Whatever happened to Jesse Pinkman? Finally, after all these years, we find out with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. To celebrate, Consequence of Sound is publishing several articles straight outta New Mexico. Today, Clint Worthington illustrates how the show perfected the art of the cold open by revisiting all 62 of them. It’s exhaustive, but complete.
It’s virtually impossible to count the ways Breaking Bad changed television in the early 2010s. Vince Gilligan’s layered, intimate crime drama is more than a vehicle for sick memes about being the danger and shouting “science, bitch!” Walter White’s visage could sit right next to Don Draper’s and Tony Soprano’s on the Peak TV Antihero Hall of Fame, and it stands tall as one of the most tightly written, thematically buoyant serialized dramas in TV history.
But there’s another way Breaking Bad‘s unique, intense storytelling stands out: it used cold opens in a way few other TV shows did prior. Before, most series used them as a quick prologue to hook viewers into the episode’s story before the title sequence, just to make sure they didn’t flip the channel at the first commercial break.
But Gilligan and co. did something different: they played with the format of the the cold opens, many of them becoming their own little short films that explored different facets of the Breaking Bad universe. Through these opens, we got to see the world through a different character’s eyes, or fill in much-needed textural gaps in the show’s narrative. It’s a tradition that, as Emily VanDerWerff of Vox notes, has carried through to many other series since, and TV as a whole is all the better for embracing this sense of formal experimentation.
Virtually every episode of Breaking Bad does something cool, new, and interesting with their cold open. You could basically go through the show just watching the cold opens and get at least an obscured picture of the series in microcosm. So, in honor of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie coming out on Netflix this Friday, I did just that — sifting through all 62 of Breaking Bad’s cold opens to find out which ones serve as the best examples of the format.
62. “Open House”
Season 4, Episode 3
Before we get started, just know that making this ranking is like asking you to pick your favorite of 62 children. So even this brief, minute-long cold open, in which Walt gives a furious middle finger to a surveillance camera in Gus’ lab, is still great in my book. Even as this episode (one of Season 4’s best) focuses more on Jesse, Hank, Marie, and Skyler, Walt gets his moment to show that he, too, suffocates under the conditions his life has put him in.
Season 3, Episode 10
Once again, this is a case of “great episode, fine cold open” — a brief thematic glimpse at the fly that will torment Walt and Jesse for the next 45 minutes. It’s a simple little thing, its uncomfortable close-ups accompanied by a spooky cover of “Mockingbird”, but its import on Walt’s psyche, and the episode as a whole, will be massive.
60. “Cancer Man”
Season 1, Episode 4
Hank doesn’t show up much in Breaking Bad’s cold opens, but here he gets to take center stage as he establishes the unlikely nature of Walt’s growing empire. “Albuquerque might just have a new kingpin,” he quips as his team discusses the disappearance of their informant Krazy-8 and the discovery of the new blue meth. Cutting to a pot-bellied Walt brushing his teeth? Delicious irony icing on the cake.
Season 5b, Episode 5
The second half of Season 5 is gonna crop up a lot in this list, just by dint of the fact that the cold opens have to tread a lot more narrative ground as the series wraps up. What’s more, they focus on characters we don’t know as well, like Jesse Plemons’ smiling sociopath Todd. Here, we see just how difficult it is to replicate Walt’s magic meth, as Lydia reminds him to improve the cook. Still, it’s worth it for Uncle Jack and Kenny trying to spin Todd’s clear meth as Walt’s blue stuff: “It’s… bluish.”
58. “Granite State”
Season 5b, Episode 7
Another plot-related one, albeit the only time we’ll see good ol’ Jimmy McGill in these cold opens. Now, totally burned, he has to turn to Robert Forster’s Ed, “the Disappearer”, to find the new life we’ll get glimpses of in the cold opens of his own show. It’s short, but sweet, and a TV monitor gives us a peek at a rapidly-deteriorating Walt going stir crazy in Ed’s vacuum repair shop.
Season 4, Episode 5
There’s an entire subgenre of Breaking Bad cold opens that kick off with Walt frantically driving his Aztek through traffic, calling Saul or his family to say his goodbyes and plan contingencies. This time, he’s on his way to confront Gus about Jesse going missing, bringing out the ’38 special he bought a few episodes back (more on that later). There’s a palpable sense of tension that fits with the show’s most harrowing moments, but there just so happens to be so many better opens.
