As I searched for the six toughest decisions in the Checklist movies, I played around with rating each one as (in retrospect) either (R)ight, (W)rong, or (U)nclear. The results say some interesting things about genre structures:
Coming-of-age stories tend to be about making bad decisions until the very end:
W: Accept the come-on? Yes.
W: Lie to her parents and go to Oxford with him? Yes.
W: Agree to ignore his crimes? Yes.
W: Have sex with him? Yes.
W: Accept the marriage proposal? Yes.
R: Humiliate herself to get back into school? Yes.
In some action films, on the other hand, the hero can make nothing but right decisions:
The Bourne Identity:
R: Speak to the lady at the Embassy? No.
R: Climb down the wall? Yes.
R: Trust Marie? Yes.
R: Continue investigating his past after they discover bad things? No.
R: Leave Marie and return to Paris? Yes.
R: Kill Conklin? No.
Horror movies tend to have a series of wrong decisions followed by a series of right decisions:
W: Answer the distress signal? Yes.
W: Break quarantine? Yes.
W: Remove the face-hugger or not? No. (To be fair, they can’t figure out how)
R: Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? Kill it.
R: Blow up the whole ship to kill it? Yes.
R: Go back for the cat? Yes.
But other action movies are less clear. We’re never sure in Blue Velvet if Jeffrey’s investigation did anybody any good or not, so we get a lot of ‘U’s:
R: Come home to help with the store? Yes.
U: Pick up the ear? Yes.
U: Investigate it outside the law? Yes.
W: What to do when Dorothy finds him there? Have sex with her.
W: Hit her when she asks him to? Yes.
R: Finally tell Sandy everything when Dorothy shows up? Yes.
U: Go confront Frank? Yes.
But then a seemingly straightforward movie like Iron Man gets a lot of ‘U’s, too:
R: Agree to build the weapons for the terrorists or let himself be shot? He pretends to agree under false pretense.
U: Let Shinzen sacrifice himself so he can escape? Yes.
R: Get back into the arms business? No.
W: Trust his partner? Yes.
U: Take the next step with Pepper she makes herself vulnerable at the fundraiser? Not yet.
U: Lie to the press about Iron Man? No.
So does Iron Man feel like an art film? No, not at all, but Tony is harder to trust than Jason Bourne. We’ve had four Iron Man movies now, and in each one his ethics have turned out to be right for the situation, but we’re never sure if that will always be true. It looks like Tony’s next two appearances (The Avengers 2 and Captain America 3) will finally pay off the possibility that he might be capable of doing more harm than good. Once again, Marvel plays the long game.
My new big-deal manager gushed about how much he loved my horror-thriller in order to keep me from signing with another guy, but then as soon as he had locked me down, he told me that he wouldn’t actually send it out because, “Eh, at some point, the story all runs downhill.” Huh? What does that mean? But no clarification was forthcoming. I’ve tried to grasp his point ever since.
Here’s my best interpretation: the hero is fighting the villain, but neither one is really surprising us anymore. The story is locked onto a certain trajectory: there are still lots of exciting things going on, and near-death scrapes, and clever escapes, but these are all obstacles, they aren’t really conflicts. They’re hard to do, but not hard to want to do.
I’ve never stopped struggling with this. Surely, at some point, the hero can finally figure out what to do, right? I realize that the whole story can’t be a straightforward struggle of good vs. evil and still be interesting, but can’t we at least have the players sorted our properly in the final act?
As I’ve redone the 17 stand-alone-story checklists, I’ve focused in on one of the new questions: Does the hero have to face several smaller good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad decisions throughout your story. As I’ve been adding these up, I’ve thought about changing to the wording to “Does the hero face at least six tough good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad dilemmas spaced out throughout the story” (In screenplay terms, that would be about 15-20 pages.)
The audience wants to play along at home. To a certain extent, watching a hero overcome obstacles is like watching someone else play a videogame, which can be a dreadful experience. When you watch a hero overcome a physical challenge, you might think, “Ooh, I know what I what I would do in that situation,”, but there’s never a satisfying pay-off to that: Either they do what you would have done, and you’re mildly gratified, or they don’t, and you just get frustrated.
What the audience really wants to say is “Ooh, I don’t know what I what I would do in that situation!” Even better is when they follow that up with, “…and I don’t want to know.” That’s when they really start playing along at home.
Let’s look at Alien:
Answer the distress signal? (Risk our lives to help people we haven’t met?)
Break quarantine? (Risk all of our lives for one friend’s life?)
