Mark: Breaking Bad was on screen when micro-networks were challenging the big three with gritty content, ahead of streaming platforms becoming content providers. There’s more content than you can get to in one lifetime — and that’s because of capitalism!
Jax: In the late 80s in England there were four channels and TVs were regulated. There were people out in vans checking for unlicensed TVs.
Mark: Breaking into the business as a young actor in the 80s was very different than today. There were select studios, few studios, you had to go through a Hollywood process to get a job. Now you can do a YouTube video that gets three million views and end up with top representation. Streaming platforms have brought democracy to the acting world and to the viewing world and that’s a fantastic thing.
Mark: The series was created by Vince Gilligan of X Files fame and stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and other great character actors. There’s an interesting story about how this show came about that is important for aspiring writers. If you’re a creative, everything is grist for the mill. Every joke, experience, overheard conversion in a coffee house becomes your bible to draw from and use. Vince Gilligan was unemployed for two years after the X Files — success on a big show doesn’t mean you’re set for life in Hollywood. He and a buddy in the same situation said they should buy an RV and take it around the country cooking meth to make money, which was sort of a joke but gave Vince the idea. He wondered what would make good guys like them drive around in an RV and cook meth. That was the genesis of Breaking Bad.
Jennifer: I didn’t know that. Vince is a master at storytelling and this is probably one of my favourite TV shows. The way he brings together tension and conflict and character arc is beautifully done.
The Creative Process
Mark: Hearing Bryan Cranston talk about the creative process highlights the unconscious nature of creation. E.g. “Why am I wearing this?” and Vince would answer “I don’t know. I thought it looked cool.” As objectivists, we like things to be known quantities all the time and in our grasp, but there’s something to the unconscious creative aspect.
Jax: And it’s not whimsical either. It’s a process that’s so automated that it feels like a gut reaction, but if someone questions you, you’ll be able to go through that process and explain why. Nothing happens on accident. Things can be subconsciously done or explicitly.
Mark: I agree. I think even Cranston said that everything in a script is on purpose. We as objectivists understand that everything in that world is there for a reason, even if the writer or creator isn’t directly aware of that. Today we can talk about a plot! I’m still convinced Fleabag doesn’t have a plot. Here we have a plot: a high school chemistry teacher gets diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, and in order to ensure his family has the means to support themselves after his impending death, he starts cooking meth. What could possibly go wrong? Lots goes wrong and that becomes the substance of the plot. We can get into the characters, arcs and actions and they all go through in an attempt to get themselves out of the shit. That’s my favourite writing technique is to put characters in deep shit and see if they can get out of it.
Jennifer: It was one thing after another. What I loved is that he was always problem-solving. This is law of causality. Whenever he would do something that might cause another problem, he would have to figure his way out. One of my favourite scenes is when they spend the entire episode trying to figure out how to get the RV out of the desert.
Mark: They’re 18 miles from a road, and later on when they’re trying to start the generator, Jesse wastes the last of their water putting out the fire. They’re in the middle of the desert with no power, no vehicle and no water — that is a great way to put your characters in jeopardy.
Is Walter White evil?
Jax: Walter White reminds me of if MacGyver were evil. I appreciate that aspect of using science, logic and reason even though he becomes a horribly evil man.
Mark: He did it to get out of a difficult situation with the first drug dealer where he creates something that looks like meth but is an explosive. He leverages the moment to get what he wants. Is Walter an evil guy?
Jax: People think Breaking Bad starts with Walter White as a good guy, and what happens when a bad thing happens to a good guy and drives him to desperation. But I know a whole lot of people who have been diagnosed with cancer and don’t turn to cooking meth. It’s not at the top of their mind. I think he is a bad guy in the making and that’s what amazing about his arc. He’s passive and inactive when you meet him. He’s not pursuing values, from an objectivist perspective. You can tell he loves science and chemistry, but when he’s interacting with his students, he’s just talking to a mirror. He gives a great speech in episode one that’s the theme for the entire show, about chemistry.
