This article contains spoilers for all five seasons of Breaking Bad.
Since Breaking Bad drew to a close on Sunday, many of its eulogies have focused on how its serialised narrative has played with the format of television drama. You can argue that soap operas use the same technique, but the series has garnered acclaim and multitudes of fans for telling a thematically rich story that has ostensibly continued as one serial over six years.
The series has also kept viewers on the edge of their seats by cutting off at crucial switch in that serial, but arguably, it’s not the cliffhangers that became the show’s trademark. Vince Gilligan and his writing team are unbeatable when it comes to beginning and ending episodes, but the series is better than any other I’ve seen when it comes to the art of the pre-titles sequence, known as a ‘cold open’.
These cold opens are routinely superb, often employing non-sequiturs that become more significant over the course of the following episode, or even over several episodes to come. They’re almost always visually striking, even when isolated from the visceral quality that has come to define the series’ storytelling.
So, to mark the series’ conclusion, here’s our pick of the greatest cold opens that the series ever produced…
10. Fly(season three, episode ten)
Only so low on the list because it’s not the most complex example of a cold open, this is somehow manages to be both esoteric and straight-forward. Fly, directed by Looper‘s Rian Johnson, is a two-hander and a bottle episode, set entirely in Walt and Jesse’s super-lab, as our favorite meth cooks essentially make Looney Tunes of themselves, chasing after a house fly that could contaminate their latest batch.
This doesn’t immediately become clear from the opening, however, which features extreme close-ups on the fly, edited together in a disorienting fashion, while Walt’s wife Skyler sings Hush Little Baby.
It only lasts thirty seconds, before the opening titles, but the combination of “what the hell is going on?” and the lullaby is disconcertingly effective, and Johnson’s visceral work makes a striking start to an especially memorable episode.
9. Kafkaesque(season three, episode nine)
“The finest ingredients are brought together with love and care, then slow cooked to perfection. Yes, the old ways are still best at Los Pollos Hermanos. But don’t take my word for it. One taste, and you’ll know.”
Los Pollos Hermanos gets an uncannily accurate fast food TV ad in this opener, before carrying off a perfect segue into a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant, which we now know is a front for the distribution empire ran by Gus Fring, (Giancarlo Esposito.)
Bags of blue meth are dunked into large tubs of chicken batter and shipped off across the country. With the chirpy ad having already set the tone for the opener, we see Gus proudly overseeing his criminal enterprise. The honeymoon part of his business relationship with Walt and Jesse ends shortly thereafter, and things are never quite this smooth again…
8. Half Measures(season three, episode twelve)
There are full hours of television that feature fewer blow jobs than this opener crammed into two or three minutes. As season three hurtled towards a game-changing professional disagreement between Jesse and Gus, this pivotal episode opens in a cheekier style, reintroducing Wendy the prostitute in a gleeful musical montage.
It covers a day in Wendy’s working life, earning enough money to buy some blue meth from the two dealers that killed Jesse’s buddy, Combo. The montage plays out to the tune of Windy, a chirpy 1967 hit for The Association.
Breaking Bad gave us a few cracking montages over the last six years, often making great use of time-lapse photography in its visual style. This is one of the bouncier and funnier ones, not least for expert timing on editor Kelley Dixon’s part, with the lyric “Who’s bending down to give me a rainbow?” In typical form, the episode that followed got just a little bit darker.
7. Live Free Or Die/Blood Money(season five, episodes one and nine)
Foreshadowing has always been one of the more impressive functions of the Breaking Bad cold open. I’ve paired these ones up, because they’re two instances of the final season flashing ahead to the end, and each of them have a crucial bearing on the series finale.
Live Free Or Die is the most jarring of the two- Walt has a full head of hair once again, and his beard is much more unkempt. It’s also his 52nd birthday, which places the action a whole year ahead of where we’re up to at this point in the series. He picks at a birthday breakfast at a branch of Denny’s, and then meets with his gun dealer, Lawson, and gets himself a M60 machine gun.
The opening of Blood Money raises even more questions about this glimpse of the future. The White household has been fenced off, with skateboarders taking advantage of the empty pool. Walt sneaks into his now abandoned home and retrieves a vial of ricin from behind a plug socket.
As you’ll now know, the ricin and the machine gun each proved to have vital importance in the final showdown- there’s almost a question of whether the show has become so good at foreshadowing, it tricked itself out of any big surprises in the final episode.
But the reason why both of these openers are so memorable is that they raise many other questions that needed to be answered over the course of the final season, without obviously drawing attention to them. Where’s Walt’s family? Why isn’t he wearing his wedding ring? Does that cough mean his cancer has come back? Even if you’d have preferred to be more surprised by Sunday’s Felina, this is some damn fine foreboding.
6. Dead Freight(season five, episode five)
This was probably the best bit of foreshadowing in the final season, because it’s so separate to the rest of the action, you forget about its importance until the final moments of the episode. It’s pretty simple, just to look at it- a boy called Drew Sharp takes his dirt bike out into the desert and captures a tarantula in a jar before riding away.
The plot of Dead Freight centres on the need for methylamine to keep production going, and a daring train robbery to that end. Walt, Jesse and Mike plan the heist with precision, and ultimately find a way to take a thousand gallons of the chemical without being detected, or hurting any of the train’s crew.
However, just as they celebrate getting away with it, Drew appears on his dirt bike. Quick as a flash, one of the robbers, Todd, pulls out a gun and shoots the boy dead. Cue end credits. It’s rare that Breaking Bad uses a cold open to make a relatively light episode darker, rather than vise versa, but this is one of those cases.
