Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure

Asked whether he had predicted that Breaking Bad would become such a huge success, creator Vince Gilligan answered: “I didn’t expect that. The show had all the ingredients of failure.”

His answer raises three questions:

1) Was the answer more than a throwaway comment?

2) If there is any weight behind this claim, how come the show broke through with such impact?

3) If the phenomenon is real, does it affect other storytellers as well?

When I got the DVD set this summer and started to catch up, I noticed many details that all of YouTube, and the wonderful Honest Trailer video, didn’t convey. This got me thinking, and lead me to the following conclusions:

1) “Ingredients Of Failure” does not only describe the premise of Breaking Bad, and in large part the character arc of Walter White, but also many plot lines, scenes, characters, and stylistic decision on the show.

2)  Breaking Bad achieved success because the creators brought to play a unique combination of Courage, Conscience, Creativity, and Care (Did I miss out on any more words with C’s?)

3) Many storytelling successes depended on the four C’s to cook with the ingredients of failure

One of the all-time most interesting examples of “Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure” is the making of the movie The Silence Of The Lambs.

  • After several false starts the movie rights ended up with a company that assigned it a fairly small budget.
  • After some favorite actors declined, the director, who had only done comedies up to that point, wanted to cast Antony Hopkins as Lecter, whom the producers didn’t want, and the producers wanted to cast Jodie Foster as Starlin, whom the director didn’t want. So they made an artistic compromise and cast both of them.
  • The male lead actor, Hopkins, is slightly more than fifteen minutes on screen in a ninety minutes movie.
  • When the movie was finally ready, the distributor cancelled its 1990 slot, so it got shifted to February 14th, 1991. What was considered a horror movie back then – today, it’s just a quite dark thriller – became, to all intents and purposes, that years “date movie”.
  • While the movie focused strongly on the psychological drama aspect of the novel, to the extent that it became even better in this aspect than the novel, it totally mismanages the details-focused manhunt thriller part. Seriously, don’t you think that the entire part between the cage scene and the doorbell scene is utterly ridiculous? I will discuss this, before the year is over, in a post on Terminating With Extreme Prejudice.

So how did they do it? Wonderful acting of the main cast, great directing, excellent camera work, cool editing (“and what is he?” – “oh, he is a monster” / “ring, ring” “we’re going in” – “ring, ring, riiiiiiing” “Hi, I’m Clarice Starling, I’m with the FBI”) and inventive production design, all focused on the core psychological drama and its dire implications. Did I miss anything?

And for my personal taste, even the fantastic novel that movie is based on contains elements of failure: I don’t want to read about serial killers, cannibals, or people getting flayed, and still, The Silence Of The Lambs is my very favorite novel. I will tell you why, among other things, in next week’s post Digging Your Grave One Shovel At A Time.

I also don’t like stories with superheroes, godlike villains, and world-fate-deciding McGuffins. But I really love the movie Guardians Of The Galaxy.

I dislike funny ears on humans, except, of course, those of Quantum Vibe‘s main protagonist Nicole Oresme (they are NSFW, mind you), so I’m not especially fond of alien designs based on them, on tails, or any other funny additions to the human body, but I think the webcomic Opportunities In Space is awesome. Look at this page.

And if I’m not a fan of talking cacti, I enjoy Girls With Slingshots anyway, because I am a fan of secret weapons, and those of protagonists Hazel “The Lush” and Jamie “The Rack” are listed as Disdain and Tank Tops, respectively. What’s not to like about these?

Note: I will discuss GotG , QV, OiS, and maybe even GwS, in future posts.

Neither do I have any interest in stories about ghosts or genetically modified smart-ass animals, except, of course, Rocket Racoon, but one of my favorite Webcomics is A Girl And Her Fed, which features one of the latter and literally millions of the former.

Before I discuss more specific examples, please be aware that there will be spoilers for Breaking Bad and A Girl And Her Fed, and act accordingly.

Now, if you are well prepared, or if you don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss.

When creator K. B. Spangler started A Girl And Her Fed, her ability to draw did not even include eyes, but she got better at drawing really fast. Later on, especially in book two, she became so good that talking about ingredients of failure becomes a moot point. Plus, she provides excellent fanservice, of the finest variety, drawing attractive men and women like you will see in your own life – provided you frequent the right social circles.

How did K.B. cook success? (BTW, what do you think?)

