The moment in Breaking Bad that changed everything
The first episode of Breaking Badaired ten years ago. It’s a textbook pilot, setting character and concept into fluid motion. We meet Walter White (Bryan Cranston) at a moment of tremendous action, driving an RV through the desert, recording a videotaped semi-confession, raising a gun toward approaching sirens. Cue credits, cue THREE WEEKS EARLIER chyron. Every good and bad drama pilot after Breaking Bad seems to start this way: Opening scene of violent climax, followed by a flashback that lasts an episode (or a season, or the entire series.)
The first episode is good, and much broader than the series to follow. Walt receives a cancer diagnosis, still an impressively bleak inciting incident a decade into TV’s Apocalypse Chic. But as written and directed by creator Vince Gilligan, that apparent death sentence is just the most obvious link in the chain of Walt’s Charlie Brown-esque life. He’s trying hard at his day job, but when Walt’s teaching, Gilligan’s camera lingers on a bored student, flirting through science class. The kid’s named Chad (Evan Bobrick), like every jock in every ’80s movie. He reappears at Walt’s afternoon job, driving his Corvette to the car wash, cackling while his chemistry teacher scrubs the tires clean.
In Walt’s own home, a surprise birthday party becomes an invasion. His brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is as much an alpha bro as Walt is the bespectacled beta. And Walt’s descent into the criminal underbelly is a marvel of brevity: He sees former student Jesse (Aaron Paul) fleeing a crime scene, they go into business, some real bad guys bother them, death and RV-crashing and whitey-tighty gun-brandishing ensue. I don’t want to mitigate the achievement here. A guy turns 50, gets cancer, and starts cooking meth: This wouldn’t fly on a broadcast network, was pretty freaky for cable, and is now the sort of cool concept Amazon would liquidate to make room for Lord of the Rings.
But look back from 2018, and the moment I always remember isn’t in the pilot. It’s the start of the second episode, “Cat’s in the Bag….” We’ve seen Walt return home from a day of death and destruction, and pick up with him mid-coitus with wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), but then there’s another flashback: To the pilot, actually. Because what do you do with a crashed RV? And how do you dispose of dead bodies? And what happens if one of those bodies isn’t all-the-way dead?
We see Walt and Jesse, awkwardly paying a man to pull their RV out of a ditch. There is some light comedy as they try to explain their predicament: How they wound up here, why Walt isn’t wearing any pants. Darker humor awaits inside the RV, where Emilio (John Koyama) and Krazy-8 (Maximino Arciniega) lie dead from inhaling phosphine gas. That death was a pleasant shock in the pilot, an indication that Gilligan had thought hard about the special set of skills a chemistry teacher would bring into a crime show. It was thrilling, and you could see a whole version of Breaking Bad that played out like that every episode: Walt as MacGyver by way of Tarantino, periodic tabling his way through the Albuquerque underworld.
But the real fun of Breaking Bad would be its careful storytelling, not so much detail-oriented as detail-obsessed. In the flashback scene, we see Walt grab the video camera and destroy the videotape. He’s meticulous, but not meticulous enough. He doesn’t see his gas mask, left behind in the desert, the first clue Hank will find that begins the series-long Mystery of Heisenberg. And his murder method wasn’t clean enough. There’s the sound of someone moving from the rear of the RV. Krazy-8 is still alive. This is the moment that defines Breaking Bad, I think: The revelation that Walt’s apparently simple actions have unforeseen consequences. It seemed easy and justified to kill a man in self-defense, in the heat of a dangerous moment — but what about now, when he’s held prisoner, when Walt doesn’t even want to be a criminal anymore?
From 2000 onward, so many dramas (and many comedies) would make bold storytelling choices, sometimes violent or fatal. But so many of those shows would undercut those shocks, reveal them as empty gestures. The deaths could be cool, yes, but they’d be so clean. Beautifully shot as Breaking Bad was, it was fascinated with the chaos Walter’s actions would cause.
Actually, it takes two whole episodes to clean up the pilot’s mess. Walt and Jesse take Krazy-8 to Jesse’s house and stash him in the basement. What they do to Emilio’s body is unspeakable — and hilariously grotesque, because Jesse doesn’t even try to be meticulous. What happens to Krazy-8 forms the big plot thing of the third episode, “…And the Bag’s in the River,” practically a one-act play about morality and mortality. And it’s another two episodes before Walt even wants to cook meth again. A slow burn, but Breaking Bad‘s patience makes so many pretenders look synthetic by comparison. After you watch that opening scene from the second episode, so many other drama deaths seem cheap. You always wonder where the bodies go.
And now, because it’s the tenth anniversary of Breaking Bad, treasure these episode posters crafted by my former EW colleague Jef Castro, and argue anew about EW’s definitive ranking of every Breaking Bad episode.
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.