I decided to do Breaking Bad for my first commentary (I’m going to be saying ‘commentary’ until I come up with a better word) for a couple of reasons. First of all, because it is, in fact, Breaking Bad. Everyone and their brother is watching this show, has it on their watch list, or at the very least has heard good things about it. Second, I had a good experience watching the pilot for the first time. Every few minutes or so I found myself going, “Oh! Oh, I see! So that’s why he decided to cook meth, yes, it all makes sense!” Which is pretty much the main point of a pilot–to take the premise and convince us that it makes sense.
That being said, Breaking Bad has kind of a ridiculously tall order to fill in that department. This episode needs to show us, in forty-five minutes, how an unassuming chemistry teacher can one day make the decision to start cooking meth.
The fact that the episode starts at the end and then flashes back was a great way to go. An RV rattling down the road with a guy in briefs and a gas mask at the wheel? Dead guys and money rolling around in the back? It’s a way better hook than, say, Walt’s birthday party or a nice little scene around the kitchen table. But most importantly, this scene gives us the full experience of Walt’s transformation and lets us carry that in our minds for the rest of the episode. Even within the opening scene, we see Walt put on his shirt and go back to “normal” long enough to leave a message for his family, then point a gun at what he thinks is an oncoming police car within the same couple of minutes.
I got chills a little bit at this part.
Next we get a look at Walt’s not-so-great home life, along with some key character introductions. Walt gets a decent amount of solo time, but we mostly find out about him through his interactions with the people around him. We get Skyler, the type of woman to inflict veggie bacon on her family in the name of health (although in her defense, I’ve had veggie bacon and it’s actually not as bad as it sounds). We get Walter Jr., a relentlessly smart-alecky teenager with cerebral palsy who also drops a comment about the family needing a new hot water heater, giving us some idea of their financial situation.
That teacher’s salary isn’t paying too much, I guess. Walt’s attempt to get a carbon-copy bunch of bored teens excited about chemistry is both a continuation of the Walt’s-boring-life thing and a case of Foreshadowing with a capital F. Ah, chemistry. The study of change. Molecules changing into compounds, matter changing its state, chemistry teachers changing into kingpins…Wait, was that last one out loud?
Maybe he’s having a vision of the season finale.
Too blatant? Well, to be fair, I had this one pointed out to me. I think the rule of thumb when writing this kind of thing is to leave it up to the beta readers. If someone who has no connection to or background information on your story thinks it’s too much, chances are it’s too much.
The scene at the car wash is important because it sets the stage for Walt’s later meltdown to his fearsomely eyebrowed boss. What we see here is a man who isn’t just struggling with a few particulars in life but is being actively put upon by the people around him, whether it be his boss or those two giggling teenagers who snapped a picture of him. Later on Facebook: “Hey, who knew Mr. White had a second job? Apparently he has to wash cars to make ends meet! Lol.”
The question now isn’t why he snapped but why he didn’t snap right here and now.
Talk about your daily grind. Surely there has to be some high point in this day, right? Something dramatic like a surprise birthday party, maybe? Wrong. From the moment Walt gets scared out of his wits coming through his own front door, this celebration of being one year closer to death is presented to us in pretty much the worst way possible. Walt, who’s hit the big 5-0 and is almost certainly ruminating on the fact that he isn’t doing very much with his life (even, say, setting up a meth lab would be an improvement at this point–hint hint), doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself at all. As far as social interactions are concerned, he’s continuously upstaged by women talking about mundane woman-type stuff (okay, okay, and the baby–that’s pretty cool) and his brash, gun-wielding, more-manly-than-you-can-ever-hope-to-be brother-in-law.
And speaking of Hank, on my second viewing of this episode I noticed with some interest that the shot while he delivers his first line is focused not on him but on his handgun. I wasn’t able to verify whether this was a writer decision or a director decision because this scene is completely different in the only version of the script that I could find online, but the first sentence out of his mouth is also the name of the gun, so we literally have a picture of the gun and the name of the gun and then we actually see the face of the person holding it.
“Say hello to my little friend!”
Hardly a sympathetic or even humanizing introduction to the character, but that’s the point. We the audience need to have zero liking for Hank right now, given that we’re meant to be rooting for a guy who it will eventually be his job to put in handcuffs. So a stereotypical tough-guy cop it is then.
Too bad Hank doesn’t realize that his insistence on getting everyone to put the birthday celebrations on hold so they can watch his fifteen minutes of fame on the news is helping to put his brother-in-law over the edge. Walt’s reaction to the money is great because it’s subtle yet direct, exactly what you’d expect from this character. Is he asking about the money because that’s a setup that he’s seriously thinking about being a part of? No, and no one at the party reads it that way. He’s just overwhelmed by it–the money and the action. Probably mostly the money, since the sight of shoeboxes full of drug-dealer money bundles can do things to a person even if said person is not a struggling, underpaid chemistry teacher with a family to support.
