Why We Love Breaking Bad, Reason #3: Narrative Techniques

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Not to say that starting an episode in medias res is unique. Plenty of police procedurals and science-fiction shows start off in the middle of a plot, and then spend the rest of the episode forcing us to guess how the characters got in that situation to begin with. But Breaking Bad uses this technique so well, partly because (especially watching the show for the first time) there is so much tension, and mostly because, once the show shifts back in time, we wonder, How in the hell did the character get INTO that situation?! How could Walt, the square chemistry teacher, end up out in the desert in his tightie-whities, waving a gun around, with (one is led to assume) the cops on their way?

So, then, reason #3: narrative techniques.

The show was more inventive with how long it made the audience wait to figure out how the plot might reach the point hinted at in the beginning of an episode. The most notable example is the repeated sequence in Season 2 showing what at first appears to be an apocalyptic event and later looks like a terrible shootout—in every instance, focusing on the mangled B&W teddy bear with the missing eye. From the very first instance an episode begins with this ugly scene, we are led to believe that something awful has happened at the White residence. A final example of this drawn out denouement is in “Live Free or Die” (5.1), where we see a bearded and physically frail Walt, who is clearly off the radar, eating at a Denny’s. We wait much, much longer to find out how this state of affairs was achieved.

But, considering how well-written the episodes are, Breaking Bad does not need to depend on these tricks for its true narrative power. It is the plotting itself—outside any gaps that we’re left to fill in—that explains this show’s appeal: it’s a darn good yarn, right from the beginning. And the writers are very careful to keep track of each incident that happens in order to demonstrate how it continues to affect the story well into the future.

An excellent example is the meth itself: the “big blue” was invented by Walt and Jesse (though Walt would insist it’s his alone), and it has generated an insatiable demand that compels them to continue making it. A more specific decision that leads to future consequences is Walt’s directive in “Negro y Azul” (2.7) to expand the territory where meth is sold. A major consequence is a bloody turf war, which completely spirals out of control in Season 3 when Walt discovers that his rival drug dealers are actually working for Gus, his current boss.

I find it hard to believe that the show won only a single Emmy for writing—that by Moira Walley-Beckett for “Ozymandias” (5.14). But it’s fair to say that other elements, including the acting, the directing, and the cinematography, enabled the scripts for individual episodes to come to life, to reach that depth and multi-layered richness we usually see only in classic American cinema or literature.

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