Remove the face-hugger or not? (Risk killing our friend in order to save him?)
Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? (Risk our ability to make a living for personal safety?)
Blow up the whole ship to kill it? (Destroy everything we’ve done for personal safety)
Go back for the cat? (Risk my life to save a small creature?)
The dilemmas just keep on coming, and they’re all questions that we wouldn’t want to answer ourselves. And they keep going right up to the end. What if we didn’t have that tough last-minute decision? What if the final act had all been a gung-ho woman-vs.-alien struggle without any more painful dilemmas? It would be inert.
I briefly posted and then postponed a version of this post a few days ago, but a commenter had already said that saving the cat always annoyed him, because it seemed to contribute to the deaths in future films. To me, that only shows the value of the dilemma: you can never be sure if it was worth it, even years later.
Next time, let’s look at what we can learn about genre structure from looking at the six impossible dilemmas.
UPDATE! So I posted this late last night followed by a discussion of difficult decisions, but awoke up this morning this morning seized by the conviction that I should have delayed and expanded that section, so I’ve deleted it now and I’ll run it next week instead. Sorry to Ted Cross, who commented on it already, as I had to delete that comment (because it wouldn't make any sense now) I am re-examining the point you questioned, Ted!
UPDATE #2: Actually, I should throw my question about Ted’s comment to the group: Ted was under the impression that Parker and Lambert died in Alien because Ripley decided to go back for the cat, whereas the way I remember it is that they were already dead when she made that decision. Which is it? So the rest of the redone checklists are all posted now, all updated to v5 and better formatted for modern devices:
The checklist for Silence of the Lambs has been rewritten for version 5 and reposted in the new format, so let’s look at another rule hidden in this movie...
The scene where Clarice meets Lecter in Silence of the Lambs is a masterpiece of tense and compelling scenework. To understand how great it is, we must remind ourselves of just how weird it is.
Let’s imagine some of the more traditional ways this scene could have gone. An FBI rookie is searching for a serial killer on the loose, so she interviews an imprisoned serial killer to see if he has any tips. The scene needs to be tense and compelling, with a ticking clock, right? Here are the obvious ways to do that…
The killer is angry, resentful and threatening.
He refuses to participate, forcing her to push and push to get through to him.
He doesn’t want her there and keeps demanding that the guards take her away, but she keeps pleading with the guards for more time with him.
That makes for a pretty tense scene right? It writes itself! And it’s probably pretty realistic, too, so that’s even better. But what if we skip over all the obvious sources of tension, ignore the most likely real-life scenario, and instead imagine something totally unexpected?
This killer is calm, witty and sophisticated.
He’s happy to have someone to talk to, provided that she’s smart enough to verbally spar with him
We get an entirely different type of ticking clock: She’s told in advance that he’ll talk as long as possible …until he gets bored. This might seem to be less of a problem than open belligerence, but it turns out to be far more threatening, because she has no choice but to play his games and submit to his interrogations in order to maintain his interest long enough to get some tips.
This is totally counterintuitive, but it works much better. The result may be less realistic, but it’s far more entertaining, fresh, and creepy.
In the DVD extras, Hopkins arrogantly says that no American actor could have played Lecter, because Americans are trained to make their characters organic and understandable, whereas British actors are willing to create characters externally, concerned more with the audience’s psychology than their own. His Lecter is essentially an inhuman devil: we’re not getting inside his head, he’s getting in ours.
To write this sort of scene, you can start with the question, “How would I feel if I’d been locked up for so long?”, which is fine, but it can also work to simply approach the scene externally, asking, “What sort of human monster have we never seen before? How can I create a scene that’s scary in an entirely different way from what the audience would suspect?”
Crucially, Lecter remains three-dimensional and believable, because (novelist) Harris, (screenwriter) Tally, and (actor) Hopkins have given him a clear (albeit demonic) internal logic, but he’s not a character that you would arrive at by putting yourself in this situation, or even by reading the literature on typical serial killers. This story doesn’t “write itself”, because Lecter is an entirely original creation.
I’m in the process of reposting the Checklist Roadtests with better formatting and rewritten for Checklist v5, along with new thoughts on the movies. The new Sunset Boulevard Checklist is up, so let’s look at one amazing scene from the beginning which establishing six different necessary elements of a great story, all at once.
Down-and-out screenwriter Joe Gillis is begging a Hollywood producer for work, so the producer (Mr. Sheldrake, a name that Wilder re-used later in The Apartment) calls in his assistant Betty to get the coverage on Joe’s latest script. She comes in to deliver it, not realizing that Joe himself is the other man in the room:
BETTY: Hello, Mr. Sheldrake. On that Bases Loaded. I covered it with a 2-page synopsis. (She holds it out) But I wouldn't bother.
