‘Breaking Bad’ Finale: 5 Things Movies Can Learn From Walter White

'Breaking Bad' Finale: 5 Things Movies Can Learn From Walter White

From musical montages to nasty protagonists, filmmakers should take note

Hollywood, take notice.

“Breaking Bad” roars towards its bloody conclusion this weekend, but as fans say goodbye to television's most unlikely drug kingpin, filmmakers should try emulating the things that made the show such gripping fun.

If they're smart, blue meth won't be the only gift Walter White leaves behind. Because we're always ready to help the movie business avoid another “R.I.P.D.,” here are some helpful tips.

1.) Leading Men Don't Always Have to Be Likable … Or Pretty

The high school teacher at the heart of Vince Gilligan's tale lies to his loved ones, murders multiple people and makes millions by cooking up batches of highly addictive crystal meth that ruins lives and creates misery. For five seasons, viewers stayed glued to their screens because of Bryan Cranston‘s masterful performance as Walter White, even though most viewers gave up long ago on saving his soul.

Also read: ‘Breaking Bad': The Case for Why It Isn't Good

Moreover, Cranston — who made himself doughy and bald, and was frequently bedecked in unflattering tighty whiteys (henceforth to be known as “Walter Whiteys”) — was willing to not be movie-star handsome. Thank God. But even when he's flailing about the desert in his underwear, he remains a charismatic presence.

It's true that indie flicks frequently offer up protagonists who are morally compromised, but studio executives are loathe to greenlight a commercial film centered on someone who isn't chiseled, angular and blessed with rippling abs. Let alone a man who poisons children and tucks his button-downs into his Dockers.

2.) A Story Can be Funny, Scary and Suspenseful — Sometimes at the Same Time

“Breaking Bad” defies convention. Individual episodes are masterpieces of slow-building tension that also have laugh-out loud moments. It's hard to believe that a series that contains plane crashes, drug overdoses and Neo-Nazis could also offer Bob Odenkirk‘s oleaginous ambulance-chasing attorney “Better Call Saul” Goodman or Aaron Paul's meme-tastic “magnets bitch” line. Then again, this is a show that has a major character lose half his face in an explosion, and calls the episode in question, “Face Off.” High meet low.

Also read: Julie Bowen Reveals Her Wild ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale Prediction (Video)

Because they need to appeal to the broadest possible audiences, most major films have all their rough edges rubbed off — comedies are purely funny, horror movies primarily scary and action movies are action filled and low-IQ geared.

3.) Location, Location, Location

New Mexico was chosen as a backdrop for Vince Gilligan's crime thriller largely because of tax breaks. Yet, the show wove the desert landscapes and the state's distinctive architecture into the story beautifully, adding to its hallucinatory atmosphere.

Also read: ‘Breaking Bad's’ Aaron Paul on Last Script Read: ‘The Moment We'd Been Dreading’

Productions are hop-scotching around the globe in search of tax subsidies, setting up shop in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Vancouver and refashioning these cities as stand-ins for New York or Los Angeles or some fictional city. But they should take more advantage of locations’ unique features. As the Bond movies proved long ago, film can be an incredible travel guide.

4.) The Writer is King

Vince Gilligan and his writing team's dialogue is pure gold. From Walter White's imposing “I am the one who knocks” to Saul Goodman's lethal advice to send Hank to “Belize,” each episode contains lines that are utterly distinctive.  Likewise, the show's intricate plotting, with seasons flashing forward or backward in time and individual episodes such as “Fly,” set nearly entirely on one meth lab set, demonstrate risk-taking rarely seen on the big screen.

Television prizes the writer. Lionizes writing, in fact. That's a very different attitude than the director and producer-driven world of movies, where screenwriters are often seen as expendable and armies of script doctors are routinely deployed to perform triage on punchlines or character arcs to meet the whims of movie stars and A-list filmmakers.

Five writers are credited with cooking up the masterpiece that was “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” In contrast, it took one writer — Moira Walley-Beckett — to craft this season's “Ozymandias” (the writer's room collaborates), which TheWrap's Tim Molloy said may have been the “best hour of TV ever.” Until the next episode, of course.

5.) Nothing Beats a Musical Montage

Directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino are masters of using pop music to give their films a special flavor and emotional power, but in recent years it has been television, not movies, that has offered up the best soundtracks. “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” and other shows dependably served up memorable musical moments, but when it comes to the montage, nothing beats “Breaking Bad.”

The dazzling “meth cook” set to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells in Season 5 or the juxtaposition of the upbeat “Windy” by The Association playing as a drug-addled hooker services customers in Season 3 are perfect examples of finding off-beat soundtrack choices that make sequences pop. They are funny, sad and memorable. That's great art.

*Bonus Round: As film itself becomes an endangered species and more directors switch to digital cameras, it's worth pausing to remember that “Breaking Bad” is shot on film stock. The difference is clear in Michael Slovis’ virtuoso cinematography. The reds of the desert are redder, the blues of the meth bluer, the browns of the White's drab living room are … well, you get the picture. It's probably too late to stop film's abandonment of the glossy stuff that gives the medium its name, but if technology has to leave traditional cameras behind, at least it gets to go out with a bang.

