Breaking Bad — Crafting a TV Pilot

Breaking Bad — Crafting a TV Pilot


Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. Breaking Bad has been praised as one of the
greatest TV shows of all time, and it kept audiences engaged and on the edge
of their seats until the very last frame. But every TV show has to start somewhere, and more often than not, it begins with a pilot. A TV pilot has to introduce the main characters,
set up the world of the show, and tell enough of a satisfying story that
an audience is entertained and wants to come back for more. That’s a lot to accomplish in fifty-seven
pages, but the pilot of Breaking Bad pulls it off with flying colors. So today I want to look at how Vince Gilligan
manages to introduce the premise of the show, establish Walt’s character in a deep and clear
way, and tell a satisfying, self-contained story. Let’s take a look at the pilot of Breaking
Bad. The first structural element of a TV pilot
is the teaser. Its job is to grab the attention of the viewer
and get them hooked. The Breaking Bad teaser begins with a surprising
opening image. “Inside, the driver’s knuckles cling white
to the wheel.” “He’s got the pedal flat.” “Scared, breathing fast.” “His eyes bug wide behind the faceplate of
his gas mask.” “Oh, by the way, he’s wearing a gas mask.” “That, and white jockey underpants.” “Nothing else.” Building on the surprise of this, the intensity
of the stakes are introduced. “Yellow-brown liquid washes up and down the
floor.” “It foams in a scum around…” “…Two dead bodies.” This is a life or death situation. The teaser is exciting and puzzling. Intense and humorous. It demands our attention and we want to know
more–exactly what a teaser should be. “Off him, ready to shoot the first cop he
sees…” “End teaser.” Most TV episodes are broken up into a teaser
and four acts, with commercials in between each. Even though the pilot for Breaking Bad originally
aired without commercials, it still follows this four-act structure. Each act serves a different purpose, establishing
new, important aspects of the series and the character of Walter White. So let’s track how the pilot conveys everything
a first-time-viewer needs to know about the series, beginning with Act One. Breaking Bad is a show that is heavily centered
around the protagonist. It is his growth, change, and decisions that
will drive everything that happens, so it’s important for the audience to understand
where he’s coming from. As Vince Gilligan says… “The audience doesn’t have to agree with anything
Walt is doing, but they have to understand why he’s doing
what he’s doing.” Gilligan accomplishes this by implementing
the familiar “day in the life” technique. We see that Walt teaches chemistry to apathetic
and disrespectful high school students. “Ionic bonds–” It is clearly not exciting or rewarding. Then, we see he has a second job at a car
wash, which today is particularly embarrassing for him. “Hey, Mr. White!” “Make those tires shine, eh?” “Oh my god!” We meet his pregnant wife, Skyler, and see
that their marriage isn’t exactly passion-filled. “…Mars rover photographs, I mean the detail
is really supposed to be amazing.” We meet his son, Walter, Jr., who looks up
to his crass uncle Hank. “This is awesome right here.” “Nice, isn’t it?” “Yeah.” Hank is a DEA agent who recently executed
a substantial drug bust. While this plays an important role in the
pilot, Hank’s job is also an ever-present threat
that will loom over Walt for the rest of the show. Together, all this answers the most important
question: what is missing in Walt’s life? Act one shows how powerless Walt is. He’s passive, diplomatic, and despite being
a brilliant chemist is living a life where he is constantly demeaned. “You’ve got a brain the size of Wisconsin–but
we’re not going to hold that against ya!” By showing us a day-in-the-life of Walter
White we see that he’s someone who longs for control and purpose, but lacks both. It establishes his normal, which prepares us for the abnormal that strikes
at the end of act one when he suddenly collapses. This is the inciting incident for the show
and the beginning of Walter White’s journey. Act Two The premise is a concise summary
of what the show is about at its core, and it’s the pilot episode’s job to clearly
convey this to the audience. For shows that primarily center around a protagonist,
the premise is usually something along the lines of: “The protagonist’s life is turned upside down
when X happens, so they decide to do Y.” Act two opens with “X”. “You understood what I’ve just said to you?” “Yes.” “Lung cancer.” “Inoperable.” “Best case scenario, with chemo, I’ll live
