Breaking Bad: (Under The) Influences

Years before Breaking Bad came on the air, there were two shows that were influential in its formation: the Homicide: Life on the Street “Subway” episode, and the X-Files “Drive” episode. All three shows are interconnected.

Homicide: Life on the Street: “Subway”

See it. Just see it.

Pretty much flawless.

Homicide: Life on the Street was a gritty police procedural that ran from 1993–1999. In the “Subway” episode, which aired in 1997 and was written by James Yoshimura, Vincent D’Onofrio of Law and Order: Criminal Intent fame appears on the show as John Lange, a man trapped between the subway and the platform either by accident or wrongdoing. Andre Braugher, a regular on the show, plays Detective Pembleton, who simultaneously comforts the victim while investigating the case. Their dialogue is moody and tense. The conclusion is all but foregone. We can’t imagine that Lange will survive. Nevertheless, everyone is still feverishly working to save him. Other detectives are looking for his girlfriend, jogging in the neighborhood. D’Onofrio is mesmerizing. He is at turns unlikable, empathetic, angry, calm, manic. His character is irritated that they won’t let him eat. He flips between demanding a burger to begging that they not remove his legs. The flare of hope he exhibits at the end is heartbreaking. The effect it has on Braugher’s character is also extremely convincing. The force and turbulence of D’Onofrio’s character is perfectly balanced with the calm of Andre Braugher’s character. Despite this episode being largely based on dialogue, it is extremely intense. It won a Peabody and was nominated for two Emmy awards.

X-Files: “Drive”:

See it if you don’t mind a little hokey atmosphere

Subtract a few points for predictable government conspiracy.

Vince Gilligan wrote the X-Files episode of “Drive” as well as Breaking Bad. In “Drive”, Bryan Cranston, who later goes on to play Walter White in Breaking Bad, plays a man named Crump who is forced to drive west at ever higher speeds lest a vibration in his inner ear cause his head to explode. Mulder had just seen this happen to Crump’s wife, so he is inclined to believe something unusual is going on. However, before he can investigate further, Crump takes Mulder hostage — a morally questionable judgment that you can see echoed in Breaking Bad — and forces him to drive west.

As the episode unfolds, we see elements of typical X-Files government conspiracy. A government-based radio transmitter had recently issued a noise near Crump’s home that is likely the cause of the infection. Although Scully was getting closer to a cure, the majority of the episode focused on Mulder’s stressful drive west with Crump. Mulder is sympathetic to the Crump, but Crump starts out extremely distrustful and dangerous. Crump accuses Mulder of being part of the Jewish conspiracy as well as the evil government. Crump is a racist gun-wielding jerk, insisting on being called “Mr.” Crump.

Regardless, Mulder goes all out to help this guy. Either because he knows this is Crump’s dying hour, or because he does not want Crump to be the victim of an giant government conspiracy, Mulder is nice to him. Mulder does not want this unpleasant man to die. He finds ways of driving west despite several obstacles.

“Well, on behalf of the International Jewish Conspiracy I just need to inform you that we’re almost out of gas.” Mulder says this gently, friendly. Unable to fill up at the pump quickly enough, Mulder steals a car and continues west with Crump in tow.

One might think there is nothing to like about Crump. However over the course of his dialogue with Mulder, Crump warms up. This echoes the way in which John Lange warmed up to Detective Pembleton in “Subway”. Crump shares a story of his morning breakfast with his wife. Crump reveals his very human fear of losing his life. We begin to empathize. Like Walter White in Breaking Bad, he’s definitely got some good and bad in him.

“Drive” and “Subway”:

  • The majority of the episode focuses on intense dialogue between one man trying to save another.
  • Lange/Crump are trapped in dire, near-death circumstance.
  • Changing their circumstances puts them in worse danger.
  • Lange/Crump are angry, distrustful and out of control at first.
  • Lange/Crump seem doomed except maybe for the flare of hope right before the end.
  • There is a grotesque element to the plot: exploding head, man pinned under subway.
  • There is a flare of hope right before the tragic end.
  • This is not Lange/Crump’s fault.
  • Police initially weren’t sure who was responsible for the crime.
  • Mulder/Pembleton walk away deeply saddened.

“Drive” and Breaking Bad:

  • Same intense writing by Vince Gilligan.
  • Crump and White are both dying (at least initially, in Walter White’s case).
  • Crump and White are in a race against time.
  • Crump and White are in dire circumstances to save themselves or their families.
  • Crump and White make morally questionable judgments.
  • Crump and White will kill in desperation.
  • Crump and White have an unstoppable energy.

Breaking Bad:

See it if you can handle the violence

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