This is a rewatch, so be prepared that spoilers will land with all the romance of the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.
An RV is ripping across the Arizona desert, driven by Walter Hartwell White (Bryan Cranston), who’s wearing nothing but his underwear, shoes, and a gasmask. Slumped forward on the dashboard, in the passenger seat, is a second individual, also sporting a mask. In the back of the RV, there are two bodies sliding about the floor like dead fish in a shallow pool of meth-lab chemicals, as broken glass and other paraphernalia swirl around them. With his gasmask fogging up, Walter crashes along the roadside. He stumbles out of the side door and throws off the mask, gasping for breath. In the distance, sirens are screaming, closing in on him. He hurriedly leaves a video message for his family, then stands in the middle of the road, arm outstretched with a handgun aimed at what’s coming.
It’s hard to imagine a more appropriately—excuse the pun—combustible opening to a series that’s now widely regarded as one of the finest in television history. The desperation in Cranston’s expressions is palpable as he fumbles with the recording device to set the record straight for his family. It’s the scene of a man, alone and troubled, driven to brutal acts of violence that his conscience denounces but are inevitable. Listen for the break in his voice as his hand covers the lens, finding it hard to tell his son that life is coming to an end. No mistaking it, Breaking Bad digs deep into the human motivation of a man on the brink of chaos. After the title credits (which ingeniously highlights letters from the periodic table of elements), the pilot jumps back three weeks to show the gradual unravelling of Walter, his questionable decisions, and the consequences that bring him to standing in his tighty-walter-whiteys in the blistering heat.
Walter is a high school chemistry teacher, struggling to make ends meet, with a dreadful second job at a car wash that doesn’t seem to ease the burden—especially when his students snap a photo of his humiliating moonlighting. Then, he learns he has inoperable lung cancer and is given two years to live. He’s unable to tell his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), and he scrambles to find a way to secure his family’s future, which includes a teenage son—Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte)—who has cerebral palsy. When his brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), mentions how much money can be made from a successful meth operation, Walter takes up an offer to ride along on a sting.
As he waits in the car for Hank and his team to clear the scene, Walter witnesses a former student by the name of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) fall off a porch roof while fleeing, unbeknownst to anyone else. Walter then blackmails Jesse—use his connections to distribute the meth Walt’s going to cook, or he'll turn Jesse in. Though Jesse is hesitant at first, he quickly learns that having a chemistry teacher, whose graduate work contributed to a Nobel Prize winning project, results in a superior product with greater street value. Actor Aaron Paul (Mission Impossible III, Big Love) portrays Jesse’s low life in high style—a simple-minded, ne’er-do-well who liberally peppers his language with slang like “yo.” A more disparate duo would be hard to find, but these two complement each other beyond their meth-lab skills. Walter encourages Jesse to think carefully and avoid aiming low. Walter instructs, “You and I will not make garbage. We will produce a chemically pure and stable product that performs as advertised. No adulterants.” Jesse, however, also serves to knock Walter down from his loftiness and naivety on more than one occasion.
For his lead performance, Bryan Cranston won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series four times. (The whole show—direction, cinematography, music, etc.—is one tight, oiled machine.) It’s hard to imagine a more pivotal center in television history than Cranston. Go back to Alan Alda in M*A*S*H to find an equal comparison. Cranston’s subtle mannerisms snap with electric tension…it’s stark, riveting, and volatile.
The pilot concludes with Walter quickly stuffing the handgun in his underwear, because the sirens turn out to be firetrucks on the way to douse a brushfire raging in the distance—a blaze started (mid episode or so) by the cigarette of a guy who’s now dead in the rear of the RV.
And circling back to earlier in the show, when Walter tells his class:
“Elements. They combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s—that’s all of life, right? I mean, it’s just—it’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation.”
He could easily be speaking of his own existence—an elegiac reflection on the direction his life story is about to take…in the savagely hilarious next episode, “Cat’s in the Bag.”
David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books http://www.beattoapulp.com/ and writer of the forthcoming The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.