The Alternate Breaking Bad Universe in Which Walter's House Burns Down

Sam Catlin, the writer of last Sunday's episode, discusses the "agonizing decisions" that took a month to plot.
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Breaking Bad has played with time before by using flash-forward devices, but this past Sunday's episode, "Rabid Dog," was unusual in its temporal structure. We start with Walt's point of view and follow him through a tense search of his house, his failed efforts to remove the stench of gasoline from the carpet, some of his habitual lying, and a confrontation with Skyler in which she veers close to the moral abyss. 

Walt is pondering his options by the hotel pool when Walter Jr. embraces him, suggesting he may be leaning towards protecting his family and killing Jesse. Then the episode backtracks and traces Jesse's actions through the same time period. We see Hank intercept Jesse just as he is about to torch Walt's home, and we follow their uneasy collaboration as Hank takes Jesse home, tapes his confession, and coerces him into a meeting with Walt. Only late in the episode do the two story lines intersect.

Sam Catlin was the credited author of the episode, but it took shape slowly in a "crummy" room in Burbank, California during a month of collaboration, procrastination, flowcharts, and, he says, armpit farts. Sam and I chatted about the culture of the Breaking Bad writers’ room, the process of writing for television, and alternate versions of the show that might have been.


When did you and the writing team start working on Sunday’s episode?

Almost a year ago, probably in October.

How long did the episode take to write?

Most of the work in terms of the writing for the show takes place in the writers’ room with the seven of us. And because the show is so serialized, the right hand always has to know what the left hand is doing down to very small details. It’s very detailed before we go off to write the script in terms of exactly what’s going to happen. And this episode took a long time. That process of figuring out the structure and plotting took much longer than it took to actually write the episode.

How long did it take to figure out the plotting?

It probably took us close to a month, or maybe three weeks. It’s [showrunner] Vince [Gilligan] and the six of us in a crummy little room in Burbank, California. We’re keeping an eye on where we want to go, how much time we have left, and what happens next, and that’s really the work, that’s the job. We all get in around 10 a.m., but there’s lots of avoidance and procrastination. Most writers don’t like to write, and this is no exception. There’s a lot of YouTube and “did you see that movie?” I do armpit farts. We usually leave around 7 p.m.

For every sequence of plot points that’s chosen, how many alternate routes are explored but ultimately discarded?

We flowchart stuff a lot. We look at a character who’s in a certain position. For instance, Jesse gets this information at the end of the previous episode that Walt’s involved in Brock’s poisoning. We think about how Jesse could possibly react and if it’s something that’s in character and interesting. We try to make sure that we are making the character do something that we think he would really do, not just something cool and surprising.

What happens with tensions and disagreements? How does creativity work when it’s so collaborative?

There is very little turnover on the show. Most of us have been there for the majority of the time, so there weren’t a lot of screaming arguments about the tone or the direction of the show. I think we all had a hive mind. People would disagree all the time, but it wasn’t a contentious writers’ room, like I know some can be. We’re all friends long after the writers’ room is closed. There wasn’t too much drama, unfortunately for your readers.

What were some difficult decisions about Sunday night’s episode?

The structure was very difficult, having two separate stories that occupy the same time frame. We had one version where you were maybe not going to see Jesse until the very end of the episode. I think everyone would agree that this episode and the one before were very hard. It wasn’t quite a Rashomon thing, but it was basically two events taking place simultaneously, and that was hard. The last eight we thought were going to be much easier than anything that had come before, because the show had narrowed down to its elements. We had a fantasy that when we got to the last eight it was just going to write itself. And that, you know, is a writer fantasy. It was very hard.

Were there any particularly agonizing decisions for this episode?

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Nick Romeo writes regularly for The Daily Beast and The Christian Science Monitor. He has written also for Rolling StoneThe Times Literary Supplement, and The Boston Globe, and is the author of the book Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys.

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