Breaking Bad’s first season predated the current era of Vulture recaps, but with the final episode of prequel/sequel series Better Call Saul now in the books, Vulture is taking the opportunity to return to the very beginning of the Heisenberg saga and give this 2008 season the in-depth episodic analysis it deserves.
What makes Walter White (Bryan Cranston) break bad?
The ostensible reason (the one he uses when he needs to lie to himself or others) is the catalyst for the whole series: He is told by a doctor that he has terminal lung cancer and can expect to live only up to two years longer with chemo treatments. When his brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA officer, brags about his latest bust of a methamphetamine lab, which yielded a $300,000 cash haul, it gets Walter’s attention. Do drug dealers really make that much? Because as a high-school chemistry teacher with a wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), and a disabled teenage son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), Walter still needs to moonlight as a clerk at a local car wash to make ends meet — that is, unless he’s needed as a “car-care professional” himself. He knows the chemistry well, certainly better than the dumb crankheads who turn a quick buck cooking meth, and he could feasibly make enough money this way to provide for his family long after he dies.
The actual reason is he needs to be a man. The cancer diagnosis provides him with the courage to behave less cautiously because the worst thing that could happen to him — or the worst thing he imagines could happen to him — is going to happen. If anything, the thought of dying in the meth business probably sounds more appealing than withering away in hospice. His reputation as an ineffectual egghead bothers him immensely, and probably has for years, as he’s taken microaggressive abuses from entitled, disrespectful students, from his boss at the car wash, and from Hank, a chest-thumping man of action who loves to show off his service revolver and boast about his adventures in the field. He will be remembered fondly perhaps, as a good father and husband who worked two jobs to take care of his family, but he’ll also be remembered as a failure, a guy who once did important Nobel Prize–adjacent work and now clings to a middle-class life in Albuquerque. Worse yet, he will know himself to be weak to the end.
The cold open to the pilot kicks off with literal pedal-to-the-metal mayhem with Walt screaming through the desert in a Winnebago at top speed, wearing nothing but a gas mask and a pair of skivvies. For Cranston, the image feels like a natural extension of his previously most famous role as the put-upon father in Malcolm in the Middle, who would have to square up to embarrassing situations most weeks. But it’s a fun way for creator Vince Gilligan, who also directed this episode, to make viewers wonder how a dad like him ended up in a place like this. A lesser show — or maybe a show like Malcolm in the Middle — would think about using a freeze-frame and a record scratch for this “You’re probably wondering how I got here” situation.
How Walt got there is through an epic midlife crisis. One minute, he’s gnawing on the veggie bacon Skylar has thoughtfully arranged like a “50” for his birthday — “This smells like Band-Aids,” Junior gripes — and the next, he’s fleeing from a botched meth deal that’s left two dead and his partner unconscious. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; Gilligan spends much of the pilot carefully laying out the parameters of Walt’s world before he starts breaking bad.
Three weeks before the Winnebago chase, Walt is standing in front of his classroom, illustrating the wonders of chemical change like a magician, but his passion fails to wow a kid named Chad, who turns his loud indifference into its own demonstration. Later, when Walt finds himself scrubbing the wheels of Chad’s expensive car, whatever authority Walt might have had as a teacher melts away, and the smug shit can laugh at him out in the open. When he slumps home late to his birthday party, the humiliation only deepens with Hank holding court before Junior and the other dudes. After Walt holds Hank’s gun and remarks that it’s heavy, Hank says, “That’s why they hire men.” And if Walt wants to see what real men do on the job, he’s welcome to join him on a ride along.
The day Walt takes up Hank on the offer, he’s already resolved to apply his talents to the low art of meth-cooking. And as fate would have it, he lucks into finding his partner, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), stumbling out a bored housewife’s window as Hank and the boys are taking down a meth lab run by “Captain Cook,” who’s known for adding his signature chili powder to his batches. When he figures out that Jesse, his former student, is the real Captain Cook — like a fool, Jesse has a vanity plate attached to his already conspicuously painted car — he doesn’t make an offer so much as an ultimatum: If he teams up with Walt and helps out on the distribution end, they’ll be partners. If not, he’ll turn him in to his brother-in-law. Not exactly the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
There’s another important element to the story that comes out in the cook: art. It isn’t just that Walt wants to prove himself as a crook; he’s working toward an aesthetic standard the competition won’t be able to meet. “You and I will not make garbage,” he tells Jesse. “We will produce a chemically pure and stable product that performs as advertised. No adulterants, no baby formula, no chili powder.” (On that last point, Jesse is hilariously apoplectic: “No chili p?”) After their first cook in the RV produces “glass grade” meth, Walt’s arrogance is practically radioactive. And why shouldn’t it be? His chemistry skills end up saving his life.
For all his arrogance, of course, Walt has no idea what kind of business he’s getting into, much less how to navigate it as a middle-aged dad who doesn’t look the part. And he surely doesn’t anticipate having to beg for his life, dodge bullets, and kill his adversaries after his very first cook — but that’s the way it goes down. What he discovers is his own talent for improvisation: Under the guise of giving Jesse’s former associates Emilio and Krazy-8 a meth tutorial, he uses his chemistry knowledge to create a toxic gas. For all his amateur bungling, Walt is coming into his power, too, and that surge of adrenaline must feel like a breath of crisp mountain air.
Jesse asks Walt why he’s breaking bad. His answer: “I am awake.”
Acids and Bases
• Establishing the look of the show is an important part of any pilot, but it’s particularly important for a series like Breaking Bad, which brings its southwestern setting to life with great cinematic élan. So it’s worth noting that the cinematographer of this first episode is John Toll, who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in consecutive years for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart and was nominated for The Thin Red Line. More recently, he’s been the go-to D.P. for the Wachowskis. In other words, a ringer.
• Cranston’s experience as a comic actor allows us to appreciate the absurdity of Walt’s about-face from put-upon family man to meth-pushing badass. The scene where he tells off his boss at the car wash (“Wipe down this!”), for one, is funny because he looks so awkward doing it. He hasn’t had the practice.
• “Cow house?” “Yeah. Where they live. The cows.”
• A tale of two sex scenes: Walt gets a desultory hand job for his birthday as Skylar pumps with one hand while multitasking on her laptop with the other. At the end of the episode, when Walt surprises her by taking her from behind, it’s immediately clear this position had never been in the marital playbook before. Walt is “awake.” Skylar is confused.