Breaking Down Breaking Bad: Pilot, Scene 19
In which I attempt to better understand the art of scene writing through a close reading of Breaking Bad, one scene at a time.
This scene is going to be a study in how to write a normal conversation without inflicting narcolepsy.
INT. WHITE HOUSE – KITCHEN – AFTERNOON
Brown shipping tape gets pulled off its roll with a SKRRECK! Skyler seals a cardboard box, readies it for the post office.
The kitchen table is stacked with bubble wrap and boxes. Marie helps pack. She holds up an item.
MARIE: What the hell is this?
The first line tells us straight away what Marie’s attitude is. The delivery isn’t chummy; it’s accusative.
SKYLER: Damned if I know. I described it as a “mid-century objet d’art.”
MARIE: And somebody bought it?
SKYLER: Some guy in Minneapolis. Fourteen dollars plus shipping — and I got it at a yard sale for eighty cents. God, I love eBay.
Marie shakes her head, bubble-wraps the objet.
MARIE: At this rate, in fifty or sixty years you’ll be rich.
That’s the dynamic — Marie is constantly yitzing her older sister. Sometimes, she’s not even aware she’s doing it. She’s just naturally negative. And competitive.
Here is inserted the following exchange, indicated by italics.
MARIE: So how goes the novel?
SKYLER: It’s not a novel, actually, which I—-
MARIE: You’re not writing a novel? You told me you were.
If you’ve got a normal conversation starting, have one character cut the other off and start haranguing them? Just as in the talking heads scene between Gomez and Hank, everything is an argument, even if everyone’s on the same side.
SKYLER: No, short stories. I said that eventually if I have enough good ones, that maybe I’ll try and publish another collection.
MARIE: Those really didn’t sell. I just thought a novel would be easier to sell.
Also, unwanted advice is a great device to create some passive-aggression and seething hatred.
SKYLER: Yeah, well, maybe so.
MARIE: Ever want me to read anything, I could critique it for you.
SKYLER: Oh. No.
Stunned look on Marie’s face.
SKYLER: I mean I’m just not at that stage where I…no.
MARIE: Open offer.
END OF AMENDMENT
I love that Skyler’s so damn nice she can’t play the game. She doesn’t have the chops to be passive-aggressive. She’s too open and up front. Even when she starts to lie! She could’ve said, “At this stage in my career, I think I should defer to literary readers.” But instead she can only choose the most bluntly honest tactic
MARIE: What’s up with Walt lately?
SKYLER: He’s fine. What do you mean?
MARIE: He just seems… I don’t know. Quieter than usual.
Skyler thinks about it, shrugs.
SKYLER: Turning forty was a big deal. I know I’m not looking forward to it. (smirk) You — are gonna be a basket-case.
Walt actually just turned 50. I wonder if they made the change after getting Cranston.
And note how yet again Skyler is not capable of the understated passive-aggression that Marie exhibits with every word. She can only speak in blunt insults.
MARIE: So, it’s a mid-life crisis.
SKYLER: No. He’s just. Quiet.
MARIE: (a beat) How’s the sex?
SKYLER: Marie! Jesus.
Marie holds up her hands. Whatever. Irked, Skyler runs her tape gun over the top of a box — SKKKRRRECK. A beat or two.
MARIE: (mumbles) Guess that answers that.
The first thing I thought of when I sat down to suss out this scene is that maybe I should just skip it. It’s not one of those topsy-turvy action scenes, nor is it necessarily a great power play, though there is some of that in here. It’s actually a boring scene.
There is a fun status game, though, wherein Skyler is struggling to keep them neutral, but Marie keeps pushing Skyler down so as to be the dominant. The art of passive-aggressive characters is worth a gander.
Then I thought about how the threads that were dropped completely as the series wore on. For instance, though I haven’t rewatched Season One in its entirety, I’m pretty sure that Skyler’s eBay obsession ends with the pilot and that her writing career starts and ends with the short exchange between her and Marie.
What I think this does is front-load the series with details that can be run with. Breaking Bad bridges a TV writing divide, in a sense. Unlike X-Files, it’s all one big serialized story, as opposed to episodic. But unlike something like True Detective, Breaking Bad wasn’t all that thoroughly thought through ahead of time, and a lot of the ideas that VG and the gang started with were changed midstream. Jesse Pinkman, famously, was intended to die at the end of Season One, but everyone liked Aaron Paul so much, they spared the character. So it goes.
So maybe VG here is just planting seeds, and these are just glaring examples of some that didn’t take root.
Another thing this scene serves to do is pump the brakes. After the end of Act Two, we’re on the hook. We want this episode to barrel through. One way to carry the tension of one scene over into the next is to create a kind of non-sequitur, such as this.
It ends with mention of Walt, their nonexistent sex life (which we knew about from the hand job scene), and this segues into the Walt sneaking around the chemistry lab stealing meth-cooking supplies.
But there’s one new tiny insight I gleaned from this exchange.
A common flub among writers is to develop white-bread central characters and unique, page-popping secondaries. I always thought that this was because writers might just be projecting themselves onto central characters, and the truth is that writers are primarily fairly boring. Or maybe they’re just not forthcoming with their flaws.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and accuse a master of the same problem, but it’s not a bad thing. Skyler needs to be super normal, almost flat, to signal the existence that Walt shucks when he becomes Heisenberg. If Skyler was edgy or bitchy or naggy, the necessary juxtaposition of before and after would diminish. That’s why she’s as normal as possible, because it’s all a vectoring reflection of Walt.
The fact that Marie is condescending serves to drive the scene forward.
Skyler’s eBay scheming reflects a tame version of what Walt’s about to embark upon.
In the end, though, I think the purpose of the scene is textural, to slow the pace before we break into a sprint, and emphasize domesticity.
If the shoot had greatly gone over, time-wise, in the cutting room this would’ve been completely expendable.