An Analysis of Breaking Bad's Pilot

I’m going to be talking about the pilot, but part of that discussion will include a discussion of its foreshadowing. There may be minor spoilers for later seasons scattered throughout.

Assuming that a show is strong (with regards to characters, plot, and craft), an established viewer should have no difficulty maintaining their interest in the show. A pause for exposition here and there won’t make them change the channel (or the stream). However, for the viewer of a new show, the first episode needs to establish its draw much more strongly. An effective pilot balances the needs of exposition with those of “action,” which can include any scene that furthers the plot. Too much focus on action leaves the viewer ungrounded in the story, while too much exposition leaves them wondering why they care.

Breaking Bad’s pilot deliberately invokes a sense of disorientation with its opening scene. It’s chaotic, with a quick montage of shots that establish individual parts of the scene without showing it as a whole. Additionally, it is showing unknown characters in strange situations (for example, White is driving an RV dressed in only underwear, shoes, and a gas mask).

A frame from the chaotic opening of Breaking Bad.

A frame from the chaotic opening of Breaking Bad.

This “cliffhanger opening” allows the show to cut to “the good bits,” and fill in the viewer later. A flashback lasting most of the episode follows, which recontextualizes this opening scene.

In later scenes, the pilot uses its high production value and strong characterization to deliver exposition along with action. We’re introduced to White’s prestigious history, the cough that later proves to be cancerous, his dissociative experience upon being given the bad news, and his family’s reaction to his aggressive impulses, all with a minimum of dialogue.

A frame of White, gazing downward; a frame of the doctor's mouth, hiding the rest of him; a shot of a mustard stain on the doctor's shirt.

These three frames from White’s dissociation in his doctor’s office, combined with ethereal sound design, effectively impart the emotional impact of the encounter for White.

That isn’t to say that this episode’s dialogue is lacking. The writers have a very efficient style, where every line is colored by the character’s personality. The actors bring a lot to the table as well: Dean Norris’s delivery as Hank Schrader feels entirely genuine, as though this man is used to making racialized jokes and comments often.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White gives a superb performance as well. One thing this pilot does especially well is set up White’s transformation in later seasons. Fans of the show have remarked that it’s interesting to see him go from a milquetoast schoolteacher to a hardened killer, but he kills two people in episode one. Even so, Cranston’s performance sells White’s terror in the situation, as well as foreshadowing his egoistic and manipulative tendencies that become more present in later seasons.

Breaking Bad’s pilot suits the tone of the show well, and sets up the more gruesome scenes that characterize the later show, while still presenting an early version of White that is relatable to a more middle-class audience. Through the use of strong acting, scripting, cinematography, and editing, it serves the following show, which maintains these high production values, well.