Believe Care Invest: Breaking Bad

Why Walt might be hard to identify with: 
  • If we hadn’t seen him brandishing a gun in the flashforward, we might find him too much of a sad sack. He endures a lot of humiliations and it’s a little wearying. When he finally breaks bad, we’re ready for it.
  • In the flashforward, he’s wearing tighty whities that feel very real.
  • His disabled son is a smartass, rather than saintly, and they give him shit about his attitude, understanding that he’s not fragile.
  • This guy lives in our economy. His money troubles and humiliations are very well observed from real life.
  • The doctor who gives him his cancer diagnosis has a mustard stain on his coat.
Care: You want reasons to care? We’ve got a dozen of them!
  • In the flashforward, we don’t quite understand what’s going on, but we can see he’s in a very bad situation. He seems to think he’ll be arrested or killed. He doesn’t have any pants on. ii. Present day: He’s turning 50 and his wife gives him a 50 spelled out in “veggie bacon” which looks terrible. His son says it smells like band-aids.
  • His son has cerebral palsy. Walt mainly handles this excellently, but he lets just a bit of frustration slip through when, after dropping Walt Jr. off, he yanks the handicap sign off his mirror and tries to put it in the glove compartment, which won’t close, indicating that he can’t escape his son’s diagnosis.
  • Most of his students ignore him, and one actively humiliates him.
  • He has to work in a car wash after his teaching job and ends up having to shine the asshole student’s rims while he’s laughed at. vi. His son adores his brother-in-law Hank’s gun. Hank then mocks Walt.
  • For his birthday, he gets a contemptuous handjob from his wife while she does an eBay option.
  • He’s been coughing, and finally collapses into the suds at the car wash. In ambulance, he asks to be dropped off at a corner be cause he “doesn’t have the greatest insurance.” He undergoes a typically terrifying PET Scan. Finally he’s told he has inoperable lung cancer, but he’s too numb to react.
  • In the flashforward, he’s brandishing a gun, possibly preparing to shoot some cops. We don’t know if he killed all those guys in the RV.
  • In the flashback, we we see he’s not just good at science, he contributed to research that won the Nobel Prize.
  • He’s clearly a great teacher, spraying spraybottles to change the color of flames.
Five Es
  • Eat: Joylessly eats veggie bacon
  • Exercise: He gets up at 5am to exercise on some sort of step machine.
  • Economic Activity: He’s working two jobs.
  • Enjoy: He can’t enjoy the party. He can’t even enjoy the handjob.
  • Emulate: He wishes he could win his son’s admiration like Hank does. He asks to do a ride along to busting a meth lab, seemingly because he wants to emulate Hank, but actually because he wants to emulate the cooks.
Rise above
  • He finally stands up to his car wash boss after his diagnosis.
High five a black guy
  • No.
  • He’s loving to his son.

Breaking Bad: The Archive

I’ve had a lot to say about this show over the years, partially because it was I was blogging almost the whole time it was on.

Rulebook Casefile: Everything and the Kitchen Sink in the “Breaking Bad” Pilot

As I mentioned before, it must have been very tempting to end the “Breaking Bad” pilot with Walt’s proposal to Jesse that they cook meth.

After all, Walt starts the pilot so far away from that moment, and it takes so many details to move him towards it (the birthday, getting mocked by the student at the car wash, the cancer diagnosis, getting mocked by Hank, the news story about Hank’s bust, the unexpected reunion with Jesse, etc…) Surely all of that escalation could have filled up the entire pilot.

But the show somehow manages to cram all of those twists into just the first 30 minutes. This leaves creator Vince Gilligan time to fill the second half with a foreshortened version of a typical episode: a drug deal gone wrong, a harrowing brush with death, a chemistry-based solution, and escalating damage control.

What are the advantages? First of all, it ensures that the first half really flies, which is great, because Walt’s life in this section is really frustrating and he’s not really pursuing any goals yet (Or not that we can see...In retrospect, he may have been considering this life change even before his diagnosis.)

Most remarkably, it manages to do so without ignoring small character moments that have nothing to with the plot. In one odd little scene, we see Walt drive home from school in his Aztek and notice the handicapped mirror-hanger. He gets annoyed by it and tries to toss it in his glove compartment, which won’t close, forcing him to bang it over and over. It’s a little 20 second moment, but it goes a long way to assure us that this isn’t just a Rube-Goldberg-contraption of a story mechanistically headed towards one final outcome. (It’s also a nice hint of suppressed frustration with his son’s handicap, despite how admirably he interacts with Walt Jr. the rest of the time)

But the best reason to compress the story is to ensure that the pilot delivers not just the premise, but also the promise of the show. We see how things might go down and go wrong every week, and we see that it’ll be entertaining.

Of course, it should feel ridiculous to move our idealistic school teacher all the way to his first botched drug deal and his first killing on his first day on the job, but the progression of events feels natural enough.  Actually, the final version is even more sped-up than the pilot script.  In the script, Emilio and Crazy-8 show up on the second day of cooking, which makes a lot more sense, but in the finished pilot, they seem to show up on the first day, which implies that Jesse rushed back to town to sell the first batch while the second batch was cooking. Nevertheless, it doesn’t feel that absurd as it goes down.
One neat trick was to have the deal go south instantly because Emilio recognizes Walt from the earlier bust and assumes he’s DEA.  This not only gets Walt into trouble faster, it’s also far more compelling and believable than the lazy version they could have gone with, in which Emilio and Crazy-8 simply come there to kill Walt and steal his product in the first place. It’s always better to have things escalate because of an ironic sequence of events, rather than sheer aggression that doesn’t match the villains’ best interest.

