Four Things 'Breaking Bad' Taught Me about Writing

“I liked it… And I was really—I was alive.” - Walter White, “Felina”, Breaking Bad

Walter White’s explanation for what was arguably, the most epic mid-life crisis ever, pretty much sums up the way I felt while watching nearly every episode of Breaking Bad. While the series was both superbly acted and shot, for me, it was the writing that made this show a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Like a successful science experiment, the show’s writing answered some questions for me and raised others. Here’s my breakdown on what I took away from Breaking Bad.

1.  The Use of the Classics—or Really Regretting Those Cliff’s Notes Now

There are almost too many allusions to classical literature in “BB” to count. The show itself has been called Shakespearean, Homeric. Skyler, with her scornful attitude to Walt, has been likened to Lady Macbeth. Hank, with his limp and dogged obsession with catching Heisenberg had reviewers calling him Captain Ahab. There’s Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ and that book by Whitman that Walt should have kept in a drawer. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” states that old softie, Uncle Jack. Dude, the nazis in Breaking Bad quote Emily Dickinson.

Confession: I’ve always thought the classics were called classic because they were like, old. I’m an avid reader, but all that flowery prose and those uber-dense passages often used in literary works of yore have always left me cold. But ‘BB’ has got me wondering. Would the show have been as masterful had creator Vince Gilligan and his writing team not been so familiar with such concepts as the five act structure, and themes such as hubris and redemption? Of course, these have all been played and replayed in countless modern works, but is the work stronger from having been distilled directly from the source?

And what about the reviewers who gleefully pointed out the similarities to the Skyler pool scene with the Ophelia drowning scene in Hamlet, or the Biblical connotations regarding the lily of the valley that poisoned Brock? Were they able, because of their knowledge, to have a richer and more critical appreciation of the show? This is not so much a takeaway as a question. All those times I read Cliff’s Notes or the like to just pass an exam, was I also passing by a very rich foundation for my own work?

Maybe it’s time to dig into the classics. Except for Proust. Anything but Proust.

2.  Skyler vs. Carmela Soprano or How to Write an Anti-anti-hero People Won’t Hate.

"Somebody has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.” - Skyler White, “Cornered”, Breaking Bad

Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Walter White’s wife, recently wrote a NY Times Op-Ed entitled ‘I Have a Character Problem,’ about the vitriol fans have directed both at her character and herself. Meanwhile, Carmela, Mafia Wife Extraordinaire, enjoyed far more professional and personal acclaim.

On the face of it, Carmela and Skyler have a lot in common: Carmela dropped out of college and Skyler harboured ambitions to be a writer. Both women used their husbands’ nefarious deeds and clout to profit from and intimidate others. They both had affairs. But for me, Carmela was a far more sympathetic character than Skyler (though Anna Gunn played the latter brilliantly).

Sure, a lot of the hatred of Skyler probably stemmed from misogyny. Viewers hated when she was innocent of Walter’s misdeeds and they hated her when she became his A1 partner in crime. Girlfriend just couldn’t win.

But to my mind, Skyler’s problem wasn’t one of character but of plot. Whenever she was in a scene with Walt, with her questions and her arguments and her nagging (who can forget the scene where Walt very politely requests that she “climb down out of his ass”?) the story stopped. We wanted Heisenberg. We wanted him to cook and kill and win. Every time Skyler appeared, she seemed determined to drag him back to the nebbish walkover he had been, thus inciting our urge to root against her and for the downtrodden, misunderstood genius who lives in us all.

Mrs. Soprano could be just as combative when pushed, but we also saw life from her perspective. While Skyler merely reacted to Walt’s actions, Carmela had wants and needs of her own. We saw her struggle to become an entrepreneur and to build a life for herself away from Tony. We also saw in Carmela an emotional hunger, whether it was in trying to force her husband to see her as something other than the mother of his children, or quietly falling in love with her priest. Unlike Skyler, we also see Carmela through the good times, and the fact that, despite who Tony Soprano was and what he was capable of, she (sometimes) liked her husband. I believe Skyler loves Walter. You can see it even in that last, tortured scene in her kitchen. But your never get the sense that she had any affection for who the pre-meth Walt was as a person.