Mark: Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) would say that’s a moment of Save the Cat-esque style where you state the theme early on, almost explicitly. This was done as exposition, but it was about a character who rises, falls and rises again. It was done as an analogy to chemistry which I thought was a brilliant way to approach that.
Jax: It’s misleading because it seems he’s passionate about being a teacher. I think he’s passionate about people knowing how smart he is. That plagues him for the entire series. You see his aggression come out in episode one when his son is being teased because his parents have to help him put his pants on. The look on his face is ‘this is power’ — right there form episode one, so don’t tell me he started out as a good guy.
Mark: I have a take on that as well. What do you think Jennifer? He has a massive arc with respect to Jessie.
Jennifer: I had a different experience watching the series the second time. The first time I thought he was a good guy making understandable choices and turning bad. Knowing how it ends, I was less sympathetic to him the second time through. You see those moments early on. He was high on that power and hadn’t experienced it before.
Mark: I’m in Jax’s camp as well. I saw the whole series a few years ago. 2012, 2013 and got to season three this time as I couldn’t get through all of it. When I saw it the first time, I thought it was a rendition of “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and it was a guy who was corrupted by power. But I don’t really buy that maxim. It’s not power that corrupts, it’s corrupt people who are attracted to power. His anger was loosened after he was diagnosed.
Jax: It started in episode one before he got diagnosed.
Mark: I don’t think he had the courage to do that before he was diagnosed. By the time he does something like that, he’s fighting as if he’s already dead and not letting things slide as he would before. Bryan Cranston described Walter White’s moustache in the beginning as almost not there. It’s an impotent moustache that reflects how impotent he is in life. That can really dig at a man and fester and become something toxic later on.
Jax: He had many moments. The first was before he found out he had cancer and his anger flashes. It’s not controlled and powerful as it comes out afterwards; it’s like a child throwing a temper tantrum. First when he kicks the kid who was making fun of his son, and second when he was getting humiliated in the carwash.
Mark: He’s suffering one indignity after another, a potential that never actualised. He was part of a team that got the Nobel prize for their discovery; he never reached his potential. What went wrong?
Jax: In season five, Jessie is trying to get him out of the business — they’ve just done the train heist and stolen methylamine — Jesse and Mike want to sell their portion but Walt doesn’t want to sell. Jessie reminds him ‘you got into this when you had cancer, making money for your family, and you have more money than you know what to do with.’ Walt says he’s not in the meth or money business, but in the empire business. He becomes more himself every season.
Mark: With the exception of season three where you see a little dance take place and a reversal of sorts where Walter White becomes more of a human, caring for his family, and Jesse embraces his criminality and Walter saves his life. For the first time, you see a connection between the two from Walter’s point of view. I think that’s very good writing where you see one guy descending into the hell and then lift up and change, and then probably pushed to the edge at the end of season three where Jesse commits a murder and saves Walter’s life. They do that amazing tango they do in acting, a turn and twist at the end of the season.
Jennifer: We probably had to have that — how could we watch him go further without some redeemable qualities.
Mark: The episode called Fly. It seems like it doesn’t belong, but it’s a necessary comedic reprieve between the horror. I thought season three was an interesting twist. I’d like to see where it goes in seasons four and five. What do you think about Jesse? Walter’s character arc is like Macbeth.
Jennifer: Jesse became an intriguing character on the second watch. He made the comedy between the two of them hilarious. In his arc, he seems to have heart. He’s struggling, he’s the meth-head, but he’s the one who cares about people.
Mark: That brings us to a couple of things that we want to relate to The Strike. Objectivists tend to shy away from humour, Ayn Rand had issues with that. A show like this, filled with darkness, highlights the importance of humour. For us as the audience to keep following the narrative, using the humour. The odd couple, two opposites and see what happens when you put problems in their way. That’s pretty funny. How can that be used in The Strike? Can you use those elements of humour, the odd couple contrasts to make moments funny in The Strike?
