Today, we look at how Breaking Bad gave Walter White one of the greatest introductory scenes in TV history.
This is “All the Best Things,” a spotlight on the best TV episodes, movies, albums, etc.
This is a Year of Great TV Episodes, where every day this year, we’ll take a look at great TV episodes. Note that I’m not talking about “Very Special Episodes” or episodes built around gimmicks, but just “normal” episodes of TV shows that are notable only because of how good they are.
A while back, I did a Pop Culture Theme Time where I asked people what they thought was the all-time best introductory scene for a TV character. My choice was from the 2008 pilot of Breaking Bad (an episode written and directed by Vince Gilligan), which opened with the sight of this middle age dude driving an RV in a gas mask and his tighty-whiteys, crashing the RV, climbing out of the RV, recording a message to his family, then putting a shirt on and walking on to the road brandishing a gun, waiting for the police to arrive to arrest him.
I mean, holy crap, right? How do you NOT stick around to watch the whole episode to see how he got to that moment after seeing something as striking as that?
And sure enough, Gilligan gives us a brilliant setup explaining HOW Walter White (Bryan Cranston) got to that point, as he was a high school teacher who discovered that he was likely dying from cancer. He goes on a ride along with his brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), who works for the DEA, and while on the ride along, Walter discovers that one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), is now cooking meth. Walter decides to go into business with Jesse to make enough money to provide for his family when Walter is dead.
Of course, people who watched all of Breaking Bad know that that is not the REAL story about Walter White, and this isn’t some wacky situation where some schlub is forced to do crazy things to help his family, and Walter’s motivations are a good deal darker than all of that, but you don’t need to know that to enjoy the pilot, as simply the well-constructed setup of the first episode is highly compelling in and of itself. That the character gets even DEEPER (and darker) was something that Vince Gilligan was upfront about at the time (always noting that the series was about how “Mr. Chips became Scarface” right from the start), but even if we didn’t know that that WAS going to happen, it was still really interesting just on the more surface levels of the early episodes of the series.
The production of the episode, from the directing to the cinematography to the editing was just stunning (Gilligan, the director; John Toll, the director of photography; and Lynne Willingham, the editor, all received Emmy nominations for the pilot, with Willingham winning. Gilligan somehow didn’t net a writing nomination, which is just kind of shocking, even though the five nominees that year WERE all really good. The pilot for Mad Men won the Emmy).
As an aside, going from a 1990 episode for the 1990s pick yesterday, and then a 2008 episode for the 2000s pick today is pretty funny, as 18 years is a LONG TIME in Hollywood.
Okay, if I’m going to have 346 more of these, I could use suggestions, so feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!