I only know a handful of movies with anything near the emotional power of this movie moment. Only this one didn’t premiere in cinemas.
It happened on TV, on the evening of May 24, 2009.
[UPDATE: Here’s a great interview with Bryan Cranston about this scene.]
by Karel Segers
Spoiler warning for season 2!
I’m really a movie person and the only series I watched religiously before 2000 was Twin Peaks. That’s one series in twenty years. Over the past ten years, I’ve had less time, I kicked out my TV set, yet I’ve watched more than ten times the amount of TV drama. Because that’s where the action is.
When Walter White delivered his speech about chemistry in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, the screenwriting fan in me could sense we were in for a treat. “Chemistry is the study of … change.” This brand spanking new TV character was talking about himself – only he didn’t know. Vince Gilligan, writer/creator did, damn well.
I had only just completed the final episode of The Wire when I was introduced to Breaking Bad on DVD. In The Wire, Jim McNulty ultimately redeems himself and changes in three fundamental ways. Now here was Walter White and with him the promise of yet another changing TV hero.
To hell with the naysayers claiming character change doesn’t matter. When will you wake up?
THE CENTRAL QUESTION
If you want to learn something important about screen drama that many don’t get, listen carefully. In the greatest screen stories – and Breaking Bad is a class example – the most important question is not ‘will the hero achieve the goal?’ or even ‘how will the hero achieve the goal’? The real dramatic question is: “what is s/he prepared to do?”
To hell with the naysayers claiming character change doesn’t matter.
When will you wake up?
The most interesting characters are those that need to change their ways – and/or the world – before they can get what they want. Walter White wants to make enough money for his family to be comfortable before he dies. From episode to episode, from season to season the same question pushes this character: Later, his goal may shift and perhaps it is no longer about looking after his family. Still, whatever the goal, that central question remains: How far is Walt prepared to go? This is really what draws us in and keeps us glued.
Ask a fan about their favourite season and they’ll say: the last. Season 4 was driven by the mythical shadow character of Gustavo Fring, without any doubt one of most frightening villains ever.
(Random name drop: I had breakfast with Giancarlo Esposito once. He’s so lovely I could eat him.)
The real dramatic question is:
“what is s/he prepared to do?”
My favourite is Season 2. I loved the mystery of the teasers, the demise of Tuco and the introduction of Saul Goodman, Gus Fring and Mike but above all: femme fatale Jane Margolis. Jane is a mesmerising character and we completely understand Jesse’s infatuation with her. A perfection setup for the horror where she is cruelly ripped away from him and out of the series.
Jesse has been caught in the seductive web spun by Jane and his downward spiral is happening right in front of Walt’s eyes. That night, Walt goes to Jesse’s place and finds the two deep asleep, spooning in a post-trip stupor. From here, every detail matters… Walt turns Jesse over and as a result Jane rolls on her back – a chilling payoff of the scene where Skyler turns her little baby daughter on her side, earlier in the episode. A moment later Jane coughs… She vomits and starts choking. Walt reacts… but hesitates. He thinks, watches and…lets it happen, allowing Jane to die.
There are so many reasons why this scene is just phenomenally powerful. First, it has been prepared carefully and Walt’s action pays off on many levels. At the beginning of the episode, his daughter is born. At the end, he kills the daughter of the man he has just had a profound conversation with at the bar. In the next episode, which concludes the season, his action will have a (literal) fallout with mythical dimensions.
This is not just TV drama. This is the building of a screen myth.
This is not just TV drama.
This is the building of a screen myth.
Here is a main character who has reached his lowest point and his decision not to act is more powerful than any action I’ve seen on the big screen for a long time.
Walt has made a clear choice, answering the question “How far are you prepared to go?”
– Karel Segers
(first published for ScripTips)
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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13 thoughts on “Breaking Bad Has The Best Scene On Television – Ever”
That is my favorite scene of Breaking Bad, always has been. Just an amazing moment and the linchpin of the entire series.
Great minds… :)
Cranston deserves better than the arc Walt is getting, he just deserves way better. I’m done with this show. Gilligan can go and pimp the hell out of Jesse and Mike but I didn’t start watching the show for them. God, I hope Cranston gets a decent movie role somewhere down the line. He’s been fucked in the ass long enough.
Interesting perspective… I take it this is based on the first two episodes of Season 5 (which I haven’t seen)? Or were you disappointed earlier?
In any case, back in Season 2 there was no reason to complain…
Do you think the distraction away from Walt indicates they’re running dry on material? Would it be personal? Or will Walt be back with a vengeance later in the season?
I agree with you about the movie deal for Cranston. Actors are completely in the hands of the writers. You can act until the cows come home… if your part is not strong, you won’t be noticed.
Your an idiot. This is not the usually happy, good guys always wins show. It’s called breaking bad, if you cannot handle a realistic fall to the darkside tale watch little house on the prarie. Walk is still the biggest bad ass and focus of the show are you this stupid and childish?
As this was the episode that made me stop watching the series (at least for the time being), I’m afraid I have to disagree. Yes, it’s powerful drama, but tonally it was completely wrong for the show. It’s supposed to be black comedy-drama, not Requiem for a Dream.
Tonally it pushes the boundaries, although I didn’t have any issues with it. Clearly a large audience has followed Gilligan in this.
Tone is one of the hardest things to get right, as I can tell from the numerous newbie screenplays I read.
BB delivers the ‘black comedy-drama’ like I have never seen before. With depth. I have read dozens Australian black comedy feature scripts that were consistent in tone, yet dead boring. Being funny without anything to say. This one scene is the culmination of a brilliantly plotted season and the setup for a character that becomes so much richer, just because of the darkness he enters.
I would say our writers need to study this scene and the context of the entire season as it clearly works for the masses and it moves lightning fast on the plot level.
If anything, Breaking Bad is groundbreaking in terms of tone. It has created its own tonal universe and works within that. You can’t compare it to any other show I know (except perhaps SIX FEET UNDER?) and so perhaps it has become an acquired taste.
All that said, of course I’m not going to change your taste, Jonathan. And I’m pleased you made the comment. This valid concern had not occurred to me before.
The show has you asking yourself ‘where do I stop laughing?’ and that is what makes it so powerful. You can’t laugh your way through Breaking Bad. WHy would you want to?
I’m half way down season 4 and quite bored. It’s just the repetition of things getting worse, not changing anymore. Plus no side character has depth, they could all disappear and the serie would go on undisturbed
LOL, so your braindead and have the IQ of a pea?
8 years later, yet, your comment still is pretty shallow and innacurate. Depth and sidecharacter importance to the plot were always there.
This was my favorite scene until a scene from 11th episode of Season 4 when a frenzied Walter asks Skyler where’s the money and she says she’s given it to Ted. and then Walt starts laughing hysterically as Skyler gets a call from Marie. Goosebumps. :)
I had read this article when first published, but am way late to the party as I’ve just watched the episode.
As I’m nearing the end of season 2 (one episode left), I’m most fascinated with the Walter/Jessie relationship. It’s pretty evident – to me at least – that Walter is blinded by his own hatred toward himself, but readily sees his own failures in Jessie. Walter knows about failure, just not on the level Jessie’s experienced it.
Instead, he’s driven for some need of respect and to fulfill some longing of “what could have been”. But instead of having a conscious awareness of this, he quickly points out the failures and flaws – and often rightly so – in Jessie, to the point where he seems to revel in it. The two have more in common than he’d ever admit.
It’ll be interesting to see where this journey takes them… it’s certainly heading down a dark path.