A meek, yet brilliant high school teacher discovers he has cancer, cooks meth to pay for chemo, becomes intoxicated by the power of being a drug lord, beats cancer, keeps cooking meth, becomes a sociopath.
That’s a crude exposition of the transformation of Walter White’s character in AMC’s Breaking Bad over the course of five seasons. As Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, explained in his pitch to AMC, “You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.”
On paper, the transformation from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to badass gangster is absurd. If one of my students laid out that premise for a story, I’d tell him to aim a little lower.
But Vince Gilligan has proven since 2008 that I might be wrong. Breaking Bad’s premise is ambitious. In the hands of a lesser writer, it would wither immediately into the land of melodrama and hacky crime television.
The question that interests me as a writer, and as a viewer, is how does Gilligan pull off one of the most acrobatic character mutations in the history of television? In theory, this experiment should fail. Looking at the millions of viewers the show’s pulled in over the last two weeks, however, proves Gilligan hasn’t failed. He’s succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
So how’d he do it?
First crack at answering that question, you might answer that Bryan Cranston’s virtuoso performance as Walter is responsible for the believable transformation. There’s some truth to that, but that answer seems too easy.
Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I want to look to Gilligan and his writing staff for the answer. Here’s what I think all writers can learn from Walter White’s transformation.
Do me a favor and re-read the opening sentence of this post. It’s intriguing, but it doesn’t move you the way the show has moved so many of us, does it? The sin of the opening sentence is that it tells us something without showing anything. It’s that old writing adage you hear ad naseum in writing workshops: SHOW, DON’T TELL.
Part of why Gilligan succeeded in this writing feat is that he showed Walt’s change. He slowly let the transformation happen through dramatic action. He didn’t cut a single corner with Walt’s character development. As a writer it would be enticing to jump quickly in the transition to Scarface. Most writers cut corners and hope the reader will just allow them to make leaps without putting in the hard work to show a character’s development.
A lot of crappy movies use a five-minute montage to show the wimpy math nerd hitting the gym and emerging suddenly as the ass-kicking ninja. A montage is the ultimate corner-cutting technique.
Breaking Bad cuts no corners.
Instead, Gilligan slowly teases out Walter’s inner sociopath. He let’s us see Walt consciously choose to let Jessie’s girlfriend choke on her own vomit to better his own situation. He shows us Walter confronting a would-be meth cooker in a Lowe’s parking lot and telling the cooker to stay out of his territory.
Walter’s bark starts out as a whisper and grows to a sonic boom.
It’s believable because the writers of the series show us the change in Walt’s psyche through his actions instead of lazily telling us, Then, all of the sudden, this docile chemistry teacher became bad.
The next time I want to undertake the Herculean task of having a character make a full shift, I’ll think of Walter White.