That leaves one last trick, which is something that most pilot writers can’t do: it cheats on the time. The episode takes up a 58 minutes without breaks, which means that, whenever AMC runs it, they have to show it with limited commercials or expand it to 90 minutes, which messes up their schedule.

You might assume that this was because it was developed for HBO or Showtime, but no, it was developed for FX before it made the jump to AMC and FX also has ads. Basically, Gilligan just used the clout that he had accumulated on “The X-Files” to demand special treatment, and he got it.

So don’t try this at home, right? Well, some spec-pilot-writers claim that their pilot is intended for pay-cable, even though they know it’s more likely to find a home on FX or AMC, and they just want more pages. It’s a cheat, but if it gives you the freedom you need to write something as good as “Breaking Bad”, it just might be a cheat you want to take.

Straying from the Party Line: Sacrificing the Other Characters In Favor of the Lead in “Breaking Bad”

The “Breaking Bad” pilot has a big job to do, getting us to like a character with two big empathy holes: The big one, obviously, is that he decides to sell meth, but almost as bad in the eyes in the audience is the fact that he’s such a sad-sack guy until he makes that shocking decision. Yes, the ironic contrast of these two extremes is compelling, but that doesn’t change the fact that neither persona is inherently sympathetic.

One solution, which I talked about before, was to jump ahead in the first scene and give us a preview of the disconnect. To a certain extent, Gilligan borrowed this trick from “The Sopranos” which began with a framing sequence in which Tony was already in therapy, previewing the ironic contrast that would soon define his life.

But this trick couldn’t carry all the weight. Gilligan still had to move heaven and Earth to generate empathy for this weird, passive guy. In order to do so, he borrowed another trick from “The Sopranos”: he made almost everybody else in Walt’s life appear to be absolutely horrid on first blush.

In both “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” we quickly come to feel that the wife is a much better person than her husband, but this is not at all clear in the pilot, where both wives come off as contemptuous users: In the “Sopranos” pilot, Carmela tells Tony that he’s going to hell as he’s sucked into a CAT scan, and in the “Breaking Bad” pilot, Sky gives Walt the world’s most contemptuous handjob for his birthday.

Likewise, in both pilots, we meet everyone else in the anti-hero’s life at their very worst moments. In “Breaking Bad”, we meet Hank as he humiliates Walt at his own birthday party and we meet Marie as she mercilessly mocks her sister. Jesse is somewhat appealing in the pilot, but shows little of the depth or volatility he would eventually accumulate. The only character who doesn’t come off as a jerk is Walt, Jr., but he falls well short of becoming a fully-rounded character in the pilot. (Notably, the pilot has no sub-plots, which is unusual. This is Walt’s story and only Walt’s, at least for now.)

This was a risky choice. A good pilot should usually show empathy for all its characters, but this pilot breaks that cardinal rule. Nevertheless, this strategy paid off. The show was mostly off the radar until it won best actor for Bryan Cranston in a shocking upset after the first season. And it was only when Cranston won again the following year that the show really broke through the cultural conversation. Serving this one character and his arc got the show where it needed to go.

And, for the most part, the show was able to rescue the other characters. If you had told anyone watching this pilot that Hank, Jesse and Marie would be the moral exemplars of the show’s final season, they would be pretty shocked…and especially if you told them that Hank’s heroic death would be one of the most painful TV deaths of all time.

But the show had a harder time turning the audience around on their initial prejudices against Sky and Walt Jr. Infamously, a subset of the audience furiously insisted that Sky’s coldness made her somehow worse than Walt, and it was never easy to empathize with Walt Jr’s perpetual obliviousness, especially once he became the only one left unaware of his father’s true nature.

One reason that it’s usually a bad idea to withhold empathy for the other characters in your pilot is because underwritten roles won’t attract top talent. Indeed, this show was cast with unknowns (whereas most shows have a few TV veterans in the supporting roles) but Gilligan’s eye for talent was simply amazing, especially Aaron Paul, Dean Norris and Betty Brandt as Jesse, Hank, and Marie. And RJ Mitte really does a great job with the very-underwritten role of Walt Jr…

But that once again leaves the question of Anna Gunn as Sky…Was the ongoing refusal to empathize with her on the part of some fans entirely due to the scripts, or was the performance partly to blame? If Sky had been less blandly contemptuous of Walt in the pilot, would the part have attracted a more prominent actress, who might have overcome those issues more quickly as the series progressed?

In the end, I thought Gunn was pretty amazing, and more than met the challenge of this emotionally complex character…but I can’t help but wonder, what if the pilot script had been able to attract a similarly-flinty but more relatable actress like, say, Felicity Huffman?

Ultimately this is the most treacherous rule the pilot broke, and it would create an ongoing challenge for the show, as Gilligan had to race to belatedly ramp up our identification with the initially loathsome ensemble. For the most part he succeeded, but many would feel even at the end that show never quite overcame this empathy imbalance, and this was one of the few knocks on an otherwise-beloved show.