Season 5b, Episode 3
This episode is all about coming clean — Jesse, in particular, goes off the rails on Walt and Saul alike over the poisoning of little Brock with a ricin cigarette — but the cold open checks in with Todd and his neo-Nazi fam over their growing interest in taking over the meth business. For as much of a sociopath as he is, Todd notably leaves out the little boy they had to murder in his play-by-play of their thrilling train heist. Most notable image: Uncle Jack cleaning blood off his skull-toed boot, cementing that they’ll be the show’s last big threats.
55. “Rabid Dog”
Season 5b, Episode 4
Immediately after that episode, “Rabid Dog” gives us another silent-but-deadly cold open where Walt returns to the White house, now soaked in gasoline, looking for an aggrieved Jesse. He doesn’t find him before the opening credits roll, but the strained silence as Walt stalks around a house that could go up at the strike of a match befits the boiling-point stakes the show has reached up to this point.
54. “Face Off”
Season 4, Episode 13
So much happens in this episode — it’s the one where Gus blows up! — that it’s hard to fault the show for not opening with its usual Expressionistic flair. Instead, we get a brief-but-tense exchange in which Walt retrieves the car bomb he was going to use to blow up Gus, brings it to the hospital to a shocked Jesse (“did you bring a bomb into a hospital?”), and watches as Jesse is taken away for questioning about Brock’s poisoning before they can come up with a new plan.
53. “Crawl Space”
Season 4, Episode 11
Speaking of poisoning, Gus gets in on the gross-guts game himself, after getting poisoned at the meeting with Don Eladio and the cartel leadership. Just barely getting out alive, Jesse drives them to a makeshift hospital where doctors are standing by to save his life. “What about him?” asks Jesse of a bleeding Mike. “This man pays my salary,” the doctor says of Gus. Even in such bond-inducing life-or-death situations, Breaking Bad reminds us that the powerful get what they need first.
Season 4, Episode 9
Of a piece with Fly, funnily enough, this open is comprised of moody closeups of Walt’s loafers and glasses, as blood (whose?) slowly drips onto them. Lots of Breaking Bad opens deal in ominous foreshadowing; here, it’s both a literal hint that Walt will get the ever-loving shit kicked out of him by Jesse for his betrayals, and a thematic reminder of the forever-broken nature of Walt’s morality.
Season 3, Episode 6
One of Season 3’s most delicious recurring motifs were the silent, Terminator-like Salamanca cousins, inhuman killers slowly but surely making their way to Albuquerque to kill Walter White. Of those snippets, this one is the most disposable, a brief cop-thriller sequence involving a tribal police officer stumbling upon the cousins while they occupy a murdered woman’s house. It’s notable for the cheeky axe murder of the unsuspecting officer in the background of its final shot, but it’s not like we needed reminders that these guys mean business.
Season 2, Episode 12
Yet another in the saga of Walt Driving Places In a Hurry While Lying on the Phone, Walt drops off a delivery for Gus just in time to miss the birth of his daughter Holly. Seeing the look on his face through the door of the hospital room just before he walks in is a vital moment in our observations of Walter: Is his smile a genuine expression of joy at seeing Holly? Or is some part of it a performance to keep people from asking where he was? At least Ted knows to get out of the way as soon as possible.
Season 4, Episode 10
“You can do this,” says Gus to Jesse as they climb into a charter plane to fly to Mexico to teach the cartel how to cook Walt’s blue meth. This one’s a testament to the economical, transcendent nature of the show’s dialogue; for Gus, those words mean reassurance for an associate he now trusts. For Jesse, they’re a reminder that his ultimate mission is to kill Gus for Walt.
48. “Gliding Over All”
Season 5a, Episode 8
The first part of Season 5 saw Walt lean ever harder into his cold, ruthless Heisenberg-ian moral vacuum, and that’s never clearer than when he works with Todd to dispose of Mike’s body after killing him at the end of the previous episode. Not even Jesse can get through to him. “We? Who’s we?” Walt says to Jesse. “There is no we.” The reappearance of the fly on the wall is a nifty callback to the last time a fly was present for Walt’s undoing.
