The Breaking Bad pilot debuted on January 20, 2008 on AMC. It was a modest production that had some ardent fans. The writers' strike of 2007 limited the first season to seven episodes. It had modest ratings. The show was on the bubble. But then everything changed. How?
One summer millions of people found the show on a platform called Netflix.
They caught up with Breaking Bad and tuned in for the next season. The show was a hit, became part of the pop culture lexicon, and the rest is history.
Today we're going back to where it all started, the pilot, to look at how Breaking Bad crafted the perfect start to their story.
But before any of that, you should...
Vince Gilligan was a veteran TV writer who was worried about getting his next job. He mused that if TV didn't work out he might cook meth, and suddenly a character was born. Gilligan got to work writing the script, letting his story pour from his fingers.
Writing a pilot is so hard. You probably need to finish a dozen before you may actually be any good. And even then, it has to be embraced by Hollywood. As Vince Gilligan said,
“The best advice I can think of all time I had is gird up your loins for failure because you will fail more often than you will succeed. And the best advice given that information is go down swinging at something that is important.”
But what makes Breaking Bad the perfect pilot?
The Breaking BadOpening Scene
As we're covered many times before, the opening scene of your pilot matters. Well, every scene matters, but you want to grab people right away. If it's a comedy, they better be laughing. If it's a drama, they better have the feels, and if it's a mix of both...then they better have a pantsless teacher driving a Winnebago through the desert.
Breaking Bad's opening scene does two things:
1. It establishes an interesting flashforward that gives us the stakes of the story
2. It gives us a version of Walter white to build toward, while also getting us excited to read more.
Here's a piece of advice:
Please do not start your pilot with a flashforward. I know it's done here. I know it is perfect here. But Breaking Bad left such an impression on audiences that it will be hard to top it or equal it within your own writing. Instead, focus on what makes your opening scene memorable.
Walter White's Character Arc in the Breaking Bad Pilot
Your pilot episode needs to establish your main character and their goal. Walt is an excellent main character because from opening to closing we care about him. We like Walt because he has problems that are relatable. He's getting old, having trouble providing for his family, disrespected at work, and to make matters worse he's got lung cancer.
The cards are stacked against Walt from the get-go.
Empathy is key to character development, but beyond that, we have to have someone interesting.
Walt is interesting because he's being pushed to the brink. Breaking Bad explores an average person who goes all the way to the edge. We're interested in how our character gets from the opening scene to this point, so the pilot then sets up character moments to show what takes Walt to the edge.
But he's not alone in this journey.
The Character Introduction of Jesse into the Breaking Bad Pilot
Walt is not alone in Breaking Bad, he also has Jesse.
But, in the pilot, Jesse's character was originally named Marion Dupree. I googled for a long time and didn't find an explanation why, but I think Jesse Pinkman is a way better name so I am glad they changed it.
Walt running into Jesse is a total coincidence, but it's one that helps get him into trouble.
The best pilots do a great job of building the character's world out very naturally.
Walt is led to Jesse via Hank. Hank comes to Walt because Marie is Skylar's sister.
See how these natural ties build out who's in Walt's world?
Think about your character? Who would they see and be with every day? Those people populate their world. Now, who do they run into based on where they are?
The End of the Breaking Bad Pilot
Your show is only as good as the ending. You want to leave everyone watching wanting more. So how does Breaking Bad end? We're tied to Walter now. He has a secret, one he can never tell. And with that secret comes lies. Lies Walter tells other people and the lies Walter tells himself.
Since the pilot opens with such a bang, it's fitting that it closes with what is a more quiet and personal moment.
Walter kisses his wife and makes love to her because he's been reborn. When we opened he was a man ready to die. Now he knows that being alive is better for his family, but he also know the bad things he's doing are truly what turned his life around. He's always had a caring wife. but he hasn't always known the thrill of cooking meth, killing men, and taking his future into his own hands.
This little move of the dial clues us into where Walt might be going. and we went with him for five seasons.
What sets Breaking Bad apart for you? What was the moment within the pilot you knew you were hooked?
Let us know in the comments!
What's next? Learn how to write a TV Pilot!
Want to learn how to write a TV pilot? You've come to the right place.
Breaking into Hollywood with a writing career is one of the hardest things you can do. Fewer and fewer movies are being made every year, and now, many young writers are turning to television to find jobs. But to get a job in television you need a sample. Samples are speculative pilot scripts that your agent or manager can hand to showrunners to prove your worth.
Click the link to learn more!