This blog describes my journey exploring storytelling - words, images and the sensations they generate. The lot, basically.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Story Learnings - The Incredibly Addictive Power of Breaking Bad

Not since the days of Matador have I found myself so helplessly captivated by a TV series. I am of course talking about Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad.

Sure LOST had its captivating moments of mystique in beginning, but once it dawned on me, that the creators also had no idea where the story was going, you emotionally disconnect.

My buddy, the excellent concept artist Cenay Oekmen, kept pestering me to watch it, as he relayed the storylines to me. It was not that I had never heard of Breaking Bad before. At the back of your head, of course you notice the distant thunder of the many, many awards rolling in, thereby adding the show to your mental to-do list of things to watch, as and when a convenient opportunity arises.

Then Danny Stack, from the UK Scriptwriters Podcast, went so far as to claim that Bryan Cranston, in Breaking Bad, delivers the best acting, bar none, in recent years (Daniel Day-Lewis included). That sure is a tall statement and a ringing endorsement to boot. So I had to see what the fuss was all about.

Conveniently Netflix offered a first free month trial, when recently launching in England and Breaking Bad was part of the library on view.

What I found, I was not prepared for.

The show grabbed such a firm hold of my person, that I was unable to wrest myself free of it, till I had watched it till the end. Frightened and fascinated of this stranglehold Breaking Bad had on me, I would write down observations on a notepad while watching, to help me analyze the powerful means of storytelling employed by the creators.

This is what I found.  


The tension, Breaking Bad produces in the viewer, is so strong, that it leaves you unable to break free from the story till the tension is finally released in the desired resolution. However the desired resolution never fully materialises, so you are always left hungry and never sated.

Once the desired goal seems within reach, something comes up: The Cat String Theory (a cat is only interested in that piece of string when it is out of reach) essentially.

The use of imagery in the opening sequence is very clever. Mysterious and ominous images are shown without any context beyond what the audience puts together to make sense of it. Some times consequences are shown before causes; some times the images are foreboding. It all increases the tension.

Shock is used deliberately and in clever ways. The effects of the shocks further increase tension and keeps your mind racing defensively at all times. The impact of the shocks are amplified through contrast: The brutality of the criminal drugs world is juxtaposed against the tranquility of domestic trivial family life.

Walt has a number of tension axes running through his life:

  • Between Walter and Skyler runs an axis of smoke and mirrors, as Walt struggles to achieve his desire without alerting Skyler. Will he get found out, or will he not be able to carry out his plans for the benefit of his family?
  • Between Walter and Jesse runs an axis playing on stupidity, as Jesse with carelessness inadvertently mess up everything Walt painstakingly tries to achieve with carefull planning.
  •  Between Hank and Walter runs an axis focusing on both who can be the coolest father figure for Walt Jr., as well as their individual positions on either side of the law. With Hank parades his macho credentials as tough guy law enforcement officer, Walt is sorely tempted to reveal what a hardman his Heisenberg alter ego has become; A macho alter ego, Walt is openly in love with, as he finally releases all the frustration from the years of being an overlooked mild mannered chemistry teacher.
All of these tension axes, are like all the spinning plates an acrobat has to keep spinning simultaneously, or the whole act falls apart.

When Walt reaches his goals, he doesn't find deliverance, but rather more frustration. The frustration of 'why be King of the world, if nobody knows'? This mirrors his life-long frustration of being an incredibly skilled chemist labouring in obscurity in a dead-end job.


Right off the bat, the audience thoroughly identifies powerfully with Walter White's desire because of the extraordinarily unjust plight of the protagonist. This is further amplified by how high the stakes are: Life and death essentially; his own, his handicapped son's and his unborn child.

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman is a classic "stuck with you" type of protagonist pair. They are mirror opposites and are reliving each others' lives in reversal. Yet they cannot see how similar they are; like a soon-to-be couple in a romcom, you feel like shouting out at them, "don't you realise you love each other?!"

Both halves of the protagonist pair, Jesse and Walter, are obviously well-meaning underneath their respective stupidity and brusqueness.

Our protagonists have their likability increased through plenty of "save the cat" moments.

Walter White only wanted a solution to his very unjust predicament when he started out. But now he is tainted and can never go back, which increases our pity for the protagonist's original plight.

Recurring Themes

The stakes will be raised by stating the goal, and then having accidents and unfair circumstances come in the way of the goal on the first attempt, whereupon dreams of ever achieving the goal are replaced with frantic damage control. 

The show dazzles a lot through really imaginative plot turns and clever use of chemistry (a bit like MacGyver) and science.

Recurring obstacles: Wife (and the rest of Walt's family) finding out, police, accidents, criminal predators and similar hazards, stupidity and naïveté.

The name of the protagonist (Mr. White) carries a lot of symbolism: A man who has hitherto never done anything illegal in his life.

Breaking Bad has a recurring themes of "good" people with "illegal" personal secrets; Skyler smokes while pregnant, and sleeps with her boss, while trying to impose morals onto Walter; Marie is a cleptomaniac shoplifter married to a law enforcement officer; Saul is a solicitor, who actively deals in criminal activity; Gus is an upstanding member of the community and a benefactor of the local DEA, while being a drug overlord etc.


All of these things are not particularly new; They have been part of the storytelling canon for ages. But the writing team and Vince Gilligan have employed these tools in absolutely expert fashion. I have never seen anything, before or after Hitchcock, where tension itself has been employed so effectively to hook in the audience for such long durations of time.

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