AMC series’ narrative craft is epitomized in a bold move.

[Warm but not fuzzy: Arizona’s painted desert, August 2013]

[Warm but not fuzzy: Arizona’s painted desert, August 2013.]

In literature, prologues establish a story at some wiser remove, as in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Or they promise the reader an exciting story by jumping into a dramatic moment, as in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (analyzed). Often a prologue does both, offers a survivor’s perspective and a taste of the drama of his surviving.

A few weeks ago, AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad opened its fifth and final season with a revelatory and risky prologue, puzzling for what it revealed. By last Sunday ’s episode—with only two more to go—viewers have seen the power and utility of this move in intriguing them and shaping their reactions. The prologue that has weighed on our minds exploded like a time bomb Sunday night.

bryan cranston breaking bad

[Bryan Cranston as Walter White]

Breaking Bad is the story of how Walter White, a meek, resentful, and broke high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, becomes a meth-maker after he’s diagnosed with cancer. In the past four seasons, viewers have watched White edge into evil as he becomes a drug kingpin. We see him learn to live by the cruel parameters of his criminal world. And become trapped by his own ego—a brainy man who underestimates others at every turn—as his intelligence turns to hubris.

The flash-forward prologue depicts him returning to his home, which has been trashed and abandoned; he’s armed with a heavy-duty assault rifle. Then the season’s opening episode picks up the story chronologically; it and the three following shows have ended in jaw-dropping climaxes. Real cliff-hangers. “Well,” I’d say, turning to my wife, “we know he lives.” Yes, the writers did tell us in the prologue that he survives—at least to that point. Which is implicitly promised as the final episode. A showdown, probably a bloodbath, will end White’s story.

What’s to be gained in such a reveal?

That was puzzling before last Sunday, when White’s actions led to the death of his heroic cop brother in law; at the end, White has left his family, lost most of his fortune, and he’s on the run from the law and from fellow criminals. Yet after the melodramatic endings of the previous four episodes, this close seemed comparatively flat. It signals a welcome change of pace, however, a lingering in various ruins. And we remember that prologue’s promise. He’ll be baaaaaack—to win revenge on rivals or die trying. Did it give away that much, after all? We knew White’s story had to end violently. The real questions become: how, who lives, and at what cost?

The writers for Breaking Bad have sustained interest this season partly by using the prologue as a counterpoint to stark but organic plot twists. Meanwhile its sister series, Mad Men, has blundered on, zombie-like, morphing into a soap opera, its narrative arc long spent, the lead character a cipher for whom we no longer care. One of Breaking Bad’s virtues has been to keep fans from writing off White as solely a monster; we’ve seen him struggle sometimes to be good. In this it resembles the godfather of these series, The Sopranos, which makes viewers privy to the humdrum humanity and emotional trauma of a violent mob boss. Breaking Bad is a far smaller canvas, but a great story. Its bold use of the prologue epitomizes its narrative craft and intrigues this storyteller.


  • But it’s still not as good as The Wire!

  • “Ozymandias” was the most painful episode of television I’ve ever watched. It made me nauseous and twisted me in knots. And just like the Percy poem, Walter White’s world finally crushed around him, in the desert no less. He always thought he could get into this business, out-think it, and leave without consequence. Hank’s blood is on his hands now. Yet, in true Walt fashion, he managed to blame the rat under the muscle car.

    That prologue was interesting. I was afraid that it would take some of the suspense out of the story because here’s Walt a year in the future. But there’s Chekhov’s M-60 in his trunk and he fetches Chekhov’s ricin capsule from his former home. (I’m still confused as to why his neighbor, Carol, freaked in the prologue. I suppose it had to do with Walt driving off with Holly. I don’t know.)

    He’s going to waste some Nazis and, my guess is, he’s going to take the ricin to light the fuse that ends his life. Just like Marie said a few episodes ago, “Why don’t you kill yourself, Walt?” It wasn’t how she would have drawn it up, but that’s the foreshadowing. You can also revisit the pilot when Walt points the gun at his head, pulls the trigger, and it doesn’t go off right away. Walt’s exit strategy from Day 1.