Season 2, Episode 5
Tuco’s shiny grill, encased in an acrylic cube after Hank gunned him down, was a potent symbol for the first half of Season 2, used as a reminder of the emptiness of the glitz contained in the criminal lifestyle. Used frequently to needle at Walt’s own role in the situation, Hank throws them away the episode prior, and we see it return right where it began: discovered by a group of migrants crossing the border into the US. It’s all that’s left of Breaking Bad’s first big villain.
46. “Gray Matter”
Season 1, Episode 5
Breaking Bad is Jesse’s story as much as Walt’s, and his first big cold open sees him trying to go straight, dressing up in a suit and bringing a resume (sorry, curriculum vitae, it’s more professional) to a bank interview. But of course, we see the real position he’s applying for: a sign-spinner wearing a goofy dollar-bill costume. Still, from that humiliation comes the introduction of one of the show’s most affectionately rendered characters, Badger, the adorable dimwit who drags Jesse right back into the muck.
45. “4 Days Out”
Season 2, Episode 9
The ticking clock of Walt’s cancer reaches its apex in this cold open, as Walt happens across an X-ray that looks like his tumor has grown exponentially, escalating his timetable. Before that, though, we get some of the best White/Schrader family interactions, as Hank and Marie play armchair oncologist (“shoulda gona to Kleinman”) in a feeble attempt to asset some sense of control over Walt’s circumstances.
44. “Box Cutter”
Season 4, Episode 1
Season 3 ended with Jesse killing stalwart meth chemist (and karaoke legend) Gale Boetticher at his doorstep; as such, Gilligan kicked off Season 4 with one last glimpse of the man, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he begins work in Gus’ lab. In comparing the expert cook of Walt’s blue meth with his own, Gale actually convinces Gus to bring him in. “How pure can pure be?” Gus shrugs; it’s a reminder that we’ve lost, ironically enough, one of Breaking Bad’s best characters. And what’s worse, by insisting on Walt’s involvement, he unknowingly signed his own death warrant.
Season 4, Episode 8
Some of Breaking Bad’s best cold opens fill in the gaps of what some characters were doing in the periphery while we were focused on Walt and Jesse. Here, we see what Gus got up to after comforting Walt in the hospital in the wake of Hank’s attack by the cousins; he meets their father (and his future killer) Hector Salamanca to rub his defeat in his face. It’s here we learn that Gus made the call that saved Hank’s life. “This is what comes of blood for blood.”
42. “Cat’s In the Bag…”.
Season 1, Episode 2
Early Breaking Bad focused hard on selling a.) Walt and Jesse’s budding partnership, and b.) the euphoric thrill that criminality gives Walter White. In the series’ second-ever episode, we got a bit of both: Skyler surprised at Walt’s sudden sexual vitality, contrasted with Walt’s immediate command of the RV situation at the end of the pilot. One problem, though: one of their two assailants is still awake. In the world of Breaking Bad, problems can come up faster than you can solve them.
41. “Dead Freight”
Season 5a, Episode 5
Another impressively expressionist intro, “Dead Freight” begins by tracking a kid on a dirt bike across the desert, only to stop to put a tarantula in a jar. It’s simple, effective, and a haunting hint at the dark fate that this boy will experience after he comes across Walt, Jesse, and Todd during their train heist.
39-40. “Bullet Points”, “Cornered”
Season 4, Episodes 4 and 6
I love when Breaking Bad allows continuity even between its own intricately staged cold opens. In episode four and six of the fourth season, we see two similar scenarios — Fring gang guards protecting Los Pollos Hermanos trucks from hijackers — with two distinctly different outcomes. In the first, our very own Mike Ehrmantraut is in the back, somehow dodging four clips’ worth of machine gun fire to take out both hijackers, with only a nasty ear wound to show for it. In the second, though, their opponents learn from their mistakes, and kill two unsuspecting guards with carbon monoxide poisoning, suffocating them in the truck itself. It’s a harrowing glimpse into the drug war that’s happening around Walt’s meth.
