Why the first 10 minutes of the Breaking Bad pilot episode contain the most important scenes in its entire five season run.
Welcome to Ten Minute Textualism, an offshoot of Sight Unsound where filmmaker Ted Wilkes will talk you through his favourite 10 minute segments of film and TV, and why even the smallest moments can mean so much
This week, I’ll be discussing the opening 10 and a bit pages of Breaking Bad’s episode one script, and how the tiniest details within Vince Gilligan’s dialogue help propel the narrative of the pilot forward and set up the conflicts and dilemmas for the remaining five seasons.
I’m mainly focusing on the first 10 pages of the scripted version of the show which has moments that did not make it to the broadcast version, but will make reference to moments that are only in the filmed pilot episode… and beyond. Be warned there may be spoilers…
Welcome to ten minute textualism.
Breaking Bad opens with a long tease of our protagonist, Walter White, escaping from the law in a Winnebago/meth lab. Although the tease is more to arouse our curiosity with questions as to how and why our characters have ended up in this predicament, it also gives us some information about the series.
Firstly, when we meet Walter he is obviously not cut out for a life of crime. He is an ingénue in the world of cooking meth, displayed to us with his unsuitable attire for the job and his panicked speech to camera about the decisions that have brought him to this point.
White also begins to mention his family and show us his school ID card, making direct references to the ordinary world that he first came from (his typical precinct, which will be brought into conflict with the new one he finds in his life of crime).
The main imagery in the first few scenes is of sleeping. Walt lies awake next to his wife, half asleep, staring over at the clock. He decides to get out of the bed and moves to use a ‘stair-stepper’, which mimics the action of sleep walking. It could be argued that the first episode is Walt’s journey towards ‘waking up’ – he needs to recognise he has cancer and do something about it. Later in the episode he even makes a conscious reference to his transition from his state of sleeping to being awake by telling Jesse that he is indeed “awake” now.
Although, conversely, when we first meet Walt he has woken up of his own accord, possibly alerting us to the fact that he already knows about his cancer and is in the process of deciding what to do about it.
After he finishes exercising Walt attempts to masturbate in the bathroom, but is unable to maintain an erection and stops. It introduces us to a B-story for this episode – Walt is struggling with his sexual performance. This is also key to understanding that Walter, currently, isn’t characterised as a ‘real man’.
Later in the episode Skyler and her sister (Marie) gossip about Walter’s under-performance in the bedroom, and later still Skyler barely pays attention as she is intimate with Walter for his birthday; her gratification coming not from the action that she is performing, but the fact that she has made money selling a trinket online.
We can see the growth of Walt in the episode, as in its final scene he is able to make confident, if a little forceful, love to his wife that the pair of them appear to enjoy. The theme of Walt’s change in this area can be further compounded with a scene in season five when Walt corners and dominates Skyler in bed.
We are then shown Walter at the breakfast table with his family (Skyler and Walter Jr, his son). This is obviously the ‘family’ unit, not just in a biological sense, but also (part of) the family of the show. It appears from the outset that they look out for one another. Skyler even states, “We need to think about our cholesterol” joining the whole family under Walt with the use of “we”.
The notion that the family will soon be joined by a new arrival is shown to us with a deliberate reference to a new crib that is being built in the spare room. This again reinforces the ingénue status of Walt, he will soon be a father again – to a girl this time – which will be a new experience for him.
The table which they sit at becomes a recurring motif throughout the series. It absorbs some of the other characters in the show who become a ‘pseudo family’ for us to follow. For example, during one episode the Whites have Jesse over for dinner. Unable to fully understand family dynamics Jesse is only able to make stilted conversation and it appears that when the two worlds that Walter is straddling collide (family man and meth kingpin) they are unable to blend. This shows the central conflict in the series at its most basic level.
Now at work, Walter delivers one of the more famous speeches of the series, explaining how the study of chemistry is all about change. His monologue foreshadows his own growth and development throughout the seasons. During the first episodes, Walter delivers various other monologues that are similar to this, which come to show his subconscious leaking through his ego defences as he begins his transition from Walter to Heisenberg.
They also alert us to the fact that Walter is a competent chemist. This will be a key skill that our protagonist will take into his ‘adventure world’ as his expertise will make him stand out among the other meth cooks that, at least in the beginning, he meets. As he slides into the world of crime this skill will become a source of great conflict within the first season as those he works with insist that making meth is an art and not the science which Walter professes it to be – but also the thing that will allow him to survive.
After his class is over Walter has a discussion with another teacher called Margret where the central conflict of the series is once again reinforced. She smokes in front of Walter – a nod to the cancer that it will soon be revealed Walt has – and asks him not to “narc” on her (slang for narcotics, the business that Walt will soon find himself in). It also is the first time in the pilot script that we are made aware that it is Walt’s birthday (in the show this is flagged up at the breakfast table). In the scripted version this roots Walt further in the precinct of the High school – he is both a well-liked and well respected member of the faculty. However, the most interesting aspect of the exchange is the following:
WALT: Those things’ll kill you, you know.
MARGET: Something always does.
In this we are alerted to one of the main themes within Breaking Bad: ‘What is it to know that you are going to die?’ Margret (for the moment) seems to embrace the idea that death is inevitable and that it almost should be welcomed. Walt on the other hand is obviously not a smoker himself and seems preoccupied by his own mortality.
The decision to set the opening episode on Walt’s birthday further reinforces the notion that he is an ingénue, as he is entering into a new stage of his life physically.
The first 10 pages of the pilot end with Walter being unhappy that he is being thrown a surprise party for his birthday. It is interesting to note that later in a subsequent episode ’50-51′ Walter is now well on his way to transitioning to his alter-ego ‘Heisenberg’ and now expects to receive a party for his 51st birthday. He is disappointed that there isn’t a fuss made of him because he is now more secure in his new identity.
So what do you guys think? Are there moments in Breaking Bad that you saw a different way? Is there anything that you think I might have missed? Or are there any other shows or films that you’d like us to cover here in Ten Minute Textualism?
Drop us a comment below the video and don’t forget that you can like and subscribe to make sure that you never miss out on any new Sight Unsound episodes.