It’s all there. And none of it’s there.
As I talked about on the Pilot Study Podcast, the Breaking Bad pilot tells you everything you need to know to watch and understand the series. It gives you Walter White, the down-on-his-luck, spineless high school chemistry teacher who’s sleepwalking his way through life. It gives you the hint of an interest and a talent within him that goes unnoticed and unregarded by everyone around him. It gives you Skyler and Walt Jr., Hank and Marie, Jesse Pinkman and so many other figures who make up his world, with just enough color to get a sense for who they are. It gives you the cancer diagnosis that ignites something in Walt, that causes him to take control of his life. And it gives you the sense of the consequences of that change and that choice, the subtle transformation that sets him on a different trajectory.
But what isn’t present, what’s barely even hinted at in this first installment, is where that slow-burning transformation will take him. That’s the beauty of Breaking Bad, and it’s devotion to the idea of change embodied in Walt’s speech about chemistry. We see the first chemical reaction here, the catalyst that sends a lowly science teacher down a new path. We see brief sketches of his wife, his brother-in-law, and his new, less-than-reputable business partner. But we can’t see how much these individuals, and our view of them, will shift and flip over the ensuing five seasons of one of television’s all-time great dramas.
This pilot gives you everything you need to dip your toe into the world of Breaking Bad, but only gives the slightest hints as to how deep and how dark the water goes.
What’s remarkable, then, is how complete the episode feels. The pilot offers enough to pique your interest in where Walt’s meth-making escapades will go from here, and teases how this change in personality will affect his home and work life. But if Breaking Bad had never been picked up, if it had remained a noble but isolated attempt to push back against the enforced stasis of television, it would still work as a fully-formed short story — with a beginning, a middle, and an end — about a man finding strength in his newfound willingness to transgress, and the change that spurs in him.
The pilot also features plenty of the formal audaciousness that would come to define the series. As much as Breaking Bad in general, and its first episode in particular, are character studies, they’re also chock full of visuals that help set the mood and tell the story, with an attention to detail rarely seen elsewhere on television at the time. It can be as simple as the way this episode constantly contrasts the dusky colors of the show’s Southwestern setting, with the neon hues of smoke wafting out of a winnebago, or on tricked-out cars rolling into the frame, or from blaring fire trucks screeching by our would-be hero. That simple visual juxtaposition — of the extreme and garish in a sea of the natural and subdued, works as a metonym for this first outing.
That same sensibility is present in the very first scene of the series. The pilot opens on images of utter tranquility and beauty, as Vince Gilligan treats the audience to gorgeous shots of the New Mexico desert. Suddenly, that tranquility is shattered as a ramshackle RV comes bursting into the frame, and that beauty is replaced by the images of bodies jolting like ragdolls and a paunchy, middle-aged man in his underwear. It’s the heaven and hell of the series, the quiet reflection and the bombastic drama, all in miniature, all in the opening minutes of the show’s very first installment.
That visual focus is not just the result of those striking images; it’s the language Breaking Bad uses to establish its world and its characters. No one ever comments that Walt has wasted his potential; we just see him looking at a decades-old award on the wall while he uses an exercise machine, seemingly ordered from the home shopping network, in a modest, wood-paneled spare bedroom. No one ever states that Walt has little respect at home or in the world at large; we just see him scrubbing hubcaps on his knees while the chemistry student he’d chastised earlier snickers and snaps pictures of him. There is remarkably little exposition in Breaking Bad’s first episode. The pilot simply offers the audience these images, these representative vignettes from Walt’s life, and lets us piece the rest together.
The picture the pilot paints is a pathetic one, but also a sympathetic one, of a man who has been so ground down into nothing by his life and everyone around him that he’s not even saddened at the news he has cancer. There’s Coen Bros.-esque comedy to Walt being given what amounts to a death sentence, and yet only being able to fixate on the mustard stain on his doctor’s lapel. Walt isn’t crestfallen at the prospect of his impending demise; he’s freed by it. After the scenes of domestic and professional degradation that creator Vince Gilligan and his team present in the lead-up to Walt’s diagnosis, the prospect of no longer being constrained by all of that — the sense that the limited time remaining gives Walt the license and the spark to take chances and assert himself for the first time in what seems like years, if not decades — is more triumphant than tragic.
It’s also striking how much of that transition is coded with maleness. As Walt slowly descends into darkness later in the series, he becomes an avatar of toxic masculinity, dripping with a sense of entitlement and abuse of anyone who’d stand in his way. It’s noteworthy, then, that when we first meet Walt, he isn’t just pitiable and powerless — he is emasculated.
In the first half of the episode, Walt’s wife is clearly the head of the household rather than him, flipping the usual gender norms. When Walt holds his brother-in-law’s gun, Hank cracks jokes about his lack of manliness and the sheepish way he handles it. And the ultimate indignity, the episode implies, comes when Skylar cannot even be bothered to look up from her laptop or avoid quashing Walt’s weekend plans while fulfilling his sexual needs on his birthday, with a desultory attempt that leaves Walt physically and spiritually impotent. These are all badges of maleness — being a patriarch, signaling manliness to other guys’ guys like Hank, and performing in the bedroom — where Walt falters.
But after his transformation, Walt suddenly reclaims these badges. He finds a new way to provide for his family. He shows a willingness to resort to violence to defend himself and his loved ones. And in the episode’s final moments, he deflects Skylar’s questions about his whereabouts and wordlessly imposes his sexual advances. There’s something more than a little uncomfortable in how this opening episode frames these moments as triumphs, as commendable signs of a re-masculated transformation. But that feeling is obviated by how far the show would go to demonstrate that the impulses unleashed here would lead to so much pain and harm to those poor souls unfortunate enough to be caught in Walt’s orbit.
That’s the cinch of Breaking Bad’s pilot. It lures you into rooting for Walter White. It presents a man whose wants and desires are squelched by everyone and everything around him. He is a helpless creature, unseen and unrespected, smacked down by life at every turn. And yet something as normally devastating as a cancer diagnosis becomes his awakening.
Suddenly, he is capable of acting, of going after what he wants, of asserting himself despite the years of pressure to stay quiet and keep his head down. When he bucks against those pressures, when he finds a place, however fraught it may be, where his immense talents are finally appreciated and allowed to flourish, we see him realize that squandered potential. We see him find a path to taking care of his family, of becoming a stronger, more fulfilled person, and we cannot help but be compelled by the prospect of his recovery, if not from his disease, then from the stupor in which he lurches from day to day when we first meet him.
And yet chemistry, as Walt himself puts it, is not just about one isolated change. It’s about the continuing rhythms and reactions, the way that different elements combine or break apart, and the divergent results, stitched and hewn, produced in their wake. It’s all there in the first episode of Breaking Bad — the beginning of that reaction, the trajectory of Walter’s awakening, the premise that would drive the show and make it one of television’s biggest critical and popular sensations.
But the exponential results of that change, the places this seemingly-laudable, newfound sense of pride and purpose would take Walter White, the unintended consequences that spill out from one small collection of over-dividing cells, would reveal just how little we knew of that meek man, crumpling in his underwear and gas mask, when we witnessed his first hour on the screen.