Breaking Bad Storytelling
I am currently outlining a fiction trilogy, two screenplays, and have a third script idea brewing that just has to be made.
I’m a little busy.
To help, I’ve been reading “Story” by Robert McKee on screenwriting. I was not planning on having my mind explode by page 17.
He says this as one of the reasons why screenwriting has suffered in recent years:
“Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The writer shapes the story around a perception of what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth - the essential values…more and more [our time] has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relativism, and subjectivism - a great confusion of values… This erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of story.” (17)
Yeah I was not expecting a philosophy talk in my studies.
Storytelling is taking a sequence of events and either attributing to them meaning or revealing their intrinsic meaning. So it makes sense that a growing “confusion of values” would disrupt how meaning is communicated.
The first movie that came to mind when I considered this was Disney’s Maleficent, a live-action backstory for the villain in Sleeping Beauty.
As you can recall, the original Sleeping Beauty climaxes with the brave Prince Charming risking his life against the evil Maleficent to save Aurora with “true love’s kiss”. Though some may bemoan the ‘damsel in distress’ motif, the values no doubt are those of courage, self-sacrifice, and good triumphing over evil as the essence of love.
Maleficent, on the other hand, takes this plot and flips it upside down and inside out. To sum it up, Maleficent was greatly wronged by a bad man and in return she curses his daughter. She later feels compassion for the girl and Maleficent herself gives her “true love’s kiss” as a sort of mother.
Apparently a kiss from the woman who cursed you and feels guilty about it is more powerful than from a self-sacrificing hero or, I don’t know, maybe her real mother??
It is incredibly less compelling and actually confusing.
In the final battle between Maleficent and Aurora’s father (who is the villain in this story), you have no idea who to root for. The evil man trying to kill the woman who cursed his daughter? Or the evil woman trying to save her from him?
By the way, the word “maleficent” literally means “causing harm or destruction, especially by supernatural means”. You can google it.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love a good story where two bad guys duke it out. And I’ll come back to that in a sec…
This is a film clearly meant to undermine the values in the original story. The two original heroes, Charming and Aurora, who represent strength, courage and goodness, are virtually useless and have no impact on the story at all.
The statement is clear: Being good and virtuous gets you nowhere so you must take things into your own hands.
Therefore, the moral statement of the movie is that morals are weak, ineffective, and don’t really exist.
Even shorter: The moral is that morals don’t exist. It is literally a self-undermining worldview.
Now like I said, I love a good story about the bad guys. Breaking Bad is one of my all-time favorite tv shows.
After Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher, is diagnosed with cancer, he decides to sell meth in order to provide financially for his family. This brings him on a journey that leads to darker and darker decisions.
But there is a big difference between Breaking Bad and Maleficent.
In Breaking Bad, as Walter continues to make bad decision after bad decision, it is clear he is becoming a monster. We see it in how it affects his family, his friends, and even his partner in crime, Jesse. The consequences of his actions are everywhere and deeply tragic.
In the show, Walter wrestles with the morality of his decisions, even making a “pros and cons” list at one point. It makes choices incredibly tense and you really feel for him.
The only reason this tension works is because there is a non-relative morality established in the world of Breaking Bad.
Providing for family: Good. Selling drugs: Bad.
Selling drugs to provide for family? Tension.
Though Walter tries to erase the lines between good and evil, we as the audience know that it isn’t working. In fact, the evil choices are leading to devastating results.
This is why the tension works in Breaking Bad and not Maleficent.
If morality is relative, then guilt is contrived. If guilt is contrived, tension is an illusion. If tension is an illusion, then character’s choices don’t mean anything. If choices don't mean anything, then there is no true conflict.
And if there is no true conflict, then there is no story.
In Breaking Bad, Walter’s moral decisions are tension-filled with high consequences leading to great conflict and storytelling. You fear him because he consciously chooses evil over good, justifying it with having good intentions…something each of us deep down know we are capable of.
In Maleficent, you don’t fear Maleficent because her decisions make sense in a world where good doesn’t exist. And on the flip side, you don’t really feel compassion for her because in a world where evil doesn’t exist her pain doesn’t matter. So there is no tension and thus no meaning to what’s happening.
Without choices based in something grounded beyond the characters, we’re left with flat stories with little to no meaning. It’s just stuff happening.
To me, Robert McKee seems to believe that morality and values are not relative, though our choices most certainly are.
It’s in that tension where great storytelling happens.