Straying from the Party Line: The Lack of Hard Choices in “Breaking Bad”

On “Breaking Bad” Walter White is facing a terrible situation and he has nothing but bad choices ahead of him, but here’s the thing: they aren’t really hard choices, and that’s very unusual, because most stories are driven by a series of hard choices.

We cancer victims get a lot of credit for being heroic, but this isn’t really true, because heroes are defined by heroic choices, and we don’t really get to make any choices whatsoever. The medical gears that grind us up were set in motion long ago, and they’ll keep spinning long after we come out the other side, whether alive or dead.

Pretty much the only decision we’re allowed to make is whether or not we want to ignore our doctors entirely, and that’s kind of a no-brainer...unless you’re Walter White.

On most shows, even if they’re about unlovable leads, the lead’s bad behavior seems to be necessitated by the impossible decisions they have to make. Jack Bauer and Dr. House are sociopathic in pursuit of their goals, but they get results, dammit! Their unsympathetic behavior allows them the clarity they need to get the job done.

But this is not true at all of Walter White. Yes, he’s desperate for money and treated unfairly by the system, but the decisions he makes are unquestionably wrong. This show is about a man who comes to the breaking point and chooses to break bad, even though it was still possible to break good.

Walt could have just meekly submitted to the process and made the most of his final years with his family, and everybody would have been much happier with the result. Yes, they would have less money, but as Walt soon discovers (and as we can already guess in the pilot) nobody wants drug money anyway. It’s just a really stupid decision.

The wrongness of Walt’s decision becomes even more pointed in the fourth episode when we find out that Walt does have a lawful option for paying his medical debts: his wealthy former business partner is willing to pay for his treatment, but Walt is simply too proud and resentful to accept. Gilligan is keen to drive home that Walt isn’t making the best of this bad situation, he’s making the worst of it.

This was a shocking and brave storytelling choice. This show isn’t going to get you rooting for the bad guy. You’ll be empathetic towards his situation, but you’ll never really empathize with his decisions, because Walt’s decisions aren’t really tough, he just chooses to make them tough. Yes, he’s in a bad vs. bad situation, but he’s clearly choosing the greater of two evils. 

So why does this work? Why aren’t we exasperated by Walt’s willful destruction of his life, even in the face of better options...especially after episode four? Well, we are, but we keep watching anyway. Why?

I think part of the answer is the fact that the show never settles down to a rhythm. Unlike “24” or “House”, “Breaking Bad” never wrapped one story and moved on to the next, so we never had to stop and tabulate the moral calculus in hopes of balancing the books. Just about every decision made things worse, so the entire show became one long downward spiral without any satisfying wrap-ups along the way. Everything was a cliffhanger for five brutal seasons.

This was a trade-off, because it meant that the show couldn’t go for eight seasons, as those others did. In the end, Gilligan stretched Walt’s story out as far as he possibly could, but Walt could only circle the drain for so long until he finally went down.

Was the trade-off worth it? Absolutely.

This show had a lot in common with “The Shield” (FX developed it as a companion show), which did have the courage to portray a truly irredeemable anti-hero on a downward spiral of his own, but Vic Mackey was ultimately more similar to Jack Bauer and Doctor House than Walter White. Sure, he was evil, but he also got a lot of killers and child molesters off the streets, so it was always portrayed as kind of a wash.

In pilot-writing class in film school, I worked on a pilot about a crooked prosecutor who specialized in convicting the innocent. My fellow students were horrified. Who would watch such a show? Well, I said, people watch “The Shield” so they’ll watch shows about evil law enforcers, right? I got blank stares. Then every single one of them said that, as opposed to my anti-hero, what Vic did was ultimately worth it. Now it was my turn to be baffled. Had they forgotten the end of the pilot, in which Vic killed a good cop who was about to catch him dealing drugs? How could that be worth it?? Eh, they shrugged, maybe Vic’s actions weren’t ultimately worth it, but in most episodes, his actions felt right, and that’s what kept them watching.

This is the moral hazard that Gilligan avoided with “Breaking Bad”, Walt’s actions never felt right, and yet we kept watching anyway. This was a genuine descent into evil. Walt had lots of motivation, but no justification, and that was where this show excelled above all the other anti-hero shows, dramatically and ethically. Gilligan crafted a totally-compelling anti-hero without ever letting us cheer for his bad behavior (or not for long, anyway).

This was a very worthwhile goal and the ultimate writing challenge. Next week, we’ll look at more tricks he used to make it work...

Storytellers Rulebook: Save Your Flashforwards For Stories With (Initially) Passive Heroes

I can be a bit of a flashforward addict in my own writing, which puts me in good company, because TV is chock-full of flashforwards these days. But too often these openings are just baffling and dizzying, adding sensation at the expense of sense. There was no better example of this than the all-sizzle no-steak pilot for “How to Get Away With Murder.”

But are there times when it’s actually beneficial or even downright necessary to have a flashforward? Yes, and one of the greatest openings of all time shows us how and why.

In the opening moments of the “Breaking Bad” pilot, we see lots of bizarre imagery: a pair of khaki slacks flutters across a desert sky as a man in tighty-whiteys and a gas-mask crashes an RV that has dead bodies in the back, then makes a tearful video apologizing to his family and prepares to shoot the cops that seem to be following him. Whoa.

