SPOILER WARNING: Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, 2008-2013)
Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, 2008-2013) is built upon the premise of how much individuals can change. All of its characters undergo at least one major transformation over the course of the series, and the catalyst for these changes is Walter White (Bryan Cranston) himself. Beginning the series as a mild mannered high school science teacher that is turning fifty, Breaking Bad follows him as he embodies something that has been dwelling within him all along. As Walt “breaks bad” the limit is continually pushed farther and farther, until the man that he is at the conclusion of the series barely resembles the man whom the series began with. But none of these drastic changes and turns would work or be compelling at all if Breaking Bad did not place its central character at a drastic beginning point. And in this aspect the series succeeds. Though Walt continually evolves over the course of the series, the first episode of Breaking Bad is entirely concerned with establishing him as a completely emasculated character. By placing him at such an extreme beginning point, any change that Walt undergoes appears drastic and compelling to the audience, and because of this the character of Walt succeeds as a whole.
The humiliations of Walt are seemingly never-ending in the pilot episode of the series (SE 1, EP 1). Beginning with his fiftieth birthday breakfast being composed of cholesterol-free bacon, and continuing as he is consistently talked down too by his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) and son Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), Walt’s entire day is composed of nothing but reminders of his lack of assertion. Walt’s relation to Skylar can be somewhat problematic in this aspect, as the series implies that he should assert dominance over her, but it is important to note that Breaking Bad does not necessarily reward Walt for his later, more dominant, actions towards his wife. This is not to say that Walt’s beginning relationship with his wife is one that he should be content with, but equality of the two characters is desirable, as opposed to one exerting dominance over the other. But regardless of what the problematic nature of how Walt perceives that he should be, his beginning position is one that makes it clear that he is not where he wants to be, and the audience is immediately able to recognize this.
Walt’s humiliations do not end with his home life though, as it soon becomes apparent that his professional life is far from one that he desires. As is shown early in the episode, Walt is a recognized and awarded scientist, as he contributed to research that ultimately won a Nobel Prize. However, he now teaches high school Chemistry and works a second job at a car wash. Though the series will later elaborate on how exactly Walt found himself in his current situation, the first episode makes it clear to the audience that his current life situation is completely emasculating to him. He is disrespected by his students in his classroom and his boss (Marius Stan) at the car wash, and Walt does not have the nerve to stand up to either of them. Even when he eventually returns to his home the humiliations do not end. As he attends his own birthday party, Walt is continually jabbed at by his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), who draws more attention at the party than Walt does. Even though he is clearly bothered by Hank’s behavior and antics, once again he does not say or do anything. Essentially, Walt is a non-character.
It is only after his lung cancer diagnosis that Walt begins to truly act in his life. But even as he begins to act somewhat out of character, Walt still remains relatively weak. His outburst against Bogdan, while effective, is still marked by how uncomfortable he is doing anything out the ordinary. Even as he yells at his former boss, Walt still appears as an uncomfortable and awkward man, not cool or composed. The series argues as much as well, partially evidenced by how it portrays Walt as he goes on a ride along with Hank. As Walt buckles up in the backseat of Hank’s minivan in an ill-fitting bullet-proof vest, he is framed against an SUV of DEA agents with some standing on the outside of the vehicle. Walt, though he is acting somewhat out of character, is still far from being a strong and asserting person.
Walt’s self-assertion only begins once he gains leverage over his former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Herein begins the true emerging of Walt as he begins to become something more than what he has been. But though Breaking Bad eventually spells out that Walt is, at least initially, in the meth business for the money, the pilot episode only hints at this. More than anything, Walt seems to want to cook meth just so he can prove to himself that he is capable of something more than being a meek law-abiding citizen. But the change that Walt undergoes is far more than a simple willingness to cook meth. His explosive nature is shown as he threatens and nearly cripples a group of bullies whom are making fun of his son. He also does not harbor any qualms about attempting to kill two drug dealers that are threatening him and Jesse, though this is more in self-defense than anything. Walt’s final act of assertion in the first episode is his action towards Skylar as he initiates rough sex with her. This act brings back the problematic nature of Walt’s transformation; as though he does not force himself upon her his actions are clearly somewhat violent in nature and without regard to what Skylar may want. She does consent to his actions, but the forcefulness of Walt calls into question what would happen if she did not. The series does eventually explore this possibility in a similar situation, and it becomes increasingly clear that Walt’s transformation brings with it harmful consequences to all involved.
Walt’s trifecta of out-of-character violent actions, his attacking of the bullies, killing of the drug dealers, and sex with Skylar, illustrates how is actions affect everyone around him. No one is immune to what Walt’s explosive nature, and in the same way Walt is not immune to it either. Many of the problems Walt faces in the initial episode are because of his own rash decisions, but it is important to not that none of his violent actions come back to bite him in the pilot episode. Beginning the episode almost completely emasculated, Walt’s transformation is drastic, but also imperfect. He becomes what he sees as the ideal person, not the person he should be. Walt is mostly destructive towards those around him, regardless of who they are. Even Jesse, an essential part to Walt’s plan, is not immune from this as Walt threatens to turn him in if he does not help him. Overall, Walt is corrosive to his environment, and his transformation in the initial episode is destructive and drastic enough that it is telling to the terminality of Walt’s character. Though his transformation is beneficial to him, the negative effects are still present and it is clear that either Walt’s current life status or new persona cannot last forever. Every aspect of Walt is terminal, from his health to his actions, and the arc that he completes in the initial episode is telling of his destructive nature and its consequences. Though he is better for his actions at the conclusion of the initial episode, the negative aspects of Walt’s actions cannot be ignored and they are telling of their eventual and tragic repercussions.