Walter White, holding a gun in front of his face, pointed towards something off-screen. Played by Bryan Cranston, the character is wearing a green shirt and glasses and standing in the New Mexico desert.

Bad Nauseam: Pilot/Breaking Bad

Walter White – a chemistry teacher and family man from Albuquerque, New Mexico – discovers that he has inoperable lung cancer. Confronted with his own mortality, he partners up with one of his former students to cook crystal meth.

I could start this Avocado retrospective of Breaking Bad by discussing what an excellent pilot episode it has – the attention-grabbing opening teaser, the skilled and subtle way it sets the stakes and introduces the characters. Thankfully, I don’t have to do any of that as Lessons from the Screenplay has a great video analysing this episode, which does not include any future spoilers whatsoever.

Watch for a 10 minute masterclass on how you should structure a TV pilot

The main thing I want to highlight from this episode1 is Walter White’s emasculation. He is not respected by the apathetic teenagers in his chemistry class; he has to work two jobs in order to pay the bills; the passion and excitement has gone out of his marriage. This is not how he wanted his life to turn out.

Moreover, there is a racial element to Walt’s humiliation. Despite coming from a WASP background, Walter is ordered about at his job at the car wash by Bogdan, a relatively-recent immigrant from Eastern Europe. This may seem like a stretch but as the series progresses, Walt – the white “respectable” patriarch – is regularly going to be threatened or opposed by non-white antagonists. There is a discussion to be had on how intentional this was on the part of the writers, but it is something we need to keep in mind when watching Breaking Bad.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White; Anna Gunn as Skyler White; RJ Mitte as Walter Jr.

The pilot also does a great job establishing the two most important relationships in Walter’s life: his marriage to Skyler and his partnership with drug-dealer Jesse Pinkman. When the show was first being broadcast, Skyler White received a disproportionate amount of criticism from the fanbase, regularly being characterised as an “annoying b***h wife”.2 In the pilot, we are shown a marriage that lacks passion – Walt receives an inattentive handjob from his wife on his birthday – but there is no reason to assume Skyler is to blame for this state of affairs. She did go to the effort of arranging a surprise party for Walter; who knows the last time he brought her a bunch of flowers?

Jesse Pinkman3 is a small-time meth dealer blackmailed into working with Walt and even though we don’t learn that much about him from this episode, what we do get is executed perfectly. From their very first conversation together, Cranston and Paul understand the characters and their dynamic – Walt does not see Jesse as his equal, and that is going to cause a lot of friction between the two. The actors have amazing chemistry4 and some of the best moments in Breaking Bad are going to be Cranston and Paul just bouncing off of each other.

Jesse (on the left) shows his glass-grade meth to Krazy-8

When Walter returns to Skyler after his first ever cook with Jesse, the stage has been set. He is now a criminal and a killer – Walt has taken his first step down a dangerous and unfamiliar path. The audience will now have the pleasure of watching him walk it.

Odds and Ends

  • Some dated homophobic language in this episode but thankfully Breaking Bad will rarely do this in the future.
  • Pay attention to that backyard swimming pool – it is going to become a symbol of the virtuous suburban lifestyle Walt is leaving behind.
  • The cooking montage in the New Mexico desert uses fast-paced editing and a camera that shudders and shakes – this visual technique will be utilised repeatedly and become part of the show’s signature style.
  • Walter White Jr. (AKA Flynn) is played by RJ Mitte, who was born with cerebral palsy. This is one of those rare occasions where a character with disabilities is actually being played by a disabled actor.
  • When I first saw the pilot, I really did not like Hank, who comes across as the worst kind of obnoxious macho-bastard cop. Thankfully, the show will soon decide that underneath this facade is a much more interesting and vulnerable man who can be just as resourceful as Walt.
  • We learn in Más (Series 3, Episode 5) that Jesse did not spend Walt’s life savings on that RV after all.
  • In Season 5, Jesse and Walter are going to come back to this spot, which turns out to be on an Indian Reservation near Albuquerque. The lone and level sands stretch far away…

The remaining reviews for Season 1 will be published on the following days:

  • Wednesday 29th March: “Cat’s in the Bag…” & “…And the Bag’s in the River”
  • Wednesday 5th April: “Cancer Man” & “Gray Matter”
  • Wednesday 12th April: “Crazy Handful of Nothin'” & “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”

Please use spoiler tags in the comments, as some Avocadians are watching Breaking Bad for the first time