The first character introduced in the Breaking Bad pilot is the New Mexico desert. Before we see pants floating mysteriously through the air, or an RV careening down the highway, running over the pants, we see the desert, still and beautiful. I think this is deliberate.
The pilot sets up a few patterns that become familiar over the course of the series, and the desert is very much a factor in the show, not just because those responsible for the show are clearly fond of New Mexico, but because it is harsh and unrelenting and desolate.
Back to the pants. We see pants, and then an RV running over the pants, and finally the inside of the RV, with a man driving, wearing only a gas mask, underwear, and shoes. The gas mask is fogging up, and the RV starts to swing wildly out of control as we spy someone in the passenger seat, wearing a gas mask but not conscious. Two bodies (unconscious? dead?) slide loosely in the back of the RV, but before we learn more, the RV crashes. The driver turns out be played by Bryan Cranston, and he hurriedly puts on a shirt, retrieves a gun from inside the RV, and uses a video camera to record a message. ("My name is Walter Hartwell White. I live at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87104. To all law enforcement entities, this is not an admission of guilt. I am speaking to my family now. Skyler, you are the love of my life. I hope you know that. Walter Junior, you're my big man. There are going to be some things, things that you'll come to learn about me in the next few days. I just want you to know that no matter how it may look, I only had you in my heart. Goodbye.") With the video camera next to his wallet, Walter Hartwell White stands in the road with the gun pointed at oncoming sirens.
It's quite an opening scene!
After the opening credits, the pilot rewinds three weeks to Walt's 50th birthday, showing us what led to the dramatic cold open. We're quickly introduced to Walt's wife Skyler White (Anna Gunn), who is pregnant and still in her 30s; Walt's son Walter, Jr (RJ Mitte), a teenager with cerebral palsy; Walt's primary workplace, where he teaches chemistry to uninterested high school students; and Walt's secondary workplace, a car wash. It is clear Walt's life is not a happy one.
Still, his general unhappiness doesn't explain the situation we know developed three weeks later. Not until he collapses at the car wash and finds out he has lung cancer do things begin to fall into place. Then, having caught up to the opening scene, we find that things still aren't quite as they seem.
Breaking Bad charts the descent of Walter White, the middle-aged chemistry teacher, and the ascent of Walter White, cooker of crystal meth. The pilot episode sets the course, and foreshadows many of the conflicts to come.
The characters arrive fully-formed, a testament to the actors. Bryan Cranston may be best known as "Hal" on Malcolm in the Middle, but Walter White is nothing like Hal. Like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, Cranston plays a man without a place in this world, a man falling apart, but with the added pressures of an ongoing family life.
RJ Mitte plays Walter White Jr, an especially challenging role for a young actor. Mitte has mild cerebral palsy himself, but exaggerates his voice and walks with crutches for the show.
Walt's partner, Jesse Pinkman, is played by Aaron Paul. We'll see more of Walt's extended family and Jesse's personal life in future episodes.
Stylistically, everything is in place from the beginning. We'll see the idea of a bizarre teaser followed by 50 minutes of back-story again and again in the series. Walt's apparent willingness to do anything, and the discomfort and excitement he experiences, are issues that grow even more stark as the show progresses. His early choice of secrecy will haunt him, but as the pilot ends, things seem to be working out well for him.
As we'll soon find out, things again aren't quite as they seem.