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Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad is a drama about Walter White, a chemistry professor who is diagnosed with lung cancer. He enlists the help of his former student Jesse Pinkman to manufacture and sell methamphetamine. AMC 2008-???

78
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Viewer
80
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Episode 1 - Pilot

26 September 2012

Credit AMC

Synopsis: Chemistry teacher and suburban Dad Walter White is working a second job at a car wash to help pay for the new baby on the way. He is already feeling a bit pathetic when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. He asks his brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent, if he can go on a ride along and spots a former pupil-turned-drug-dealer there. He goes to see Jesse and suggests that they make Meth-Amphetamine together. Walt uses his life savings to buy an RV and they drive into the New Mexico desert to “cook.” Jesse is thrilled with the product and shows it to his former partner and his cousin Crazy Eight. They recognise Walt from the initial bust and intend to kill him and Jesse. Walt offers to teach them his methods and then kills them both using phosphate gas.

The Good: This is one of those really strong pilot episodes that does a tremendous job of selling itself to viewers. By episodes end we are very much in the corner of Walter White, a man who has been kicked around by life and is now finally kicking back. That in itself would be a great pitch for a show but what gives Breaking Bad its edge is the “bad” part. In order to make a better life for himself Walt becomes a drug dealer and murderer. Surely there’s no way this can end well?

For this episode though we see Walt as the hero of the piece. He opens the episode assuring that everything he’s just done is for the sake of his wife and son who he clearly loves very much. Another key detail comes early when Walt is up at 5am trying to stay in shape. As he exercises the camera pans around his home and we see a plaque Walt earned for being a “Contributor to Research Awarded the Nobel Prize.” He is clearly a very smart man but despite this is working as a high school teacher. He is also working a second job to make ends meet and one of those ends is the new baby on the way. While this could easily be seen as a blessing it will clearly stretch the family finances further.

Walt already has a child, Walter Jr, who was born with cerebral palsy. This already puts its own stress on the family and Walt’s wife Skyler is flogging dubious art to try and earn a few extra bucks. Adding to this stress is humiliation and emasculation. Walt’s second job at a car wash means he is occasionally forced to clean cars himself (instead of working at the register), including those of his students. He also seems to feel inadequate around his burly brother-in-law Hank whose macho job as a DEA agent allows him to handle guns and be on TV. His sex life with Skyler is interrupted by talk of chores and her pregnancy and to top it off Walt has just turned fifty and is staring at only more hard work and more veggie bacon rather than anything fun.

The straw which breaks this camel’s back is his diagnosis with lung cancer. It’s a break that turns bad when Walt stairs enviously at the piles of cash drug dealers make out of producing meth-amphetamine, something he knows how to make better than they ever could. The chance encounter with Jesse leads him to risk it all to make quick cash. If he is going to be dead in a year then why not go out with a bang and leave his family a big pile of money? Walt teaches Jesse how to make “glass” quality meth but has no clue about the world he is stepping into. Emilio and Crazy Eight come to kill him when they realise where they recognise him from (the ride along). So he turns his chemical skills on them, killing them with the phosphate gas that the DEA agents had been so keen to avoid inhaling.

The story of how Walter White broke bad is both a simple story of zero to hero and a modern fantasy story. On a basic level it’s easy to cheer on the man condemned to death by cancer as he tries to use his skills and courage to help his family. On a deeper level Walt is taking his own short cut out of the rat race that the ninety nine per cent live in. He is finding his own shortcut to riches and happiness. He is “awake” he says and living life intensely in a way most of us can only imagine. As I’ve already said, it’s the dark side to this story which makes me think we could be onto something very special. Walt is crossing a line to get what he wants. He is now a murderer and drug dealer and there is no going back from that. On a societal level I can’t help but see a parallel to reality TV stars doing shameful things to become famous. Or porn stars or star athletes taking steroids or bankers risking other people’s money. Walt is taking a shortcut through the rules of society to get what he wants. It’s an exhilarating and scary thought at the same time.

All of this makes Breaking Bad a hugely interesting show on paper. The execution as an episode of TV was fortunately up to the task. The pace was fast but perfectly understandable. There were a number of neat economical moments. For example Jesse pops out of the neighbours window just as Hank leaves the car and earlier Walt collapses at the car wash and we jump straight to him being treated in the ambulance. There was fun use of music with lots of real songs including the authentic sounds of the various drug dealers listening to music on their headphones or car stereo.

An authenticity permeated the show too which was definitely needed. The contrast was drawn well between Walt’s highly organised and knowledgeable chemistry kit to the chaos of Emilio’s “kitchen.” This authenticity was apparent in the casting and writing. Walt’s glasses and moustache make him seem squarer than Bryan Cranston can appear. He seems genuinely excited by chemistry and takes the kind of precautions that a middle class man might make when stepping into the drug game. Similarly Jesse seems excited by drug dealing and his cynicism of what Mr White’s methods and motives makes sense. Aaron Paul is a lively performer who doesn’t seem like he’s putting on the urban lingo that Jesse is given. The character comes across like a natural salesman. The gleam in his eye when pitching both the RV and the new meth was infectious. Cranston is excellent throughout whether playing large or small. His roadside breakdown as he attempts suicide was a master class in multiple emotions.

Skyler seemed likable enough and Walter Jr was warmly portrayed as both a surly teenager and someone who has coped with his disability all his life. There were some lovely humorous moments with Jesse talking about “cow houses” and double checking that Walt was going to keep his underwear on for the cook. The teacher-student dynamic with those two manages to also be the ‘odd couple’ so there’s plenty of potential there.

The choice to begin things with a dramatic sequence in the desert worked out well. It gave Walt a memorable introduction and raised intriguing questions. I think the pilot probably would have been just as good without it. It’s tough to say but it would have allowed for the arrival of Emilio and Crazy Eight to be more of a shock.