38. “I See You”
Season 3, Episode 8
Jesse Pinkman just can’t catch a break sometimes. At the beginning of this episode, he’s just getting dismissed from the hospital after his brutal beatdown by Hank. But fate intervenes to provide a twisted sense of karmic justice, as he sees Hank being rushed into that same hospital after his battle with the Salamanca cousins. Perversely, this gives Jesse no small amount of glee: “I’m great.”
37.” Hazard Pay”
Season 5a, Episode 3
Sometimes it’s best to just sit back and let a professional do the work. Like we did with that Pollos Hermanos two-part open, “Hazard Pay” opens with Mike running from prison to prison to reassure all of his jailed accomplices that their arrangements will be upheld under the new, Gus-less regime. “You will be made whole.” Between the checked-out lawyer (putting in earbuds so he can’t hear anything incriminating) and Mike’s growl to the camera to “open up!”, it’s a lovely showcase for Jonathan Banks’ particular brand of curmudgeonly efficiency.
Season 5b, Episode 2
Jesse’s emotional tailspin in the wake of all the things he’s done, and all the people he’s lost is documented in many of these cold opens. But this one is particularly special and evocative, as we follow an old man picking up stacks of bills like E.T. with a trail of Reese’s Pieces, only to find Jesse staring up into the stars, spinning on a roundabout in a playground. It’s a simple, but effective image.
35. “One Minute”
Season 3, Episode 7
Up to this point, the Salamanca cousins are portrayed as Michael Myers-esque titans, mute destroyers who will not stop until they kill their target. In this poignant flashback, though, we see what made them what they are: the toxic manhood of Hector Salamanca (offering Mark Margolis the rare chance to stand and speak). Here, the two are playful kids horsing around, until one says to Hector they wish the other was dead. Calling his bluff, Hector nearly drowns the boy until he relents. The lesson? “Family is all.” This is also the episode where Hank puts an end to their reign of terror; naturally, Gilligan wants us to see the innocent boys they once were.
34. “Full Measure”
Season 3, Episode 13
Ironic juxtapositions of innocent pasts and amoral futures are the name of the game with a lot of these cold opens, and this one’s no exception. A realtor shows Walt and Skyler the house that will become their home over the course of the series; of course, they think it’ll just be a “starter home,” completely unaware of the path their lives will take. “Why be cautious?” says Walt prophetically. “We’ve got nowhere to go but up.”
Season 3, Episode 5
In that same vein, Season 3 also gave us the night after Walt and Jesse resolve to buy the RV. As far as we know up to this point, Jesse took Walt’s $7k and bought the RV we all know and love. But here, we see where most of that money went: an impulsive binge of champagne and lap dances. Regretting his overspending in the morning, he’s got just enough left to get a last-minute cheap RV from Combo, who provides another link for Hank to Walt and Heisenberg — further evidence of the show’s impeccable ability to blend intricate plot points with revealing character moments.
32. “Caballo sin Nombre”
Season 3, Episode 2
Walt at the beginning of Season 3 is seeing the first real consequences of his life of crime: Skyler throws him out of the house, and the impact of the mid-air plane collision he unknowingly set off still rings in his mind. So when he’s pulled over by a police officer for a broken windshield, and his sweet-talking about his own trauma doesn’t get him off, Walt berates the officer with a classic Cranston Rant (“It is time for you to listen to me!”). Suffice to say, if Walter weren’t White, that interaction would have had a decidedly different outcome.
Season 5b, Episode 8
It seems a shame to put the cold open for the series finale in the middle of this list, but that’s just a testament to how good the rest of them truly are. Taking place entirely in a stolen Volvo covered in snow, with a bearded Walt praying to the fates for a set of keys (“Just get me home. I’ll do the rest”), “Felina” closes the loop on the flash forwards that have cropped up throughout Season 5. Plus, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” provides a suitably fitting soundtrack, the last in Breaking Bad’s absolutely stunning use of source music: “Maybe tomorrow a bullet may find me/ Tonight nothing’s worse than this pain in my heart.”