Some might have chosen the cold open from the following episode, Buyout, which focuses on Walt and company disposing of Drew’s body, and his bike, using hydrofluoric acid- the sequence is dark and effective, certainly, but of the two, this one represents the cold open at its best. It’s mysterious, and it turns out to have dire consequences in the serialised narrative.
5. Better Call Saul (season two, episode eight)
The most overtly comedic episode of the whole series also has the funniest cold open, centred entirely around Jesse’s dipshit friend, Badger, (Matt Jones) trying to sell some blue meth to a man who may or may not be a cop.
Badger clocks him for undercover police right away, and refuses to be entrapped. The man responds by telling him that a police officer is obliged by law to identify himself as such, if directly asked by a member of the public. So, Badger asks him if he’s a cop, and he says no.
Satisfied, he pulls out a packet of meth, and is immediately arrested. The sequence is shot in one take, and plays out almost like a comedy sketch. It’s hilarious to watch Badger figure out every step of the cop’s plan, out loud, and still end up falling for it.
And of course, the bench has an ad for Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) on it, foreshadowing how Badger will imminently require the services of Albequerque’s least scrupulous lawyer. In a show that has progressively fewer comedy moments as it goes along, this one stands as a highlight.
4. Bullet switch(season four, episode four)
Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) became a fan favorite character, and this opening shows his badass-ness in action. This really cold open begins by showing us Mike’s visible breath inside the refrigerated cargo hold of a Los Pollos Hermanos truck, which is suddenly besieged by Mexican cartel members.
The drivers are killed, and Mike makes himself a fort out of Pollos boxes. No sooner than he’s hidden himself, the cartel members have at the truck with machine guns, annihilating tubs of batter and leaving the truck full of holes. The gunmen open the doors, and Mike jumps out and shoots them both dead.
The punchline to the scene comes as he hops out of the truck, and winces slightly- a stray bullet has taken out a chunk of his ear. He only seems mildly annoyed, and that’s because Mike is a goddamn man. Starting with this episode, he takes a bigger role in Jesse’s character arc, and this opener serves as a perfect reiteration of the character’s tough personality.
It’s also worth mentioning that Cornered opens in a very similar fashion, two episodes later. This time around, the cartel members play it more deviously, pumping exhaust fumes into the truck and suffocating the two unfortunate guards inside. It’s a hugely effective riff on the earlier cold open, showing how the cartel is pushing the envelope, and how Mike’s smarts are vital to the Pollos operation.
3. Negro Y Azul(season two, episode seven)
This one is, by far, the barmiest cold open of the series. There’s surreal, and then there’s a narcocorrido band singing a drug ballad about a gringo boss called Heisenberg. The music video for Negro Y Azul (meaning ‘Black’, for Walt’s Heisenberg attire, ‘and Blue’ for the colorof his product) has some foreboding lyrics, but it’s mostly just delightfully weird.
It would be a while before we’d see the full extent of the cartel’s fury, in season three and four, but it serves as a fine prologue to an episode that sees Walt’s brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) being promoted to the El Paso branch and discovering just how crazy the cartels can be.
All together now!
“The cartel’s about respect
And they ain’t forgiving
But that homie’s dead
He just doesn’t know it yet”
2. Seven Thirty-Seven(season two, episode one)
The first cold open of the second season gets us off to a real ‘WTF?’ start. When we left Walt and Jesse at the end of the first season, they were caught in the middle of a business meeting gone wrong, with the psychopathic Tuco Salamanca beating his associate to death for speaking out of turn.
Instead of picking up with that right away, season two begins with an ominous black-and-white study of the Whites’ backyard, with an eyeball bobbing about in the pool. It gets sucked into the drain of the pool, as we see the eye belongs to a half-burned pink teddy bear.
Similar cold opens preface later episodes in the season – Down, Over, and the season finale, ABQ. It’s not until the end of the latter episode that we discover that the bear is debris, fallen from a Boeing 737 that collides with another plane, right above Walt’s house in Albuquerque. “Seven three seven down over ABQ.”
This is probably the most dramatic and complex example of foreshadowing in the whole of Breaking Bad, and it makes ABQ‘s punchline all the more affecting for only putting this morbid running gag into context in the very last moments of the season.
1. Breaking Bad or Pilot (season one, episode one)
Although the season openers tend to have very good cold opens as a rule, (Box Cutter and No Mas would be honourable mentions, in addition to the three on this list.) But as it turns out, the opening image of Breaking Bad proves tough to beat.
After some establishing shots of the arid desert highway, we see a pair of men’s shorts flying through the air and fall to the ground, before being run over by a speeding RV. At the steering wheel, Walter White is wearing only a gas mask and his underpants.
Walt crashes the RV into a ditch and bails out, before re-entering the vehicle, not to help an unconscious Jesse in the passenger seat, but to retrieve a wallet and a video camera. He records a cryptic and emotional message to his family before heading towards the noise of approaching sirens and holding a gun aloft.
Then we hear that theme tune for the first time and the episode flashes back three weeks in Walt’s story. The accepted function of the cold open is not only to set up the episode, but to keep the viewer interested in what happens next. In this two and a half minute scene, we’re hooked.
Granted, fans of Bryan Cranston wouldn’t necessarily have dispelled their ideas of Hal from Malcolm In The Middle at their first glimpse of his character in tighty-whiteys, but everything that followed did that quite marvellously.
The importance placed on the opening image immediately puts you in mind of the visually emphatic and cinematic approach that was borne out over all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad. In fact, the whole episode, which creates the sympathy towards Walter White which keeps us going even when he becomes steadily more corrupt, is like the perfect cold open for the five seasons that followed.
Have we missed your favorite cold open from Breaking Bad. Sound off in the comments, and tell us if you think any other series has ever been as good at the cold open.