the iconic pilot/first season shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White
The iconic pilot/first season shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White

We’ve posted two breakdowns by Master Cats of Vince Gilligan’s amazing pilot for Breaking Bad. First up was Geoff Harris, followed by a deeper dive (so deep it’s in a downloadable pdf) by Tom Reed. We begin with Geoff:

“I hate TV!”

That’s what a screenwriter friend shouted as he sat down across the table from me at a Studio City Starbucks the other day.

Being a TV guy, I’m used to hearing condescending remarks from screenwriters. I expected him to lash out about how TV is mindless entertainment and how it rots your brain.

I took his bait: “OK, why do you hate TV?”

“I hate TV because it’s so well written.”

What? I was shocked. My friend verbalized what I had always thought: Week in and week out, TV offers compelling and memorable scripted shows.

Look at Breaking BadLost, and Mad Men, to name a few dramas. Each episode is like a mini-movie.

And on the comedy side, there are cleverly written shows, whose 22-minute episodes entertain and delight — such as 30 RockTwo and a Half Men, and The Big Bang Theory.

Sure there are some poorly written series, but there are also plenty of poorly written movies — you know, the ones that leave you asking why you wasted two hours of your life watching them.

Besides, a screenplay can take years to go from idea to screen — whereas a TV series, staffed with terrific writers, comes up with compelling ideas that go from script to screen in a couple of months.

Like features films, not all TV shows are created equal. Some suck. But those that are great can thank their writers, who know a thing or two about structure.

My friend’s remark got me thinking about Blake Snyder’s beat sheet for feature films. Do the 15 beats apply to TV series? And, if so, by hitting those beats does the writer end up with a well-written series?

So I pulled out a copy of the Breaking Bad pilot episode and analyzed it to see which beats it hit, if any.

Drum roll, please.

Sure enough, a TV pilot hits those same beats. Subconsciously, Vince Gilligan‘s pilot script, which he wrote in 2005 and is one of the first drafts, follows Blake’s template, with a few exceptions. btw, Vince co-wrote (with Chris Carter) one of my favorite X-Files episodes, “Soft Light.”

The following are the beats (calculated for a 57-page script, using the Screenplay Beat Calculator found on this website) and their corresponding page numbers (on the pilot script):

1. Opening Image (pg 1): An RV, driven by a crazed man in his underpants (main character Walt, played by Bryan Cranston), barrels over a pile of cow poop and crashes. (pgs 1-2)

2. Theme Stated (pgs 1-3): Speaking into a camcorder, Walt states his love for his family and explains that what he’s done, he’s done for them. A man must provide for his family. (p. 3)

3. Set-Up (pgs 1-5): The Teaser, in which Walt crashes his RV and uses a camcorder to record a cryptic farewell to his wife and son, before waiting, gun in hand, for the police to arrive. (pgs 1-3)

4. Catalyst (p. 6): Walt sees on TV that his DEA brother-in-law Hank broke up a meth lab and confiscated $700,000. (p. 13; seven pages later than desired.)

5. Debate (Half Commitment) (p. 6-13): Walt debates his next move, as he puts up with snooty students at school, swallows his pride at his job at a carwash when he dries the car of one of his disrespectful students, and listens to Hank suggest that Walt become more pro-active in his moonlighting job by turning in the carwash owner to immigration authorities. (pgs. 6-13)

6. Break into Two (pg 13): The first act in the three-act structure ends with Walt collapsing (from his illness) at Cal Tech, his alma mater. (Note: Traditional TV dramas are structured in four acts, with Acts Two and Three corresponding to Act Two in a feature film.) (pg 17; four pages later than desired.)

7. B Story (Subplot Intro by) (pg 16): No Subplot. (Two potential subplots: Walt’s wife’s pregnancy and his relationship with fellow teacher.)