30. “…And the Bag’s In the River”
Season 1, Episode 3
“There’s got to be more to a human being than that,” says a young Walt in flashback at Gray Matter, in the show’s first real experimental use of its cold open structure. Intercutting between he and Gretchen Schwartz’s silhouetted breakdown of the essential elements of the human body and his and Jesse’s cleanup of the tub-dissolved Emilio, it’s a lovely reminder that, even in his first days as a criminal mastermind, Walt’s already gone beyond the pale. Turns out there’s not really much more to human beings than their essential components; Walt learns this in more ways than one.
Season 2, Episode 2
A short, but sweet one in the “Fly”/”Bug” realm, “Grilled” just gives us a tease of Tuco’s car, hydraulics ominously jerking the chassis up and down like a death reflex, glass bouncing on the trunk and bullet shells strewn everywhere. A grim portent of the fate that awaits Walt and Jesse if Tuco snaps again; we won’t know the full context till the end of the hour.
Season 2, Episode 6
One of Jesse’s biggest stepping stones on the road to darkness kicks off with his pursuit of the couple who ripped off Skinny Pete. He chooses to spare a bug on the sidewalk, only for Skinny Pete to come along and squish it anyways; life is fragile and short in this world of drugs and crime. By forcing Jesse to wrestle with these questions instead of Walt this time around, Breaking Bad helped further craft the wounded kid at the heart of the show.
Season 3, Episode 3
Danny Trejo is perpetually a national treasure, and it’d take a formidable force to take him down. As such, choosing him for the first real onscreen victim of the Salamanca cousins in this cold open helps establish how serious the situation is. A warrior-poet in his own right (“A man can never get his fill by waiting in line for the tap”), Trejo’s Tortuga simply can’t see his inevitable end coming. That is, until he’s gifted with a turtle with “HOLA DEA” painted on it, right before he’s decapitated by the Salamancas.
26. “Blood Money”
Season 5b, Episode 1
“Hello, Carol.” One of the show’s biggest, darkest laughs comes when a flash-forwarded Walt returns to the White house, now dilapidated and riddled with “HEISENBERG” graffiti, the pool now turned into a makeshift skate park. Suddenly, he sees his neighbor for the first time since his identity was made known; his response, and her subsequent dropping of her groceries, is a testament to the strange power Walt’s presence still has in their lives. (This makes an intriguing double feature with the cold open from “Full Measure”, bookending that house’s role in Walter’s life.)
25. “Bit By a Dead Bee”
Season 2, Episode 3
After the Tuco saga has ended, Walt and Jesse have no choice but to bury their gun, wander through the desert, hitch a ride with some Mexican day laborers, and figure out what to do next. Wordlessly, hauntingly, Walt figures out his next step: stripping naked through a grocery store and letting himself get caught. Is it a ruse? Is it a desperate response to trauma? At that point, we don’t know, and it’s a great note to kick off the episode.
Season 5b, Episode 6
In the episode where Walt’s life officially ends, we begin with a flashback to where it all began: Walt and Jesse in the RV on the day of their first cook. Look, he’s even wearing the green shirt and tighty whities! This time, though, he’s just calling Skyler to contemplate baby names, “What do you think about Holly?” The sheer weight of everything they’ve gone through still sits in the viewer’s mind as Walt and the RV suddenly disappear, leaving only the empty desert and the end of an era. We can never go home again.
23. “Green Light”
Season 3, Episode 4
At one point in this episode, Jesse says he’s never been good at anything besides selling meth. We see that loud and clear in this cold open, where Jesse tries to schmooze his way out of paying for gas by getting the sweet gas station attendant hooked on blue meth. “Don’t worry, meth’s not really addictive. That’s just a media thing.” Aaron Paul plays this moment to the hilt, locking eyes with her and holding the bag even as a police officer walks up behind him, nary the wiser. It’s a bittersweet reminder of the swings and roundabouts of Jesse’s journey, the lost potential of a boy who could be great, if his energy was redirected elsewhere.
22. “Thirty-Eight Snub”
Season 4, Episode 2
As Walt commits wholeheartedly to his shadow war against Gus Fring, he needs a weapon; to that end, he buys a filed-off .38 special from a black market arms dealer (Jim Beaver) who advises him on the best weapon for conceal-ability and stopping power. “This is the West,” the dealer says, asserting that he can stand his ground and shoot whoever is attacking him. Of course, all of Walt’s bloviating about self-defense is a smokescreen: he wants an untraceable weapon to kill Gus with. This scene is one of the most powerful signposts of Walt’s descent into darkness.