    So much has been made about turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface”, but I’ve thought that it was always inside him. He’s out to get what he felt belonged to him for 50 years but got screwed out of. He’s the smartest, most brilliant mind on the show, yet he lost Gretchen, lost Gray Matter for $5,000, was admonished for using the wrong credit card by Skylar, has a disabled teenager, was the genius chemist who is a high school teacher who must also work at a car wash, etc. Like water coming to a boil, it was always inside him, he just needed to reach the end of his rope to release the heat, to start an exothermic reaction, as he so elegantly tells Jesse at the first cook.

  • Richard says:

    Brendan, you’ve been a close watcher! I had not picked up as much on his self destruction. But yes, it will be an interesting finale one way or another.

    • At what point did you stop rooting for Walt? I was pretty late to this party. I was most unsettled when Walt killed Mike in the middle of Season 5. Some folks said it was when Jane died, or when he poisoned Brock.

      • Richard says:

        I did not root for him for very long. I think they did a good job initially of helping us to empathize with him, so that as he turned really bad we’d still “known him when.”

  • Would you believe I’ve never seen it, or any of the shows you’re talking about. Would you believe I just bought a television set last week (because the Red Sox are winning, we have to watch the games every night now!) Having not owned a television set since 1992, I’m wondering how anyone puts up with all those endless commercials. But my biggest challenge is to figure out how to use the remote. For now, the channel stays on New England sports.

    So, why did I read your whole blog post?

    You sucked me in with Heart of Darkness, and the promise of an exploration of narrative craft…

    and I. too, have come more and more to respect the story-telling art that television and film writers practice so well (I’ve been watching reruns of old t.v. dramas on hulu). Script writers are much less likely than book-writers to forget that viewers (and readers) want an emotional experience, that they will change the channel (or close the book) the instant they become bored.

    So, even having never seen the show–I learned something from your essay. This note is going in my file for novel and story-telling ideas. “Consider a flash-forward prologue.”

    • Oh, and the picture with the witty caption. That caught me, too.

      • Richard says:

        Thanks so much, Tracy. The writers for TV and movies do know what they are doing, by and large. The pressures they face must be gargantuan. But this post makes it sounds like I follow lots of series, and I don’t. Like most people, I suppose, I bounce right off them or lose interest. Breaking Bad has kept me hooked, as did The Sopranos.

  • Hi, Richard. I guess I’ve just never been able to warm up to the premise of “Breaking Bad” enough to watch it on tv. I still have a rather simplistic world view, I guess, which asks good guys to stay mainly good and bad guys to stay on their side of the line too, where they can be safely apprehended after a suitable interval. It’s not that I hold to this hard and fast, but I guess Bryan Cranston was such a favorite of ours in the off-beat “Malcolm in the Middle” that it was hard to give him up in that role. Perhaps unfortunately, we typecast him in that role, and now to be asked to watch him as a complex villain, however good we know the acting would have to be, is too much. But I’m glad that you have written on it, because it helps me see what other people see in the series, now.

  • Richard says:

    Thanks for reminding me of Malcolm in the Middle, Victoria! He was so funny in it. Your comment about heros and villains makes me wonder if we’re just in an era of the ambiguous protagonist. This aspect does not bother me as much about BB as it did The Sopranos. I always felt like I needed a shower after that show and vaguely resented being made to empathize with Tony Soprano, someone so awful. The key was making him human as well as a monster, which the writers did.

  • Beth says:

    Weird timing to read this. My step-granddaughter tells me about all the TV shows and movies she watches on her laptop via Netflix. I checked it out the other night, and of course BB is right up there front and center. I had heard of it, but didn’t know what it was about. Was repelled by the premise, but did watch the first segment. Cranston’s talent is huge. Excellent writing, directing, all that. Can’t watch it. Maybe I’ve known too many people who strayed to the dark side. Users, all.

    Neat post, Richard. Would enjoy more in this vein. Did you do one on House of Cards?

    • Richard says:

      Thanks, Beth. I did not watch House of Cards. I probably wouldn’t have gotten into BB without our kids, one of which has since bailed because it’s too dark for her.

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