How the Breaking Bad Pilot Foretold TV Greatness

Fifteen years ago, a pair of khakis in the desert introduced viewers to a modern TV masterpiece with the Breaking Bad pilot.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in the Breaking Bad pilot episode.
Photo: Doug Hyun | AMC

Creating a pilot episode of television that can convince a network that your show deserves their time and attention is incredibly difficult. Once you’ve done so, morphing those novel ideas into concepts, characters, and plotlines that will resonate with the audience for many episodes to come is even more challenging. Viewers want something to latch onto when they first tune in for a new series. With so much to watch, they need to know that investing patience into a brand new show will pay off.

Breaking Bad’s pilot episode aired 15 years ago this Jan. 20, and it’s one of the best introductions in the history of the medium. Aired on the underrated network AMC, which at the time had also just launched another generational drama, Mad Men, the Vince Gilligan-created masterpiece had to make sure it hit a massive home run to draw the attention of fans who were still focused on broadcast television. 

The streaming industry was still a ways away in 2008 and cable dramas were just starting to reign supreme in the late 2000s. Showtime’s Dexter, FX’s Sons on Anarchy, and HBO’s True Blood also launched around this time period. But out of all the shows that began their journey around the same time as Breaking Bad, Showtime’s Weeds was the program some viewers thought the AMC pilot was going to knock off. This comedy-drama starred Mary-Louise Parker in the role of a mother who sells marijuana to support her children as a widow. The show ended up being more satirical than serious, something that Breaking Bad quickly formed a contrast with. Many people thought the shows would be symmetrical, especially because Breaking Bad was headlined by Bryan Cranston, an actor most known for playing the goofy dad on Fox’s hit early-aughts sitcom Malcolm in the Middle

This shrewd casting choice was where the magic really became tangible for Breaking Bad early on though. From the moment the pilot episode begins, we see the type of chaotic genius Cranston was going to bring to the barren wasteland that was Walter White’s life. Gilligan decides to open the series with the events that occur at the conclusion of the episode, a climactic bang of excitement that probably led to more than a few WTFs being said out loud from people at home. Walter is seen driving rapidly through the New Mexican desert in an RV while in his tighty whities, with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) conked out to his right. 

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Walter’s pants float aimlessly in the distance, an ironic first-glance at the stylistic choices and cinematography that would go on to define the genius of both this show and its eventual prequel, Better Call Saul. This neo-Western setting ended up being more than just circumstantial in importance, instead lending a literary depth to the setting of both series. Ironically, Gilligan had originally planned to film in California, but tax break considerations led to the switch to New Mexico, a state seldom seen in other films and shows.

Even with the backdrop established, there were still plenty of questions remaining. Why is this nerd in his underwear? Why is there a young man knocked into oblivion by his side? What’s the big rush anyway? The fact that a limitless number of questions are available to litter the viewers’ minds when they tune into Breaking Bad serves as a textbook example of how a TV series should start its run. Gilligan and his team were determined to demonstrate the novelty in their story, and this gained the trust of the viewers. From here, the plot can decelerate, and we can get into the nitty-gritty of the whole show. 

Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher. He eats veggie bacon arranged into the shape of his age, 50, for breakfast. His son (RJ Mitte) struggles with the effects of cerebral palsy. His wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is so sexually disinterested in him that she can’t be bothered to stop a bid on Ebay while performing some birthday foreplay. Oh, and his brother-in-law is a big hotshot DEA agent who kicks ass and catches criminals for a living. Every scene is expertly placed to make you sympathize, or maybe even empathize with Walter White. He is a buffet of disappointment, the type of character that makes you feel good about yourself even if you’re living a life of massive triviality.

And just when you can’t think it can get any worse for poor Walter, he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer halfway through the episode. So at least the whole shebang is gonna end soon, right? This plot device couldn’t be any more perfect, though, because impending death is often the only thing that can wake a sleeping giant. Walter’s eventual fate is the activation button for a journey that has never been replicated before or since on TV. We all know what he becomes. Say his name. He is the man who knocks. You know, all that jazz that’s been memed on the internet for over 10 years. Albuquerque’s most dangerous drug lord doesn’t look the part, but only because of the intentional events that are foretold in the pilot. Gilligan wants you to know that Walter has been so desperately looking for a method to his madness for decades. He incessantly insisted in interviews over the years that the character was going to resemble the process of turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface” across the several seasons of the show. 

Walter White is a miserable man who can only find joy at the expense of others, but we only get breadcrumbs of this reality in the first hour of the series. Instead, we immediately want to root for his success, even when his evil is staring us in the eyes. Walter should be appreciative that he has a wife and a child; not everyone gets this luxury. He should want to mold the young minds of high school chemistry students, but instead he toils through his day imagining what could have been occupationally. Some backstory given to Walter’s previous job prospects showed that he was heavily involved in founding Gray Matter, a company that would eventually make his friends from his college years millions of dollars. His downfall is so blatantly obvious that audiences can’t help but give Breaking Bad their undivided attention. 

The pilot is the most important of the 62 episodes of the series because it establishes every piece of the protagonist’s framework. It asks viewers to get on the roller coaster and see it crash and burn. The GOAT-level character work done here by Bryan Cranston is nothing short of mesmerizing. He’s on screen for almost the entirety of the episode, and he embeds Walter with the innocence of Hal Wilkerson, his aforementioned role from Malcolm in the Middle. If any other actor was casted as Walter, it would distract from the end goal of the story. Viewers would more easily anticipate what is to come otherwise. Cranston’s likability is a Trojan Horse. The first impression he makes as Walter is so instrumental throughout every season of the show because we just can’t shake what we feel the character is at his core, even if it’s a lie. 

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All these years later, the pilot of Breaking Bad is now responsible for the existence of an entire universe set in this rich world Vince Gilligan created. People can now debate whether Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul is the better show, and viewers can starve for more spinoffs in the future. It’s almost unfathomable to believe when those khakis went airborne across the yellow sands that the TV world would be changed forever, but anything’s possible with a pilot episode executed as well as Breaking Bad’s.

All five seasons of Breaking Bad are available to stream on Netflix.