How Breaking Bad Crafted the Perfect TV Pilot: A Video Essay

“A high school teacher finds out that he has ter­mi­nal can­cer and decides to cook meth in order to make mon­ey for his fam­i­ly.” Twen­ty years ago that would have sound­ed like an insane premise for a tele­vi­sion show. Ten years ago that show actu­al­ly pre­miered. Almost five years ago it end­ed its both wide­ly watched and crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed five-sea­son run. Break­ing Bad could only have emerged at a cer­tain point in tele­vi­sion his­to­ry, when the high-qual­i­ty, cin­e­mat­ic dra­ma became a viable prospect even for a basic-cable net­work like AMC. But it nev­er would have got any­where with­out an impres­sive pilot, the first episode of a series that pro­vides a sense of what the whole thing will be like.

A pilot, for its part, can nev­er get any­where with­out an impres­sive screen­play. Here, YouTube video essay chan­nel Lessons from the Screen­play breaks down the rea­sons the screen­play for Break­ing Bad’s pilot works so well, not least because it per­fect­ly exe­cutes the con­ven­tions of the form. First, it grabs the view­er’s atten­tion with the image of a man bar­rel­ing through the desert in a Win­neba­go, wear­ing only a under­pants and a gas mask. This open­ing sequence, the “teas­er,” quick­ly inten­si­fies and ends with a feel­ing of life-and-death stakes. Then, when the episode prop­er­ly begins, it intro­duces the man in the Win­neba­go, a chem­istry teacher named Walt, by tak­ing us through an ear­li­er day in his high­ly unsat­is­fac­to­ry life: dis­re­spect­ful stu­dents, finan­cial woes, a pas­sion­less mar­riage.

Soon the screen­play address­es the implic­it ques­tion, “What is miss­ing in Walt’s life?”  The scenes the pilot shows us illus­trate that “he is some­one who longs for con­trol and pur­pose, but lacks both.” Then it deliv­ers the “incit­ing inci­dent for the show”: his col­lapse on the job and sub­se­quent can­cer diag­no­sis. Such an inci­dent con­ven­tion­al­ly turns the pro­tag­o­nist’s life upside down, as this one turns Walt’s life upside down, and moti­vate that pro­tag­o­nist to take some kind of action, as it moti­vates Walt to team up with a for­mer stu­dent to start a meth-cook­ing oper­a­tion. Short­ly after that, the now fear­less Walt gets his first taste of pow­er in a fight at a cloth­ing store, begin­ning his trans­for­ma­tion from the meek, put-upon Walt into the steely drug king­pin Wal­ter White — a trans­for­ma­tion that trans­fixed Break­ing Bad’s audi­ence.

“Tele­vi­sion is his­tor­i­cal­ly good at keep­ing its char­ac­ters in a self-imposed sta­sis so that shows go on for years or even decades,” says cre­ator Vince Gilli­gan. “When I real­ized this, the log­i­cal next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fun­da­men­tal dri­ve is toward change?” In this way, Break­ing Bad fur­thered the rev­o­lu­tion in cin­e­mat­ic tele­vi­sion not just with its look and feel or even its con­tent, but with its com­mit­ment to the idea that a char­ac­ter must come out of the sto­ry as a dif­fer­ent per­son than he was when he entered it. The pilot man­ages to do in its own self-con­tained sto­ry while also estab­lish­ing expec­ta­tions for the rest of the series. Break­ing Bad, most crit­ics will agree, met those expec­ta­tions and then some, but with­out a pilot as well-writ­ten as this, it almost cer­tain­ly would­n’t have had the chance to try.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Orig­i­nal Audi­tion Tapes for Break­ing Bad Before the Final Sea­son Debuts

The Break­ing Bad Theme Played with Meth Lab Equip­ment

The Sci­ence of Break­ing Bad: Pro­fes­sor Don­na Nel­son Explains How the Show Gets it Right

Bryan Cranston Reads Shelley’s Son­net “Ozy­man­dias” in Omi­nous Teas­er for Break­ing Bad’s Last Sea­son

Break­ing Bad Illus­trat­ed by Gonzo Artist Ralph Stead­man

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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