Breaking Bad and the importance of plot

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As Breaking Bad draws to its close, internet folk have deployed millions of pixels to dissect its meanings. All of which attention the show richly deserves. However, I haven’t yet seen an article describing what the show has meant to me, and to writing for television, so I’m going to write it now.

Young writers sometimes ask me what is the difference between “story” and “plot.” My father described it to me this way: “Rocky is the story of a man redeeming himself. The plot is how he does that.” There are very few stories to tell, but there are many many plots to deliver those stories. Walter White’s story is exactly the same as Michael Corleone’s, which is exactly the same as MacBeth’s: “A man commits a crime for the sake of his family, and in so doing, loses his family, and everything else.” The “lesson” of the story is that there are no shortcuts in morality, that “breaking bad” for the sake of good is self-delusion and will lead to ruin. They are the same story, but with different plots.

And plot is why we watch. Anyone can come up with a good story. My children regularly come up with good stories. One will come into my office and say “Hey dad, here’s an idea for a movie,” and then proceed to tell me a good idea for a movie. The next step, however, turning that good idea into a story, and that story into a plot, that’s the hard part, and it is something that TV drama demands. How will Tony Soprano respond to the newest threat on his empire? How will Tyrion Lannister negotiate his newest political conundrum? How will House figure out what’s wrong with the patient? TV writing is nothing without plot: an hour-long drama might have a half-dozen interweaving plot strands, and even the simplest 22-minute sitcom demands an “A-story” and a “B-story” with separate plots. That’s a whole ton of plot in just one evening of televised entertainment. You can have great characters, and great actors playing those characters, and even great stories to tell, but without plot no one is watching. Plot is the engine that drives the shiny locomotive to its destination.

So, to build a successful show, you need a great premise, one that can give rise to many plots. “An impostor becomes the head of an ad agency” is a great premise. “Vampires become accepted members of society” is a great premise. “A man is married to three women” is a great premise. And in the best of shows, everything that happens on the show is an extension of that premise. On Bewitched, Darren Stevens marries a witch, who promises to “go straight” in order to fit in to post-war middle-class suburban life. Everything that happens to Darren on Bewitched happens because of that premise. Now, Bewitched is a situation comedy, so each episode wraps up its plot in its 22-minute allotted time, and each episode is interchangeable with any other episode. It’s as though Darren gets out of bed newly-born every morning.

Now let’s look at the show universally recognized as the greatest show in history. The premise of The Sopranos is “A gangster goes to therapy.” That’s a great premise for the show, but look at what happens: as the show goes on, the importance of Tony Soprano’s therapy wanes, until his therapist isn’t even featured on some episodes. The show became bigger than its premise. The same thing happened with Mad Men: the first-season premise, its “hook,” “No One Can Find Out Who Don Draper Is,” was largely spent by the end of the season and the show became about much bigger things.

And here is where Breaking Bad comes in.

Breaking Bad is the first show that I can think of, an hour-long drama, a continuous story, where everything that happens in the plot is an extension of the central premise. The central premise being: “A mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher decides to go into the meth business in order to support his family after he’s dead.” And it sounds like an obvious thing to bring up, but no other hour-long drama at the time had accomplished it: an ongoing narrative, hour after hour, tons and tons of plot, flowing endlessly, from this one premise. Walter White makes this one decision, and sets into motion a series of events that eventually kills hundreds of people and effects the lives of hundreds more. Now that I think of it, Tony Soprano going into therapy is only one tiny thread of the Sopranos tapestry, I can only think of a handful of plot points that arise directly from that decision. But Walter White’s decision to go into the meth business is the decision that not only changes his world, it changes the world of his family, his extended family, his community, the law-enforcement community, communities in other countries, and on and on.

The moment I became aware of this was at the end of Season 2, when (spoiler alert) it’s revealed that the midair collision of two aircraft was the result of Walter White letting Jessie’s girlfriend choke on her own vomit while overdosing. And I thought about that for a beat, wondered if the show was cheating, or at least stretching a little, and decided no, it wasn’t. Because Walter White, two seasons earlier, had decided to go into the meth business, Jessie’s girlfriend was now dead and her father, an airplane pilot (an air-traffic-control operator, I am corrected in comments), was sufficiently traumatized by her death as to crash a plane, full of people, into another plane, in the skies over Albuquerque. The teddy-bear that lands in Walter’s pool, the image that frames the whole season, is a direct result of his one decision.

