A classic pilot! And it’s actually a pretty good one, in the sense that, like all the best pilots, it’s a microcosm of the whole. This series premiere captures everything I admire, and exemplifies everything I find completely facile about Breaking Bad.
Hence the tentative format of this hatewatch: a quick summary, then everything good, bad, and annoyingly overrated about the pilot.
Walter is a sad science teacher who is sad. He’s sad that he can’t get hard for his wife, who gives him a sad birthday handjob. He’s sad that he’s saddled with a beautiful family, including a very sweet teenaged son and an unborn baby. He’s sad that his brother-in-law is super macho and he’s kind of a weenie. He finds out he has terminal cancer, which is actually kind of sad. He asks to go on a ride-along with his racist macho brother-in-law to catch drug dealers, and sees his former student escape a crime scene. He cooks meth with the student using his skills as a chemistry teacher. He almost gets murdered by rival drug dealers, and then kills them with meth-adjacent poison gas, again using his chemistry knowledge. Between the killing, the dying, and selfishly putting his family in mortal danger, he’s finally the toxic, terrible man he always wanted to be. He finally gets hard again and is not so sad. The End! Erections for everyone!
The cinematography, of course. A lot of the criteria for “prestige” rest on white male privilege, but cinematography is a relatively objective marker of a well-made show, and this pilot is freaking beautiful. It makes the American Southwest look simultaneously gorgeous and desolate, which fits the tone of the show perfectly.
Jesse Pinkman. Pretty much everything about him. The funny one-liners (“This smells like Band-Aids!”). The hurt-puppy-dog element in Aaron Paul’s performance that reminds you, even at the height of the character’s obnoxiousness, that Jesse is basically just a broken kid. The perfect dumbness of making “The Cap’n” his license plate. The chemistry (no pun intended) with Walt. Everything. This character just works.
The overall structure of the writing. I won’t deny that this is an engaging, well-constructed pilot. The in-medias-res opening, a few funny moments, a nice Chekhov’s gun (the offhand mention of poison gas) that comes back at just the right moment. It’s not super special or anything, but it’s easy to see why it got greenlit.
The pants-as-Walt’s-lost-innocence. What can I say? I like me an unsubtle metaphor.
Skyler’s sister, whose name I can’t be bothered to remember. Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to write a character like this? She’s literally just a caricature with no redeemable qualities, and she’s not even funny! Sexism aside, what is even the point of her?
Women and POC characters in general. We’ll talk a lot more about Skyler, I’m sure, but I already feel for her. She’s immediately cast as the villain, and she literally doesn’t do anything wrong. Their sex life is mutually unsatisfying, and she very nicely asks him to check certain purchases with her. Meanwhile, she’s super sweet to their son when Walt can’t be bothered, and is even tolerant of her terrible sister, but she’s still painted as the nagging, shrewish wife because the show buys into Walter’s warped perspective. And then there’s Hank’s casual racism with his Latino partner, which I’m sure many would argue is for the sake of “realism,” but is clearly meant to be part of Hank’s down-home macho charm. It’s not even that the women and POC are portrayed negatively, it’s that they’re completely flat. Even if you don’t care about “wokeness,” this is bad, lazy writing.
Walter’s general unpleasantness. I’ll get to Walter’s supposedly “brilliant” character arc in a bit, but his overall personality is just sort of annoying. Even in his relatively casual interactions, like his first scene with Jesse, he’s smug, condescending, and just generally asshole-ish. I will never understand how anyone thought Skyler was the “unlikable” one in this show.
A few more nitpicks. There are a few inconsistencies that might not be distracting in any other show, but in a show that’s often hailed as the best show of all time (or second, after Matthew Wiener’s other classic “white man whining” show), they stick out. Like, why didn’t the hospital call Skyler when Walter passed out? And why weren’t there any consequences for Walter literally assaulting a child in public? Weren’t there security cameras? And why does Jesse Pinkman even have a video camera to record his illegal activities? I know he’s supposed to be dumb, but he wouldn’t have made it this far as a criminal if he were that dumb.
The cringeworthy ending, when he fucks his wife with his newly masculated penis. Then Skyler delivers the most embarrassing line of the episode: a rapturous “Walt, is that you??” (No, Skyler, in fact, it’s not him! He’s already a changed man! He’s broken bad! He’s the man who knocks! I already can’t with this show.)
Walter’s character arc: All anyone ever talks about is how amazing Walter’s arc is. But in the same vein, the entire novelty of his arc rests on the very special place white men hold in our society. We love seeing mild-mannered white men turn into bad-asses after a tragedy–that’s all of our superheroes! But would anyone forgive his insane levels of selfishness in a woman, especially if her reckless behavior put her family in danger? Even an actual bad-ass like Carrie Mathison isn’t as aspirational to the average TV viewer as Walter White. And what if Walter were a POC? No one would want to watch Breaking Bad if it were about a man of color who becomes a drug dealer, because it would have seemed too on-the-nose.
Plus, it’s all just sort of predictable. I get it, he’s Breaking Bad, it’s right there in the title!
I enjoyed when Walter discussed chemistry as the “study of change,” as a meta-commentary about the thesis of the show. But does the show actually live up to that thesis? He’s such an asshole at the beginning that there’s really nowhere to go from there. It’s not all that dynamic to watch an asshole become an even bigger asshole.