“I could almost afford a new hot water heater with that kind of cash! And maybe even real bacon!”
As for the action side of it, it’s not hard to figure out. We’ve all been sitting in our mundane lives at some point and pined for some high-flying life style that, if it even is real, is only accessible to a very small percentage of the population. It’s why reality TV exists, not to mention this show.
So yeah, that’s our introduction to Walter White: a day, his fiftieth birthday of all things, that’s a disappointment on so many levels. Skyler tries to start something in bed later on, but the biggest thing that happens in that scene that she makes a sale on eBay. Sex can be used to mean a lot of things, and here it’s a pretty clear-cut reflection of Walt’s mental state and the trend of his life in general. We’ll come back to this later.
The big game-changer–the cancer diagnosis–comes right on cue with a beginning at the close of the first act, and it’s not just dumped on us like have-a-nice-day either. First, Walt collapses on the floor at work and absolutely no one comes to his aid.
He was probably lying there for the entire commercial break.
Then we get to see him being pushed around in a clinical setting by well-meaning medical professionals in a sequence that calls to mind Jorge Luis Borges’s El Sur, for you Argentinian literature buffs who know what I’m talking about. This guy’s lost control over his own destiny–and he knows it–way before anyone breaks the news to him about the cancer.
I didn’t really get the thing with the mustard on the doctor’s lapel until I read the shooting script. There’s a link at the bottom of this page, but basically the action describes Walt as “looking very matter-of-fact…disconcertingly so.” That’s Walt all over. When he does eventually turn to cooking meth, it’s in just this kind of matter-of-fact way.
The news that he’s dying is apparently not enough to distract him from pointing out a mustard stain. What a guy.
When Walt finally snaps, the context for it couldn’t be better. We already hate his boss, and the fact that he’s going to walk all over a guy who’s just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer makes him seem like even more of a jerk than usual. Oh, and did I mention that Walt’s been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer? Yup, he’s only got a couple of years left, apparently. So having a meltdown at work should be a low-cost way to de-stress, right? Right?
“I am breaking so much bad right now!”
Okay, so the tiger’s out of the cage now. Sort of. Walt’s lashed out at someone for probably the first time in his life, but it’s still baby steps at this point. What’s the next step? Going on a vicarious ride-along with Hank, of course.
Which is how Officer Witless winds up handing ammunition to his brother-in-law once again. Walt gets his second brush with the drug trade, and instead of being impressed by manly-man Hank like was probably the idea, he’s only interested in seeing the meth lab–which, as we learn from the phosgene gas comment, he knows more about than the cops do.
“Ha ha, how stupid of these guys to get caught. Now, if it was me…”
This is where the pieces of the puzzle really start falling into place. Walt’s a man of science, a real pragmatist. He’s dying and his family needs money and suddenly he’s presented with this way to apply his skills and make large amounts of money provided he can do so without getting caught. Someone could have literally put up a giant neon sign reading I DON’T KNOW, MAYBE YOU SHOULD COOK METH OR SOMETHING and the choice would not have been clearer.
Oh, and running into Pinkman at the same time? A stroke of luck, but maybe something else as well. I may be reading too much into this (and yes, I do find a place to draw the line with these types of things even if it’s not always the right place), but the fact that one of Walt’s former students is already in the meth business gives him a through-line, a connection, in a way that’s more than just practical. It’s almost like he’s already close to the industry–sort of a “six degrees of separation” type of thing.
So now that everything’s in place, it’s time to drop the bombshell: Walt’s proposal to partner up with Pinkman. Pinkman may be skeptical, but we’re not.
“You want to cook crystal meth? Why?”
“Were you not paying attention to the first thirty minutes of the episode?”
Just to throw into sharp relief how great this new arrangement is financially (and yes, that is the entire reason), we get a quick scene of Skyler and Marie packaging up goods to ship to eBay buyers. It’s like the eBay equivalent of selling boondoggle keychains on Etsy. Not exactly holding a candle to Walt’s, ahem, “business venture.”
The scene where Walt and Jesse discuss the particulars of their enterprise is actually pretty neat. It’s juicy, interesting stuff for those of us who don’t know much about how to cook meth, but other than that, what’s going on here? First, Walt takes Jesse to town on the difference between an Erlenmeyer flask and a boiling flask. Okay, so he really does know his stuff. Then, Jesse lets him know that cooking at either of their houses or in a storage unit are both stupid ideas. Right there we have the relationship. Both of them think they’re superior, but all things considered they’re pretty much equal and they both have things to contribute to this project. It’s crazy enough to work, really.
