Breaking Bad and the Writer’s Strike

The writer’s strike from 2007-2008 signaled a dramatic shift in the film industry. Some projects in development were delayed, while other projects sped through the writing process and ended up total disasters. Maybe you found yourself disappointed with the outcome of one or several of these misfires including Quantum of Solace (2008), Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). All these highly anticipated blockbusters were forced to conceive scripts in just a few short months to prevent falling behind on their shooting schedules. In contrast, one rare instance of a project being improved by the writer’s strike was the hit AMC show Breaking Bad.

(As a warning, if you have not seen Breaking Bad and would like to avoid spoilers, this post contains spoilers for the final episode.) As many of you know, the film El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is coming to Netflix next week. The film will follow the adventures Aaron Paul’s charismatic character Jesse Pinkman, last seen fleeing the Nazi compound after escaping imprisonment in the series finale. Paul has won three Emmy’s for his performance in the show and is easily a fan favorite character. What you may not have known is none of this would have happened without the writer’s strike. The writer’s strike saved Jesse Pinkman, and potentially the show.

The relationship between Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Walt (Bryan Cranston) is one of the most interesting in the show, and almost never came to fruition. Courtesy of Ben Leuner (AMC). Source: MentalFloss.com

In the original Breaking Bad script, Jesse was not even a main character. He was used simply as a means to get Walter White into the drug business. In the first draft of the script, season one was supposed to be ten episodes and Jesse would die in the penultimate episode of the season. However, the writer’s strike led to the first season being cut short at seven episodes. During the time between seasons one and two, showrunner Vince Gilligan had the chance to alter course of the show greatly, and he took it. By episode two Gilligan claimed he was so impressed with Paul’s performance that he knew it would be a serious mistake to discard the character and instead promoted him to a leading role. In his first Emmy speech Paul even references the fact that Gilligan almost killed him off.

Breaking Bad became a huge success amongst both critics and audiences, and is now considered one of the all time great shows. The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) awarded Gilligan four times in a row from 2012-2014, three times for writing and one for directing. The Director’s Guild of America (DGA) awarded him for his outstanding direction in the series finale “Felina.” The DGA posted an incredibly detailed analysis of one of the episode’s best scenes, which you can find here to really understand the deservedness of Gilligan’s win. Gilligan is now a member of both the WGA and DGA.

What also potentially allowed Breaking Bad to survive the writer’s strike was that Gilligan acted as both director and writer, with complete control over the project. During the strike, “the tension between the WGA and the DGA mirrored the age-old professional tensions between writers and directors” (Littleton 28). This conflict between the two most important creative figures behind the scenes in filmmaking can lead to the demise of even the most promising project. But as showrunner, these are issues Gilligan need not be concerned with. Though the writer’s strike may have had a negative effect on many big budget studio productions, it was ultimately beneficial in the long run to one of television’s most acclaimed dramas. Without it El Camino would not have existed, the compelling relationship and drama between Walt and Jesse would be lost, and none of these many wonderful Jesse Pinkman moments would exist!

Sources

Littleton, Cynthia. TV on Strike: Why Hollywood Went to War over the Internet. Syracuse University Press, 2013.

MacFarland, Kevin. “The writers’ strike of 2007-08 changed Breaking Bad for the better.” The A.V. Club, 6 August 2013, https://tv.avclub.com/the-writers-strike-of-2007-08-changed-breaking-bad-for-1798239848. 3 October 2019.

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