Walter White’s secret pain. I’m stealing a Nerdy Spice-ism here. She always says–and rightly so–that she gets tired of hearing about white men’s “secret pain” on television as justification for their shitty, selfish behavior. She coined the term about Don Draper, but at least Don actually did have a pretty shit childhood. What’s Walter’s great sob story? That he has a nice, pretty wife who gives him slightly awkward handjobs? That he has a good, respectable job, but isn’t rich? That he has a wonderful kid who loves and needs him, with a baby on the way? Poor guy! Let me play a sad song on the world’s tiniest violin!
In all seriousness, though, it sucks that he gets cancer, and even suckier that he feels like he can’t pay for it. If that had really been the reason he “broke bad,” because he loved his family and wanted to provide for them, that would have been sympathetic. It might have even been an interesting commentary on our fucked up healthcare system. But instead, as we soon find out, this fucking guy has a rich friend who’s willing to pay for his healthcare! How fucking lucky! I bet all the people in this country who are actually struggling to pay for healthcare wish they had that opportunity! But no, he turns it down, all because of his actual “secret pain”: emasculation.
The pilot is so open about Walter’s feelings of emasculation, and their role in his decision to “break bad,” that you could almost mistake the show for a commentary on toxic masculinity. But it’s not. Instead, we’re meant to feel sorry for Walter, not really because he has cancer, but because he’s a dorky science teacher who feels inadequate next to his macho brother-in-law and never punched out any bullies in his life and, yes, gets awkward handjobs from his wife on his birthday. We’re supposed to root for him a little when he beats up the children who make fun of his son, rather than just comforting his son like an actual parent. (Luckily, he can leave all the actual parenting to Skyler.) It’s generally gross.
Let’s unpack this for a minute, though, because there are many beautiful works of art that star disgusting characters. Garnering sympathy for a terrible character in order to make the audience complicit in his terribleness is one of my favorite literary tricks. The most obvious example is Lolita, which was written by a not-particularly-woke man from an explicitly male gaze-y perspective. Nabokov had an extremely tough ethical tightrope to walk: get the audience to sympathize with a pedophile, but never let them forget the horror of what’s actually happening. Depict Dolores as a figment of his imagination, while also giving enough space in the unreliable narration for her humanity. And he nailed it. A close reader could never forget that Dolores is a twelve-year-old child, or that underneath his grandiose poetry, Humbert Humbert is a monster, committing an unforgivable act of violence.
A recent (and less successful) example of this technique is the Lifetime show You. You started off as a very successful critique of the stalker-y behavior committed by “nice guys” who view themselves as romantic heroes. In the first episode, mild-mannered bookseller Joe waxes poetic about wanting to protect his love interest Beck from terrible men, and then (spoiler!) hits her fuck buddy in the head with a hammer and holds him hostage in a book cage. Many young fans, sadly, still interpreted this episode as an ode to its “misunderstood” hero, but the showrunners couldn’t be blamed for that. That interpretation simply wasn’t supported by the text of the show.
But it’s a tough tightrope to walk, and no matter how good the intentions were, the show failed as a critique. By the end, Joe informs Beck that his stalking has made Beck’s life better in myriad ways, and it’s actually true. Beck is portrayed as annoying and vapid, and is never given enough humanity to challenge his view of her as a Daisy Buchanan-esqe trope. And worst of all, (bigger spoiler!) the show kills her off, so Joe becomes the audience’s only entry point into season two. All of a sudden, the show lived up to everything the most toxic fans thought it was. If the writers were trying to fake out the audience, if they were trying to make us fall in love with Joe to comment on our collective lust for serial killers, they did way too good a job.
A lot of people talk to me about Breaking Bad like it’s another Lolita–a character study that brilliantly deconstructs the main character’s terribleness. Nerdy Spice stopped watching the show after one episode because she thought it seemed like a Mad Men–a show whose critique of the antiheroic main character is dwarfed (if not eclipsed) by its sympathy and admiration. My feeling is that it’s more of a You–i.e. somewhere in the middle. I would buy the argument that the writers are aware that Walter is a terrible person, but how aware are they, exactly? As much as this episode lays bare Walter’s flaws, I had the distinct impression that we were supposed to cheer for him a little when he beat up those bullies, or when said, “Wipe down this!” to his terrible boss while grabbing his crotch. Their critique of toxic masculinity can only go so far if they structure the most triumphant moments of the pilot around gross displays of testosterone.
And there’s a difference between revealing a character’s flaw and condemning it. In this first episode, we’re so deep in his perspective, that it seems like his hubris is supposed to be a “tragic flaw,” a reason to root for him as our classic (white male) hero. Is he supposed to be a Humbert Humbert, or an Oedipus? I’m guessing the latter, but I’m honestly not sure.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe over the course of this rewatch, I’ll be a convert. Maybe I’ll decide that it’s just the terrible fans of Breaking Bad who hated Skyler for no reason, who rooted for Walter when the text didn’t support it. Maybe Breaking Bad is actually a better show than Lifetime’s You. Or maybe, like in You, the writers start off pretending to sympathize with Walter, and then end up falling for their own hype. Let’s see how it goes, shall we?
Next week: the infamous bathtub scene!