Season 2, Episode 11
Breaking Bad is often about the unpredictability and tragic viciousness of violence, of innocence lost amid a world of selfish power and easy money. “Mandala” is one of the best showcases for that theme, as Combo’s corner work is persistently threatened by an ominous car occupied by gang rivals. Of course, that turns out to be a misdirect: the young boy on a bicycle (who we presume will be a tragic casualty to gang violence) turns out to be the perpetrator, gunning down Combo himself. The cycle of violence continues, and everyone loses their innocence along the way.
Season 5a, Episode 4
The Heisenberg persona was, in many ways, just an excuse for Walt to get away with all the alpha-male toxic posturing he saw more traditionally macho figures around him take. In this cold open, at Heisenberg’s height just before a very precipitous fall, Walt puts on the porkpie hat and convinces his mechanic to take the Aztek off his hands for $50. It’s the end of an era, to be sure, but it’s capped off by a gut-busting scene where Walt and Walter Jr. speed back home in a Chrystler 300 and Dodge Challenger, respectively, the camera zooming and panning with feverish speed to Knife Party’s booming dubstep track “Bonfire”. Walt’s shit-eating grin at the end is clear: this is the life he wished he were living. Too bad he won’t get to live it much longer.
Season 3, Episode 11
Whether it’s Gale or Combo, or Krysten Ritter’s Jane in this late Season 3 episode, Breaking Bad loves to use its cold opens to hearken back to simpler times with characters who still have a lesson or two to teach from beyond the grave. Here, we see Jesse and Jane at the height of their relationship, with Jesse unable to find the artistry in Georgia O’Keefe’s “Door, Road, Line Shape”. The lesson, you see, is that there’s a grace in doing the same thing over and over again. “Every time is a different experience,” she says; otherwise, why would we smoke more than one cigarette, have sex with the same person more than once? It’s a poetic ode to subjectivity that’s tragically lost on Jesse, to his detriment.
18. “No Mas”
Season 3, Episode 1
The Salamanca cousins’ best cold open is their first, as they’re introduced amid a sea of crawling Mexican villagers, all taking a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Muerte. The cousins, pulling out of their Mercedes-Benz in perfectly-pressed suits, crawl into the dirt with the rest of them, and reveal their ultimate offering to Santa Muerte: a sketch of Heisenberg, pork pie hat and all. It’s a killer start to the season, with a slowly-encroaching threat that will take half the season to catch up to Walt.
17. “Problem Dog”
Season 4, Episode 7
Post-Gale Jesse is in even direr emotional straits than normal, as this cold open (where Jesse is haunted by flashes of Gale’s murder while he plays a lightgun game) attests. It’s one of the more daring from a formal perspective, Jesse’s new house bathed in flashing neon lights while frenetic editing whip-pans Gale’s face into frame against Jesse’s sweating visage. Sure, the cold open doubles as clumsy product placement for a video game that wasn’t even a lightgun game, but that’s beside the point. As a visual indicator of Jesse’s mental distress and the guilt of committing murder, it’s gangbusters.
16. “End Times”
Season 4, Episode 12
The chickens come home to roost in a big way in the penultimate episode of Season 4, and this is one of the stronger plot-based cold opens in the series’ history. As the DEA surrounds Hank and Marie’s house, and Skyler and Walt Jr. prepare to pack and join them in protective custody, Walt opts to stay behind. Sure, part of it is to give himself movement so he can move on Gus, but his conversation with Skyler in their bedroom is one of the all-time greats. “I’ve made choices. I alone should suffer the consequences of those actions.”
15. “Crazy Handful of Nothin’”
Season 1, Episode 6
The first big leap in Walter White’s transition to Heisenberg comes, of course, with the bald head. Its first glimpse, though, turns into a delicious reveal as an early conversation between Walt and Jesse about the terms of their dynamic (“I’m the silent partner”) is contrasted with bald Walt striding confidently away from a smoking building. What that’s about, or what role Walt had to play in it, is a mystery until episode’s end. But it’s a killer hint at the horrifying potential of Heisenberg to come.
