4 Days Out: The Importance of Small Character Moments


Breaking Bad 4 Days Out Episode

Arguably one of the toughest processes in writing a TV show is character development. You not only have to establish a complete arc for a character, but you also need to find logical ways to progress their development and be able to maintain a steady pace of development for a much longer runtime than say in a book or film. TV shows also have multiple climaxes within a story so the pacing of the development is key. An often overlooked aspect of character building is the small moments in between the larger ones, but small character moments can be extremely effective if used correctly.


A TV show that does this extremely well is none other than Breaking Bad, the closest I have seen to a perfect TV show. In regards to character development, Breaking Bad provides us with a masterclass of pacing. While many major character moments happen at the climax such as Season 1’s “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” and Season 5’s “Dead Freight,” the show never shies away from showing the audience quiet yet powerful moments. When Jesse Pinkman takes care of the kid in “Peekaboo,” it may not have explosions or a ludicrous body count, but it’s incredibly effective in building out Jesse’s character. These quiet moments should never be ignored, because aside from furthering the story, they allow the audience to extrapolate their own ideas of the character without the show explicitly taking a side.


Season 2 Episode 9 of Breaking Bad, “4 Days Out,” has one of the series’ best quiet moments all culminating from the events of not only the episode as a whole, but the protagonist’s transformation through the series thus far. At the beginning of the episode, the series’ protagonist Walter White fears that his lung cancer may be spreading much faster than he originally thought. Realizing that he may not have much time left with his family, Walt convinces his partner Jesse to drive out to the desert with him and engage in a four-day meth cooking marathon to produce enough product to later sell to a larger distributor. At the end of the second day, the two realize that they’ve made over a million dollars worth of meth and celebrate their success. Unfortunately, due to a series of unfortunate events they become stranded in the desert with seemingly no rescue on the horizon, but Walt is able to cheat death and save their hides through the power of science.


When Walt returns home, he and his family go to get an update on the spread of his cancer. Not only has the cancer not spread, but it’s revealed that Walt is in remission. His family is cheering and so excited to hear about the great news, but Walt is noticeably not as enthusiastic as everyone else. 


The camera then follows Walt as he goes to use the bathroom, leading to one of the best moments of the entire series. After he washes his hands and dries them with a paper towel, he catches his reflection in the paper towel dispenser. For a split second he just stares at it, but then proceeds to punch the dispenser for four straight seconds. Walt looks at the dispenser, the dented metal creating a warped and twisted reflection of himself, and exits the bathroom. “Executive Producer: Vince Gilligan.”


In only about 15 seconds, the audience is given a masterpiece of character work that rivals the 50 minutes of pure character growth in “Fly.” Walt should be overjoyed at the news that he might get to watch his unborn daughter grow up, that he can spend more time with his son and attempt to salvage his marriage. He no longer needs this insane amount of cash to secure his family’s future because he will now be a part of it. This character that is so fixated on the future, on his end goal can now live in the here and now, enjoying his life in peace. 


Why then does he smash in the paper towel dispenser? When Walt looks at his reflection in the dispenser – a boring, mundane object – he doesn’t see anything abnormal or strange. He sees what’s next for him: returning to teach high school chemistry with students who disrespect and walk all over him, having to take on a second job to provide for his family, and repeating this every single day for the rest of his life. He sees his old life, a life of quiet indignity. He sees his greatest fear. Walt is angry and scared that he has to return to a life with no excitement for himself and takes it out on the dispenser, warping and distorting his reflection to literally reflect his unambiguous and conflicted path forward.


For Walter White, crime gave him enjoyment and excitement in life. In his own words from the series finale, “I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really… I was alive,” (Felina, 33:37 – 34:00). All of the anguish, grief, and anger from Walt and his immense character change since the series premiere is on full display in a 15 second clip of him punching a paper towel dispenser, truly showing the power of small character moments.