Of course, not every character is meant to be liked. However, if you don’t want to have a major character roundly despised, these three things seem to be necessary: a look at their life from their POV, emotional vulnerability...

..and for the protagonist--sympathy, even if he is the devil.                       

3.  Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid

Breaking Bad left us with both unanswered questions and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments of poignancy. Two of the latter include Skinny Pete showing off his piano virtuoso skills during one of the rare scenes in which he isn’t high, subtly showing us the wasted potential of an addict’s life. When Jesse Pinkman beats up Saul Goldman in his office during their final meeting, we witness the usually impassive Huell weeping tears for the boss we discover that he loves. It’s these fleeting moments of discovery that can make the most minor of characters, and the story in which they dwell, both memorable and real.

As far as questions go, was I the only one who wondered why Hank and Marie had no kids, when they were clearly fond of them? And for all the emphasis on “family”, why is it that we never see or hear about the parents of Walt, Hank and the two sisters? One would think, at least, that one of the arguments between Skyler and Marie would go…

“I’ll tell Mom and Dad that you’re shoplifting!” - “Oh yeah? I’ll tell them that your husband is the meth druglord of the Southwest...!”

It’s almost as though the four adults are orphans clinging to each other, at least until Walt’s actions make that impossible.

By not spelling out every detail of the characters’ pasts, the writing forces us to draw our own conclusions about their behavior in the present, thus involving us more deeply in their lives.

By the way, do you think Huell is still waiting in that room?

4. Every Story Is a Love Story

“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” - Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher

At first glance, the driving force  in Breaking Bad seems to be material gain. Walt becomes a criminal for it. Skyler sacrifices her integrity for it. Nabbing Heisenberg would be the career boon Hank lusts for. Even Marie fills some unnamed void within her by pilfering items from stores and private homes.

However, to my mind, the motivating force behind Breaking Bad was love. Either no one had enough of it, or they became unhinged when it was lost.

Hank became so obsessed with nailing the brother-in-law who had betrayed his love, that he was willing to sacrifice his star witness Jesse’s life and ultimately, to die himself rather than agree to allow Walt to walk free. Jesse spends a large part of the show either giving or throwing his money away, yet he continues to be drawn into Heisenberg’s web, because of his need for a “father” for whom he holds some worth. Skyler, it can be argued, is as self-delusional as her husband. Her love of the dream, the safe, suburban American Dream her family lived had to be maintained, even as evidence mounted that safe was the last thing they all were.

And Walt. Walt was all about love, man. But love kept being taken away from him. Gretchen and his work for Grey Matter were long gone. His wife treated him like a schmo. His son and namesake changed his name and thought Uncle Hank was cooler.

No one gave Walter White the love and understanding he needed. Thus, he decided, to paraphrase Machiavelli badly (there go those classics again!) that if he couldn’t be loved, being feared was the next best thing.

The most important thing Breaking Bad taught me is that no major character, no matter how “evil”, can meaningfully exist without having the desperate need for someone, anyone, to see the good that lives within them.

See, if only someone had given Heisenberg a hug…

Well, those are my thoughts on ‘Breaking Bad’. Now, I leave you with two questions:

  1. Did ‘BB’ teach, or reinforce, anything for you as a writer?
  2. What the hell am I supposed to watch now?
Naturi Thomas-Millard

Column by Naturi Thomas-Millard

Naturi is the author of How to Die in Paris: A Memoir (2011, Seal Press/Perseus Books) She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines such as Barrow St. and Children, Churches and Daddies. At Sherri Rosen Publicity Int'l, she works as an editor and book doctor. Originally from NYC, she now lives in a village in England which appears to have more sheep than people. This will make starting a book club slightly challenging.

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Dan J. Fiore's picture
Dan J. Fiore from Pittsburgh is reading too many things at once October 4, 2013 - 8:12am

I'd also add to this list the dramatic effect of subtraction, whether it be coming into a scene late or carefully hiding/glancing over important information and details that end up becoming huge plot points down the line. 

