If longtime fans of Breaking Bad were asked to identify the show’s most memorable scene, many would probably point out gems like Walt and Jesse’s standoff with Tuco in the Mexican desert in early Season 3, Hank’s shoot-out with the cousins in mid-Season 3, or Gus’s spectacular demise in last season’s finale. Each is among the great show’s most iconic segments.
My pick would not be nearly as blood-pumping or blood-spattering. I would choose the fantastic beginning of Season 3’s ninth episode, a mock commercial for Los Pollos Hermanos that slowly melds into a wordless tour of the massive methamphetamine center lying beneath Gus’s fast food empire. While a seemingly anonymous throwaway with no character dialogue and barely any appearance by Breaking Bad’s stars, the opening is a mesmerizing sequence which captures in one swoop the show’s brilliance, beauty, character debasement, and tension as well as any single scene in the show’s four seasons.
Creator Vince Gilligan takes a unique approach to each episode’s opener, often implementing unexplained teasers, as well as small asides that hold far greater significance than viewers may first surmise. The Los Pollos opening is a prime example of this style and grows out of Gilligan’s dark sense of humor. The ad sounds and feels incredibly authentic, making the audience feel as if the commercial break is still in progress; it isn’t entirely clear that the episode has even begun until the smooth-voiced announcer intones the historic lineage of the fictional restaurant.
Though the commercial’s impressive quality seems like the brain child of some slick Madison Avenue agency, it is instead another clever trick by Gilligan, who loves to toy with his characters—see Walt’s befuddlement at removing the pizza off the roof of his house or his extortion at the hands of Saul Goodman’s vengeful receptionist—as well as his audience, best shown in Gus’s death scene, with the kingpin emerging seemingly indestructible in a neat homage to The Bridge on the River Kwai, and with Gus fixing his tie before keeling over, much as Alec Guinness dusted off his fallen cap before falling dead onto the dynamite plunger.
Beyond merely playing with the audience, the Los Pollos opening is a good expression of the show’s thesis that things are often not as they appear; indeed, the premise of the entire series, that a harmless, nerdy teacher who harbors a boiling rage of resentment, jealously, and cruelty becomes an irredeemable criminal—Mr. Chips becoming Scarface, in Gilligan’s description—revolves around this larger theme.
We quickly see the Los Pollos commercial is not what it purports to be. The sequence then goes one step further by immediately showing how the advertised chicken joint is an elaborate front for the biggest meth distributor in the Southwest. The fairy tale story of the “chicken brothers” and their “zesty chicken . . . slow cooked to perfection”—with delectable-looking brown wings and legs floating in the air—melds into a sprinkling, tinkling rain of turquoise bits of Walt’s blue crystal, as the narcotic is processed by an a small army of drug handlers in surgical garb, hidden in hundreds of tubs of thick gooey fry batter, and packed into trucks headed across the region. The chicken product has, in seconds, become something entirely different and far more deadly than any artery-clogging fat, as the sequence strips away the lies of Gus, just as the longer show methodically reveals more and more of Walt’s underlying callousness.
The Los Pollos opening gives us our best view yet on the show of the startling, almost comic commoditization of the drug trade that is literally coming off an assembly line like cars from Detroit. In this case, the drug trade has melded figuratively and literally with fast food, and is not much different from greasy grub in its scale of mass production and its ultimately unhealthy after-effects. If Breaking Bad is in part about the narcotics industry itself, it articulates this exploration no better anywhere in the show’s forty-six episodes than in this sequence.
The scenes also demonstrates the show’s attention to detail as Walt weighs and loads his fresh drug batch onto a dolly where it is wheeled out to numerous destinations. Walt looks tired, half-hearted, and almost bored by the monotony of his job—the drug trade is hardly as exciting as it might appear, or as he naively believed.
This theme recalls two other superb similar sequences from earlier in Season 3, the first where Walt excitedly prepares his brown bag lunch for his first day at the super lab, and the next the extended sequence where he and Gale enjoy their first day “at work” together, making meth, enjoying coffee, playing chess, and discussing poetry to breezy music reminiscent of a Charlie Brown movie.
These scenes portray the initial fun, exciting side of meth-making, which will be dryly stripped away episodes later in the Los Pollos commercial. And importantly, the dark side of the trade, the constant threat of extreme violence, lurks in the background as Gus’s henchman Victor opens the meth shipments and menacingly prowls behind the workers—not to mention in the numerous shootings and murders throughout the series.
Furthermore, the opening displays Gilligan’s love of piercing colors and sharp sound effects; here, the glowing red brightness of the sizzling chicken and accompanying spices, the wet clopping cuts of the succulent peppers, the dazzling phosphorescence of the blue meth, the metallic shininess of the super lab, and most of all, the funky, bouncy, strangely compelling music of the scene all remind viewers vividly of Gilligan’s reliance on visually and audibly arresting mediums to catch and hold viewers’ attention in place.
More broadly, the Los Pollos sequence is a textbook example of good filmmaking: a fast, wordless sequence which neatly establishes in minutes an intricate, complex storyline that could be delineated over an entire episode or season. Just as Walt’s bag lunch scene perfectly establishes his professional delusions and personal devolution, the Episode Nine opening explains Gus Fring’s entire organization in around a minute and a half.
At the opening’s finish, as the endless procession of trucks carrying meth across the country moves towards the highway, Gus stands alone, his face hidden by shadow, but his identity clear by his crisp, tucked-in shirt, gleaming rimless eyeglasses, and good posture, He watches in obvious wonderment at the size of his operation, then turns slightly in clear pride at his burgeoning empire. Gus is ultimately a stand-in for Vince Gilligan himself, who crafted this tight sequence which stands as a brilliant summary of his classic show. He deserves to take that bow too.
Mark Greenbaum’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The LA Times, The New Republic, and other publications.