Hi everyone, I've been taking it easy since broadcast networks moved into summer programming, but I'm getting back on track. One of my plans is to review the first two seasons of Breaking Bad before the fourth season begins on July 17. This means I have a month a two weeks to watch and review 19 episodes, which should be doable. After this review for the pilot, I'll be reviewing two episodes each time, with one or two days between review and I should get there. These reviews are intended for everyone, those who've watched all the episodes already and those who have not. This means there will be no explicit spoilers of future events. However, I will point things out which may be important in the future or a certain device writers use that is used successfully throughout the series. Meanwhile, I'll be reviewing at least two X-Files episodes every weekend, hopefully more.
Before going into the actual content of Breaking Bad's pilot, let's look at the premise for a second: A high school chemistry teacher learns he has terminal cancer and begins cooking meth in order to leave money for his family. Wait a second... huh? It's nearly impossible to consider this mash-up of ideas without some apprehension and confusion. It just sounds absurd. It's one thing for Weeds, a comedy, to do something similar, but Breaking Bad, a drama? Well, we all know how that turned out as Vince Gilligan crafted three breathtaking seasons of television without dropping a beat.
The pilot is by no means a groundbreaking episode of television compared to other pilots, future episodes, or even television episodes in general. But it does something successfully--breaking any preconceived notions about how hokey the show could be. At the end of the episode, you don't doubt Vince Gilligan or the cast. All the pieces are there for a great show, and future conflicts to spring up.
The show opens with a particularly striking image, Walt in his underwear standing in the middle of the road, pointing a gun at the direction of the oncoming sirens. Everyone's reaction: "What the hell is going on?" From there, the episode flashes back and the plot proceeds as one would expect. We are introduced to Walt, the chemistry teacher who has job at a car wash and is humiliated by students, his wife Skyler, Walt Jr., his brother-in-law Hank, a DEA agent, and his wife Marie.
On the outset, none of those characters seem particularly interesting--as they are intended. These are normal, suburban people who live their lives in relative comfort and safety. There is nothing inherently "TV-worthy" about them. But we can also many potential problems. Walt, by others' descriptions, appears to be off and we can see it on Skyler's face even if she says otherwise. Her relationship with her sister, while cordial, seems to have some rocky places as well. Of course, the biggest problem is Hank being a DEA agent, if Walt is to cook meth as the premise demands.
Once the drugs and Walt's cancer kick in, the episode starts rolling ahead like a snowball. People make certain choices and everything is forced to move ahead. Walt tags along with Hank on a meth bust, sees Jesse Pinkman climb out a window, and the glorious partnership begins soon after. There is a degree of humor to the meth cooking, as Walt's professional skills and fastidiousness far outweigh the usual dummies' cooking abilities. But the episode takes a quick turn when their first clients decide to get even with Jesse and Walt along with him.
The episode ends in a flurry of activity that shows us how much tension the show could have. In the confrontation, Walt, in his underwear, uses chemicals to kill the thugs while saving Jesse. The final flourish, bringing the episode back to the striking scene which begun the episode, has Bryan Cranston at his best, anguished and out of his wits. This first usage of a callback to the beginning is works well and the writers use similar tactics to great effect later on. Eventually, the firetrucks pass by and Walt returns back to the trailer, but the momentary feeling of terror still remains.
Walt's return home, culminating in an out of character sexual encounter with Skyler, emphasizes exactly what Breaking Bad is about. The show is not just about a mild mannered 50-year old cooking meth. It is about a total change in personality. Walt cannot simply start cooking meth and remain the same person. He is a changed man both at his job and his home life. He is invigorated, having broken bad, and there is undeniable unease over where Walt's character could go.
What makes the pilot--and future episodes--work is the willingness of AMC, the writers, and the actors to put it all out there and really put an edge on everything. They don't pussyfoot around issues and there are numerous scenes which are as raw as they get, expertly done by Bryan Cranston, who's been deserving for every Emmy. There's cussing, wildness, no inhibition. In the true sense of the breaking bad, it is not a facile representation of someone doing something bad; it is as real as it gets, someone changing entirely.