(Spoiler warning for season 2!)
I only know a handful of movies with anything near the emotional power of this movie moment. Only this one didn't premiere in cinemas. It happened on TV, on the evening of May 24, 2009. I'm really a movie person and the only series I watched religiously before 2000 was Twin Peaks. That's one series in twenty years. Over the past ten years, I've had less time, I kicked out my TV set, yet I've watched more than ten times the amount of TV drama. Because that's where the action is.
When Walter White delivered his speech about chemistry in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, the screenwriting fan in me could sense we were in for a treat. "Chemistry is the study of … change." This brand spanking new TV character was talking about himself – only he didn't know. Vince Gilligan, writer/creator did, damn well.
I had only just completed the final episode of The Wire when I was introduced to Breaking Bad on DVD. In The Wire, Jim McNulty ultimately redeems himself and changes in three fundamental ways. Now here was Walter White and with him the promise of yet another changing TV hero.
To hell with the naysayers claiming character change doesn't matter. When will you wake up?
THE CENTRAL QUESTION
If you want to learn something important about screen drama that many don't get, listen carefully. In the greatest screen stories – and Breaking Bad is a class example - the most important question is not 'will the hero achieve the goal?' or even 'how will the hero achieve the goal'? The real dramatic question is: “what is s/he be prepared to do?” The most interesting characters are those that need to change their ways – and/or the world – before they can get what they want. Walter White wants to make enough money for his family to be comfortable before he dies. From episode to episode, from season to season the same question pushes this character: Later, his goal may shift and perhaps it is no longer about looking after his family. Still, whatever the goal, that central question remains: How far is Walt prepared to go? This is really what draws us in and keeps us glued.
Ask a fan about their favourite season and they'll say: the last. Season 4 was driven by the mythical shadow character of Gustavo Fring, without any doubt one of most frightening villains ever. (Random name drop: I had breakfast with Giancarlo Esposito once. He's so lovely I could eat him.)
My favourite is Season 2. I loved the mystery of the teasers, the demise of Tuco and the introduction of Saul Goodman, Gus Fring and Mike but above all: femme fatale Jane Margolis. Jane is a mesmerising character and we completely understand Jesse's infatuation with her. A perfection setup for the horror where she is cruelly ripped away from him and out of the series.
Jesse has been caught in the seductive web spun by Jane and his downward spiral is happening right in front of Walt's eyes. That night, Walt goes to Jesse's place and finds the two deep asleep, spooning in a post-trip stupor. From here, every detail matters... Walt turns Jesse over and as a result Jane rolls on her back - a chilling payoff of the scene where Skyler turns her little baby daughter on her side, earlier in the episode. A moment later Jane coughs... She vomits and starts choking. Walt reacts... but hesitates. He thinks, watches and...lets it happen, allowing Jane to die.
Here is a main character who has reached his lowest point, whose decision not to act is more powerful than any action I've seen on the big screen for a long time.
Walt has made a clear choice, answering the question "How far are you prepared to go?"