[Editor’s note: Each episode of AMC’s drama Breaking Bad starts with a prologue or teaser. Some of these advance the season’s ongoing plot. Others feel like self-contained, at times experimental short films. We wondered: If you strung all of the opening scenes from the various seasons together in chronological order, would the show’s basic narrative make sense? And, if people who had never watched Breaking Bad watched only these curtain-raisers, would they come away with a more or less accurate impression of the show? Or would it seem like a different program entirely? We asked Press Play contributor Dave Bunting, Jr. to edit the prologues together in chronological order to create two self-contained Breaking Bad movies, one covering Seasons 1 and 2, the other covering 3 and 4. Then we asked another Press Play contributor, Sheila O’Malley — who has never seen a frame of the series — to watch the two compilations and write down her impressions. Sheila was asked not to read any supplementary material before or during the experiment, and she agreed. Her written account is derived entirely from having watched Dave’s compilations. Shorn of everything but its openings, was Breaking Bad still Breaking Bad? Read on and see. If you want to watch exactly what Sheila saw, the prologues for Season 1 and 2 are embedded above.]
Albuquerque has a huge meth problem. Meth labs blow up in the desert, in the suburbs, in the center of urban areas. High schools are broken into, chemistry labs ransacked. The situation has gotten so extreme that an FBI task force has been assigned to investigate. They argue over what to call their investigation. “Operation Icebreaker.” “But isn’t that a breath mint?” There are two Mexicans of the criminal class who have vanished, and it is thought that their disappearance has something to do with the Albuquerque meth war. The meth found at the various crime scenes is purer than anything before seen in the area, so it is clear there are “new players in town”. The FBI is determined to find out who they are.
Breaking Bad is told in a non-linear, non-chronological fashion. Season 1 opens with a climax. The rest of the series is told in flashback. An RV barrels through the desert at breakneck speed, being driven by a man wearing a gas mask. Is he fleeing from a nuclear event? Is he some sort of ecological terrorist? He is so panicked he loses control of the RV. There are dead bodies in the back of the RV. His passenger has been knocked out by the crash, head smashed against the dashboard. The man tosses the gas mask into the dirt, and stands in his underwear beside the crashed RV, recording a farewell message on a flip-cam to his wife and child at home. The sound of sirens fill the air, and he walks up to the road, gun drawn, ready to meet his pursuers.
The series is devoted to showing us how this man got to that desperate point. It leaps around in time.
There are multiple characters whom we follow and track.
First we have gas mask man, who is a chemistry teacher, on medical leave due to his fight with cancer. It is clear that he is living a double life. His wife, Skyler, appears to have no idea that he is also a Drug Lord running a meth lab out of a battered RV. They visit the oncologist. The prognosis does not look good. He is very ill, balding and thin (although he has a full head of hair in the first scene with the getaway RV). The FBI calls a meeting of the school board to discuss the recent theft of chemistry equipment. The teacher gets a round of applause because he is so ill and yet has the commitment to show up at the meeting. Little do they all know that he was the one behind the ransacking of the chem lab in the first place. He spends the meeting distracted, silent, and putting his hand between his wife’s legs under the table.
He partners up with a young kid who used to be one of the main meth dealers in town. The kid has been trying to go straight. We first see him applying for a job at a local business, gleaming-eyed with ambition that he “would make a great salesman”. Unfortunately, without experience or a college education the best he can hope for is to put on a silly costume and stand on the sidewalk as a walking ad. He thinks this is beneath him and storms out. Meanwhile, he can’t walk down the street without former customers coming up to him asking him if he has anything he wants to sell. He deals with some pretty unsavory characters and is finally roped into business with the chemistry teacher who informs him ferociously that this will be an unequal partnership: If anything bad goes down, then they do not know each other. “I want no interaction with the customers whatsoever,” he says. In a quick cut, he is then seen emerging from an exploded building, blood pouring from his nose, carrying a bloodstained bag. The two of them wander the desert, burying a gun, and hitching a ride with a passing truck.
We also see them back in the crashed RV in the desert, staring at the dead bodies in the back, one of which, horrifyingly, starts to move and moan. Flashing back, we see the two of them in a house, wearing gas masks, cleaning up after a brutal murder, body parts blown apart, flushing the meaty pieces down the toilet. They choke and gag at what they are doing. These two bodies are the missing Mexicans we’ve seen earlier, swimming across a muddy river.
The chemistry teacher gets sicker and begins to lose his grip. He is found standing stark-naked in a crowded convenience store. He misses the birth of his baby because he is in the middle of a crisis situation with his meth business. He tells his wife he was stuck in traffic. A neighbor had driven her to the hospital. The chemistry teacher fears that she is having an affair with the neighbor, and judging from the tender way she kisses the neighbor goodbye in the hospital, it seems that his fears are not unfounded.
The drug war in Albuquerque is shown in various innovative ways, an ongoing and creative theme the series revisits again and again.
There’s a veritable music video, with three Mexican singers standing out in the desert, in flashy jackets, playing guitars, and singing about the new Gringo drug lord in town. “Now New Mexico is living up to its name …” they croon in Spanish.
In a cliffhanger of a scene, a rival drug lord, in a white track suit, is murdered by a 10-year-old kid on a bicycle.
A meth lab has blown up in a nice suburban home with a swimming pool. A charred pink teddy bear, with one missing eyeball, floats in the pool, before being lifted out by a looming figure in a Hazmat suit. Evidence is bagged and lined up on the concrete. There are two body bags in the driveway. These are recurring dreamlike images, filmed entirely in black and white, except for the teddy bear, which blazes in pink against the monochromatic background. The bear is shown floating through the water, one side completely burnt from the explosion. This scene is shown repeatedly throughout the series and takes on an increasingly haunting aspect with each insistent repetition. The floating lone eyeball peers up through the water into the blazing light of day before being sucked into the bowels of the pool.
Everyone in the series is working with just one eyeball. Nobody can see the whole picture.