Greatest TV Pilots: ‘Breaking Bad,’ bringing a commonplace family man into a vast, seedy criminal underworld

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Breaking Bad, Season 1, “Pilot”
Directed by Vince Gilligan
Written by Vince Gilligan
Originally aired, January 20, 2008

Who is Walter White, really? As we careen ever closer to the final eight episodes of the best drama currently airing on television, AMC’s Breaking Bad, it’s fair to assume we no longer have to ponder the answer to that question too deeply. When its pilot aired in January of 2008, however, we were presented with a man of extremes. On one side of the spectrum, Walter White was a milquetoast high-school chemistry teacher, someone who hoped he could impress upon the youth of Albuquerque, New Mexico the importance of science in the everyday world. He was comically unthreatening, all the way down to his wormy mustache. On the other side of the spectrum, Walter White foiled two fearsome drug dealers the only way he knew how and was ready for an explosive faceoff with the cops, and maybe even the DEA. All in the span of 48 minutes.

Breaking Bad Pilot

Though Breaking Bad’s pilot isn’t anywhere close to its best episode (or the best drama pilot ever made, for that matter), it sets the tone for the entire series excellently. There’s a lot to set up, you’d imagine: how does a law-abiding citizen who can barely hold a gun without acting as if it’s about to blow up in his hand choose to cook crystal meth? Series creator Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed this episode, lays out all the cards smoothly and confidently, even after indulging in one of the most familiar tricks in the modern-TV-drama playbook, the in medias res opening. (We open with Walter White, wearing nothing but a green dress shirt and underwear, pointing a gun as menacingly as he can at the source of oncoming sirens, after crashing an RV while wearing a gas mask.) Even in that opening, we can detect what have become hallmarks of this pitch-black character study: the contrast of suspense and silliness, as the big glasses Walter wears plus his tighty-whities is hard not to snicker at; the mystery set up in the first five minutes, to be solved somewhere down the line (the second season sets up various mysteries in opening sequences, only to be paid off in the season finale); and the striking if inexplicable imagery, such as Walter’s pants flying in the air, in slow-motion, beautifully filmed and framed. (Michael Slovis, the show’s superlative cinematographer, wasn’t on board for the pilot. Oscar-winner John Toll had the honors this time.)

It may be hard to remember that Walter White, now much closer to Scarface than Mr. Chips (as Gilligan once described the show’s arc), had a long way to go to embrace the darkness bubbling in his soul. Even in this pilot, as well as the following episodes, he’s less spiteful and cruel and more bewildered, totally in over his head. The pilot episode is almost a time capsule, reminding us of a time when Walt’s partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, a jittery live-wire from the first episode) was the one who had more control, if only because he knew the world of drug-dealing more than his old chemistry teacher did. This is a period when Walt was weak, and only began to attempt to reassert his masculinity and dominance in a world that had written him off as being bland and spineless. There’s no Los Pollos Hermanos, no airplane, no Jane, no Mike Ehrmantraut, not even Tuco and his mute uncle Tio. Walter White is a conflicted man in the pilot. The Walter White we know now, the man who so freely lies to everyone around him including himself about the terrible deeds he commits or has committed, would look at the Walter White of the pilot and squash him like a bug.

Breaking Bad season 1 ep 1

The shift in Walter’s character can be equally attributed to the sterling writing from Gilligan and the rest of his staff, as well as to the justly lauded lead performance by Bryan Cranston. Cranston, so gleefully cartoonish on the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, has won countless awards for his work here, and why not? Cranston’s greatest skill on the show, and he has many, is visualizing what it looks like to watch emotions roiling under the surface, this close to spilling over and destroying everything possible. Because it’s just the pilot episode, there’s maybe not as much time for us to see Cranston run the emotional gamut as he’s done in the other 53 episodes that have aired as of now. But Walter’s choice, after finding out that he has inoperable lung cancer and only a few years to live (if he’s lucky), to get into the crystal meth trade so that he provides for his family still makes enough sense, largely due to Cranston’s performance.

The rest of the episode is equally stellar, rarely taking a moment to breathe. The pacing is so fast and the stakes so clear, so that the pilot emphasizes for us the urgency that will be present in every hour. Even if many of the show’s most beloved supporting characters or settings don’t make even a cameo appearance in the pilot, Breaking Bad’s opening episode is an impressive promise that’s been paid off in spades so far. Even if—God forbid—the show’s finale this September ends up disappointing people even a little bit, it’s safe to assume that Breaking Bad started on the right foot, with a clear vision of bringing a commonplace family man into a vast, seedy criminal underworld.

— Josh Spiegel

This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.  




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