I’d never seen a show do that before, and it struck me as a rare achievement. Game of Thrones has plot extending in curlicues in every direction, but no central premise, no key event that set all its plots into motion. Mad Men doesn’t do it, Hannibal doesn’t do it, The Walking Dead doesn’t even do it (“zombie apocalypse” is a great premise, but it’s more like a weather condition, it’s not an act by a character). Since Breaking Bad came along, other shows are beginning to pick up the thread: Homeland, for instance, or the new Blacklist. But if you were to ask me what makes Breaking Bad a landmark, beyond its overall excellence, I’d say that it is its contribution to the art of television writing by way of a huge, intricate plot derived from a simple premise, rooted in character.

Comments

28 Responses to “Breaking Bad and the importance of plot”
  1. Todd, Jane’s dad was an air traffic controller, not a pilot.

  2. Curt Holman says:

    Funny thing — earlier this week I was thinking about ‘Breaking Bad’ in the context of your analyses, and how ‘What does Walter White want?’ seems to drive the entirety of the show, over all the seasons, in a way unlike any show I could think of.

    BTW, if memory serves me right, the grief-stricken father of Jessie’s dead girlfriend was not a pilot but an air-traffic controller (played by John de Lancie, aka Q from ‘Star Trek’).

    What’s that quote from E.M. Forster about the difference between plot and story? I think it goes “A plot is ‘The king died and then the queen died.’ A story is ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief.’”

  3. Nik says:

    I’m curious to know how you analyze LOST. You’re very welcome to email me about that hah.

    • Todd says:

      Well, Lost has no central protagonist. And again, like with The Walking Dead, the premise of Lost isn’t an action, it’s a condition: “A group of unrelated people are cast away on a mysterious island.” The fact that they’re all on the island is what drives the plot, but many of the plot strains are unrelated to them being on the island. Rather, many of them seem beside the point. Or, to go in the opposite direction, half the plot of the show is examining what brought the characters to the ill-fated plane that brought them to the island in the first place. In any case, there is no one action that set the events of the show into motion.

      • Daniel says:

        Actually there is an antagonist of sorts, but it’s a far cry from the start of the show: (spoiler alert) there was a man responsible for the whole thing that I think was conducting an experiment (if memory serves…) on an island hidden in time and for every passenger on that plane he zipped back in time and particularly selected each one with a carefully planned touch that permanently linked them to the event. So there isn’t any real protagonist but there’s a character roughly considered to be an antagonist who had an idea and that’s how he went about.

  4. Daniel Ibanez says:

    I’ve been re watching The Wire these past few weeks and, even though the show ultimately outgrows its central premise of “cops build a case on druglord”, not to mention its central protagonist (not unlike Lost), and becomes a study of near-universal institutional decay and failure, I was impressed to discover that it all flows pretty naturally (and intricately) from a single, seemingly irrelevant gesture: McNulty tells a judge about a guy called Avon Barksdale. It may have made me love the show even more, which I didn’t think possible.

  5. Jesse says:

    Dexter seems to fit the same definition of having a plot driven by the premise throughout the entire series. Dexter ultimately does a terrible job of it (remarkably little development of character or circumstance season to season) despite early promise, while Breaking Bad succeeds. Is the difference just down to Vince Gilligan?

  6. Aameen says:

    “game of thrones…no key event that set all its plots into motion”

    it does.
    ive read the books and, it clearly has one single event that drives everything. it will become obvious in later seasons.
    ok, maybe a spoiler, because the tv show can go another way – its not just 1 event, but rather just 1 person who causes everything intentionally and then later on keeps encouraging the domino effect.

    • Todd says:

      That may be true, but it’s not how the show is presented. Rather the opposite, that there is a constant bewildering outflow of plots stemming from dozens of different ancient grudges and circumstances.

  7. Bryan Pick says:

    Regarding Game of Thrones, medium-level spoiler hint alert…

    Really, stop reading if you don’t want any hints beyond last season.

    There is a character who set the main events of the series in motion, for motives rising out of that character’s ruthless ambition and certain other selfish desires – the same things that drive much of the villainy and tragedy from less capable players in the series. The show makes him rather less subtle in his conniving than the books do, and straight-up pegs him as a master villain.

    • Doug Orleans says:

      I’m not even sure whom you’re referring to– Littlefinger maybe? He is certainly a mover & shaker, but I think he is mostly responding to (taking advantage of) events and situations rather than being the ultimate instigator. Varys is similar, definitely behind a lot of things that happen, but his choices are also just reactions to events put in motion around him. They do both have strong motivations rooted in character, though.

