The writers’ strike of 2007-08 changed Breaking Bad for the better

The writers’ strike of 2007-08 changed Breaking Bad for the better

Rumors of Jesse Pinkman’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. The story goes that Aaron Paul’s character on Breaking Bad was destined to meet a grisly end in the ninth episode of the first season. But the 2007 WGA strike got in the way, cutting off production at seven episodes (six of an intended eight after the pilot). In the intervening time between seasons, Vince Gilligan changed his mind. An act of God stayed the execution, and without Jesse, there could be no Jane, no Gale Boetticher, no mentorship from Mike, no growing loyalty to Gus, and no tragic fall into moral despair to mirror Walt’s increasing thirst for legacy. At least not in the same emotionally affecting way.

Without all of those pieces falling into place in 2008, Breaking Bad would have lost possibly its most important cog. Though the story makes for great dinner-party fodder, it has been blown far out of proportion. Gilligan and the actors like to trump it up as a great joke on a panel—a tall tale befitting the sparse, Southwestern setting—but the fact is that Gilligan and his writers knew that Paul was too good, and was becoming too integral a parallel to Walter White to be discarded as an emotionally significant loss to signal a paradigm shift in the protagonist’s story. (It’s a well-traveled device to signal the shift into darker territory where no one is safe, from Ms. Calendar to Ned Stark to Cedric Diggory.) Gilligan himself confirms the underlying truth: 

“The writers’ strike, in a sense, didn’t save him, because I knew by episode two, we all did, all of us, our wonderful directors and our wonderful producers… everybody knew just how good [Aaron Paul is], and a pleasure to work with, and it became pretty clear early on that that would be a huge, colossal mistake to kill off Jesse.”

But something did kick into gear between the first and second seasons. Little things, like the choice to keep Jesse, and Raymond Cruz’s contractual commitment to The Closer cutting Tuco’s time short, altered the potential plot for Gilligan and his crew. And, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, the shift in cinematographer—from Reynaldo Villalobos in season one to Michael Slovis for the majority of the series since—subtly but notably marked a change in the visual composition from occasionally showy to a dynamic hallmark of the show.

In an interview with Creative Screenwriting just before the second season started airing, Gilligan discussed the difference in approach after scrapping the planned ending of the first season: 

“We’re not just doing those two episodes coming into season two. We threw those out completely and we’re starting somewhere else. We’re building more slowly than we otherwise would have built.” 

The first three episodes of season two close out the Tuco plot. They even follow the structure set by several other series, placing the apex of action—escaping Tuco before Hank arrives and shoots him—in the penultimate episode (“Grilled”), followed by a denouement that both resolves that action and sets up the next arc (“Bit By A Dead Bee”). In that way, the first two seasons of Breaking Bad line up as two 10-episode arcs. But the extended break between the first seven episodes and the final three in that first arc show just how significantly that change affected the show at large.

I think the myth of Jesse Pinkman’s imminent death clouds the actual changes between Breaking Bad’s first and second seasons due to that slower build. Re-watching them in full for the first time since they originally aired, what struck me most is how blackly comedic those initial seven episodes can be. Some of the bleakest moments in the first season are played for fish-out-of-water comedy. Hell, the series opens with Walt, naked but for his skivvies and a smock, navigating a careening RV to the highway as the man he killed with phosphine gas and the man he will later strangle to death slide back and forth on the floor. How pitiful Walter White looks cooking meth in his underwear, Jesse’s critical mistake in the first chemical disincorporation attempt, stealing a barrel of methylamine in ridiculous ski masks: These moments and many others portray Walt and Jesse’s fits and starts entering the drug trade as two bumbling clowns getting their sea legs. (Walt killing Krazy-8 is the first in a string of notable exceptions; Breaking Bad has taken great care to portray certain deaths at the hands of Walt or Jesse—Krazy-8, Gale, Mike—as irrevocably altering those characters.)

As the season progresses and Walt’s home life becomes even more difficult to bear—the intervention scene in “Gray Matter” is particularly excruciating as it parses out every opinion on Walt’s condition—the dark comedy and piercing drama are tempered with exhilaration. It introduces the excitement, the thrill, the ecstasy even, in the act of breaking bad. When Walt first orchestrates the alias Heisenberg and threatens Tuco with fulminated mercury—therefore becoming the danger—he’s so amped up after walking out with a sack of money that he slams on his steering wheel with furious joy. And during a parents’ meeting at the high school following the discovery of missing lab equipment, Walt surreptitiously fondles Skyler underneath a table, leading to them having sex in their car in the parking lot. It surprises her so much she asks why it was so good: “Because it was illegal.”

The second season begins to unpack the violent ramifications of these choices: Walt cannot simply waltz into drug manufacturing without significant blowback, and his simmering pathological inadequacy won’t be satiated by a private success. After the first ominous black-and-white cold open of the plane crash aftermath in the second-season première, there’s a rehash of the final scene of season one: Tuco savagely beating No Doze. That brutality signals that Walt and Jesse aren’t just dealing with a higher-level drug distributor, but a lunatic meth head who puts their lives in immediate danger with violent mood swings triggered by the slightest offense. And in the sexual power dynamic, Walt’s lust for dominance turns darker. Internalizing the trauma of being forced to “Do something! You’re smart!” on a dying man senselessly killed in meth-fueled anger, Walt transfers that violence to his wife. Instead of sex in a public place, he shifts from crying in Skyler’s arms to initiating sex in the kitchen of their home, where it quickly devolves from emotional relief into borderline sexual assault.

The tiny reprieves of humor still pop up every so often from the second season onward—Junior’s befuddlement at seeing the green mud on the refrigerator door, Badger playing drums and a double-neck guitar simultaneously as Skinny Pete buys road cases—and black comedy is still a tool employed with surgical precision as Breaking Bad heads into the final stretch. But comedy is no longer as integral to the show as it was in a first season that now feels like an extended prologue to the long, downward spiral of Walter White’s Macbeth-meets-Richard III wake of destruction, eluding corner after corner with escalating hubris. And this capstone to the initial arc, “Bit By A Dead Bee,” might have offered a perfect distillation of Walt’s outlook on life:

“Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend. My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable, and within 18 months, I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?”

Gilligan’s statements about the writers’ strike altering his staff’s approach makes explicit something Donna Bowman theorized in her essay yesterday: Breaking Bad purposefully oscillates between plot- and character-driven endeavors. Without the step back mandated by the strike, “[the] last two episodes… would have been really big episodes, and would have taken the characters into a hugely different realm than that they were already in, and it would have been a hard thing to come back from.” That’s why Gilligan can say it was “a bit of a silver lining for us, oddly enough… that we didn’t get to do our final two episodes” back in 2008. It allowed the staff to “throttle back a little and quiet things down, modulate it, have some quieter, more character-based episodes, and then the bigger, plot-ier episodes.” Imagining an incarnation of Breaking Bad that hurtled nonstop through blistering plotting, with no room to breathe for episodes like “Fly” or “Fifty-One” to provide counterweight to “Face Off” or “Dead Freight”—or the original four seasons Gilligan envisioned instead of the 62 episodes that will exist—is to remove the very balance that makes the show so strong. We have the writers’ strike to thank for that, at least in part.