That’s a great opening, but was it necessary? Yes. To see why, let’s contrast it with the un-necessary flashforward opening of “How to Get Away With Murder”, in which the heroes cover up a murder at some point in the future. What would happen if the “HTGAWM” pilot had skipped this sequence? It still could been plenty exciting because there are two other unrelated murder mysteries in the same episode and the show could easily have started with either of those in real time...or it could simply have begun in Viola Davis’s high-pressure classroom, which creates more than enough tension on its own without the need of any promise of more shocks to come.

On the other hand, what if “Breaking Bad” had skipped its own shocking flashforward opening? Then what would we have? We would spend our first act with a sad-sack middle-aged guy, moping his way though life, unenthused by his job, wife, son or unborn baby girl. Of course, there’s a hell of an inciting incident waiting at the end of Act 1, when he finds out he has cancer, and the story quickly escalates after that, but would we ever get there?

As a general rule, main characters need to be proactive people who are already pursuing minor goals even before they encounter the big new goal that will drive this story. Of course, some stories get away with breaking this rule, but they have to do so expertly. Basically, they have to promise the audience, “Sure, this hero seems less-than-compelling at this point, but just wait, it gets better!” The best way to do this is with a quick teasing glimpse of the excitement to come.

Most heroes are born active, but others have activity thrust upon them, as is the case with Walter White. We would be hard-wired to reject Walter and stop watching during the first 15 minutes if we hadn’t been promised that this guy would soon become far more engaged. For once this was a show that really needed that flashforward.