Jax: I think so. You can’t do anything slapstick, but there are moments especially with the villains that are fighting with themselves. If you look at Atlas Shrugged, there are opportunities between Jim Taggert, Orren Boyle and Wesley Mouch to have some bickering — some of those moments are already in the book, it’s just bringing them out a bit.
Mark: I’m all for making them Keystone Cops! Evil should be lampooned. I think that’s an original way to approach evil and it humanised Walter even though he’s a psychopath.
Jennifer: In Atlas Shrugged, we have a dystopian world that’s going to get worse and worse. Using comedy will be important and we’ll keep it in mind. Already in the pilot script we’ve written, Eddie is pretty funny.
Mark: I like Eddie.
Save the Cat
Jennifer: Save the Cat is a story technique writers use. In a movie, it’s usually done once at the beginning. The character you’re following does something to show compassion for something. It doesn’t have to be done as altruism at all. As an objectivist when they’re not using altruism, it’s more effective. Basically, they’re ‘saving a cat’ … so you think that person has a heart. In Breaking Bad, the one that stood out was when Jesse is going to make the robbery right, so he’s waiting for the meth heads to show up and get his money or his meth back. Right after the clip, he starts talking to the little kid. He ends up protecting him and having a sandwich with him, this represented who Jesse was deep down inside. He goes through a lot — kills people, has a relapse. Can you think of any other Save the Cat moments in Breaking Bad?
Mark: When he saves his brother from being found smoking pot by his parents. That was the first Save the Cat moment for me. Then in the crack house was more profound. Then when he gets that loving from the AA meeting he goes to and she has a kid. His reaction when he founds out his friend was killed by a mule that was an eleven-year-old kid who was used by the cartel. That sends him on a revenge path and to a self-destructive place. Those moments show he’s a guy with heart and deep integrity. Maybe he never had a chance because of where he’s from. That might not go well with objectivists. Should Dagny have a Save the Cat moment?
Jax: I think she does both in the book and the pilot episode. The first moment you see her on the train when she’s listening to Richard Halley and is described as being so alive. The train stops and she gets out and asks the conductor what’s wrong. She doesn’t say who she is, name drop herself, just tells them what to do to get the train moving again. Someone whispers to the engineer that she’s Dagny Taggert who owns the railroad. She saves the train, and in our pilot, we’re using autonomous trucks. We have a similar scenario where she gets things moving in the same way.
Mark: She’s a rockstar in that for sure. Objectivists can maybe redefine compassion. Maybe we can widen the moral arc and give passion to people who aren’t vulnerable but are strong … the Dagnys of the world. That Save the Cat moment is different than the one Blake Synder would describe but just as interesting. So let’s talk about Skyler White. I found her interesting the second time around. I don’t know that she appealed to me as much as she did this time around. She’s a powerful and consistent moral voice. Especially from the third season after Hank got injured, it’s the women who carried the men and saved their asses. Do you agree and is it relevant to The Strike?
The Women of Breaking Bad
Jax: I watched Breaking Bad a few years after you and remember hating Skyler. I wasn’t seeing the real arcs and progressions, the morality of her. This time around we all had that same experience where she’s the moral background. If there’s anyone who’s doing anything right in this. Skyler is the good guy. Skyler is the most hated character on Breaking Bad.
Mark: How much of your appreciation for Skyler comes from your objectivist roots?
Jax: A huge amount. But also it comes from motherhood.
Jennifer: I would agree. It’s experience I’ve had since the first time I watched it.
Mark: Her values are always her family. Her son and her daughter, her sister and her brother-in-law. She never loses sight of that. Walter starts out with the idea of leaving a legacy to his family, but lose sight of that.
Jennifer: She said something like “I’m protecting this family from the man who’s saving this family”
Mark: Marie seemed like one of the superficial characters picks up the slack after Hank is injured and becomes something significant. I love how she got him out of the hospital.
Super Chat question: Don’t you think Cherryl has that benevolent arc of change when she rights her wrongs with Dagny in the end?
Jennifer: Cherryl is one of my favourite characters. We’re so excited about writing her.
