they are an easy target for his enemies.
- Jesse’s drug addiction compromises his judgement and his operation with Walt.
- Walt’s dying, so his time is limited.
- As he becomes more successful, the more Walt enjoys being Heisenberg and becomes bored by the life of Walter White.
These are the main conflicts that run through the series, but of course, new characters and developments throw spanners in the works. When it comes to conflict, Jesse is put through the ringer, as is everyone around Walt.
Breaking Bad is also a very stylishly written and directed series. It makes liberal use of non-linear timelines, especially the flashforward. In prose, the flashforward is usually limited to the prologue and I suppose that’s how it’s used here too. Quite often, an episode opens with a character we don’t know. Other times, Walt suddenly has hair and a beard, indicating that this is a different time from the main story, where he has a shaved head. And each time, this makes the viewer ask questions. Who’s that? Where are we? Why does Walt have hair – is this the past or the future? These questions keep us watching and eventually they’re answered. That’s the important bit. And usually, when the question is answered, it’s a plot reveal, which may also pose a new question. The questions keep us watching and the answers make us go ah-ha, which all make for a very satisfying experience.
And that, my friends, is how you write a story with mass appeal. The snag is coming up with a killer idea like chemistry teacher becomes meth dealer to pay for cancer treatment. You’re on your own with that one.
What do you think is the secret of Breaking Bad’s success? Anything I missed?
For more screenplay inspiration try The Breakfast Club: A Lesson in Writing Ensemble Casts