11-14. “Seven Thirty-Seven”, “Down”, “Over”, “ABQ”
Season 2, Episodes 1, 4, 10, 13
One of Breaking Bad’s most ambitious cold open routines, and most indelible images, is the scorched teddy bear who turns up in Walter White’s pool at the start of Season 2. As the season goes on, and the link between the four episode titles featuring the bear becomes clear, the teddy bear, with its eye missing and face half burned, comes from the two planes that collide mid-air in one of Walter’s more oblique influences on the world around him. Since then, the bear’s been a symbol for Walt’s moral collapse, so it was fitting to include that incredible series of scenes here. Even in its cold opens, Breaking Bad remains the gold standard for serialization.
10. “Better Call Saul”
Season 2, Episode 8
The episode that launched a fan-favorite character and a Breaking Bad spinoff begins, interestingly enough, with the kind of legal dilemma Saul would absolutely crush — a drug deal between Badger and a shifty customer (DJ Qualls) who “smells like bacon.” To prove he’s not a cop, though, Qualls offers a test: he can formally ask him if he’s a cop, and if he is, he’s ‘obligated’ to answer honestly. The whole scene is a single-shot, two-hander played delightfully between Qualls and Matt Jones, a pitch-black reminder of how the rest of the drug world operates when its players aren’t quite as. .. let’s say savvy as Walt and Gus.
09. “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”
Season 1, Episode 7
Walt’s life of crime is the ultimate chemotherapy throughout Season 1, and that reaches its climax, so to speak, in the Season 1 finale. Here, Walt sits dazed in the teacher’s lounge as DEA officers brief them on the theft of science equipment from the faculty labs, clearly getting off on the fact that no one knows he did it (and even thank him for his sacrifice in being there). A hand up Skyler’s skirt leads to them knocking boots in the infamous Aztek. “Where did that come from?” Skyler asks breathlessly. “And why was it so damn good.” Walt’s matter-of-fact answer: “Because it was illegal.”
Season 5a, Episode 6
From the humble infraction of parking lot car sex to the tragic disposal of a child’s body, “Buyout” is a somber, wordless teaser that eulogizes young Drew Sharp in the most haunting of ways. First, we see Walt, Jesse, and Mike dourly disassembling Drew’s dirt bike bit by bit, digging it out of the dirt and breaking it down in vats of acid. As the teaser ends, and Drew’s little hand pokes up out of the dirt, we know only too well where he’ll end up, a chilling reminder of how far down the moral rabbit hole Walter White has descended.
Season 5a, Episode 2
And now, for something a little more bittersweet — a delightful one-scene wonder involving German food scientists, a cornered board member, and a portable defibrillator. I could watch a whole show of Carrington Vilmont’s clipped, stuffy food scientist describing sauces in German (“Franch,” “Cajun Kick-Ass”), while Los Pollos Hermanos exec Peter Schuler (Norbert Weisser) glumly consumes nuggies before shocking himself to death in a bathroom before the feds can get to him. Breaking Bad often explored the ways in which our character’s actions rippled out into the universe, and this is maybe the furthest Walter White’s butterfly effect reaches in the show’s history. But “Franch” alone gets this cold open into the top 10.
Season 3, Episode 9
The subtextual links between conventional capitalism and the economics of crime is one of Breaking Bad’s most salient themes, and it’s never more mouth-wateringly rendered than in this Los Pollos Hermanos commercial. As Gus’ honeyed narration over food-porn images gives way to the drug trade (that transition from falling chicken wings to blue meth is just *chef’s kiss*), we see the process by which Gus’ factories measure and package Walt’s blue meth, hide it in buckets of fry batter marked with UV-stamped labels, and ship them across the country under Gus’ watchful eye. “One taste and you’ll know.”
