Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Gold Medal for Confrontational Dialogue

There are some very good conceptual shows out there that really make you think, but the character dialogue is so stilted that you can almost see Joe Writer in front of a typewriter with a lightbulb over his head.

Then there are the gold standards, where the dialogue is so real you are drawn in to the show and forget that anyone ever put words down on paper in the first place. I think of The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Justified. And it isn't too much of a coincidence that they all deal in great detail with the criminal's point of view.

So I present Exhibit A: Breaking Bad, Season 5 Episode 4 "Fifty-One." Conceived by Vince Gilligan and written by Sam Catlin. The scene involves only Bryan Cranston (Walter White) and Anna Gunn (Skyler White).


Skyler's very real state of constant fear had just manifested itself in a transparent cry for help, a faked suicide attempt in the Whites' own swimming pool at a dinner party for Walt's 51st birthday. She knows what she now wants: the kids out of this combustible environment. But she doesn't know how to get there, and she finally ditches the passive aggression and strips it down for Walt.

SKY: I'm in it now. I'm compromised, but I will not have my children living in a house where dealing drugs, where hurting people, and killing people is shrugged off as shit happens! We're back at it, fine. The kids stay away and that's that.

WALT: That's that? That's what?

SKY: I got them out of this house.

WALT: To a sleepover at their aunt and uncle's. They spend a day or two, Junior stays up late watching movies, and then what happens?

SKY: We'll see...

WALT: No I'll tell you what happens. They come home to this house to their parents who love them.

SKY: No. I will not let our business endanger them.

WALT: How many times do I have to say they are not in --

SKY: I said No. I swear to god I won't have them back here.

WALT: What are you going to do to stop it?

SKY: Whatever it takes. Everything in my power.

WALT: Like what...I mean specifically? What is your next move?

SKY: My next move is maybe I hurt myself. Make it clear we need more time. Let Hank and Marie see we're still struggling.

WALT: No, more like you're still struggling. So maybe next time I have you committed. Put you in some in-patient facility while I take care of the kids myself. Is that what you want?

SKY: So then maybe I show up with bruises on my neck, give myself a black eye. Say that you beat me when you found out about my lover.

WALT: I see. So you want to involve Ted? Now that would be fun, bringing the police up to speed on all of that. But not as much fun as telling your 16-year old son his father is a wife-beater...Also not a very good plan, what else you got?

SKY: I could send Junior away to school.

WALT: Oh. Here's the conversation: "So Honey I know you've only got one year left in high school, but I would love it so much if you would drop everything, leave all your friends behind and go to boarding school in Arizona." You have any other ideas? Because I am not hearing a solution to your problem...How are you going to save our kids from this terrible environment? What are you gonna do, what're you gonna run off to France? What're you gonna close the curtains, change the locks? This is a joke, come on Skyler. You wanna take me on? You wanna take away my children? What's the plan!

SKY: I don't know! This is the best I could come up with! Okay? I will count every minute that the kids are away from here, away from you, as a victory. But you're right. It's a bad plan. I don't have any of your magic Walt, I don't know what to do, I'm a coward. I can't go to the police, I can't stop laundering your money, I can't keep you out of this house, I can't even keep you out of my bed...All I can do is wait, that's it, that's the only good option. Hold on, bide my time, and wait.

WALT: Wait for what? What are you waiting for?

SKY: ...For the cancer to come back.

Cut to Walt. Scene. Go to commercial. Perfect. And it was all talk.

But the body language made it too. Walt was stalking, menacing, and had all the answers. Skyler was retreating, even to the point of pulling her robe tightly over her chest. She was losing to the superior mind throughout, but hit him with the last word with more force than any weapon. But she's no saint here. Notice how she said "our business" but "your money?"

In the episode's final scene, Walt tries to convince Skyler that she'll come around. Because Jesse had just recently had a gun at his head and was now buying him an expensive watch. She'll come around too. Oh that'll do the trick. Keep reminding her of the constant danger he's in.

It's only the 4th episode of the season and show arcs are a lot like scene arcs, so it's not inconceivable that Walt is right - that Skyler will defy all logic and change her tune. It would be the human thing to do. And that's what separates the truly great shows from just great concepts.

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