Brow Beat

Gateway Episodes: Breaking Bad

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) transforms, for the first time, into Heisenberg.


As Breaking Bad has drawn to its chaotic, devastating, bloody, exhilarating close with some of the best final episodes of any television series in history, those of us lucky enough to be fans of the show should take a minute to think of Walter White’s true victims: people who gave up on Breaking Bad after the first couple of episodes.

The promise of Breaking Bad has always been to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface, but the stodgy, bumbling schoolteacher Bryan Cranston played initially was arguably less intriguing than the dad he played on Malcolm in the Middle. (In its review of the show, the Boston Herald panned it as “Malcolm in the Meth Lab.”) The pilot and the immediate episodes that followed it featured dopier, less interesting versions of Walt and (especially) Jesse, not the iconic monster and martyr characters they would eventually become. And the violence in those episodes also often seemed to serve no purpose other than gory “comic relief,” thus making it appear gratuitous.

The need to introduce and define characters—always a slog at the start of any series—posed a particular challenge for Breaking Bad, because it had to present personalities light years away from their more captivating incarnations to come. As Walter White explains to his high school class in the show’s pilot, chemistry—and, by extension, this show—is all about change.

If you weren’t able to power past those first few episodes, then experiencing the past month’s barrage of Breaking Bad tweets, articles, water cooler conversations, and mash-up videos taunting you with praise for a show that you just didn’t get has to have been a nuisance. Slate’s wall-to-wall coverage of the most nearly perfect show on television cannot have helped. As one of our columnists said over email: “I work at Slate and read Slate, but only watched the first few episodes of Breaking Bad and then stopped. Is there a support group for me?”

As a former member of the Breaking Bad skeptics club, I can tell you there is hope. Not only that, I can also tell you the secret to converting to the cult of Heisenberg: Skip the early Mr. Chips episodes and jump right to the one that introduces Walter White’s Scarface alter-ego. Specifically, pick up the show at Season 1, Episode 6, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” otherwise remembered as the very first Tuco episode. If you are not hooked like a meth-head after his first taste of blue sky, then you really are a lost cause.

“Crazy Handful of Nothin’ ” has all the elements that have made a show such a binge-watching favorite. First, it has a titillating teaser flash-forward intro that gives viewers their first glimpse of the bloodthirsty, deranged Heisenberg. Walt forcefully explains to Jesse that he will be a “silent partner,” and then makes this promise: “No matter what happens, no more bloodshed, no violence.” We then see footage of a bleeding, now bald-headed White who has clearly taken part in some terrible act. This is our introduction to Heisenberg.

Later we see Walt shave that shiny head of his. Heisenberg’s trademark black porkpie hat appears for the first time a little bit later on in the season, but I would argue his cleanly shaved head is even more symbolic of the character’s spirit of cruel, calculating evil. Also integral to the Heisenberg persona is an obsessive belief that he can overcome seemingly impossible odds and outgun more experienced criminal adversaries despite inferior firepower. This leads us to one of the show’s best moments: Walt’s confrontation with Breaking Bad’s first great antagonist, Tuco, a raging, psychotic, meth-addict/dealer. I won’t spoil what happens, but, needless to say, “SCIENCE!” is involved.

“Crazy Handful of Nothin’” also encapsulates several other key themes. For the first time, Walt’s crimes lead Hank to his doorstep, thanks to the investigation into stolen chemistry gear from the high school. There’s also an amazing poker-face-off between Hank and Walt that demonstrates Walt’s secret loathing for his brother-in-law. This foreshadows how little he comes to think of Hank’s sleuthing abilities, and shows how much the megalomaniacal Walt relishes beating Hank, whom he considers a blowhard as well as a threat to his relationship with his son.

We also see Skyler and Walt Jr. haranguing and publicly embarrassing the meek, lying family patriarch during a cancer support-group session, and Walt passive-aggressively turning it around on them. Finally, there’s the brutal attack Jesse takes at the hands of Tuco, one of the worst such beatings martyr Jesse suffers over the course of many during the series’ full run.

If you need any further proof that this is the episode to start with, I present my wife as exhibit K. She initially thought the show was slow, gratuitously violent, and unclear in its direction; she gave up on it after two and a half episodes. A year after having tried to watch it the first time, we watched that first Tuco episode together. The result: we binged-watched (and in my case re-watched) the entire rest of the series in under a month.

If you start watching “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” as soon as this article is published, you will have a little more than 48 hours until the series finale. Just enough time to catch up.

Read all of Slate’s Breaking Bad coverage. And check out the Gateway Episodes for The SopranosMad Men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and more