05. “Live Free or Die”
Season 5a, Episode 1
We’ve seen flash-forward reveals involving men in beards before (see also: “We have to go back, Kate!”), but Breaking Bad’s is one of the best for how economically it disseminates its relevant information. Seeing Walt celebrate his 52nd birthday by sculpting it in bacon, only to see that a.) he’s got his hair back, b.) he’s in New Hampshire, and c.) he’s going by a different name, we instantly know we’re going to be working backwards to see how Walt got to where he is now. It’s tempting to imagine that we’re seeing his eventual fate, but as we see him make a mysterious deal and open up a car trunk to see an M60 and loads of ammo, oodles of possibilities for the rest of the season immediately spring to mind. After all, it’s the role of Chekov’s stand-mounted automatic machine gun; if you show it off in the first act, it has to be fired by the end.
04. “Half Measures”
Season 3, Episode 12
Breaking Bad was always an expert use of existing music to tell its story (as we’ve already mentioned), but few match the dirtbag majesty of meth-head streetwalker Wendy S. (Julia Minesci) trudging through her day to the sunny sounds of The Association’s “Everyone Knows It’s Windy”. Decked out in thigh-high boots, jean skirt and leopard-print jacket, Wendy accosts vending machines, negotiates a foaming can of root beer, and goes down on a dozen customers in rapid succession in three minutes of darkly comic contrasts. And, of course, we can’t just end on a stylistic exercise; the cold open fizzles out by showing her buying blue meth from Walt’s competitors, with Jesse keeping a watchful eye. It’s peak Breaking Bad style, and flat-out one of the best scenes in the show’s history.
03. “Say My Name”
Season 5a, Episode 7
Did you really think we were gonna get through this list without the line that sparked a thousand memes? More than Walt’s Aztek giveaway and dubstep car show earlier in the season, “Say My Name” is the ultimate expression of Heisenberg’s dick-swinging hubris, the ultimate power trip that comes from holding unchecked power over a criminal empire. In a showdown with Phoenix-based competitor Declan (Louis Ferreira), Walt puts all his cards on the table and makes a move to absorb Declan’s distribution into his own. He knows that his product is the best there ever was, which makes him untouchable: “Do you really wanna live in a world without Coca-Cola?” It’s one of Cranston’s finest performances, in a series full of them, which is saying something. By the time Walter gets Declan to name him (“Heisenberg”), his response (“You’re god damn right“) is at once chilling and fist-pumpingly badass, the ultimate sign of an effective antihero. It’s one of Breaking Bad’s definitive moments.
Season 1, Episode 1
But where did Walter White start? Not as a scowling, stand-your-ground criminal genius, but a frantic, pathetic man at the end of his rope. That’s where we first meet Walter at the start of the series, in that iconic green button-down tucked into tighty whities, holding a .45 and waiting for whatever’s coming for him. Gilligan and co. start the series off with a bang, immediately throwing Walt (and the viewer) into a high-stakes situation with dead bodies, a shot-up RV, and a desperate man pleading into a camcorder: “There are some things you’ll come to hear about me in the next few days.” Over the next five years, we indeed hear and see a lot of things about Walter White — father, husband, kingpin, murderer. It’s a hell of a way to kick off one of the greatest protagonists (and series) in television history.
01. “Negro y Azul”
Season 2, Episode 7
But as iconic as those two moments are, I have to celebrate my absolute favorite cold open in Breaking Bad’s entire run — the apex of the kind of giddy experimentation that became characteristic of the show’s cold opens. “Negro y Azul” begins with a music video for “The Ballad of Heisenberg”, courtesy of narcocorrido band Los Cuates de Sinaloa, a jaunty bop about Heisenberg’s mysterious rise to the top of the meth world, and the ire that has resulted within the cartels. The video itself perfectly captures the DIY corniness of these kinds of videos, with star wipes and handheld camerawork clearly done over an afternoon in the Arizona desert. But as fun and experimental as this open is, it also spells trouble for our protagonists:
“The fury of the cartel
Ain’t no one escaped it yet
But that homie’s dead
He just doesn’t know it yet”
In a very real way, I haven’t gotten this song out of my head since the first time I heard it, and the fact that it combines so many elements that make up a great Breaking Bad cold open — thematic depth, background information about the show’s universe, a sly sense of dark humor — forces me to put it at the top of the list.
Whether or not El Camino will start with a suitably-flashy cold open, we can’t say; no one will see it until it drops on Netflix this Friday. But if you need a refresher course in the thematic essence of Breaking Bad, look no further than these first few minutes.