The episode openings of “Breaking Bad” are often the show’s most striking and formally daring aspects, incorporating music videos, fake commercials, one-take encounters, flashbacks and strange images we don’t understand until later in the hour or in the season.
Here’s our countdown of the series’ ten best — weigh in with any favorites we left off in the comments.
10. “Better Call Saul”: Season 2, Episode 8
Bouncy, good-natured Badger (Matt L. Jones) is a nice guy, but he’s not the brightest bulb in the basket, as demonstrated in this sequence in which he gets busted by the cops in a kind of meta-sting operation. A stranger, played by TV and film’s go-to lanky actor DJ Qualls, walks up to Badger as he’s sitting on a park bench (bearing an add insisting you “Better Call Saul”) and tries to buy some meth. Badger’s been doing this long enough to sense that something’s up — and as he points out, the brown vans sitting nearby look awfully like surveillance vehicles (instead of vans, they “should do a garbage truck,” he suggests). But after his would-be buyer gets angry and goes to walk away, Badger feels bad, and lets himself be talked (and in fact has to do the persuading) into making the sale by the urban legend that undercover policemen have to answer truthfully when asked if they’re law enforcement (it is not, as Qualls claims, “in the Constitution”). And down goes Badger, with the brown vans he pointed out before pulling up to unleash a flood of Albuquerque’s finest. The hilarious scene, which largely a single take, is also shot with people crossing in front of the camera as if it, too, is part of the surveillance operation, posted across the street.
9. “Pilot”: Season 1, Episode 1
The in medias res opening isn’t in itself so exceptional, but the first episode of “Breaking Bad” does manage to drop its main character into some incredibly deep shit before we ever get to know him. Walt, in his signature tighty-whiteys and a gas mask, is speeding along a dirt road in the middle of nowhere in a rickety RV with a passed out figure we’ll later know to be Jesse at his side and two apparently dead bodies in the back. He’s so panicked and the gas mask is so fogged up that he runs off the road where, resigned to getting caught, he takes out a camcorder to record a goodbye message to his family. Whatever we’ll come to think of Walt as he becomes more and more of the series’ villain as it proceeds, that confession is a powerful look at Walt’s despair and his genuine desire to care for his family, one that will later become a warped excuse for amoral behavior. But here it’s clear just how much Walt is willing (and preparing) to die — he greets the approaching sirens with a gun raised. And those pants, fluttering through that big Land of Enchantment sky, are an early precursor for the show’s love of strange little details that are introduced and then explained.
8. “Seven Thirty-Seven”: Season 2, Episode 1
The opening of this episode and of the second season of “Breaking Bad” turned out to be a repeated motif — a woozy, doom-laden, enigmatic black and white sequence focusing on that floating eyeball there like the baleful gaze of some watchful deity. It’s the White family pool in which that mangled, half-singed teddy bear is floating (no coincidence that two seasons later Gus Fring would face a similar injury), sirens wailing in the background, and as we see more of this flashforward in later episodes — in “Down,” “Over,” “Phoenix” and “ABQ,” the titles forming a sentence warning of what’s to come — we can only piece together that some disaster is coming, something that will leave two bodies out in the front of the house. What eventually arrives isn’t the violent repercussion we might have expected at first, but something weirder and, in some ways, worse. We rarely get to see the addicts using Walt’s product, but in some ways the accident seemed like a stand-in for all of the lives that have been ruined for the sake of, in the use of, or by others because of the drugs he’s putting out.
7. “Negro y Azul”: Season 2, Episode 7
Narcocorridos, drug ballads, are a real thing, with bands detailing the latest exploits of the cartels in their songs (which some compare in terms of content to gangster rap) reaching a wide-ranging audience. Los Cuates de Sinaloa are a actual narcocorrido group who in this opening contribute a ballad about fictional but certainly storied Heisenberg, aka Walt. The concept is itself great and presented with no explanation, but the sequence also takes the form of a low-rent music video in which there are goofy wipes, glimpses of a Walt-like figure standing in the background and later appearing dead on the ground, and shots of bloody money and guns. It’s both more myth-building in the legend of Heisenberg and another reminder that Walt has no idea what he’s getting into, as word of his criminal persona and his product reaches the cartels — who aren’t people you want to have seeking you out.
6. “Half Measures”: Season 3, Episode 12
Set to The Association’s 1967 hit “Windy,” this look into the life of Jesse’s hooker friend Wendy (Julia Minesci) is bleak but not without a dark humor. The bubbly music matches not at all with the montage of trick-turning, waiting and meth-smoking that makes up Wendy’s grim life at the Crossroads Motel, as she gets in and out of cars with johns, fights with another prostitute over a coat that ends up in the pool, cops a squat by the side of the building to pee and eats some takeout. The accelerated footage that the show likes to use as a stylistic touch (reminiscent of a world on speed) has never seemed sadder than here, as Wendy whiles the day away waiting to be free to do more drugs in her room, bending toward lap after lap after lap (after she spits out her gum), and providing one of the show’s rare looks at a life that revolves around meth use.