The Ultimate Pilot Checklist: Breaking Bad

In a flashforward, we see 50 year old Walter White driving an RV with two dead bodies in the back while ranting to a video camera that he’s ready to shoot and kill the cops that are coming. We then meet Walter in calmer times a few days before, as we see the pressures that led to that moment. He once contributed to a team that won a Nobel Prize, but now he teaches high school chemistry to uninterested students. They mock him in class, then mock him again later when he has to get on his hands and knees to clean their tires at his afterschool car wash job. His wife Sky and son Walt Jr. barely tolerate him. His DEA agent brother in law Hank emasculates him at his surprise birthday party, then makes everybody watch of a meth lab raid. After Walt gets a terminal cancer diagnosis, he decides to start making his own meth with a former student of his, Jesse. They buy the RV to start cooking in the desert, but things quickly go wrong, bringing us back to the flashforward. The cops don’t show up, so Walt and Jesse successfully begin their meth careers.
 Part 1: Is this a strong concept for an ongoing series? (18/20)        
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Does the concept satisfy the urges that get people to love and recommend this type of series?
Murders in the first episode
Does the series establish its own unique point of view on its setting?
 Flashforwards with inexplicable imagery will be common.
Is there a central relationship we haven’t seen in a series before?
 Very much so.  A Chemistry teacher and his flunked-out student cook meth together.
Does the ongoing concept of the series contain a fundamental (and possibly fun) ironic contradiction?
 Very much so.  A meek high-school teacher cooks meth.
Does the concept meet the content expectations of one particular intended network, venue, or audience?
 Yes and no.  It was created for FX, as a follow-up to “The Shield” (drugs, crime, edgy black humor, angry white male with disabled kid), and it mostly met their expectations but not quite (hero too lame), so they bumped it to AMC, where it was the follow-up to “Mad Men”, which was an even weirder fit, but it wound up fitting just fine (anti-hero with extreme disconnect between work and domestic life, etc.)
Even if the setting is unpleasant, is there something about this premise that is inherently appealing? (Something that will make the audience say, “Yes, I will be able to root for some aspect of this situation to recur episode after episode.”)
 “I am awake”.  He stands up to his son’s bullies and renews his sex life.
Series Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong ongoing series?
Is there one character (or sometimes two, in separate storylines) that the audience will choose to be their primary hero (although these heroes should probably be surrounded by an ensemble that can more than hold their own)?
If this is a TV series, is the hero role strong enough to get an actor to abandon a movie career, come to work in TV for the first time, and sign a five-year contract before shooting the pilot? (And even if not for TV, is the hero role still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
Possibly, but they didn’t try. Instead, they took the incredibly risk step of hiring a seemingly unimpressive sitcom vet.
Is the show set in an unsafe space?
It has various settings, but the RV is clearly unsafe, for many reasons.
Is this a setting that will bring (or has brought) different economic classes together?
Very much so.
Will trouble walk in the door on a regular basis?
Literally, in the pilot, and frequently thereafter.
Will the heroes be forced to engage in both physical and cerebral activity on a regular basis?
That’s a good description of chemistry.
Are there big stakes that will persist episode after episode?
Huge: economic threats, health threats, crime threats, moral threats, etc.
Will the ongoing situation produce goals or mini-goals that can be satisfactorily resolved on a regular basis?
Individual drug deals.
The Pilot: Will this pilot episode be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the pilot contain all of the entertainment value inherent in the premise (rather than just setting everything up and promising that the fun will start next week)?
Yes, the outlandish premise is established by the midpoint, and then we go all the way to Walt’s first deal and first murders.
Does the pilot feature an image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the show)?
The man in his tighty-whiteys holding a gun. The flying pants, etc.
Is there something bold, weird, and never-before-seen about this concept and/or pilot? 
Very much so.  The already weird idea become even more bizarrely nightmarish in the flashforward.
Is there a “HOLY CRAP!” scene somewhere along the way in the pilot (to create word of mouth)?
The killings, Walt almost killing himself, etc.
Does the pilot build up potential energy that will power future episodes (secrets that will come out, potential romances, etc.)?
Very much so: When will each of them find out about Walt’s cancer?  When will each of them find out about Walt’s drug dealing (especially Hank)?
Even if this is episodic, is there a major twist or escalation at the end (though sometimes this twist will only be new to, or only revealed to, the audience) that will kick future episodes up a notch?
Yes, Walt has now killed.
Part 2: Is this a compelling hero? (Note: some shows have two almost-co-equal heroes, who will tend to star in separate storylines in each episode, in which case each of these questions should be answered twice.) (16/16)
Believe: Do we recognize the hero (or co-heroes) as human?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
Out of character: a meek teacher points a gun at the approaching cops. 
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Good teacher, wimpy husband.
Does that ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
Angry and potentially violent.
Does the hero have three rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I deserve better, I’m smarter than them, my family must be taken care of.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
He references chemistry a fair amount, but surprisingly he doesn't use it for a lot of metaphors.  Instead, he uses a lot of ill-informed movie-tough-guy dialogue “We only sell it, we don’t use it.” 
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
Meekness with simmering anger just below the surface.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Faux-naivite, “You think I might see inside?”
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or co-heroes)
Does the hero have a great flaw that is the flip side of his great strength?
 One strength/flaw pairing is science brilliance / contempt for others’ intelligence.  Another is devotion to family / willingness to kill others to help them.
Does the hero feel that this flaw cannot be resolved until it’s time to abandon the world of the show?
Not yet, but he’ll come to believe that he must cook meth indefinitely to maintain his self-respect and his family’s economic security.  We never accept this, however, so this is one show where the audience actively wants to show to end.  In the end, the pushed the episode count just as far as the audience could tolerate, but no further.
Does the flaw resonate with the theme and/or setting of the show?
The flaw is the theme here, and the modern-day-wild-west setting speaks to the themes of masculinity-vs.-civilization. 
Invest: Can we trust the hero (or co-heroes) to tackle this challenge?
Does the hero have a great strength that is the flip side of his great flaw?
See above.
Is the hero good at his or her job (or family role, if that’s his or her primary role)?
Both, very much so.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
No one else has his brilliance and they’re all very insensitive to his problems.
Is the hero curious?
Very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Very much so.
Does the hero use unique skills to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody else on the show would do)?
He gets the lab equipment from his school, uses his chemistry knowledge to get into and out of trouble, finds Jesse through the school database, etc.