Jax: I agree. Cherryl is one of the most interesting characters that has a really great arc and Ayn Rand wrote her perfectly in my opinion. She’s kind of the Jessie to Jim Taggert’s Walt. In the same way, Jessie idolises Walt, there comes a moment when Jesse realises Walt is a monster. It’s that same realisation that Cherryl has — the man I married is a nihilistic monster.
Mark: The arcs are fantastic, we can talk about this all day. But I want to hit a couple more observations about the integration of film technique with the story: colour and music. Then one reservation about the writing. What do you think about the use of colour?
Jax: This show makes tremendously good use of colour. In a way that’s not just a camera filter. Purple is the colour of the comic book villain — everything in Marie’s house is purple. Also the use of beiges, neutrals and browns. When we see Walter for the first time, there’s a lot of beige and brown. As Walter gets more into his Heisenberg personality, the colours become bolder. Walt eventually gets out of the meth business and runs the carwash with Skyler. The whole time, they are both dressed in beige. In the one episode where they have a terrible fight and Skyler slashes his hand, Walt Jr is there, and he is attacking her. Walt Jr calls the police protecting his mother. She’s wearing all beige except for two purple cuffs. That stuff is not on accident. They make brilliant use of that. Jennifer, what do you think?
Jennifer: I was always bothered by the drabby house. Walter had decided with Jessie that they were done with cooking meth. It’s the episode where he’s trying to make his life work again, he’s in remission and is mad he doesn’t have an excuse to be making meth. You can see there’s brown sludge coming out of the water heater and Skyler is making tea like groundwater. He wears red after that. Jessie’s in red, drives red cars, got a red phone. Skyler was wearing green a lot.
Mark: Also music. I listened to Vince Gilligan talk about it. It had to have an organic purpose in the piece. As most people should approach music — it should have to be there. Rand is right when she talks about that stuff. They didn’t want to use the music to manipulate emotional effects for the audience and tell them how to feel. Which I think is great. Great writing is not telling the audience how to feel, it’s doing the action, putting them in the circumstances and the shit and letting them draw their own conclusions. That takes a lot of courage as a writer. As an actor as well.
Mark: I wanted to talk about one massive quibble that I have with this nearly perfectly done series. Every aspect of the piece has a great deal of integrity, the way it fits together as a story should. But god damn it, I hate the coincidences! And then the attempt to tie up some of that in an expositional scene. It made me feel weird.
Mark goes into this in some detail, and you have to watch (it’s about an hour in) — he is super animated!
Jax: I forgive it more than you do. One of the brilliant things about the entire show is you see consequences. When Walt becomes Heisenberg, everyone gets hurt by Walt.
This was another great episode. I enjoyed the info about writing good TV that Mark, Jax and Jennifer shared, and how well the discussion about Breaking Bad was related back to Atlas Shrugged and The Strike.
It’s a super format because context is provided by Atlas Shrugged/The Strike and the craft of storytelling as well as the show of the week, so it’s not necessary to have watched the show (which is a big ask for a multi-year series like Breaking Bad) or read Atlas Shrugged to find something of interest in the episode.
The information about screenwriting is presented in a very accessible way, so it’s understandable by anyone who’s watched a TV show and particularly interesting for aspiring writers.
This isn’t an exact transcript. Most of the discussion is covered, but there are a few omissions and some paraphrasing. Please let me know if you spot any errors. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @PlnetPellegrino. You’re also welcome to get in touch if you’re a non-native English speaker and you want help understanding something.
Mark, Jax and Jennifer will be talking about Atlas Shrugged versus Russian Doll in the next episode (Friday 16th at 10pm UK time on the ARCUK YouTube Channel). There are eight episodes, each under 30 minutes, so there’s time to watch this one before next week! In the UK, the series is on Netflix.
If you want to get ahead with your watching, episode four will be Atlas Shrugged versus The Night Of (highly recommended by Mark) and episode five is Atlas Shrugged versus Mad Men.