  • kidimi

    I love BREAKING BAD. I think it's possibly the best show on TV ever, definitely in the top 5, and I've never missed an episode. But the above comments fling generalizations around as if all movies except for (certain) indies, are dismissable. It's not so. While the superb mainstream movies may be few and far between, the form. economics, and demographics are hugely divergent from a show like BREAKING BAD.

    First, superb rich character development is not easy, but it's easier to achieve over 12 or 13 hours — and that's just one TV season — than in a movie's two hours or more. Not even the best-ever movies can approach the level of detail that five seasons — 62 hours — of BREAKING BAD has accomplished. The forms are too different for a fair comparison. THE GODFATHER 1 and 2 are at the top of my list of all-time great movies, along with CITIZEN KANE — both anti-hero movies, by the way, and both exceptional in all the same areas of screen storytelling as BREAKING BAD — narrative, performance, craftwork, all of it adding up to more than the sum of its parts because each audience member adds his/her own unique perspective. These movies are true works of art. But they are minimalism, poetry, a distillation to the briefest form — compared to the intimate epic novel that is BREAKING BAD.

    Second, most plays are written by one person. Most movies and TV shows are not written by one person (excepting maybe Aaron Sorkin, and even his shows have underling creatives credited). This article even acknowledges that the writers room is a collaboration; conversely, there are plenty of great movies written by mostly one or a few writers. But to say that an episode of TV sprang from a single writer while a mediocre movie had five of them is specious, factually and as an analogy. BREAKING BAD is indisputably Vince Gilligan's vision and child, but he didn't create it and nurture it alone. (It takes a village….)

    Third, the economic model of movies, especially post-STAR WARS, has gravitated toward risking a lot more money on a lot fewer projects for a hoped for payday. 10, 12 , 15 releases per year from one motion picture company costs well over a billion dollars, given at least a couple of blockbuster budgets and adding in marketing costs. By contrast, television has a voracious appetite, with many more distributor-like outlets, i.e. each network, that need to fill around fifteen hours each week (or fewer, on cable) with original programming. The product has to be made for much less money than it takes to make a movie, and some TV networks are quick to cut their losses and move on to the next thing. A show that bombs on TV goes pfft; a movie that bombs goes KABOOM!!!

    Finally, because there is so much money at stake in movies, they need to target the broadest possible audience and go for the greatest possible return. It's a fact that younger people go to movies. Past a certain age, people stay home, even more so now with so many viewing alternatives. Most mainstream movies that get made are for tweens or adults up to maybe 35. Other movies get made in spite of that because the greenlighters, et al. believe those movies are entertaining, or artistic, or both, and should find an audience. On the whole, they're right about as often as they aren't.

    Let's not forget that as terrific as BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, and many other shows on FX, HBO, and SHOWTIME are, they get seen by a fraction as many people as the more commercially successful, if usually less fulfilling network shows — even now when network viewing is way down from what it once was.

    Maybe all of this is obvious, but this article unfairly compares movies and TV as if it's one-size-fits-all. And maybe one size DOES fit all in terms of quality; an audience feels the connection to a character and story. Of course movies in general could be better, and so can TV. Shows like BREAKING BAD or MAD MEN come along once or twice in a generation. As some have noted, this is a Golden Age of television that started with THE SOPRANOS. In that regard, the last Golden Age of movies was probably in the first half of the 1970s. Sure there have been great movies here and there since then, but the shifting movie economics of that era were more like today's cable and premium TV — risk takers who didn't have a lot of money to spend, but who were still an adult's alternative to television.

    BREAKING BAD is analogous to the proverbial monkeys typing in a room; the odds may have been against it, but TV came up with a HAMLET. This isn't to equate the show's embarrassment of rich talents with simians, but rather to say that the odds finally caught up. In most lotteries, someone defies enormous odds and wins. Here, though not completely by chance, it was AMC that bought a ticket from Vince Gilligan's store. And we're all winners because of it.

  • MV

    “musical montages to nasty protagonists” didn't Miami Vice do that about 30 years ago ? At least on that show the main characters were good guys working undercover, not the evil criminals as this show.

    • Joe Foerster

      Well they were “good guys” in one sense, but they had their moral conflicts and look what happened at the end of the series. ;-) But yes, they merged MTV and adult television in a pretty amazing way for the time.

  • Joe Foerster

    You had me nodding in agreement up until the “Bonus Round” at the end. Nothing annoys me more than someone dripping with agony over the loss of “Film” in a production. Let's review: Expensive, not green, has to be onlined anyway, then gets sent out electronically to video systems… That nonsense about the reds are redder in the desert. If you were projecting film in a theater and it never went though any video steps at all, I submit it would look inferior by the time you did dupes, effects, titles, all of which move generations away from the original camera negative. But once you digitize your Film, nearly all of your supposed benefits vanish. And by the time it gets to my Sony 4K Bravia set, I can tweak those reds in the desert the way I think they should be anyway. So please, enough of this “it must look like Film” BS. Sure early cameras had shortcomings but so did early film cameras. As sensors, like film stocks, get better, and as cinematographers learn to best use them, so will the look. Meanwhile, get over it.