  • Great dialog: Each character has a specific voice, and the interaction between them is funny, without undermining the seriousness (drama).
  • Each character has its own personality and its own agenda, there is no simple black-and-white, in most cases, but people working at cross-purpose from different intentions.
  • Most of the characters are caricatures of reality, but this comes from overemphasis of realistic human attributes, rather than from unrealistic base points:
    • The Girl can see ghosts, which allows her to be a personal friend of Benjamin Franklin, as ell as some other ghosts, which she thoroughly enjoys. She’s is a martial arts experts, and prone to taking it up with thugs and setting men on fire.
    • Her Fed is a Federal agent who was part of a secret program, and was transformed into a cyborg, which helps him to also befriend Benjamin Franklin’s ghost.
    • They fight a lot, initially, and hook up, eventually. This romantic storyline is very well executed and perfectly integrated into the drama and action.
    • One of the villains is a batshit crazy, sociopathic woman, who hates her name, Clarice Finch, for obvious reasons, and prefers to go by agent 146. She’s referred to as “da fed chick with da rack” once. That she could actually become an FBI agent, even though Quantico does extensive background checks on applicants, is addressed in the comic. The is quite the sharp dresser, and could easily work for Lockhart Gardner.
  • Good plotting and pacing
    • The overall, strategic plot does meander and detour a lot and the global pacing is slowing down at places. You might, of course, call this epic storytelling and claim it a feature rather than a fault.
    • The individual sequences, however, are masterfully done. Plotting and pacing are perfectly adapted to the specific sequence (action, drama, mystery, romance, comedy).
      • Switching between these different storylines never feels disrupting or jarring.
      • They feed into each other and support each other very well.
      • Many action scenes are especially well paced.

Similar techniques are use to optimum effect by the creators (writers, directors, actors, everyone) of Breaking Bad. Let’s look at some specific examples (up unto halfway through the series):

  •  One of my favorite minor characters, respective most respected support cast actors, is Donald Margolis, the father of Jesse’s girlfriend Jane. He causes an air crash after his daughter dies. This spells MELODRAMA in big letters, doesn’t it, and can therefore only lead to failure? But the excellent performance, within a ridiculously small amount of screen time scattered over a couple episodes, nails the character.
    • The most heartbreaking five seconds of the whole series – first half, at least – is in my opinion the picture of him in the media coverage montage in the teaser of the season three premiere.
    • The question of whether a single human failure could indeed cause such an accident is lampshaded in-world; Walt blames the government.
  • Hector Salamancas performance is excellent, both in the more comical interrogation scene, as in the rather dramatic attempted poisoning scene.
  • The main female characters, Skyler and Marie, etc. all do a great job, sometimes taking over the drivers role that the men consider reserved for themselves
    • There is also a nice contrast between the relationship of Hank and Marie, who can talk things trough, even PTSD, and that of Walt and Skyler, who can not.
  • It is fun to watch how Jesse switches between the junior, who is berated by Walt for his stupidity, and the boss, who sometimes uses Walt’s very words to teach his minions
  • Walt’s moral downward spiral is shown in many different way, arranged with much creativity
    • The scene where Walt crushed Gretchen with his terrible attitude in their one-on-one discussion not only has Walter displaying an unfathomable meanness towards someone who is understanding and helpful to a fault. It is also unbelievable idiotic: This guy is married to the hottest MILF to be found in all Albuquerque, if not New Mexico, and still holds on to a grudge caused by having been shot down by a rather frumpy woman. And if it is unbelievable, it is at the same time totally believable: That’s the Walter White we know.
    • It is also remarkable what does not happen: Walter never cheats on Skyler, despite one pathetic attempt after he got I.F.T.ed by her. He was already evil enough.
  •  I love the Happy birthday, dear Mr. President (of Beneke Fabricators Incorporated)  scene. Look at the men and women in the background, how they are smitten by Skyler.
  • There are many scenes that could came directly from a sitcom, but they are executed so true to the characters that they never undermine the drama.
    • The Intervention scene with the Talking Pillow is absolutely hilarious, with an undercurrent of drama that just explodes when Marie takes over.
    • And the family breakfast is the running gag that highlights the state of the family and the couples relationship with astonishing precision
  • How can you dare to use an actual music video – the ballad of Heisenberg – as an episode teaser? Sounds like a stupid idea, works beautifully.
  • And of course, the dark, the dramatic, the action scenes are all executed with wonderful, professional precision and keep up the emotions, the color, the very specific Breaking Bad style

Do you have any other examples of Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure?

Now please be advised, that next weeks post, Digging Your Grave One Shovel At A Time, will discuss the novel The Silence Of The Lambs and the webcomic Gravedigger.

Forewarned, forearmed, you have time enough to read, lest you should fall victim to spoilers.



  1. Have you ever seen the Doctor Who episode “A Christmas Carol”? It’s a fantastic episode, yet ever single element it’s built from is TERRIBLE.

    Fog so dense fish can swim in it? Bad idea.

    The Doctor altering history willy-nilly, throwing every established rule of time travel out the window? Preposterous. Plus, it destroys the entire continuity of the show.

    The sonic screwdriver is bitten in half, yet years later the two halves not only still function but can communicate with each other? Insane!

    A woman with a voice so beautiful it can control the weather? Worst idea ever!

    A flying shark pulling a flying horse-cart? I was wrong, THIS is the worst idea ever.

    And yet… IT ALL WORKS. I don’t know how, but somehow all these terrible ideas come together to form one of my favorite episodes of all time. I really can’t explain how that’s possible.


    1. Sadly, I’ve never seen Doctor Who. In my teenage years I depended on the rather limited official German 3-channel offering for my TV exposure, which to my best knowledge never featured the good doctor.

      From what you write, it’s indeed an excellent example of Cooking Success With The Ingredients Of Failure, and also illustrates why this is a fascinating topic.

      Thanks for calling in.

      PS: Funny how this is the second time in a week someone mentions Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol to me, after this comment on the Drive webcomic.


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