The cooking montage managed to include both characterisation (Jesse goofing around) and the authenticity of good chemistry. I liked the shot of Walt drying his money, giving us the perspective of the back of the dryer as he collected his first ill gotten gains. The sound and camera work was also clever when we saw Walt’s disoriented reaction to his cancer diagnosis.

The Bad: Nothing really.

The Unknown: There was a danger that the picture of Walt’s emasculation was going to come on too strong at times. It largely walked the line well but the odd moment came close. Hank probably didn’t need to go so far as to say Walt should come get “some excitement in your life.” Bogdan the car wash owner maybe didn’t need false eyebrows either as that felt too gimmicky. Marie, Skyler’s judgmental sister, certainly had the judgment part down without much subtlety.

Best Moment: I particularly enjoyed the scene where Walt attacks some arrogant boys making fun of Walter Jr as he struggles to try on clothes in a store. That scene seemed to capture the contradiction at the heart of Walt’s transformation. On the one hand there was a huge sense of justice as he taught them a lesson they wouldn’t forget. On the other though it was a huge overreaction to childish taunting and set a terrible example to Walter Jr. That seems to be the nature of Walt’s awakening, he is finally feeling fulfilled but his methods leave a lot to be desired. 

The Bottom Line: Breaking Bad is a show with huge potential and this was a hugely enjoyable and well executed first episode. 

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  • btw, it's phosphine gas, not phosphate. Walt clearly points out the difference in this episode to Jesse.

    Posted by Tom, 20/05/2016 9:07pm (4 years ago)

  • Great episode and start to a fantastic series. I actually didn`t start with this episode when I began Breaking Bad. I had heard about it and was intrigued by the premise and the first episode I saw was A Crazy Handful of Nothing in season one where Walt throws the mercury at Tuco and then weeks later I saw Negro Y Azul in season 2 and after that watched religiously every week. Even though I didn`t know the back story I found it very easy to follow and loved it. I eventually caught up on series one and got to see how it all fitted together. Probably the best thing about the pilot is seeing the Walt and Jesse dynamic from the beginning as Jesse is more hostile, understandably, and Walt is trying very hard to fit in but also motivate Jesse, acting completely like a teacher (the emergency eye wash station was classic). The way those two clash in this episode but sort of start to bond was very entertaining. I`m sure if I`d started with this episode I would have also loved Breaking Bad and kept going.

    Viewer score: 70 / 100

    Posted by Karen, 18/09/2012 10:32am (8 years ago)

  • There must be some sort of karma link between my viewing choices and Robin's. I had watched the pilot several years ago and enjoyed its dark and realistic portrayal of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. I put it aside due to work and other time constraints. I just turned back to the series and wondered if Robin had prepared reviews of the early seasons. Voila! He is starting a rewatch just as I am starting to watch.

    I grew up in the Southwest and I think the show is very good at showing the juxtaposition between middle class life and green lawns and backyard pools with the edges of poverty and drug addiction. I don't remember seeing drug addicts as a child, but I do remember seeing drunk people slumped behind grocery stores or gathered in parks.
    In a sense the series reminds me a great deal of the Sopranos. I was always surprised at how I could feel for the criminals in that series and I find myself doing that again here. While Walt White starts out as much more sympathetic than Tony Soprano, both series are adept at getting us to see people as much more complex than their bad acts.
    I am appreciative of the way the series adds small details and takes time to give us a sense of the ordinary rhythm of the character's lives. The set designers deserve a lot of credit for at least to my eye, these are homes or offices I believe I have been in..not places decorated far too expensively for the actual income of the characters.
    I am looking forward to the podcasts.
    But am speeding through the episodes rather like Jesse's bad habits of indulging in his product.

    Viewer score: 85 / 100

    Posted by Lenni, 16/09/2012 7:12pm (8 years ago)

  • All great shows need a great pilot, and Breaking Bad is no exception.

    It is simply a brilliant hour of television, allowing the audience to get a great view of Walt's life and why how he would begin his journey.

    To be fair, Marie and Hank early on are a bit heavy handed with their initial appearances, but later episodes would make them well rounded characters.

    I think this episode might just be the most re-watchable episode of the series, its drama and humor still as strong as when I first watched it.

    Looking forward to the re-watch, I'm very curious to see what ends up as the highest rated episode.

    Viewer score: 83 / 100

    Posted by Ben F., 16/09/2012 2:24pm (8 years ago)

  • I'm usually rather sceptical to new shows, but the Breaking bad pilot may be my favorite pilot of all time. I had never before been so certain that this was gonna be a great show than after sitting through this episode. The opening scene reminded me of Lost, with its flashforwards, and I was of course certain that scene would happen in a season finale. All the different routes this show could've taken greatly intrigued me, and I was instantly hooked.

    After just one episode I felt an attachment to Walt (this was back when was still likable!) and really wanted him to succeed. There are several hilarious scenes (Hank and Gomey in the car, Jesse's shenanigans), and several depressing scenes. It was an aboslute joy to watch this episode again, and I will be following this rewatch all the way through, hopefully.

    Viewer score: 80 / 100

    Posted by Per, 13/09/2012 6:31pm (8 years ago)

  • I was late to Breaking Bad. I watched the first 3 seasons on DVD so I was many months behind until Season 4 &5 which I had to buy because Dish no longer carries AMC and I became so hooked on the show I couldn't wait 6 months to watch it on Netflix.

    A good show will do that to you.

    I am looking forward to your rewatch. Hopefully you will help bring even more fans into the fold.

    Viewer score: 80 / 100

    Posted by Yogabon, 12/09/2012 8:31pm (8 years ago)

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