What can you say about Breaking Bad that hasn't been said before? It's one of the greatest television shows of all-time, if not the greatest. It's funny, dark, witty, intelligent, nuanced, unpredictable, complex, and features one of the greatest characters ever created for television in Bryan Cranston as Walter White. However, with all that said, was Breaking Bad always this great of a show? Did it start out as another clichéd "good, law abiding citizen forced to a life of crime through bad circumstances" drama? Let's take a look, shall we?
Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher struggling to pay his bills and provide for his family at the age of 50. He has a wife named Skyler, a son with cerebral palsy, a second part-time job working at a car wash, and a brother-in-law cop who greatly overshadows him. However, when Walt learns he has lung cancer, he decides to use his knowledge in chemistry to cook crystal meth with former student turned drug dealer Jesse Pinkman.
For first time viewers, the pilot of Breaking Bad can feel a little slow at first. We are shown through the life of Walter White prior to his meth-cooking career for the first half or so and it takes quite some time before anything really exciting happens but yet, the episode is never boring. Because not only does the first half do a good job displaying the unpleasantness in Walter White's life, but also has a good sense of humor about it.
We are shown that he is a tired, worn out man that never gets a break in life through stuff like him working at a job he hates, not getting appreciated for it, being treated like crap by his boss etc. It's all pretty standard stuff, but the scene that cements his place is a scene where Skyler attempts to give Walt a handjob. While at first, it seems like just a scene used for the sake of a raunchy gag, it actually sums up how the character feels better than words ever could. It shows that Walt isn't feeling like a man, how he feels inadequate about himself and how he isn't behaving like how a man should. On top of that, it's a genuinely funny scene and there's a very amusing payoff to it.
Once he decides to start cooking meth, the episode takes on a much faster pace with action, thrills, and suspense. This part is genuinely exciting because the pilot was a little slow at first which makes this incredibly satisfying to watch. During his first adventure in the meth underworld, he gets his identity mistaken for a cop, is forced to teach his successful formula to others, and ultimately embarks on a supposed chase through the desert with two supposed bodies in a RV.
The story is so well paced and structured to the point where it could easily be a short film on its own. We see a character go through an arc in a 60 min runtime with a beginning and an end. He starts out as a weak, inadequate individual but finds himself again at the end of the episode at the expense of his morality. Even if there was no continuation for this episode, it's still a solid short film in its own right.
Vince Gilligan is the main reason this episode(and the rest of the show, for that matter) works. His directing here is excellent. Not only pacing his story well and delivering a satisfying conclusion, but also using appropriate and clever stylistic flourishes. For example, during when Walt discovers he has cancer, Gilligan doesn't use any melodramatic music to punctuate it. Instead, he uses an ambient sound effect that drowns out the dialogue and shifts the camera from a close-up of the doctor's mouth to a mustard stain on his jacket. It sounds odd but it's a really effective way of showing Walt simply not giving a sh!t to hear this news since he didn't feel he was alive anyways. The cinematography and music choices were also excellent.
I haven't talked about the acting yet and while all these actors would go on to prove themselves as excellent dramatic actors later down the line, the two standout performances in this episode are Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. Cranston perfectly portrays a man stuck in a life he despises and feels inadequate of perfectly but also can portray the character's excitement and joy when he breaks bad. Aaron Paul doesn't do that much in this episode but he's instantly funny and likable as the weak and scrawny drug dealer Jesse Pinkman. Even though he's only in the last 30 or so minutes, he and Cranston have an instant chemistry on screen. It's also nice to see Gilligan cast someone who wasn't overly attractive as Skyler White with Anna Gunn(though, she really isn't ugly like some would say).
Overall, this pilot is a great start for a great series and works well on its own as a short film. 10/10
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