SHELDRAKE: What's wrong with it?
BETTY: It's from hunger.
SHELDRAKE: Nothing for Ladd?
BETTY: Just a rehash of something that wasn't very good to begin with.
SHELDRAKE: I'm sure you’ll be glad to meet Mr. Gillis. He wrote it.
Betty turns towards Gillis, embarrassed.
SHELDRAKE: This is Miss Kramer.
BETTY: Schaefer. Betty Schaefer. And right now I wish I could crawl into a hole and pull it in after me.
GILLIS: If I could be of any help...
BETTY: I'm sorry, Mr. Gillis, but I just don't think it's any good. I found it flat and banal.
GILLIS: Exactly what kind of material do you recommend? James Joyce? Dostoesvsky?
SHELDRAKE: Name dropper.
BETTY: I just think pictures should say a little something.
GILLIS: Oh, you're one of the message kids. Just a story won't do. You'd have turned down Gone With the Wind.
SHELDRAKE: No, that was me. I said, Who wants to see a Civil War picture?
BETTY: Perhaps the reason I hated Bases Loaded is that I knew your name. I'd always heard you had some talent.
GILLIS: That was last year. This year I'm trying to earn a living.
The hero’s internal flaw (which he’s not fully aware of yet): He’s lost his soul and sold out his talent.
The hero’s social humiliation: This scene shows the value of the unintentional humiliation. It’s always good to have less open antagonism in a story, so it’s great to have the hero find out what people really think about him accidentally without anybody having to directly confront him. (This is also a way to include the dreaded “Do you know what your problem is” scene in a non-grating way. She doesn’t want to tell him and he doesn’t want to hear, but it simply happens accidentally.)
An assurance that, even though he’s got big flaws, he still has enough skills to root for. He’s not just a loser. He’s got potential to live up to.
An early “I understand you” moment with the love interest: Usually this comes much later in the story, but sometimes it comes early and also serves as the social humiliation.
We even end on a false goal and false statement of philosophy!
It’s tempting in these scenes to have the hero be humbled, admit to his
flaws, and vow to change over the course of the story, but it’s always
better if he tries to reject the criticism and double down on his flaws
until much later in the story.
And the fact that all six of these are established in one scene demonstrates another rule:
It would be so easy to have six different scenes to establish these six elements. The result would be a screenplay that was clearly too long, but hard to cut down because every element felt essential. The trick is always to hit multiple beats at the same time in one small scene and still feel effortless. As in so many other things, Wilder is the master.
As I’ve discussed, I’ve always been a big fan of “24”, despite the nasty assumptions that fuel many of its storylines. I know a lot of people who just can’t stomach this element and they demand to know how I put up with it. I tell them that I like it for the same reason I like Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”.
Hugo’s novel has an audacious and somewhat cheeky premise: let’s take the ultimate liberal hypothetical and the ultimate conservative hypothetical and combine them into one man.
When liberals advocate humane treatment of poor criminals, they frequently cite the possibility that the accused was just a poor man desperately taking bread to feed his family, but this drives conservatives crazy. “Sure that could happen in theory,” they say, “but it’s never actually the case in real life.”
Conservatives, on the other hand, defend misbehaving members of the upper class in much the same way: They paint the accused as a bold “maker” who probably rose from nothing, had a great business idea, built a factory from scratch and magnanimously took care of its workers, all of whom would be thrown out of work if we peevishly insist on convicting him of some minor infraction. To this, liberals say, “Sure, that’s possible in theory, but it’s never actually happened that way, so let’s not indulge that fantasy.”
If a writer were to simply dramatize one or the other of these powerful myths, the result would be a partisan polemic, acceptable to only one side of the other, and that’s fine, but Hugo’s puckish genius was to smash the thesis and antithesis together, uniting them in a single hero. Jean Valjean is both the man stealing bread to feed his family and the unjustly persecuted factory owner all at once.
The result is both deeply ironic and wildly entertaining, as we watch poor Jean swim his way across an epic sea of troubles, encountering lots of ironic reversals, none of which fully confirm our political prejudices.
And so this brings us back to “24” and another hero known for his seemingly endless struggles. Why do I put up with the ultra-right narratives that so frequently infect the show? Because there are 24 hours in a day, and this plot never stops twisting, so those troubling narratives are constantly colliding head on with equally compelling counter narratives.