      In my mind, there are exactly two inciting incidents in Game of Thrones that set everything else in motion. The events of the first couple books/seasons (except for Daenerys) follow from Cersei & Jaime’s incest, specifically conceiving Joffrey, and their attempts to conceal/deny it. The Daenerys story, and a few other threads in later books, all follow from the event that set off Robert’s Rebellion a generation earlier: Prince Rhaegar’s choice to declare Lyanna Stark the “Queen of Love and Beauty” at the Tourney at Harrenhal.

      I agree with Todd that none of this is presented as straightforwardly as in Breaking Bad; it’s a different kind of storytelling (similar to Lost, in a way, but much more organic). But after reading the first book I was definitely struck by how neatly all the action (in Westeros) flowed from the fact of the twins’ incest.

      • Doug Orleans says:

        I just remembered that the events on/near The Wall are not related to these two inciting incidents. You could probably say that the inciting incident for that is when Mance Rayder left the Night’s Watch when they forbade him to wear the colorful cloak given to him by the wildling woman who healed him.

        • Todd says:

          I’ve seen every episode of the show and I have no idea what you’re talking about. Game of Thrones baffles me.

          • Doug Orleans says:

            Yeah, sorry. I started out reading each book before the corresponding season, but each season has spoilers for later books so I just finished reading all five books and it’s still occupying my mind… The latter two inciting incidents aren’t revealed until book 5, and then only in flashbacks and retelling. They might not even make it into the show at all.

  8. regis says:

    “How will House figure out what’s wrong with the patient?”

    Generally, correct diagnosis involves breaking into a person’s home and looking through their underwear drawer and under their kitchen sink. Or so “House” has taught me.

  9. Eric says:

    You know, this point about Breaking Bad makes me realize why the (mercifully brief) subplot of Marie being a kleptomaniac always seemed like such a misstep to me. It has nothing to do with the premise and had no effect on the plot that flowed from the premise; it was just a thing that happened for no reason and to no end. That’s not unusual on other shows, but BB’s laser focus made it stand out awkwardly.

    • Todd says:

      That’s funny, I’d completely forgotten about it. I was just now sitting here thinking “You know, they never had a plot about how Walt Jr was doing in school.” Which is why people have the idea that all he ever did was eat breakfast.

      • Doug Orleans says:

        I’m only partway through Season 2, so it’s fresher in my memory: there is whisper of a hint of a plot about how Walt Jr is doing in school: he changes his name to Flynn and he hangs out with his friend Louis. I’m guessing this also goes nowhere.

      • Curt Holman says:

        I saw an article about unpursued storylines on ‘Breaking Bad,’ and apparently one unused idea had the Whites discovering that Walt Jr. was involved in a bullying incident at school, and when Walter tries to stick up for his son, discovers that Junior was, in fact, the bully.

  10. A plot is the elements of the story in sequence. First A, then B, and finally C.

    A story is those same elements in terms of their causation. A happened to B which resulted in C.

  11. Not quite the same thing, but I think it was around the finale of Season 4 or the beginning of Season 5 in Supernatural that I realized: had one character made a different decision in the finale of Season 1, none of the rest of the plot would have happened.

    And it’s all the better because at the time of the decision, you find yourself thinking “of course you should do A, A is obviously the right move, I’ve seen this a dozen times before, B is never the correct choice.” Three years later, looking at all the destruction that has resulted from choosing A, you start wishing the character had chosen B.

  12. billiebrown says:

    What about The Shield? didn’t it achieve pretty mucht the same (over a 7 season period) a few years before?

    • Todd says:

      I loved The Shield, and its first season partially fits the bill: Vic Mackie kills a member of his own hit squad, and spends the rest of the season dealing with that, but the show introduced so many more plot threads, from new threats on Mackie’s empire to multiple plot lines involving the other detectives of the precinct. The Shield presented a miasma of circumstances from an officer dealing with the fact of being gay to the head guy being raped by thugs to Dutch murdering a cat.

  13. Ted says:

    I think that the concessions of network TV made ‘Hannibal’ veer a bit away from one main premise dictating everything that happens in the show, but there is an overarching serialized narrative rooted in the story hook that a disturbed FBI agent is recruited to profile serial killers at the same time that a serial killer is (accidentally) recruited to profile him.

    Not sure how much of the show you’ve seen, but the first season finale is especially clever in how it calls back to the pilot and the idea that events have been set in motion that will have substantial repercussions for the characters in other TV shows/books/movies/Thomas Harris cash cow tie-ins/ etc.

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