One of the most successful series ever, leading to one of the most successful spin-offs. 61 episodes in all, some among the highest-ratest episodes of any series ever. Multiple Emmies. Tons of copycats.
Breaking Bad did okay for itself.
But all of this mayhem began with just one episode. And although a great series isn’t always indicative of a great first episode--just look at the awful Seinfeld pilot--fortunately, with Breaking Bad, it was.
I did the same analysis of Mad Men’s pilot episode, looking at the nine crucial lessons you can glean from that. And I’m going to give the major spoiler right now: they’re the same exact nine lessons we’re going to get from Breaking Bad.
This is because these things are universal to all pilots. If you want a show that’s going to grab a viewer right away and leave that person with the thought “that was a dope-ass show--I GOT to see more” then you’re going to need to include these things one way or another, and it can be extremely useful to see how different series do them.
And I eventually might write articles of the existence of these qualities in other pilots (sorry Seinfeld, might have to leave you off).
For now, let’s go into the lab and start cooking. It’s time to examine all the things The Breaking Bad pilot does right.
1. Captivate with your beginning
A clear New Mexico desert
Succulents and rocks
A pair of dress pants slowly gliding to the ground, seemingly out of nowhere, only to be run over by a speeding RV.
This is the memorable opening sequence of shots in the pilot.
The only goal with your beginning is to make the viewer want to see more, and Breaking Bad successfully does this.
Not only is this sequence beautiful, but it arouses in the viewer an emotion you probably want them to enter with: curiosity. We instantly want to know what’s happening. Why is there a random pair of chinos in the desert? What’s up with that RV? What do they have to do with each other?
The show spends the rest of the episode answering these mysteries. But if that’s all that was happening, it wouldn’t be that profound.
It’s also setting up the tone of the entire series. Much like that pair of pants, Walter White is floating into a world that he doesn’t belong in, and everything he’s known all his life is being crushed by what happened in that RV.
The rest of the opening is chock full of action, creating more curiosity about what’s happening. We then time-shift back to the real chronological beginning.
This flash forward is a smart choice by Vince Gilligan because if he chose to show everything in order, the show would begin with Walter waking up and sadly exercising. And while that’s not necessarily a terrible choice, it’s far more gripping to begin with the climax of the episode, and then go backwards to show how different Walt’s life was a few weeks ago.
2. Setup a an immersive world
The show begins in the 60’s, but it’s a 60’s that’s still very much the 50’s. The music, the atmosphere, the fact that everyone inside is smoking makes us feel what it’s like to be here. We’re shown both the glamour and the ugliness of it.
In your pilot, you’re taking the audience on a journey, and it’s crucial to let them actually feel the world, whether it’s an ad agency in the 60’s, Westeros, or the dating scene in New York.
The more removed the place is from our everyday lives, the more important it is that it’s clearly shown so that the audience can feel like they’re in it.
Throughout the rest of the episode, we are always reminded of the world that we’re in, sometimes by the ways characters speak to each other, sometimes by the fashion or outdated technology, and sometimes by the references to what’s going on at the time (I had no idea Nixon was thought of as a handsome hero).
If your world isn’t as removed from ours as the 60’s, you can still do this by setting up a strong consistent tone. Breaking Bad’s world is modern and in the middle of the U.S. but it always has such a specific feel (the style, the colors, the locations) that when we watch its spinoff, Better Call Saul, we know we’re in the same place.
3. Create nuanced characters
No audience is going to watch a show if they aren’t interested in the characters. Interestingly they don’t necessarily have to like them, as many people grew to hate Walt through the show, but they at least have to want to watch them.
This means creating characters that aren’t one-dimensional. Walt is a family man. A school teacher. A former chemist. A sporter of a mustache, a sweater and tighty whities. He’s a square and he’s to some degree a caring person. But he’s also kind of a dick. We see instances of him doing mean things to the point that people may even dislike him in the pilot.
But he also has redemptive qualities. He’s a genius. He’s interesting. He’s a good father. A passionate teacher.