In the most recent season of the show, we had the standard right-wing narratives: British Muslim sleeper-agents plot the destruction of London, exploiting foolish Western tolerance, and an Assange-like character denounces imperialism while secretly selling the secrets he hacks to the Chinese. Yes, that’s all offensive to me, but we also had lots of left-wing red-meat tossed in: the terrorists are motivated by wrongful drone deaths, and they hack into those drones to rain death upon London, proving that they’re a terrible idea. We even get an American president forced to submit himself the humiliation of British question time, a longtime fantasy of the left!
So on the one hand I do worry about the effect of dramatizing and affirming various bigoted fantasies, but I love that they’re countered with the sort of left-wing narratives you wouldn’t normally see on TV, and I especially love that the advocates of the other side have my side thrown in their face as part of a program they deeply love and trust.
In other words, as is so often the case, irony makes it all work. Slamming these two counter-narratives against each other creates more narrative power (and fun) than either would have on its own.
Let’s look at one last example: If we combine the last story-starter (Ask “What if It’s All True?”) with this one, we get one of my favorite movies, The Manchurian Candidate.
Once again, this movie takes its premise from a then-current ultra-right conspiracy theory that was deeply offensive to most Americans (the fear that Korean War vets had been brainwashed by the Red Chinese before they were sent home) and yokes it to a far-left narrative (Posh Republican matrons and their McCarthy-ite stooges hate this country even more than the Soviets) Amazingly, the result offended no one and entertained everyone.
We’ve already covered the topic of tapping into the public imagination. In the original post, I mentioned movies like The Parallax View, Winter Kills and The Package that take some of the most wild-eyed theories about the Kennedy assassination and bring them to life in a lightly-fictionalized way, but now I’d like to dig further into that and create a corollary rule.
Politically, those movies seem to be on somewhat safe ground, because America’s debates about the Kennedy assassination have never been particularly partisan. Many staunchly defend the official lone-gunman story, and many others passionately believe in various conspiracy theories, but no matter how righteous people get, they don’t really get morally offended by the other side.
But here’s the funny thing: Even when you look at some more inflammatory versions of “What if it’s all true?”, you notice that it doesn’t actually matter, because audiences tend not to take offense no matter what.
There’s no better example of this than “House of Cards”. I know a lot of Clinton-loving Democrats who adore this show...and that’s downright weird, because it’s predicated on one simple supposition: What if everything the ultra-right said about the Clintons in the ‘90s turned out to be true? What if they really were soulless Machiavellian psychopaths? What if they really were killing former allies with fake suicides? What if they really were having creepy threesomes with secret-service agents? It’s all there!
It’s funny how much people talk about the show without mentioning the Clinton element, despite the many obvious connections, both in front of and behind the camera: After all, Beau Willimon, the creator of the American version, worked on the 2000 Hilary Senate campaign, and star Kevin Spacey is an occasional F.O.B. (they infamously flew to Africa together on the jet of billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein). And yet almost everybody politely declines to note the parallels.
Why is this? I’m not sure. Obviously, the fact that the names and major details were changed makes a big difference. When CBS made a docudrama claiming that Clinton was somehow responsible for 9/11 (“The Path to 9/11”), there was enough outrage to pre-empt it off the air. But a fictionalized version of other allegations, even one that faithfully recreates a lot of very-specific allegations, is seen as harmless.
Actually, because most of my friends are either Democrats or leftists, I don’t actually know how Republicans feel about the show. I assume they like it, but do they? It would be fascinating if they didn’t.
It’s interesting to compare the show to the remake of “Battlestar Galactica”. I wrote here about how that show’s premise seemed to be, “What if everything the far right claimed about Muslims was actually true? What if they really were a unified death-crazed theocratic hive-mind infiltrating all of our institutions in order to eradicate us?” In that case, this was clearly a show aimed at those who didn’t believe that, because it was implicitly asking “Even if that were true, what it be worth abandoning our values in order to defeat them?” And the implied answer was: “No.”
But “House of Cards” isn’t doing anything like that. It’s not, for instance, exaggerating Frank’s horribleness to make the point that he’s still better than the opposition (at least not in the first two seasons. I haven’t started season 3 yet, so no spoilers!) Spacey, on “The Colbert Report” (the only place I’ve seen him called out on the Clinton parallels), made a half-hearted attempt to say, “Yes, but at least he’s getting legislation through!” but the show itself, to its great credit, has not done that. There is no sense of “Yes, but we need the Frank Underwoods of the world.” He’s just terrible.