5. “End Times”: Season 4, Episode 12
Walt says goodbye to Skyler and, essentially, to the remnants of the life he’s been living at the start of this episode, in which the Whites and the Schraders go under DEA protection while Walt, who knows he’s the real target and not Hank, prepares to make a final run at Gus and either take him out or die. The normalcy of their suburban house contrasts with the urgency and barely concealed panic of Skyler’s packing and response when Walt tells her he’s not coming with her. Once again we see that Walt’s at his best when he thinks he’s going to die, that it gives him a kind of bizarre nobility — it’s living that he’s been less and less good at over the seasons. He owns up to the consequences of the choices he’s made, and admits that “those consequences, they’re coming — no more prolonging the inevitable.” He seems less Walt the hero and more Walt the fearfully but determinedly responsible here, for once not basking in his martyrdom but instead preparing for action and the fact that he may never see his wife, son and baby girl again. Of course, he does survive — and is the worse for it. A Walt with no obvious forces up against him is a frightening one indeed. [Watch the clip here.]
4. “Bullet Points”: Season 4, Episode 4
Mike Ehrmantraut’s extreme but quiet competence is a key aspect of his patient, world-weary character, and seeing him in action — the businesslike care he takes while never getting pleasure out of violence — is one of the show’s great thrills. In this open, we see smoke puff out into blackness, only to find out that it’s actually Mike’s breath, visible in the cold of a refrigerated Los Pollos Hermanos truck transporting batter and drugs. The cartel’s been testing Gus’ transportation system, and a behatted Mike listens as the truck he’s in stops, there’s shouting outside and then the driver is taken out. Even when the two hijackers spray the truck with bullets, Mike manages to get out barely clipped after taking down the two henchmen, but it’s the shot of his face through the light of a bullet hole as he prepares for what he knows is coming, and the exasperated way with which he tries to straightened his mangled ear, that make the scene. [Watch the clip here.]
3. “Full Measure”: Season 3, Episode 13
A man stands in the middle of an empty house that we realize, as the camera pans slowly around from the Duraflame in the fireplace through the living room, is the White residence. It’s a moment filled with foreboding — what’s happened to the family? Is this a look into the future, when they’re gone? But then in come a younger, more hopeful Walt and Skyler, he still with his hair and she heavily pregnant with Walter Jr. “Breaking Bad” does not use its flashbacks lightly — they’re filled with dramatic irony, resting on our knowledge of the terrible things to come that await these characters — but this one is poignant for the quietly crushed dreams it represents. Walt still has his lab job at this time, and the world seems open to them, and he tries to talk Skyler out of this “starter house” and into something bigger because “why be cautious? We have nowhere to go but up.” Tempting fate, Walt, tempting fate. Sixteen odd years later, they’ll still be there. Skyler won’t be writing, they won’t have three kids, that pool in the back will be littered with debris from a midair collision Walt indirectly caused and Walt will have abandoned the teacher career he settled for to make drugs. Man plans, God laughs. And in this show, it’s rarely a nice laugh. [Watch the clip here.]
2. “Abiquiu”: Season 3, Episode 11
The saddest of the sad flashback cold opens, the start of “Abiquiu” finds Jesse and the already long-dead Jane (Krysten Ritter) at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, a trip we’d heard them talking about but never seen them take. Jesse’s no fan of fine art, and he’s bored and displeased with the lack of vaginas that was promised to him (did O’Keeffe have medical issues, he wonders, looking at what’s actually a painting of a door). But the pair’s conversation in the car afterward about the paintings and the reason we revisit things is painfully bittersweet, both because of its content and because we know that what we see here is already doomed. Jane was terrible for Jesse in some ways — she introduced him to heroin, after all — but in others they were great together, and in this scene it’s clear just how much he adored her. “That door was her home and she loved it,” Jane tells him about the paining. “To me, that’s about making that feeling last.” But that feeling’s gone for Jesse, and the scene is all the more tragic for the fact that it comes after we see Jesse find the cigarette bearing lipstick traces from his dead girlfriend in the ashtray. [Watch the clip here.]
1. “No Mas”: Season 3, Episode 1
This Bryan Cranston-directed episode offers the most memorably strange and haunting out-of-context image in a series full of them — the sight of a group of people crawling on the ground toward something, with others walking past or around them, paying them no mind. The scene is tinted yellow, and we’re clearly somewhere in Mexico, and while the locals may find it standard practice to have a crowd dragging themselves through the dust toward something the Benz that pulls up clearly is worth a stare. Out comes one man, skull-tipped boot first, and then we see the other — the Cousins, impassive, identical, and dressed in immaculate suits. Neither will say a word for several episodes, and here they merely exchange a look before joining the crawling procession in their beautiful clothes, making their way toward what turns out to be a Santa Muerte shrine at which they leave an image of their target — the police sketch of Walter White. Not only is the scene beautiful and ominous, it is like the plane crash a reminder that Walt’s actions have consequences that spill out far beyond his comprehension, reverberating past the people in his life and down miles away, to stranger who’ll come calling. In the Cousins, these outsized, fabulous figures of death, we have a literal embodiment of the karma that’s going to come calling for Walt one day. [Watch the clip here.]
Honorable mentions: The German executive’s suicide in “Madrigal”; a young Walt and Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) breaking down the elements of the human body while in the present day Walt and Jesse do some messy clean-up of one in “…And the Bag’s in the River”; Walt’s police encounter in “Caballo sin Nombre”; the Los Pollos Hermanos commercial in “Kafkaesque.”