Part 3: Is this a strong ensemble (beyond the hero or co-heroes)?  (7/13)
Powerful: Is each member of the ensemble able to hold his or her own?
If this is a network TV series, are there at least two more roles that are strong enough to get TV veterans to sign their own five-year contracts? (And even if not for TV, are the characters still that strong, simply for narrative purposes?)
No. The rest of the cast were total unknowns, partially because only Walt seems like a really strong character in the pilot.  They got very lucky to find unknown actors who were able to rise to the task as these characters become stronger and more complex.
Are all of the other regular roles strong enough on the page in this first episode to attract great actors? (ditto)
No, but Vince Gilligan knew that these characters would soon become stronger, so he was able to convince great unknown actors to commit.
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct and defensible point of view?
Yes and no.  The others all somewhat cartoonishly asshole-ish in the pilot, but it’s not hard to imagine that they will provide legitimate pushback soon enough, and indeed they do. 
Is each character defined primarily by actions and attitudes, not by his or her backstory?
Yes.  Even Walt Jr. is defined not by his CP but by is cheeky attitude.
Do all of the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others? (Good characters don’t serve good, evil characters don’t serve evil.)
Very much so. 
Do most of the main characters have some form of decision-making power? (And is the characters’ boss or bosses also part of the cast, so that major decisions will not be made by non-regulars?)
In different ways.
Balanced: Do the members of the ensemble balance each other out?
Whether this is a premise or episodic pilot, is there one point-of-view who needs this world explained (who may or may not be the hero)?
Walt knows the chemistry and Jesse knows the business, so they both have to explain their expertise to the other.
Does it take some effort for the POV character to extract other characters’ backstories?
Yes, Walt and Jesse remain tight-lipped with each other. When Jesse demands to know Walt’s deal, Walt just says, “I’m awake.”
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut (or various forms of 2-way or 4-way polarization)?
Walt and Jesse are 2-way polarized (formal, book-smart vs. crude, street-smart).  The rest are 3-way polarized for now Sky = head (constantly counting costs and calories), Walt Jr. = Heart, Hank = gut. (Each will become 3-dimensional soon enough)
Does each member of the ensemble have a distinct metaphor family (different from the hero’s, even if they’re in the same profession)?
 Jesse: streets (in a faintly ridiculous way), Sky: mom-speak, Hank: right-wing-ese
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality trait?
 Jesse: sarcastic, Sky: disdainful, Walt Jr.: cheeky and frustrated, Hank: aggressive
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument tactic? 
 Jesse: defensive lies, Sky: passive aggressive, Hank: humiliation and intimidation
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or she appears?
Yes, Hank and Marie
Part 4: Is the pilot episode a strong stand-alone story and good template for the ongoing series? (19/22)                               
Template: Does this match and/or establish the standard format of this type of series
Does the pilot have (or establish) the average length for its format?
No.  It’s a full hour, which would be 18 minutes too long for basic cable.  This would imply that it was intended for pay-cable, but it was actually developed for FX.  They just demanded that the pilot run long, which Gilligan didn’t really have the clout for, but he demanded it and got it. 
If this is intended for a form of commercial media, does the pilot have the right number of commercial breaks for its intended venue?
No, because it runs long, it has fewer commercial breaks.  Again, he just demanded it and got away with it.
If this is intended for commercial TV, does every act end on a cliffhanger or escalation, especially the middle one (and, if not intended for commercial TV, does it still have escalations happening in roughly the same places, simply for narrative purposes)?
Yes. 1: Walt collapses: 2: Walt proposes cooking to Jesse, 3: Walt beats up the bullies, 4: Walt beats up bullies.
Does the pilot establish the general time frame for most upcoming episodes of this series?
This show had no general time-frame.  Episodes could cover one hour or several months. 
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time frame?
There’s really just one storyline.
If this is a premise pilot, is the basic premise established by the midpoint, leaving time for a foreshortened typical episode story in the second half?
Pilot Story Fundamentals: Does the pilot episode have a strong story?
Does the pilot provide at least one satisfactory stand-alone story (even if that story is just the accomplishment of a mini-goal)?
Yes, the first drug deal goes wrong and the dealers are killed.
Is this episode’s plot simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
It’s a big plot, but character still rules (it helps that there are no subplots)  We even have little “character-only” bits like the odd little scene where Walt tries to put his handicapped parking mirror-hanger in the glove compartment but the compartment won’t close.  Later we have a scene of just Walt tossing matches into his pool at twilight.
Is the pilot’s challenge something that is not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
Very much so.
First Half: Is the problem established in a way that reflects human nature?
Does the hero start out with a short-term goal for this episode?
Not really, just get through the day. (This is why the flashforward is important.  He isn’t pushing towards a goal at first, so we need to see that he will have a goal thrust upon him.)
Does a troubling situation (episodic pilot) or major change in the status quo (premise pilot) develop near the beginning of the episode?
Very much so: Cancer.
Does the hero eventually commit to dealing with this situation personally?
Very much so.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
With just about everybody, but especially Crazy 8 and Emilio.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
He totally ignores his cancer diagnosis until the midpoint
Does this culminate in a major midpoint setback or escalation of the problem (whether or not there’s a commercial break)?
The setbacks happen at the ¼ and ¾ points (cancer and the deal going bad)  At the midpoint escalation (propositioning Jesse) he is in control.
Second Half: Is the mini-goal resolved as the ongoing trouble escalates?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
By halfway through, are character decisions driving the plot, rather than external plot complications?
No, just the opposite.  The first half is mostly-character, the second half is mostly plot.  This works because it’s a serialized show, and we know that the emotional fallout of this plot can be picked up in the next episode.
Are the stakes increased as the pace increases and the motivation escalates?
Very much so.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the problem?
Yes, he is almost killed and realizes that he too will have to become a murderer.
After that setback, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal?
Well, “corrected” is debatable, but it’s certainly a goal that will proactively solve some of his problems.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has the hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
Very much so.
After the climax, does either the hero, the point of view character or a guest star have a personal revelation and/or life change, possibly revealed through reversible behavior?
Yes. Reversible behavior: stands up to bully, has sex with wife.
Part 5: Is each scene the best it can be? (Walt confronts Jesse) (20/23)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
We just saw Jesse fleeing, unhappy to be recognized by Walt.  Jesse is hiding his car and himself, and looking around fearfully.  He grabs a tire iron when he hears a noise.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it goes from the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