Even his motivations are interesting. For sure he’s doing a bad thing, but, at this point he’s doing it so he can leave his family with money. It’s an interesting situation, and we’re constantly asking ourselves whether or not we’d do what he does.
Jesse seems every bit a burnout stereotype at first, but we begin to see other sides of him in the show that make him more interesting. He demonstrates brains and ingenuity in a few moments, along with kindness, trying to save Walt’s life. He also shows respect, always calling him “Mr. White.”
At this point the other characters aren’t quite as developed. Skyler does seem a bit cold. Hank seems like a macho douchebag. But since the main characters are so dynamic, we can have faith (correctly) that the other characters will receive the same three-dimensional treatment.
4. Accomplish multiple things at once
There’s an exhaustive checklist of things you need to do in the pilot. You need to introduce the characters, make us like them, give a ton of exposition, run a cohesive plot, set the arc for the season and even the series, show us this world, get us to feel...stuff, resolve the action while also assuring us that there’s going to be more.
Sounds near impossible for one episode. That’s why every scene needs to accomplish multiple things.
Let’s take a look at the birthday party scene: Walt arrives home from the car wash to a surprise party, where Skyler is unhappy he’s late; Hank shows Walt Junior a gun and makes a toast to Walt; we see the police bust on TV that Hank made.
A simple scene, but it accomplishes so many things:
It shows that Walt is not in control of his life and is not respected by his family
It tells us he keeps things to himself (a very important quality to know for later)
It introduces us to Hank
We see the dynamic between Hank and Walt
It lets us know how uncomfortable Walt is with a gun
It shows us how invisible Walt is and feels
It gives us information that Hank is a DEA agent
We see that Hank is good at his job
Walt learns how profitable being a meth dealer can be, the impetus for the rest of the show
And although there is no way this was part was pre-planned, it also serves as a contrast to Walt’s future birthdays, where he’s lost the things he has here that he’s taking for granted.
Take any scene from the pilot, and you can see they’re all accomplishing multiple things. This is uber important as you write yours.
With narratives that have storylines spanning whole seasons and even whole shows, it’s common to assume that nothing will be wrapped up in the first episode. Frodo doesn’t toss the ring into the fires of Mordor in the first movie.
But even though you’re not going to resolve the storylines in the episode, you still want the episode itself to feel resolved. The episode is a tiny complete project that makes up part of the giant complete project. That means the character or plot needs to make some sort of advancement or there needs to be payoffs.
Walt begins as invisible and out of control. We see many instances of how no one really respects him--not his family, his brother in-law, his students, his boss. He’s turning fifty, and living a life that’s obviously disappointing to him. And if that’s not enough, he gets cancer.
But we see this start a chain reaction. He’s a different person with his wife from the beginning to the end of the episode (just contrast the two sex scenes).
There’s also resolution in the crime arc. We have no idea how long it’s going to take the series to get to that pants-off RV scene, but we get there at the end of the episode. Walt has cooked meth, thwarted bad guys, and survived a possible collision with the police. He has officially started his journey towards a life of crime.
Having these resolutions allow the audience to have some satisfaction and closure. It also allows them to trust your ability to give them these things in the future.
6. Use the three parts of the continuum
Imagine there’s a line running through everything that’s narrative. One one side of the line is the real and the literal: that’s drama. On the other side of the line there’s symbolism and bright colors and the abstract: that’s art. Where these two meet in the middle is comedy.
Great! So what?
So you want to tap dance all over that line.
Good shows and movies never stay in just one part of the continuum. Like in Mad Men’s pilot, this show does a great job at hitting all areas of this continuum. It bounces around, masterfully changing how we’re feeling at all times. I’ll pull some examples from each.
Drama: The heart-racing opening scene. Walt collapsing. The drug bust. Walt blackmailing Jesse into cooking meth him. Crazy Eight, with his dog, making subtle threats to Jesse. Him and Emelio forcing Walt to cook by gunpoint.
