The image of Bryan Cranston in a pair tighty-whities, a green shirt and a gun in the middle of the New Mexico desert has become such an iconic image of popular culture, that sometimes it’s hard to believe that it hasn’t existed for longer.
So it was, ten years ago, Breaking Bad arrived, with little fanfare, on an American cable channel that was simply trying to find a way to make a wave in a market that HBO and Showtime were dominating. That AMC brought Mad Men and Breaking Bad to our screens within months of each other must surely rank as one of the greatest decisions made in television history.
While we may think of the series as a juggernaut now (think of the plethora of “I Am The Danger” merchandise that you see in shops nowadays), like all great success stories, Breaking Bad had to work hard to the level of success that we now associate with it; many other cable channels turned the series down, most notably HBO, the nine episode plan for season one was cut down by two episodes due to the WGA Writer’s Strike, while in the UK 5USA and FX (now Fox) both dropped the series after showing the first two seasons, the series failing to win a sizeable audience (their loss would be Netflix’s gain when the streaming giant arrived in the UK).
Inspired by a conversation he had with Thomas Schnauz (a fellow X-Files writer who would go on to write many of Breaking Bad’s best episodes), the idea came about when the two writers joke during a period of unemployment that they should just buy an RV and cook meth and sell it around the country. Eventually the idea morphed into what Gilligan described as “Mr Chips Becomes Scarface.”
The first season of the series is remarkably its most straight forward, but straight forward is a contradiction in terms when it comes to Breaking Bad, and one can see right away the genius of the show and its creator right from the opening moments, the now iconic image of a pair of trousers floating gently in the sky as if it the distant relative of the feather from Forrest Gump; it’s surreal, strange, funny, and yet has a distinct level of threat to it because something isn’t quite right about it, which is probably Breaking Bad in a nutshell.
Vince Gilligan had become a cult favourite thanks to an incredibly brilliant run of work on The X-Files, with episodes such as “Pusher”, “Unruhe”, “Paper Hearts” and “Hungry” putting a more human and uncomfortably three-dimensional exploration into the heart of the type of monster that the series did so well. In many respects one can see the emergence of Walter White in the likes of Robert Modell and Rob Roberts, villains with supernatural abilities that we get to see in a more human way than previous depiction of the type of genre monsters the series dabbled in, and who are humanised to a level that other writers on the show had never done before.
While Breaking Bad has no supernatural elements, it would be a series that would take its lead character and effectively portray on a very human level his descent into the type of character who had only been seen in gangster movies. While later seasons would take this idea and run with it at full speed, we see glimpses of where the character of Walter will go over the course of its tightly produced five season run; he may not want to get his hand dirty as he demands of his reluctant partner Jesse (the superb Aaron Paul), but when it comes down to it Walter will shave his head and blow the hell out of a crime lord’s building if needs be.
For a character that we see emerge into the world of crime and drug dealing, the series spends, even from its first season, as much time with him in the kitchen, the living room and dining room tables as it does in a meth lab and the headquarters of a deranged crime lord. Not for nothing that many key scenes take place at the White’s dining room table. Where in The X-Files Gilligan humanised the monsters of the supernatural, or at least gave them a more human face, here he domesticates the next big crime lord in a way that goes beyond even something like The Sopranos.
The first season is seven glorious episodes of brilliantly fine tuned television. The casting of Bryan Cranston may have raised eyebrows, but Gilligan knew he could do it, knowing full well that Hal from Malcolm in the Middle could deliver the darker goods, having portrayed a guest character in the Gilligan-written X-Files episode “Drive” (a must watch episode, no surprise there).
Right way with the series, Gilligan anchors Walter’s life through several key relationships; his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) and son Walter Jr (RJ Mitte), his brother and sister-in-law Hank (Dean Morris) and Marie, and of course Jesse (Aaron Paul), who will become the most important person in his life over the course of five seasons, for good and for bad.
The series looks and feels cinematic and bold from the off, the blue skies and yellow desert pop in a way that television very rarely feels, most of which is established by John Toll’s superb cinematography; the soundscapes are also deliriously cinematic, with Dave Porter’s score just under the surface, an uncomfortable but magnetic presence, while the use of sound, most potently when Walter receives his diagnosis, being especially powerful (a sound motif that will repeat throughout the series).
At only seven episodes, the season never out stays its welcome, but it leaves you wanting so much more, with a final scene that pushes into the limits of brutality, leaving a threat to linger in the air that makes you truly worry for our protagonists. Future seasons are without a doubt more elaborate, but as opening seasons go, Breaking Bad opens up in such a way that it grips like a vice from its opening shot.
Television would never be the same again. Hard to believe it started with a pair of trousers floating majestically in the sky.