Somewhat, Jesse’s wanted by the law and Walt won’t allow him to inside.  They’re crafting a criminal conspiracy in view of others. 
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
Jesse definitely wasn’t.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Just a brief bit about who owns Jesse’s house, which pays off much later.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Jesse is desperate to get inside away for the cops but Walt is detaining him.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character?
Are one or more characters in the scene emotionally affected by this interaction or action as the scene progresses?
Not really, oddly enough.  They both play it real cool. 
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
By this point, they’ve basically gotten us to approve of this step by Walt, which is pretty amazing.
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface conflict: Will Walt turn him in? Will Jesse let him join the business. Suppressed conflict:
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
Jesse calls him out, so he lays his cards on the table.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
No, they’re both quite open.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
It’s mostly direct confrontation, but Walt proves his point by lifting the tarp off Jesse’s car and showing the license plate.  Finally, he springs the big trap: “Either that, or I turn you in.”
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
Just a little.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
Jesse grabs a tire iron, Walt lifts the tarp and shows the license plate.
If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?
First: get Jesse to relax, then get him to admit that he’s Captain Cook, then get him to accept the pitch.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Jesse agrees to partner up with Walt (right after the scene ends, presumably)
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Jesse was worried that Walt (the only person who saw him at the scene) would turn him in.
Are previously-asked questions answered?
Who is Jesse?  Why did Walt want to go on the ride-along?
Are new questions posed that will be left unanswered for now?
Will Jesse agree?  What the hell is Walt thinking?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
Yes, the whole series concept is launched, with all of its volatile tension.
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
”Either that, or I turn you in.”
Part 6: Is this powerful dialogue? (14/15)
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Not really.  The show would consistently have difficulty summoning up enough empathy for its other characters.  Hank and Marie eventually became easy to empathize with, but Sky (too cold) and Walt Jr. (too dopey) would frustrate even the show’s biggest fans.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.  They’re all incapable of thinking outside their own needs.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
See Jesse and Walt’s discussions.
Do the characters listen poorly?
Very much so.
Do the characters interrupt each other more often than not?
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the culturally-specific syntax of the characters (without necessarily attempting to replicate non-standard pronunciation)?
Yes, the drug dealers have unique and entertaining syntax.
Does the dialogue capture the jargon of the profession and/or setting?
Yes, both chemistry and crime.
Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Is there a minimum of commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Even the teacher/scientist doesn’t.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
The scene outside the credit union where Jesse confronts Walt.
Part 7: Does the pilot manage its tone to create and fulfill audience expectations? (10/10)
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into pre-established expectations?
Does the series fit within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
Are unrealistic genre-specific elements a big metaphor for a more common experience (not how life really is, but how life really feels)?
A mid-life crisis x 100.
Separate from the genre, does the pilot establish an overall mood for the series?
Black comedy
If there are multiple storylines, do they establish the spectrum of moods available within that overall mood?
There is only one storyline.
Is there a moment early on that establishes the type and level of jeopardy?
Yes, the flashforward establishes that this will be a kill-or-be-killed show.
Framing: Does the pilot set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Are there framing devices (flashforwards, framing sequences and/or first person narration) to set the mood, pose a dramatic question, and/or pose ongoing questions?
Yes, a flashforward.
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the pilot? 
Will Walt shoot some cops?
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Lots: coughing, big meth money on TV, etc.
Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot contrivances?
Sort of: why on Earth does Jesse have a video camera.  Because we’ve seen the pay-off first, we don’t really notice that it doesn’t have a set-up. Also, Walt ordering Emilio to stop smoking and Emilio blowing the smoke in Walt’s face makes that seem like its own beat, rather than an excuse to have a fire and force Walt onto the road.
Is the dramatic question of the pilot episode’s plot answered near the end of the story?
Yes, he doesn’t shoot any cops…for now.
Part 8: Does the pilot create a meaningful ongoing theme? (13/14)
Pervasive: Is the theme interwoven into many aspects of the show?
Does the ensemble as a whole have a unique philosophy about how to fill their role (and competition from an allied force with a different philosophy)?
Walt and Jesse commit themselves to a pure product, different from everything else out there.
Does the pilot have a statement of philosophy and/or theme, usually either at the beginning or ¾ of the way in. (Sometimes this will be the ensemble’s stated statement of philosophy, sometimes this merely be the implied theme of the series itself.)
”Chemistry is the study of change.”
Can the show’s overall ongoing theme be stated in the form of a classic good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Bad vs. bad: Underpaid teachers and overpriced health care vs. drug dealing.  Which is worse? 
Throughout the pilot, do the characters have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
Not really.  There aren’t a lot of tough decisions here.  Walt’s uniquely bizarre personality causes him to make decisions difficult that shouldn’t actually be difficult: not telling his family about cancer, not standing up to his wife, etc.
Are the storylines in the pilot thematically linked (preferably in an indirect, subtle way)?
Just one storyline.
Are small details throughout the pilot tied into the theme?
Everywhere Walt looks he sees symbols of emasculation: his fake-bacon wilts, he can’t hold the gun upright, wiping the car forces his head to the ground, etc.
Will the heroes grapple with new moral gray areas in each episode?
Yes, is there really such a thing as “pure” drug dealing?  Is it worth it to lie to your family in order to provide for them?
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the series set-up reflect the way the world works?
Very much so.  The physical, emotional, and economic challenges of drug manufacture will be ever-present.
Does the series have authentic things to say about this type of setting?
Very much so. 
Does the ongoing concept include twinges of real life national pain?
Very much so.  The health-care crisis, underpaid teachers, etc.
Are these issues presented in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Very much so.  The next two episodes brutally rub Walt’s nose in the murders he’s committed.
Do all of the actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Very much so.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the pilot episode’s story, forcing the audience to do that?
There is no discussion.
Does the end of the pilot leave the thematic dilemma wide open and irresolvable?
Very much so.

