Breaking Bad S1E1: “Pilot”

Directed by Vince Gilligan  |  Written by Vince Gilligan  |  58 min    

9.3 / 10

Written by Colin Hart

The first thing we see is the barren desert of backwoods Albuquerque. The next thing we see is an RV screaming down a dusty road with the sound of blaring sirens in the distance. The frantic driver is wearing only tighty-whities and a gas mask. His three traveling companions are either dead or unconscious.

After crashing the RV into a ditch, the driver — a regular-looking guy played by Malcolm in the Middle’s Bryan Cranston — grabs a gun and a video camera, makes a tearful confession to his wife and kids, and then awaits the oncoming sirens with his pistol drawn.

It’s a thrilling sequence. It also happens pre-credits. Has any television show started with a bigger bang than the first five minutes of Breaking Bad? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another series that hooked me quite this quick.

Breaking Bad

The rest of the pilot takes place a few days earlier, showing us the unlikely circumstances that led to the desert shootout. After getting our first glimpse of Walter White’s everyday life, it’s hard to fathom how he got there.

Every aspect of Walt’s life is unremarkable. He just turned 50. His son has cerebral palsy. His wife gives the worst handjobs of all time. His salary as a high school chemistry teacher is so bad that he has to work a second job at a car wash. Worst of all, he has just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Two years to live, at best.

Instead of continuing this depressive lifestyle, Walt decides that it’s finally time to start living. After learning how much money can be made selling crystal meth, he asks his brother-in-law, Hank, a DEA agent, to take him on a ride along. Walt watches them bust a meth lab run by a former student, Jesse Pinkman, who narrowly escapes.

The next day, Walt tracks Jesse down and makes him an offer he can’t refuse — crystal meth business partners. With Jesse’s street smarts, or lack thereof, and Walt’s profound knowledge of chemistry, they can make a potent enterprise that will drive all other competitors out of the market.

This is more or less how they end up in a crashed RV with two dead Mexicans in the middle of the desert. Walt thinks this is the end. That’s why he makes the video confession. But because this is a pilot, he should know that the main character is never in grave danger. That’s why the sirens turn out to be firetrucks. And the gun he points directly at the audience is never fired.

And the gun he pulls on himself doesn’t have a bullet in the chamber.

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Breaking Bad has tremendous action, that goes without saying, but it also has great emotional depth as well. That’s what sets it apart from most any other TV show, save for The Sopranos and maybe Game of Thrones at its best. No other series is as purely cinematic as Breaking Bad.

The entire pilot episode is pretty much like a one-hour movie, written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan. But the episode wouldn’t be half as good without the acting of Bryan Cranston. His performance is as addictive as the crystal meth he cooks.

Cranston had previously been best known for his role as Hal, the goofy father on the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. Aside from that, he had a couple memorable performances as Dr. Tim Whatley on Seinfeld. Cranston was great in comedic supporting roles. But no one knew he was capable of something like this.

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As a pilot episode, “Breaking Bad” is one of the best in TV history. Very few shows have gotten off to such a scorching hot start. Then again, very few shows are as good as Breaking Bad.

Vince Gilligan and Bryan Cranston together created an American masterpiece. Everything the entire series represents is displayed right here in the pilot — Walt’s motivations are clear right from the start.

Just like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad wants to ask, “Can people change?” Unlike The Sopranos, Breaking Bad examines this question in reverse — breaking from good to bad. Deep down, is everyone capable of terrible things? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even though Breaking Bad’s first season was shortened to seven episodes due to the 2008 Writers Strike, it is still an essential aspect of the show’s enduring legacy. The pilot starts the series at an unbelievable peak. But the real greatness is Breaking Bad’s ability to sustain such excitement.

It’s probably the most consistent TV show of all time.

Chemical Bonds 

-Let it be known that Walter White did attempt to kill himself in the pilot. That’s important to remember moving forward. He truly hates himself, even at this early stage in the series.

-Vince Gilligan said this about creating a TV show: “Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades. When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is toward change?”

– Gilligan had previously worked with Bryan Cranston on an episode of The X-Files back in 1998. When choosing to cast Cranston as Walter White, Gilligan said: “Bryan was the only actor who could [be simultaneously loathsome and sympathetic]. Bryan was the only actor who could pull off that trick. And it is a trick. I have no idea how he does it.”

-Flashes of Heisenberg: “Fuck you! And your eyebrows!” Also, using a phosphine explosion to kill two angry Mexicans.

-The character of Jesse may initially come off as annoying, but he is the perfect counterpoint to Walter White’s at-times insufferable rationality. Actor Aaron Paul deserves just as much credit as Cranston.

-Walter’s wife, Skyler, is one of the most hated female characters in all of TV fandom. That’s actually a compliment. Actress Anna Gunn knows how to give her the right amount of bitchiness and congeniality.

-Likewise, Walter Jr. is one of the most hated TV sons, joining AJ Soprano and Bobby Draper. Nevertheless, you love to see his dad sticking up for him, as when Walt beats the shit out of a school bully in the middle of a department store.

-The pilot still has its missteps; it isn’t “perfect.” There’s a lot more nudity and profanity, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but it feels out of place with the rest of the show. Also, Hank is kind of a huge asshole.

-The ending, featuring Walt having rough sex with Skyler, isn’t on par with your typical Breaking Bad conclusion, either.

“There are… there are going to be some things, things that you’ll come to learn about me in the next few days. I just want you to know that, no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart. Goodbye.”

“Chemistry is, well technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.”

“Walt, is that you?”

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