maybe another couple years.” Walt is suddenly faced with his own mortality. As he grapples with this he remembers Hank’s
offer to take him on a ride-along. Here, he learns a bit more about the meth
business, and happens to see a former student fleeing the scene. “Pinkman?” With all this new information and having spent
time pondering his situation, Walt has figured out his “Y.” “D.E.A. took your money, your lab.” “You got nothing.” “Square one.” “But you know the business, and I know the
chemistry.” “I’m thinking maybe you and I could partner
up.” And here we have the premise of the show. A high school chemistry teacher finds out
he that has terminal cancer and decides to cook meth in order to make money for his family. Now that the premise has been established,
we see how Walt’s decision begins to affect who he is in Act Three. In “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos
Egri, he talks about what a character needs in order to be the protagonist. Or as he calls it, the “pivotal character.” “A man whose fear is greater than his desire,
or a man who has no great, all-consuming passion, or one who has patience and does not oppose,
cannot be a pivotal character.” Act Three shows how Walter White’s desires
begin to overpower his fears. He steals lab equipment from the school. He withdraws all his savings and gives it
to Jesse to buy an RV. And he gets his first real taste of powe when he and his family are out shopping for clothes. A group of guys are making fun of Walter,
Jr… “Mommy, could you zip up my big boy pants?” …and Walt loses it. “Walt kicks the back of the jock’s knee, dropping
the big guy painfully to the floor.” “Before the startled jock can get up, Walt
stands full-weight on his ankle. Leverage.” Skyler and Walter, Jr. are shocked. This is something the Walt they know—the
Walt from acts one and two —would never have done. “Standing here, Walt feels a kind of power
— one brought on by an absence of fear.” Walt is changing. In a Newsweek article, Vince Gilligan said… “Television is historically good at keeping
its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even
decades… When I realized this, the logical next step
was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental
drive is toward change?” Though it’s a small change, I would argue
that this moment signals that Breaking Bad won’t be about a static character. It’s about witnessing how Walt’s situation
will transform him. Lajos Egri again writes… “A pivotal character must not merely desire
something. He must want it so badly that he will destroy
or be destroyed in the effort to attain his goal.” As Walt stands there reveling in the power,
we’re left wondering who he might become. “Off him, realizing more and more that he
likes it:” “End Act Three” Act Four The final act of the episode brings us full
circle, and connects all the dots that explain what
we saw in the opening teaser. We learn that Walter excels at cooking meth
because of his chemistry background, something that will give them leverage in
the drug world as well as feed his ego. “This is pure glass.” “You’re a god damn artist.” But it also acquaints the audience with the
world the show will be exploring as it moves forward. There will be a lot of cooking meth. There will be a lot of dangerous drug dealers
threatening them. And there will be a lot of narrowly escaping
death and being caught. Act Four is a taste of the fun and games that
the show promises. The original example that makes you say, “I wonder what’s going to happen to them in the next episode?” While juggling all these other elements, the pilot also manages to tell a satisfying
story of a man who breaks free of the monotony and powerlessness of his normal life. He returns home and climbs into bed with Skyler. “A strange feeling comes over him.” “It’s relief to be alive, mixed with dread
that life won’t last” “It’s fear of being caught.” “It’s the thrill — for once — of taking risks.” “It’s excitement, in many forms.” “And since he can’t talk about it, there’s
only one way to let it out.” Vince Gilligan focuses almost exclusively
on the protagonist in the pilot, allowing him the time to fully render Walt’s
character. At the same time, it sets up everything the
audience needs to know to decide if they want to watch the next episode. Tone, pacing, characters, subject matter,
and so on and so forth. It’s the first step on a new path for Walter
White, who has finally stopped sleepwalking through
life and is pursuing his desires… wherever they may lead him. Hey guys! Michael here, hope you enjoyed the video. This video is brought to you by Squarespace. Now, I recently got a chance to use Squarespace
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