So I can only conclude that audiences just don’t care. We may find a particular allegation wildly offensive in real life, but as soon as it gets fictionalized, we’re just ready for the popcorn. One wonders how far you could take this…If they made a fictionalized version of a “9/11 truther” theory, would people accept that? Last year on the Black List, there was a script about Stanley Kubrick faking the moon landings. That’s a loony theory that many people find particularly offensive…but would it bother them onscreen? I guess we might find out…
But wait, all of this brings another permutation to mind! Come back tomorrow for yet another similar type of story idea suggested by “Les Miserables”, The Manchurian Candidate, and “24”...
So I’m hoping that the “Breaking Bad” checklist finally looked good on everybody’s computer, whether desktop or mobile. I’ve been fooling around with the format on these things forever, but I feel like I actually have it down. To celebrate, I’ll be reposting most of the old ones, all of which I’ve updated for Checklist v5. As I do so, I’ll revisit some of them, starting with Iron Man…
Why does Pepper wait until the sun has gone down (a minute too late) to call Tony and warn him about Stane?
During Tony’s big fight with Stane, why is Pepper standing in the same spot 10 minutes after the fight began, insuring that she’ll be in danger again when they crash back down to Earth?
But upon re-examining the movie, I decided that I’d been too hard on it. The fact is that plotting action is extremely hard. You don’t just have to work out the story beats, you also have to time them precisely to all the other beats, because of the urgent nature of the situation, and, of course, you have to keep endangering the love interest without making her/him stupid or making the hero seem callous for endangering her/him.
If you’ve ever written action, you know how nearly impossible this is, and it’s all the more frustrating because nobody notices your accomplishment. Nobody ever walked out of an action movie saying, “Wow, they did a great job keeping the intelligent love interest constantly in danger for believable reasons!” They only notice if that isn’t true.
Keeping that in mind, the plotting in Iron Man is actually really elegant, and it demonstrates one trick that I’ve never highlighted before…
When you write an action movie, you have to constantly create impossible death traps and then have the hero get out of them anyway. That’s where the adrenaline rush kicks in. If the problem is within the scope of the hero’s standard skill-set, then it’s not exciting to watch him or her triumph. If, on the other hand, the hero utilizes an escape that’s never even been hinted at, the audience will feel cheated. So the whole job is to quietly set-up a future solution, then trick the audience into forgetting about it just long enough to freak them out about the next big danger…only to have the pre-planted solution unexpectedly pay off.
This is really hard to do, but Iron Man shows how it’s done: If you’re going to plant a solution, make it seem like a problem at the time, so that it won’t occur to the audience that this might come in handy later.
One example is the rescue of Pepper, when Stane catches her downloading files in Tony’s office. Let’s look at the potential ways Pepper could get away…
Let her slip away easily? No, this lacks suspense, and makes the villain look dumb.
Have her break a vase over someone’s head? No, this is an old cliché born of the desire to have a woman be good in a fight without any actual fighting skills.
Have her suddenly busts out some kung-fu moves? I suppose, but it strains credibility when everyday people have fighting skills. Audiences want realistic characters, even in action movies. Not every woman needs to be a fighter in order to be a strong female character. (In fact no character in this movie, male or female, displays any unaided hand-to-hand skills, which is refreshing for an action movie)
So that means she has to benefit from outside intervention. (Yes, it’s okay for a female character to get rescued every now and then, especially if she got into this by doing something heroic, and she’ll do something heroic as a result.) So who should rescue her? Tony? No, this violates another rule: you have to limit the number of direct confrontations between your hero and your villain, because, we all know that these will be inconsequential confrontations until the end of the movie, and the audience only has so much tolerance for those. Even an action movie can’t be one long direct confrontation.
So that leaves one option: an unexpected rescuer.
But we can’t have that rescue be totally unexpected, because that would feel like a cheat. So how do you set it up surreptitiously? By introducing the solution as a problem. In addition to dealing with Tony’s outlandish needs throughout the movie, Pepper also has to run interference for him, putting off people like Mr. Coulson, a government agent who keeps meekly requesting a moment of Tony’s time. By making Coulson a persistent annoyance, we don’t notice that he’s being set up to be there to rescue Pepper when the time is right.
(…and even then, it feels like she’s rescuing herself, because she uses her special skill to solve this life-threatening situation: scheduling access to Tony. It just goes to show that any special skill can have a nice pay-off!)
