Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Breaking Bad - "Pilot" (season 1, episode 1)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Breaking Bad - "Pilot" (season 1, episode 1)


Welcome to my viewing diary for Breaking Bad. Each day (except Saturday) I am offering a short review of another episode until concluding the first season. Later seasons will be covered at another time. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on January 20, 2008/written & directed by Vince Gilligan): Any number of small things could have gone differently and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) wouldn't be standing here, on the side of a desert highway in his tighty whiteys and ridiculously incongrous green shirt, weeping and holding a gun aloft, ready to fire on the armada of police cars he hears in the distance as they approach his meth lab RV with two dead bodies in the back. What if Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) hadn't run into his suspicious ex-partner when trying to unload his new product? What if Walter hadn't recognized Jesse, his former student, fleeing a raid, or what if Jesse hadn't been screwing the next-door neighbor when the DEA came knocking, or what if Walter hadn't chosen that particular morning to ride along with his cocky brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris)...and what if he didn't happen to be out of the car when when Jesse made that fatal eye contact with Mr. White, the chemistry teacher who flunked him years ago but now wants in on his business? Despite this string of coincidences, these events, and this outcome, don't feel accidental. Instead they seem to emerge from the nexus of fate and decisive action. At every absurd, outlandish opportunity, Walter chooses to step in a particular direction. More importantly, everything unfolds against the stark backdrop of Walter's cancer diagnosis, exacerbating and inflaming what might otherwise be a run-of-the-mill midlife crisis or even a steadily repressed, grinding misery that might never find expression at all. Three weeks earlier, Walter was a nebbishy teacher, quietly nibbling on his wife Skylar's (Anna Gunn's) vegetarian bacon and taking his son Walter Jr.'s (RJ Mitte's) good-natured ribbing in stride. ("How does it feel to be old?" the boy asks Walter on his fiftieth birthday.) Now, as the gun misfires and the sirens reveal themselves to belong to firetrucks and ambulances, Walter discovers that the same fate that condemned him has also spared him. Walter is a drug dealer, a killer (albeit, so far anyway, in self-defense), a criminal who seems to feel liberated by "breaking bad." And so it begins.

My Response:
This is such a great series premiere, one of the - if not simply the - best I've seen. As with several other shows for which I finally initiated viewing diaries, I have already watched the first episode three times; in this case, however, the episode never grows old. This a marvel of tight construction and point of view (I think only two scenes don't feature Walter) and as such, it feels more like a film than a TV show. The photography is good, not necessarily flashy, but it's specifically the cutting that stands out as cinematic, constantly - in collaboration with the sound design - taking us inside Walter's head. When I first cued up this episode, early in 2014, this was not the Walter I was expecting (though this series does not contain plot spoilers, I am going to refer to general impressions gleaned from the media before I watched any of it, so skip several lines if you're actually flying that blind). At the time, only six months had passed since the show went out with a bang, capturing an audience much bigger than most cable shows in its last season and especially its finale. Walter was everywhere - on t-shirts and posters, a scowling, menacing figure who looked powerfully built and intimidating with his bald dome and air of authority. When the frantic, scrawny, underwear-clad driver of the RV leaped out onto the dusty road, with his full head of hair and an overwhelming aura of "why me?" I wondered who this character was, and why we were starting with him instead of Walter. Then he announced his name for the DV cam, recording his last will and testament...sure enough, this guy is Walter. I was also surprised by the tone of the episode: this is, essentially, a dry, acerbic comedy, violent and gritty but relishing the ridiculousness of its premise. It frequently goes for gags (like Skylar interrupting a hand job to celebrate an eBay sale) or odd-couple banter between Walter and Jesse. I know the show will darken and intensify as it goes along, but I expect it will maintain some of this humor too. With this quality, if the shift unfolds like I expect it will, Breaking Bad will echo The Sopranos, which kicked off closer to Analyze This than The Godfather. Anyway, I made it nearly through the first season on my first viewing. I'm looking forward to taking that journey again - as well as the longer one ahead.

No comments: