Sunday, 13 April 2014

Celebrating great writing 1: Breaking Bad’s bright sparks

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I love to celebrate good writing and so I can no longer hold back from having a word or two about Breaking Bad, the extraordinary Netflix sensation that everyone is telling you you have to watch. You may have noticed that lately, some of the very best writing is coming from US television rather than films, and this is a case in point. If you haven’t seen it, I will warn you that you have to get through the pain barrier of the first two episodes that, although brilliant, are incredibly gruesome; I have a strong stomach but wasn’t sure I could go on. However, do go on; this is one of the most compelling dramas you will see and before you know it, you will be nagging everyone you know to watch it too.

There are all kinds of things to applaud in the writing of Breaking Bad: the strong characters; the double-jointed, oft-twisting plot, and most strikingly of all, the uneasy moral position standpoint we as viewers find ourselves in as we watch a hero become an anti-hero and, as incredible events unfold, our allegiances don’t quite know who to cling to.

If I had to choose one thing that makes the writing stand out, though, it is the intelligence of many of the characters. Often in drama, the plot relies on some of the characters not understanding what is going on, and we as viewers get way ahead of them, guessing and second-guessing until the (fictional) truth finally dawns on them, or, in thrillers, more likely explodes in their faces. For a while, Breaking Bad too relies on protagonist Walt’s wife Skyler not knowing what is going on, and there is some delicious dramatic irony as this happy, conventional all-American family gets together: Walt playing the innocent cancer victim but in fact funding his treatment by manufacturing crystal meth, right under the nose of his drug enforcement cop brother-in-law.

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To start with, Skyler is so very straight, wide-eyed and innocent, that we underestimate her. However, Skyler has hidden depths. Skyler, it turns out, is fiercely intelligent, and at times she comes out as more than a match for the brilliant chemist and life-long under-achiever, Walt. Now things get really interesting. Skyler begins to make her own guesses about what Walt is up to. She begins to make her own strategies to cope. As the plot twists and turns, Walt uses his razor-sharp mind to stay on top in the terrifyingly perilous business of playing drug cartels at their own game, and all the time he seeks to keep Skyler in the dark. In a series packed full of delicious surprises, Skyler’s own machinations stand out as subverting the genre. This is not a story about one hyper-intelligent man and his nemesis, trading brilliant ploys while the others involved struggle to work out what is going on. Most unusually, as viewers, we can never assume that we are one step ahead of the characters, however much we guess and second-guess and speculate. In terms of intelligence, Walt surprises us, Skyler surprises us, Gus becomes a force we hadn’t reckoned with, Hank’s mind turns out to be sharper than we thought possible, and even the innocent-faced, often hapless Jesse at times exceeds our expectations.

This brilliant writing strategy is what keep us, as viewers, on our toes; it is what makes the series a cut above most thrillers. This is no lazy viewing experience; it puts us intellectually through hoops and more hoops, in fact, watching all five seasons (we are currently on season four) must be like putting your thriller-brain through the ultimate obstacle course. If you don’t watch it, do what you can to obtain it. If you have watched it all, no spoilers please – I don’t yet know the ending, and I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll guess.

Join in, thriller fans – if you love Breaking Bad, what makes it stand out for you?
If not, what other thrillers in books, films or series have you on the edge of your seat, and what makes the writing stand out? I’d love to hear from you – use Facebook if you can’t make my comments widget work!


  1. I admit, I stopped after the second episode too. It wasn't even so much the gore, it was just that I didn't know if I could take seeing the ultimate downfall of this character. I know it was brilliant though, maybe I'll give it anther shot soon.

    Sarah Allen
    (From Sarah, With Joy)

  2. It is well worth the investment... even just to know what everyone else is talking about!