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January 24, 2023

Breaking Down Breaking Bad According to Dan Harmon's Story Circle

Breaking Bad is one of the most iconic examples of the “Anti-Hero” storytelling era. It is considered by many critics to be one of the best tv series of all time. 

Initially premiering to moderate viewership, both positive reviews and moving seasons to Netflix helped build an audience. By the final season, it was one of the most watched cable programs in America. The show won 16 Primetime Emmy Awards, two Golden Globe awards, and two Peabody Awards during its five season run. 

What is Breaking Bad about? 

Breaking Bad is about the fall from grace of Walter White. He is a high school chemistry teacher, and married father living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer, he despairs about the financial situation he will leave his family in when he dies. 

After a serendipitous run in with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, he is convinced to make meth for a payday…just this one time. He discovers a bottomless appetite for power that destroys him and everyone in his orbit. 

Created by Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad premiered on AMC on January 20, 2008 and ran for five seasons. The show’s cast was incredible, but no one stands out more than Bryan Cranston as Walter White. Previously a sitcom dad on Malcolm in the Middle, his performance broke all previous conceptions of the actor, and solidified him as one of the top dramatic talents of his generation. 

The rest of the talented cast included Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, and Dean Norris. It also included iconic, star-making guest runs for Giancarlo Esposito, Jonathan Banks, Jesse Plemons, and Bob Odenkirk. 

The show also made stars behind the camera. The series creator and showrunner, Vince Gilligan, is lauded as a creative genius and went on to create the critical and commercial darling Better Call Saul, centering on Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman. (This prequel spin-off is currently in discussion for an Emmy for Odenkirk.)

Rian Johnson, the director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Knives Out, got his first non-indie work on Breaking Bad. He directed several episodes, but his most famous is certainly “Ozymandias” - hailed as not only the best episode of this series, but one of the best tv episodes of all time.

What is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle?

Devised by Dan Harmon (creator of Community and Rick and Morty) the Story Circle is a relatively simple framework for the story. 

It’s intentionally vague in its details, providing ample room for understanding and exploration within the guidelines provided.

Breaking down the Breaking Bad pilot using Dan Harmon’s Story Circle 

1. A character is in a zone of comfort

Walter White is settled in his life. He has a steady routine of working two middle-class jobs, and returning home to his family. It’s passionless. His marriage is caring but without real physical intimacy. At the high school, his students are disinterested. At the car wash, he’s a humble service worker, and a high school bully literally teases him while Walt literally cleans his car. 

2. They desire something

Walt needs excitement, power, and money. Walt is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer, given years at best to live. He does not tell his family, but silently dispares about leaving them in their current extremely tight financial situation. 

He sees a story on the news where his badass DEA brother-in-law, Hank, busted a meth lab. Walt asks how much value was seized, and learns it was 700 grand, “easy money, until we catch you!” The brother-in-law invites Walt on a ride along, “to get some excitement in his life.” 

3. So they enter an unfamiliar situation

Walt contemplates his impending death, and calls Hank to ask for that ride a long. Walt, alone in the car, sees someone escape the house and fall off the roof. He recognizes him as a former student, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is both leaving a topless lover behind, and proves to be the meth lab leader that Hank was looking for. 

This is everything Walt has been looking for. He doesn't tell Hank, but instead visits Jesse at home. He pitches a partnership to Jesse, threatening him with turning him in to the cops if he refuses. Walt is starting to take back his power, while chasing excitement and fortune. 

4. They adapt to the situation

Walt raids his high school chemistry class for supplies. Tells Jesse to buy an RV. As his confidence grows, he starts to push back against people. He challenges his boss at the car wash, and explodes at some boys laughing at his son. His son loves it, while his wife is taken aback. 

5. They get what they desired

Jesse is blown away by Walt’s first cook. He says it’s “art” that “he’s a goddamn artist…you’re the goddamn Iron Chef.” Walt has respect. Jesse’s former meth crew shows up, jealous of the quality of the cook. One of them recognizes Walt from the drug bust earlier, mistaking him for DEA. 

They go to kill Walt and Jesse, but Walt offers to teach them to cook like him, in exchange for their lives. He knows they’ll kill them anyway, so he rigs the meth setup to create a poison gas bomb, knocking them out. Walt hears sirens, and stands with a cocked gun, sticking a pose. 

6. But pay a heavy price for it

Pay a heavy price for it,

As sirens get ever closer, Walt loses his nerve and prepares to kill himself. He leaves a good bye video for his family, strips and places his ID next to his clothes for identification later. He puts the gun in his mouth, pulls the trigger… but it won’t go. Then the sirens blow past, and Walt realizes… they’re fire trucks. He’s gotten away with it. Those sirens aren’t his; they’re for a brush fire nearby.

7. They return to their familiar situation

Then return to their familiar situation,

He returns home to the comfort of his bed and wife. But unlike the sad, passionless intimacy from his birthday…

8. Having changed

He initiates passionate sex, feeling truly alive and powerful. 

The rise of the anti-hero as lead

Walter White on the phone with his nose tapped in Breaking Bad

The fall of Walter White from hero to villain was groundbreaking for television at the time. We’d seen bad men be leads before, like Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. But never a hero evolve to become a villain. During the show, fans continued to root for Walter to turn it around and were devastated and enthralled when he always found a new way to go lower, instead. 

Breaking Bad location

Rather than writing an “everytown USA,” Gilligan and team dived deep into the specifics of Albuquerque to the point that the show feels like it couldn’t take place anywhere else. 

The culture of the town, its landmarks, its diversity, are all deeply embedded into the show. The town is a living, breathing character.

Always be ready to change course

One of the main villains from Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad takes us unto the dark world of drug dealing

In this era of writing, fans famously want the entire story plotted out from start to finish. This makes them feel like they’re in safe hands. Well, Vince Gilligan does not agree. Famously, Gilligan does not chart out each season in advance. He believes in writing yourself into a corner, then figuring it out. 

His openness to change story radically was present even from the pilot. Jesse Pinkman was supposed to be a small character, killed off early in a drug deal gone bad. Instead, the series became a near two-hander, with Jesse Pinkman being the best mirror of Walt’s continual decline. It’s impossible to imagine the full five seasons without Jesse Pinkman, and because Gilligan isn’t afraid to change the plot, we never have to.

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Breaking Down Breaking Bad According to Dan Harmon's Story Circle
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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