I MAY be completely misremembering this, but wasn't there a very short subplot or at least a moment somewhere early on when Skyler insisted Walt tell his Mother (or Father?) about his cancer? Just curious if that actually happened or not, because your one comment sparked some random, vague memory I can't get out of my head now...

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words October 4, 2013 - 8:27am

you're right - Walt claimed he was flying to see his mother, to cover for cooking in the RV in the middle of nowhere. Skyler catches the lie. The mother character never entered into it.

Not a lot of happy families in the series.

We do see Pinkman's family, which is what it is, and his buddy's family (the woman with whom he was fooling around with in the pilot).

The junkie family (the skank and the ATM gentleman) and the kid that Jesse "saves."

Jane and her divorced father - he's supportive of her, but at his wit's end.

Gretchen & Elliot are opulently wealthy and have no kids.

Combo and his mother seem to be the happiest of the bunch, and he gives Jesse the RV to steal.

There are references to Gus Fring's family, but we never see them.

Seems the drug underworld families are tighter (if no less disfunctional) than the above board families.

big_old_dave's picture
big_old_dave from Watford, about 20 miles outside London, Uk October 4, 2013 - 8:57am

Kinda lost without this show now :(

minds you getting into the peaky blinders over here at the mo

waaaaay better than that limp wristed, toff loving downton abbey dross.

Jeff Rossi's picture
Jeff Rossi October 4, 2013 - 9:16am

My "#5", that modernism isn't dead. Audiences today aren't too cynical to believe in good and evil, if you actually care enough to offer it to them. Breaking Bad baited us with moral ambiguity, and the switch to a stark exploration into the reality of good and evil was the most enthralling and rewarding thing about the show, and it's success proves that people were genuinely hungry for it.

Veronika Kaufmann's picture
Veronika Kaufmann October 4, 2013 - 12:08pm

I am in awe of the writers of this show. Seriously. And thanks for the great post. And no, I don't know what to watch now. Okay. Maybe "Homeland" but it's not the same. Nothing is the same. But that's nice somehow. In a few months, I'll go back and re-watch the entire series of BB. It's that kind of show. A classic. Oh, and I'll go back and read some more of those classics. 

kensmosis's picture
kensmosis October 4, 2013 - 12:49pm

Like nearly everyone else, I always had disliked the Skyler character but couldn't really articulate the reason.  But I think you nailed it -- she wants "to drag him back to the nebbish walkover" and I guess that really sums up the problem with her.   Well said.

And what a great analysis, Naturi!   As much as I liked the series, I really feel like I'd gain a lot by watching it again after reading your insights.   Why, I just may have to do so.

And yes, Huell still is waiting in the room, but he's now down to a svelte 300...


Donald Wells's picture
Donald Wells from New Jersey is reading The Pillers of the Earth October 4, 2013 - 2:09pm

Great column!

What to watch next? Hmm, I don't think it's on yet. A show like Breaking Bad doesn't come along very often.

Walter White is dead and I feel as if I've lost a friend, I have also wondered more than once what Jesse is up to. Where did he go? What will he do? Hopefully, he'll feel his stint as a meth slave was punishment enough and stop sabotaging himself.

There was talk that Saul was getting his own show. I hope that it's not true. IMHO,any spin-offs, no matter how well done, would only serve to dilute the Breaking Bad legend.

Have an A1 day!

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts October 4, 2013 - 5:02pm

Ultimately after the finale I was really disappointed with the writing of the show. I still love it and it was some of the best TV ever, but it was pretty much wholly unsatisfying for me. Up until the close end I had stopped watching it week-by-week seasons ago, when the writing got too stuck in its own formula. Episode after episode we'd have these built-to-spec structured dialogue scenes starting with that long, emotional speech delivered in the same tone and cadence that would take forever, followed by the samey, tired interrogatory dialogue swaps that would end with Walt or whoever losing some upper-handedness, then it's back into some actual plot.