So given that we’re feeling pretty good at this point about the whole chemist-turned-kingpin thing, you’d think the writers wouldn’t feel the need to justify it to us any more. But they give us one more scene. And it’s pretty glorious.
We know he’s going to be facing a police shootout by the end of the episode, so hopefully a couple of jocks won’t present much of a problem.
The scene where Walt stands up to the bullies who are making fun of his son works really well because it shows us a man who’s willing to go ballistic in a public place if it means protecting his family. Granted, that’s completely normal behavior for a dad, but what really makes it is Skyler and Walter Jr.’s reactions. Remember that they weren’t privy to the incident with the eyebrows guy, so they’re definitely not used to seeing Walt like this. And though they’re surprised, they like it. And he knows they like it.
Anyway, we’re back to meth now, and it looks like Jesse had a big bowl of stupid for breakfast this morning. First he uses the phrase “cow house,” then he thinks, Well, I’m out here cooking meth with my former chemistry teacher. Hey! How about a home video?
“Oh man, this is gonna make me YouTube famous for sure!”
I have a confession to make: I have absolutely no clue why Jesse, who normally seems like a pretty conscientious guy, thought that the camcorder was a good idea or even why he felt the need to have these events on record in the first place. It almost seems like it’s only there so Walt can make his last-message video later on. If anyone has an explanation for this, I’d like to hear it.
What follows is a montage that’s both fun and utilitarian. The writers could have punctuated the scene with dialogue explaining the process, but what we have instead is a music video set to bubbling flasks and chemical drips like something off of the Science Channel. Besides which, Jesse’s feeling a lot better about having Walt as a partner after seeing him in action.
You don’t think he’s going to cry, do you?
It’s an ideal bonding situation, no chemistry pun intended. Getting a guy like Jesse to respect a guy like Walt takes nothing short of…well, nothing short of cooking up one fine batch of meth, apparently.
The scene where Pinkman goes to Krazy-8’s place to try and sell his new product is important for more than just moving the story forward and such. Remember what I said about meeting Walt through the eyes of the people around him? Well, we wouldn’t exactly have a clear picture of Pinkman if we didn’t get to see how he interacts with other low-lifes, as it were. Except it’s pretty clear that these guys are a lot higher up on the food chain than he is–also good to know.
Apparently this whole drug-dealing thing is pretty dangerous. Who knew?
Well, they did a good job setting up the premise and whatnot, but the episode wouldn’t be complete without some kind of major crisis, and it comes in the form of a near-death experience for both of our heroes–followed by a confirmation that Walt is good for more than just balancing chemical equations. The way he deals with Emilio and Krazy-8 makes it clear how he’s going to be handling these types of situations in the future: stoic, calculating, with a dash of chemical know-how and a good dose of ruthlessness.
Which brings us full-circle to the hook at the beginning. By the way, when I first watched this episode, I thought the opener was something that was going to happen at the end of the season–the end of the series, even. I guess I didn’t think that much could change in forty-five minutes, but there you go.
And with a reminder to the audience that things aren’t always as glamorous as they seem, the oncoming sirens turned out to be a fire truck. That’s right–you waited forty-five minutes to see a crack team of firemen put out a brush fire from an unextinguished cigarette. Only you can prevent forest fires, kids.
Hear that? It’s the sound of anticlimax.
As Walt and Pinkman survey the wreckage, Walt observes that they’re going to have to clean things up. And how. That’s the other thing about this show–they show you the cleaning up, not just the exciting making-the-mess part. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The episode ends on a positive note: some upbeat music, a dryer full of money, and Walt making love to Skyler–essentially the payoff from the earlier scene the night of the party, showing how much things have changed. Granted, there’s still some cleaning up to do, but who knows? Maybe Walt will have some success–enough to keep us watching, anyway.
So there you have it. The Breaking Bad pilot is a great example of how to sell a premise through background circumstances, characters, and inciting action in various forms, all while telling an attention-getting story. I guess the takeaway here is that when you’re writing a pilot, you need to make sure that all the elements are working for the premise. Who are these characters? Why do they do what they do? What obstacles stand in their way–will continue to stand in their way, week after week?
Here’s that early version of the shooting script I was talking about. There are some differences from the final version (Jesse Pinkman was originally Marion Dupree–who knew?), but the story is substantially the same. Also, for a story that has something to teach us about the whole what-if-my-idea-is-too-much-like-someone-else’s thing, check out this article by creator Vince Gilligan about the genesis of Breaking Bad.