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.