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.
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?
There are always agonizing decisions. We could have burned the house down. There was a version where the house gets burned down. We flowcharted that. What would Walt do? What would it mean about Skyler? Should Walter Jr. know? And so on. We thought a lot about the nature of Jesse’s collaboration with Hank. How much would be true collaboration, how much would be coercion on Hank’s part? At this point when we have so little real estate left, it’s kind of like being in the red zone in a football game. Once you make a decision on something, you really have to stick to it. You can’t finesse it into something else given the amount of time we have left. I think we felt the weight of all our decisions.
When you’re flowcharting hypothetical plot sequences, how far out will you go? Will you go two of three episodes just to see where it might lead?
Oh yeah, it’s like chess. If Jesse does this, then Hank does that. If Hank does that, it means Walt will be forced to do this. That’s all we do. It’s sort of game theory.
Was it already planned when Walt was poisoning Brock that Jesse would eventually find out?
I think we knew at some point that Walt would have to be unmasked to Jesse. We knew at some point Jesse was going to find out. We didn’t know exactly where or how we wanted to portion it out. But at some point everyone was going to have to see Walt for who he is. And not just who he claims to be.
When you were working on Season Two, did you know exactly what would happen in Season Five?
I think Vince always had a sense of where the show was going, but it would be stifling if you were always thinking about exactly what had to happen. Now we’re in a tighter and tighter corner, but that’s just the nature of the series coming to an end.
Are there other possible Breaking Bads out there that would have been just as good as the one that was written?
That’s sounds like a theological question (laughs). I think so. I don’t think it’s an empirically perfect show. There are a lot of different versions of how it could have gone. I think we’re all really proud of the paths it took. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I think we’re all really proud of the consistency of the 62 episodes. Even though we’re all really neurotic perfectionists, in the end we really focused on what we did right and not what we did wrong.
Once the show is plotted, what’s your role as the writer of an episode?
To put it in script form, to do dialogue, visual transitions, any instructions to the department heads, and to give an evocative document to the designers and actors so they can take off and make it their own. It’s really just a 62 hour movie that we cut up into bites. You can innovate with style and dialogue and transitions, but you can’t innovate with plot. The episode is a series of cards that we put on a board.
How many cards in an episode?
It’s probably 50, 52. There’s a little bit of all the writers in all the episodes.
The plotting of the episode took close to a month. How long did the writing take?
How many times have you re-watched the series?
Oh, I’m sure there are fans who have watched the show more than I have. My wife was re-watching over the summer in preparation for the last eight, and I would sort of peek over her shoulder. But I’ll watch my own episode many times because I’ll be involved with post-production. The other episodes maybe once or twice.
Can you tell me a bit about your influences as a writer?
I like Harold Pinter very much. A big influence for the show that we talked about far more than any other was The Godfather. We talked about that a lot. There was something about the details and the depth and the authenticity that we all admired so much. I also like Monty Python a lot. I think they’re amazingly funny. I’m a huge fan of The Wire.