Total Score: 117/133

Narrative Breakdown Podcast on Character Flaws

Here we are again, folks, I’ve co-hosted another episode of James Monohan and Cheryl Klein’s storytelling podcast “The Narrative Breakdown”.

This time, we’re talking about character flaws, and I think we came to some excellent conclusions by mixing together out different perspectives. And guess what, there’s a lot more “Breaking Bad” talk, in case you haven’t heard enough of that!
(Including talk of the dear, departed Gale, who manages to cook meth in a much less flawed way.)

Here are some past posts on flaws that I touch on: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Download it here or subscribe on iTunes here!

Also, this is awesome:
"El Paso" scene in Breaking Bad plus the rest of it from Bonnie Rose on Vimeo.

Rulebook Casefile: The Demands of Genre on “Breaking Bad”

Well, guys, I said I was ready to move on, but everything else is taking too long, so let’s derive one more rule from that “Breaking Bad” finale, shall we?
Why was the final season so much more satisfying than other acclaimed shows? The most obvious answer is that it wanted to be satisfying. That may not seem exceptional, but there’s actually a lot of pressure on these shows not to satisfy.  In fact, my main fear going into the final seasons was that all those Emmys would finally go to creator Vince Gilligan’s head and the show would catch “prestige drama disease”. *

In later seasons of “The Sopranos”, for instance, you could practically hear David Chase saying to his audience, “I’m not going to wrap things up all neat and tidy for you— what do you think this is, ‘Diff’rent Strokes’?” He let all those awards convince him that he was making “Scenes from a Marriage”, not “The Godfather”.

The gangster genre is synonymous with “rise and fall”, but Chase refused to satisfy those genre cravings because he decided that, no, it was a show about the mobster in all of us, and once he switched to the retribution phase of the story, then the audience would get to divorce themselves from identifying with Tony and suddenly adopt a smug condemnation of him, as if they weren’t enjoying his actions all along.

I sympathize with this concern. It is annoying that audiences get to have it both ways: first getting joy from living vicariously through an antihero’s transgressions, then getting just as much enjoyment from watching those transgression be harshly punished. Chase must have known that Tony’s arrest and trial would make for a great story, but he was unwilling to flip that switch.

But “Breaking Bad” never found itself caught up in that kind of antagonistic relationship with its audience, perhaps because it always put genre first, and drama second. Gilligan knew that Bryan Cranston count inject powerfully-real human emotion into even the most over-the-top situations, so they could continue having fun without losing the gravity.

Even more impressively, Gilligan managed to straddle two genres and totally satisfy both: the Crime Saga and the Western. It’s amazing that the most heartbreaking episode of this critically beloved show still managed to include an old-fashioned desert shoot-out. In fact, Gilligan has made it clear in interviews that the finale was heavily influenced by The Searchers, and it shows.

Rather than chafing under the strain of his genre obligations, as Chase did, Gilligan decided to dance with who brung him and deliver a delightfully pulpy final season, even going so far as to include a great train robbery!

Gilligan cut his audience some slack: we had come with him this far, stuck with his hero though some very alienating periods, and let him put us though a lot of twist-the-knife moral queasiness, and now we had earned a cathartic blaze-of-glory finale. He trusted the earlier darkness to stay with us, long after the catharsis had faded.

In the finale, as in the whole series, he was more than willing to offer a heaping spoonful of genre delights to help the audience swallow a very bitter pill: the show’s bleak diagnosis of America’s sick soul.

* I would say that the only overly-arty episode was “Fly”, about Walt’s allegorical hunt for a fly in his lab, though I know it has big fans.

How to Create a TV Show, Addendum: The Pilot Must Showcase the Appeal of the Show

I included this one on the checklist earlier this week, but it never got a piece of its own, so here you go…
As I’ve hinted before, I’m not a fan of something that the rest of the internet really loves: Joss Whedon starship saga “Firefly”. I gave it a shot when it first came on, but gave up quickly…then I gave it another shot later on DVD, got about five episodes in, and gave up again. I know I’m in the minority here, but the show just left me cold.

What I did find fascinating were the DVD commentaries. Though recorded long after the cancellation, Whedon was still bristling with rage about the fact that his two-hour pilot was aired out of order, in favor of starting with a train-robbery episode. He kept derisively quoting from the network notes about how the pilot was nothing but exposition, while the train robbery was fun, and if viewers couldn’t get caught up while starting with the second episode, then the show was never going to work anyway. The problem was that I found myself agreeing with each note.

That pilot is indeed a long, hard slog, as we gradually get to know this bizarre universe and meet a huge case of stowaways, all with massive backstories of their own. Even though we have two hours, by the time we’ve got all the players in place, there’s barely time for an actual story. It’s only in second episode that we really get it: Oh, okay, this is really an outer space Western. There are going to be train robberies, but with cool sci-fi gadgetry. This looks fun.

The problem, in the end, was that neither episode made for a good introduction to the show: the first was all set-up and no fun, and the second was all fun and no set-up. It was too hard to figure out what was going on. But when the network had to choose, I still think they made the right choice in starting with the second.

A pilot needs to move like lightning, because in much less screentime than a movie, it’s got to establish a fascinating new environment, set up a whole ensemble (who all need to have more long-term potential than movie characters) and then it’s got to cram in a whole plot with a beginning middle and end…and that plot has to be appealing.

Think of how tempting it must have been to spend the whole “Breaking Bad” pilot just getting Walt to the point where he’s ready to cook. It’s amazing enough that creator Vince Gilligan manages to get this meek little chemistry teacher through an epic journey from milquetoast to drug cook in one episode…but then he goes much further, getting Walt all the way through his first botched drug deal and murder by the end of the one-hour pilot!

Gilligan knew that he didn’t just need to establish his world and his character, he needed to show what was going to happen every week: Crime! Desert showdowns! Frantic improvisation! Chemistry-related killings!

Now is the perfect time to rewatch that pilot: How quickly are Walt, Skylar, Walt Jr., Hank and Marie established, including the flaws and strengths of each one?  How well are Walt’s problems established? What about this week's plot? And how it all goes wrong?  They couldn’t have pulled that all off if any of those scenes had an ounce worth of fat.  That's how fast a pilot has to be.