The movie does this again with issue of icing. At the end, when Iron Man fights Iron Monger, it has to be clear that Stane’s armor is more powerful than Tony’s so that we’ll feel that adrenaline rush, but Tony has to defeat Stane anyway in a way that makes sense. Once again the solution was established as a problem: When Tony was first testing out his armor he took it too high and almost died when it iced over. This felt like its own harrowing moment, not a set-up for a later rescue, but it’s the perfect solution to his later problem
(And, yes, this taps into Tony’s special skill: Stane may be able to steal and max-out Tony’s original plans, but he doesn’t have Tony’s insatiable urge to endanger himself and then tinker around to solve the problems he encounters while doing so. Thus Tony has solved the icing problem and Stane hasn’t.)
One last little neat thing about the “Breaking Bad” pilot. Sometimes things become clichéd for a good reason. Maybe there’s an over-used metaphor that feels tired, but still rings true because life really does feel like that.
This pilot does a good job revivifying an old cliché. While Walt is being told his cancer diagnosis, all he hears is a wooshing sound. We’ve all seen this onscreen before, but it’s worth repeating, because we’ve also all experienced it: hearing bad news in slow motion, and being unable to process it at the time…even if it’s just a lesser form of bad news such as getting dumped.
But this pilot makes the old seem new again by adding a bizarre new very-specific detail. Walt isn’t just fuzzing out, he’s focusing in on a yellow dot on the doctor’s white coat: presumably a drop of mustard from his lunch. Walt finally acknowledges the diagnosis dismissively, then redirects the conversation to a more pressing issue: the stain.
This is great in so many ways: The yellow dot is such a unique image, and it symbolizes both the cancer itself (an unwanted blob) and the general failure of doctors (who wear these white coats to prove how spotless they are, in every sense.) The addition of the bizarrely specific detail nicely revivifies an overused idea.
And hey, just for fun, let me tell you my own diagnosis story, which was so different from the version you always see onscreen: I’d had the permanently-swollen lymph-node in my neck tested before, and it had come up benign, so my doctors had told me to forget about it, but I went on WebMD and convinced myself it was advanced Lymphoma, probably of the Non-Hodgkins variety (55% fatal if caught late) but there was a small chance it was Hodgkins (only 25% fatal if caught late).
So I went to an expert on these needle-draws and told him my suspicions. He pulled out some fluid and cheerfully said he could help me out by running the test right away. I sat there in in the cold waiting room as I heard his steps recede down the hall, and then I soon heard the steps come back. He stuck his head in the door and said, “Congratulations, it’s Hodgkins!” then closed the door again and went on his way. Soon the nurse came and told me they needed the room for the next patient. End of diagnosis!
So it just goes to show that there’s always a version you haven’t seen on screen before!
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.
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.
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...
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Faux-naivite, “You think I might see inside?”
Care: Do we feel for the hero (or
Does the hero have a
great flaw that is the flip side of his great strength?
strength/flaw pairing is science brilliance / contempt for others’
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
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
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?
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Yes, Walt and Jesse remain tight-lipped
with each other. When Jesse demands to know Walt’s deal, Walt just says, “I’m
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)?
(in a faintly ridiculous way), Sky: mom-speak, Hank: right-wing-ese
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default personality
Jesse: sarcastic, Sky: disdainful, Walt Jr.: cheeky and
frustrated, Hank: aggressive
Does each member of the ensemble have a different default argument
Jesse: defensive lies, Sky: passive aggressive, Hank: humiliation
Is there at least one prickly character who creates sparks whenever he or
Yes, Hank and Marie
Part 4: Is
the pilot episode a strong stand-alone story and good template for the
ongoing series? (19/22)
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
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
Do all of the pilot’s storylines intercut believably within that time
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
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
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
Very much so.
Do the hero’s efforts quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another
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
Very much so.
Does a further setback force the hero to adopt a wider view of the
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
Jesse was worried that Walt (the only person who saw
him at the scene) would turn him in.
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
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to
Does the writing
demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
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
Very much so.
Do the characters
avoid saying things they wouldn’t say?
See Jesse and Walt’s discussions.
Do the characters
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
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)?
characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel
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
Part 7: Does the pilot manage its tone
to create and fulfill audience expectations? (10/10)
Genre and Mood: Does the series tap into
Does the series fit
within one genre (or compatible sub-genres)?
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?
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?
create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on
Lots: coughing, big meth money on TV, etc.
Are set-up and
pay-off used to dazzle the audience, distracting attention from plot
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)
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
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?
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?
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
Do all of the
actions in the pilot have real consequences?
Very much so.
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?