The finale was pretty much completely devoid of characterization, no one character acted consistent to how they did in the series, or did much of anything, just formless creatures moving through the machinations of brainless, tying-everything-uppity plot. Jesse with his one line or two, and Skyler being catatonic basically. I loved the character of Skyler White, I thought she was strong-willed and multifaceted, until about this last season when she fell into this tortured codependent stereotype, which is a sad, compelling character type for sure, but much less interesting.

I didn't sign up for this Heisenberg character, I think is my main thing. I don't blame them for doing it, but the monster/supervillain they turned him into wasn't the character I was promised at all in the first season. For the last two seasons he's entirely that one single Heisenberg note, it's a monster's redemption story in the end, not the everydayman destroyed by his own sins and mistakes noir story like it set out to be in season one episode one. Which is disappointing, but still great TV.

Gary Walker's picture
Gary Walker from Colorado is reading Ubik by Philip K. Dick October 18, 2013 - 6:22pm

Excellent article. I'm glad Gilligan and Company were able to finish this thing on (pretty much) their own terms. And no, I don't know what I'm going to do to replace it.

Talia Katz's picture
Talia Katz October 29, 2013 - 6:29pm

Wonderful article. Thanks.

Poor Huell :( I really felt for the big guy.

Debra Wells's picture
Debra Wells from New Jersey is reading "A Place At The Table" by Tom Colicchio November 8, 2013 - 4:53pm

While I was still in mourning over the series finale of "Dexter", I was able to watch the marathon showing of the BB series.  I became so engaged by the plots, subplots, characters and the transformation of Walter White, that I could barely do anything else but watch, for the three days or so, that it took to air the entire series.  As mesmerizing as it was, the series also taught valuable life lessons, that could easily be recognized as such, if one was open enough to receive them.   Your article gave a fresh and different perspective on the series that I had not seen in other reviews of the show.  Your review is a great work in and of itself!

Redd Tramp's picture
Redd Tramp from Los Angeles, CA is reading Mongrels by SGJ; Sacred and Immoral: On the Writings of Chuck Palahniuk; The History of Sexuality by Michel Foucault August 7, 2014 - 10:07am

I remember watching the majority of BB while learning some of the mechanics of fiction writing on here from craft essays. And it was so amazing to recognize techniques being applied on the show, being applied so SUCCESSFULLY. The way they hinted at the Teddy bear/plane crash throughout the second season (I was like, "Chorus!), not to mention all of the buried guns that just punch you in the gut when you don't expect it.
I also really like how the show didn't waste any time. It never dragged anything out, never left you thinking, "How's this gonna develop into something else in the next few episodes?", they just showed you BAM before the tension got too comfortable. Subtle tension, then BAM! Subtle tension, then BAM! And the character development was just so excellent. Never have I found myself so engrossed in the characters of a show. They really made me care. Even about Skylar, who was obnoxious (good stuff Anna Gunn). Just...aghhh...Breaking Bad gave me the chills.

Tigey's picture
Tigey from Birthplace of Bob Dylan is reading an international short stories anthology June 21, 2016 - 5:43am

BB is to drama what Arrested Development is to comedy.

A friend said to watch The Wire after I finished BB.  That's like chasing Dom Perignon with Ripple.  I've found that rewatching BB is the best solution for me.

I can hear Carmela saying to Tony, "Make love to me."  I cannot hear Skyler saying those words to Walt.  

Skyler's character is captured in the pilot's Tugging Badly eBay scene on Walt's 50th b-day when she gets so excited about... her item's auction.  To her, Walt's place in the family is incidental.

Skyler is perhaps BB's most tragic character.  Even Walt attempts redemption by sacrificing himself while saving Jesse and refusing Jack's bribe.  Skyler, however, plays the bitterly impassive victim, refusing to accept that her need to control Walt is what led her to criminal collusion.

Regarding writing, Vonnegut said to really torture your protagonist.  If that's the case, Jesse's the true protagonist.  Even Walt's brags/confessions to Jesse ("I watched Jane die...") torture Jesse, while conscienceless Walt slithers away unharmed.  Of course, that's why Walt kept Jesse around, to use his conscience.  Jesse gets high to numb the pain of carrying his and Walt's sins.