18 ANGELS HAVE WINGS, PILOTS CAN FLY
Movie director Howard Hawks had a hard edge. In his movies men worked together but had to be good at what they did. Hawks had no sympathy for people who sulked, or if his characters did sulk it did not last long. John Wayne or someone else would soon sort them into something like the men that Hawks thought were ‘good enough’. In his classic 1939 movie Only Angels Have Wings the pilots who are not quite good enough crash planes and die without being mourned. The main concern for pilot boss Cary Grant is that no one wastes the steak that was cooked for the man who has burnt to death inside a plane. Gorgeous Jean Arthur thinks the boss of the pilots is a pig but as the animal is Cary Grant, they fall in love. It helps that all the other men in the movie, or the lapdogs that remain alive, say how wonderful is their boss. Was Howard Hawks an American fascist? His defenders claim that he put too much emphasis on team work for that but his accusers remind us that fascists liked uniforms and also really big teams. But as Alfred Hitchcock once said, ‘It’s only a movie.’ The devil always did have the best tunes.
Like old age, creating a pilot episode for an American TV series is not for sissies. The episode will cost a lot of money and needs to persuade the men from the TV production company to spend even more dollars on a whole series of episodes. There is a lot at stake and many competitors doing the same thing. This means a lot of losing tickets for all those whose TV series pilots only inspire second thoughts.
The people with the cash want to see on the screen something that will not only hook an audience but solicit funds from the advertising agencies. For that a pilot episode will need to feel fresh but also retain a degree of familiarity . No one wants audiences to regard the material as strange. Audiences will have to return, and to make that happen there should also be a decent cliff-hanger. Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad. He had experience of working in American television. If the pilot had failed it would have been Gilligan who would have had to apologise to all his collaborators. He had to make the right decisions. His calls would have been about making the pilot episode work, introducing sympathetic characters, adding real emotion and, most important, stopping people from looking away from the screen. All that meant Gilligan had to be both sly and sincere, sly about what worked for an audience and cynical TV producers, and sincere about his own creative ambitions because without heartfelt creativity the material would fall flat.
Compared to subsequent episodes the pilot has more scenes that contain a sexual element. At the car wash the brief appearance of the attractive model is used to alert male viewers, as is the naked housewife that appears during the drug bust. The pilot episode also includes humour and some cheap laughs. Walt and Jesse are in Laurel and Hardy mode in the pilot. The teaser in the pilot episode is brilliant but exists as a deliberate attempt to hook both viewers and financial backers. The scene does not need to appear at the beginning. It makes a statement or pitch and insists that this series will be different and inventive, bold ideas will be complemented by an accomplished touch. How other viewers responded to these scenes only they can say. For me it was thrilling to recognise a writer taking a deep breath before jumping high. Vince Gilligan left the swimming baths of typical TV fare and headed for the Atlantic Ocean and originality. The initial predicament of the characters did not concern me. That came later.
The same creative daring that relished wayward action was prepared to embrace subtle domestic drama. After the teaser the pilot episode begins with a family having a breakfast meal. The muted drama in the scene is heightened a little because it is the birthday of Walter White. Later two drug dealers are killed yet the final cliff hanger, which is essential to hook both audiences and backers, invites the audience to consider more what will happen to the character of the lead protagonist. Again there is an element to heighten the scene. This time it is the reinvigorated sexual prowess of Walter White, a development that has been foreshadowed in an earlier scene when Skyler masturbated Walt while checking prices on eBay. The cheeky grin of Gilligan is essential to what happens in the pilot episode.
Before Breaking Bad had been conceived Vince Gilligan had begun his TV career working on the nothing special but interesting and innovative X Files. Gilligan subsequently developed the wacky but more routine and unsuccessful series The Lone Gunmen. In the pilot of Breaking Bad, Gilligan and his team had to convince others that they were not only capable of originality but also had higher standards. This assertion was hammered home in the powerful opening scene which has at least two iconic images. Originality, though, requires taking risks. Gilligan makes his hero look ridiculous, begins the episode with a time shift and adds domestic drama that will make demands of an audience expecting a fast moving crime series. The cameraman, editor and music director are also important. These people mark the episode with signatures that in future episodes will become trademarks. These include fast narrative montage for specific scenes, a wide variety of pop music and opening teasers that present their own mysteries. None of this reduced the stakes. Gilligan and his people were gambling. They succeeded because the pilot was slick, more than fresh and loaded with surprises. The men and women who made it proved to be good enough. They were people who could live with the consequences of failure.
There are six key characters who appear in the pilot episode. Each of those actors plus the writers and key technicians would have had to schedule into their timetable some space to film the series. If the pilot episode had not been approved by the backers, the commitment of the actors, writers and technicians would have led to nothing and prevented other work being secured. Unlike the episodes it followed, the pilot of Breaking Bad did not have a title. On the DVDs it is referred to as nothing more than ‘Pilot’. The clever and wry episode titles came later. By then everyone was in steady work and becoming famous.
The pilot episode lasts for 58 minutes. Apart from the final episode of the series all the other episodes are 48 minutes in length. More time was spent filming the pilot episode than the others, and more money per minute was spent on production. This episode more than any had to look and sound right. And if that was not enough to worry about, a story had to be told. Stories mean plots and they demand exposition. For that Gilligan mixes light and heavy confrontations. Arguments allow characters to explain their hopes, fears and circumstances. The wild ride in the desert that is the teaser is the exception. There, Walt and Jess have a united purpose, which is to escape from a crime scene. But as soon as the episode proper begins there is an argument. At the breakfast table the decision of Skyler to serve soya bacon is challenged by her family, albeit in a gentle fashion. Confrontations continue until the end of the episode. The final scene begins with Skyler demanding not just attention but an explanation or more exposition. The explanation is sidestepped by sexual intercourse but this is also revelatory confrontation, especially as it is defined by aggression. Before that Walt has had two confrontations with one of his students, two arguments with his boss, fought a young man in a clothes store and has listened to his boorish brother-in-law sneer at his masculinity. Walt even manages an argument with the dashboard in his car. It all facilitates exposition, as does the startled and hostile reaction of Jesse when his ex-high school teacher suggests they make crystal meth together.
There are also events. In an early scene Walt is re-introduced to the audience as a self-effacing schoolteacher. Before the end titles appear Walter White has attempted to kill two men, and the audience has discovered how change, reaction and consequence will be important to the characters of Breaking Bad. Tricks, of course, are needed. Most thrillers require a hole in the plot somewhere. The Breaking Bad pilot is no different. DEA employee Hank would not have taken his brother-in-law on a drug bust. Explaining how a timid schoolteacher would make the fateful decision to be a criminal would have taken time and been an additional drag on an episode that has already inflicted cancer on the hero. Instead of an explanation as to his thinking we watch Walt ruminate and flick burnt matches into his swimming pool. The viewers are left to fill in the gap in exposition, and most of us oblige. By then the audience is too anxious about what will happen to Walt to worry about being exploited.
The 58 minutes of an episode, like the production schedule, must observe the same principles of efficient time management. Thanks to the imaginations of viewers nothing is missing from those opening 58 minutes, and because of the imagination and skill of Vince Gilligan the viewers have witnessed a lot more than was anticipated. When asked by Jesse why a schoolteacher would want to make an illegal drug, Walt replies, ‘I am awake.’ The existential theme may not be original but even by the end of an initial episode the words feel immortal.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.