8. Fun and Games (pgs 16-29): As Walt’s life spirals down when he learns he has cancer and two years to live, he cooks up a plan to leave money for his family. (pgs 16-29)

9. Midpoint (pg. 29): Walt partners with former student and drug dealer Dupree to manufacture and sell meth. (pgs. 29-31)

10. Bad Guys Close In (pgs 29-39): In this story, Walt is his own Bad Guy. Although he has a good motive (to help his family out financially before he dies), Walt is his own enemy. Here the “Bad Guy” does close in as he decides to partner with Dupree and, borrowing against his house, gets money to buy an RV that will serve as their mobile meth lab. (pgs 29-40)

11. All Is Lost (Low Point) (pg 39): Walt orders Dupree to buy the RV, thereby beginning his life of crime. (pg 40)

12. Dark Night of the Soul (pgs 39-44): Walt and Dupree brew meth in the RV. (pgs 44- 46)

13. Break into Three (pg 44): Now that he’s decided to “break bad,” Walt is more confident and aggressive. He attacks three jocks who are teasing his son. (pg 43)

14. Finale (pgs 44-57): Walt and Dupree begin their business, and despite the trouble and danger, it’s lucrative. (pgs 44-57)

15. Final Image (pg 57): Walt, feeling more alive than ever, gets it on with his wife. (pg 57)

The most noticeable difference is the absence of subplot. Two are hinted at in the script, but never followed through: Walt’s wife’s pregnancy and his attraction to a fellow high school teacher.

Some differences are, no doubt, the result of TV’s peculiar nature: it’s a cross between screenwriting and playwriting, in which the emphasis is neither as strong on visual storytelling as a movie nor as strong on dialogue as a play.

Also, TV has a special need to get stories moving quickly and hold viewers, since they have an opportunity to switch channels the instant a story lags. (Like their screenwriter-relatives, TV writers are keenly aware that Stasis = Death.)

In short, like feature films, TV scripts need to follow certain rules in order to tell a fast-moving, entertaining story. Structure doesn’t destroy creativity — it fosters it.

And now, Tom Reed:

The pilot script for Breaking Bad by Vince Gilligan is an example of truly outstanding writing. It has a powerful premise executed at the highest level, and much of its impact is due to its masterful structure, the specific beats of which just happen to correspond exactly with Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet (the “BS2”). Nearly every single scene is a demonstration of the BS2 in action. Whether Mr. Gilligan actually employed the BS2 structure template when outlining the story, or used other tools with different names to achieve his effects, the result in my opinion is a perfect script.

This is an origin story that depicts the birth of a drug dealing criminal mastermind. It takes its time detailing the context of the hero and his “normal world,” and so the page count of the first 8 (out of 15) BS2 story beats resembles a feature script of 110 pages, not the average 57 page one-hour TV script. In other words, it takes its time setting everything up. But the script doesn’t skip any steps to fit inside the allotted hour, it just concentrates the remaining steps in fewer pages. This gives the script’s second half incredible density and story energy.

Something else that gives the script great power is the authorial “Fun & Games” in evidence across multiple dimensions. Vince Gilligan is a storyteller fully “at play” in crafting this script, not just in his structure and story world design, but also his characterization, dialogue, scene progression, logic, the interplay of all the above, and the ample doses of cleverness and insight of various hues.

As the show enters its final season, it’s easy to see why it has steadily gained viewers over five years. Not only is the writing enthralling, but the show taps into the zeitgeist by depicting an average, middle-class man (a “dude”) who, despite powerful gifts (IQ, education, and a passion for chemistry), still finds himself near the bottom of the economic food chain. A lot of people can relate. When the middle class struggles to make a living and even the affluent are feeling the pinch, a lot of us wish we could find a better, easier, way. Some of us might even be tempted to “break bad.” This show offers a cautionary tale of uncommon relevance.

As a fan of the show I thank Vince Gilligan for sharing his special powers of storytelling with all of us, and I thank Blake Snyder for providing a powerful language to examine why Breaking Bad is so damn good. I look forward to the tragic tale of Walter White resolving at the end of this last season with memorable inevitability. May we all be powerfully transformed!

Download Tom Reed’s Beat Sheet (PDF) for the “Breaking Bad” Pilot