Comedy: Skyler getting excited about an ebay purchase during their “love-making” session. Jesse’s reaction to Walt in his underwear. “Cow-houses.” Walt nonchalantly saying “we’ve got to clean this all up” after killing two people and almost dying himself.
Art: The gorgeous shots of the Albuquerque desert. The gritty shots of the meth equipment. The doctor’s voice being replaced by a ringing as we focus on his mustard stain. Walt throwing matches into the pool. The cooking montage. The money spinning in the dryer. The heavy attention paid to wardrobe.
The fact that the show goes so seamlessly from area to another is a reason we feel like we’re getting such a full experience when we watch it.
7. Venture into darkness
One thing that we really advocate is looking at the darker parts of life. All the greatest works do this to some degree or another. Even Pixar movies deal with dark themes like embracing death and loss of innocence. Pinocchio has kids turned into donkeys to be sold into slave labor. Dealing with this kind of darkness brings out a full truth in whatever story we’re telling and connects us more to it.
And with a name like Breaking Bad, you know it’s going to get dark.
Walt’s life is on a downward spiral. He blackmails a former student. He beats up and threatens a couple kids. He lies to his family. Oh yeah, and he makes meth and potentially kills a couple of people before turning the gun to himself and pulling the trigger.
Right away this show isn’t afraid to show how dark it can go.
Every good show has an edge. What’s yours?
8. Run theme through veins
I talk about this a lot, but all great movies and shows have a central theme that connects everything together. It’s a statement or question that everything else points back too, essentially the show’s thesis. I go into depth about it here.
You might be thinking “Who the hell cares? Only writing/ story nerds like you are going to notice!”
While it’s true that many viewers might not realize it consciously, it doesn’t make it any less important. This still registers with us whether or not we realize it. It’s what makes a movie or show feel like a cohesive piece instead of just a bunch of stuff that happened. It’s that seemingly intangible quality that makes us think that particular story worked.
Breaking Bad is not really a theme-heavy show (it’s more character and plot focused), but it still does this. The series as a whole is saying “we all have the potential to be bad,” something every character deals with. Vince Gilligan, the creator, said the show is about “Mr. Chips becoming Scarface.”
This episode, however, seems to be saying something along the lines of “Being bad is so tempting.”
This is demonstrated by the clear contrast in Walt’s life before entering the crime world and after.
He seems miserable and stuck without a purpose before he starts cooking meth. He’s broke, he gets no respect, he’s not living up to his full potential, his marriage is passionless, and he has no confidence.
The “bad world” changes all of this. He finds a way to get money, and he’s delighted to pull it out of his dryer. He’s doing something he’s good at (even earning the respect of Jesse and the other dealers). His marriage gets hot. And he becomes sure of himself.
Even the death threats in both worlds are different. In his pre-bad world, he has cancer, something he’s powerless against. In his post-bad world he efficiently handles the threats, Emelio and Crazy-Eight against his life.
We see shades of this person he’s becoming, who will ultimately be known as Heisenberg.
The whole episode shows why going bad would be tempting and how in so many ways Walt would have a better life by joining this world.
9. Setup for future episodes
Skyler’s last line “Walt, is that you?” tells us that Walt is on a path that has a lot more adventures on it.
We did get the resolutions that I mentioned above, but we also now have a lot of questions that we want to see answered:
How will Walt and Jesse deal with the chaos they created? Will they keep cooking meth together? When could they possibly stop? Will they get caught? How dangerous is it that Walt’s brother-in-law is a DEA agent? Will Walt tell his family about the cancer? Will he tell them about the meth??? What’s going to happen with all the evidence? How much worse are the crimes going to get? How bad will Walt and Jesse become? Why is Walt a high school teacher now if he won a noble prize? Will he get those pants back?
These types of questions create a journey that we don’t want to have to wait for. It’s what makes a bingeable show so bingeable.
So as tough as beginning things is, Vince Gilligan and his crew pull it off pretty well.
Breaking Bad is so meticulously thought out that there’s a ton more lessons in the series that I’m sure I’ll get to at this point. And with Better Call Saul still going strong, it looks like even more teaching moments are on the way.
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