[Editor's note: The Press Play Breaking Bad intro compilation for season 3 is here. The season 4 compilation can be found here. Each episode of AMC's drama Breaking Bad starts with a prologue or teaser. Some of these advance the season's ongoing plot. Others feel like self-contained, at times experimental short films. We wondered: If you strung all of the opening scenes from the various seasons together in chronological order, would the show's basic narrative make sense? And, if people who had never watched Breaking Bad watched only these curtain-raisers, would they come away with a more or less accurate impression of the show? Or would it seem like a different program entirely? We asked Press Play contributor Dave Bunting, Jr. to edit the prologues together in chronological order to create two self-contained Breaking Bad movies, one covering Seasons 1 and 2, the other covering Seasons 3 and 4. Then we asked another Press Play contributor, Sheila O'Malley -- who has never seen a frame of the series -- to watch the two compilations and write down her impressions. Sheila was asked not to read any supplementary material before or during the experiment, and she agreed. Her written account is derived entirely from having watched Dave's compilations. Shorn of everything but its openings, was Breaking Bad still Breaking Bad? Read on and see. If you want to see exactly what Sheila saw, the prologues for Season 3 and 4 are embedded above.]
Season 3 opens with a surreal scene of a group of people crawling in the dirt through a rustic Mexican village. It seems that some well-known ritual is taking place. Nobody seems too surprised at the sight. A gleaming car pulls up and two men get out. They are bald, handsome, and dressed in immaculate suits. They are also identical twins. Without hesitation, they join the ritual, lying down in the dirt, despite their silk suits, and crawling along with the others. The destination is a run-down shack which has been built into some kind of shrine. Inside there are lit candles with dripping wax and bouquets and skulls draped in beads. The men in suits pin a picture up on the wall. It is a sketch of the chemistry teacher. Wherever we are in this opening scene is far from the sun-blasted streets of Albuquerque (the stomping grounds of the chemistry teacher), but it is clear that his fearsome influence is spreading.
Delving more and more into the backend machinations on the Mexican side of the border, Seasons 3 and 4 feature Mexican drug dealers, drug lords and drug runners, all far removed from the American scene, and yet connected by an unbreakable thread. The identical twins have targeted some of their main competition in New Mexico, and the shrine is devoted to keeping track of those targets. Not only is a sketch of the chemistry teacher up on the wall, but a photograph of the chemistry teacher's brother-in-law (who also happens to be a DEA agent) is added to the mix. Both characters experience attempts on their lives over the course of the two seasons. The situation is no longer local. Mexico is coming in, and hard, the tentacles of the drug war proliferating.
Jumping around in time, we see how the chemistry teacher got hooked up with the young man whom we have come to know as his partner in the first two seasons. In his time teaching chemistry in high school, the young man was one of his students. As they begin to set up their partnership, the chemistry teacher orders the kid to buy an RV, which will be essential to setting up a private meth lab, as well as transporting the drugs. The young man, who is clearly undeveloped as an adult, promptly goes to a strip club and spends almost all of it on strippers and Dom Perignon. A friend of his, the drug dealer in the white track suit whom we saw murdered by the child on the bicycle in an earlier season, hooks him up with an RV (illegally, of course).
This young man lives in isolation in a ratty room, spending most of his time playing violent video games, imagining his real-life enemies before him. He dates a pretty young woman, who takes him to a Georgia O'Keefe exhibit. He is singularly unimpressed, staring at one of O'Keefe's famous flower paintings and declaring, "That doesn't look like any vagina I ever saw." In the car afterwards, they talk about art, and repetition, and she tries to tell him what he is missing in his interpretaion of O'Keefe's work. In this scene he is almost fresh-faced. He kisses her gently. You really see how far this kid has fallen when you consider that in most other scenes he is either jacked up on meth, buying gas he can't pay for and then trading drugs with the cashier to pay for it, or beaten almost beyond recognition. There is a slow steady progression into hell with this character, and leaping around in time nails that point home.
We see the frightening poker-faced identical twins in flashback, two little boys playing in the yard, while their uncle looks on. In a terrifying scene, the uncle pushes one of the boy's heads underneath the water in a bucket of beer beside him. It is to teach his nephews a lesson. The little boy almost drowns. As the two boys crouch together staring up at their uncle, it is clear why they would grow up to be the demonic straight-faced killers that they become.
Out in the desert, the twins commandeer an isolated house, murdering the resident, and setting up shop, casually hanging out their clothes to dry. A cop shows up to check on the resident who hasn't been seen in a long time, and they murder him too, hacking him to death with an axe. The twins are moving closer every day, closer to their targets on the shrine wall.
Seasons 3 and 4 also deal heavily with the chemistry aspect of meth production (which is a propos seeing as how the opening credits sequence features a periodic table), as well as the ins and outs of running a successful drug dealing business. A local Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque called Los Pollos Hermanos is a front, and freezer trucks filled with crystals hurtle across the desert, with armed men crouched in the back, their breath showing in the cold darkness. Often these trucks are stopped by rival drug-dealers. Multiple shoot-outs occur. We also see the creation of the meth itself, characters in white suits and gloves moving the gleaming blue crystals along, bagging them up. Later, we learn that this particular brand of meth is 99% pure, and industry-standard appears to be around 96%. Others wonder what the secret is, how this meth can be so pure, and how it is done. That 3% gap in quality serves to "up" other people's games.
The chemistry teacher finds himself deeper and deeper in the netherworld of crime and danger, separating from his wife and child even further. His brother-in-law is shot by one of the Mexican twins, fulfilling the prophecy on the shrine's wall. Both twins are killed by police in the aftermath. The DEA teams up with the FBI and local homicide detectives, and so the chemistry teacher knows that his time is nearly up. He meets with a gun seller and buys a gun with the serial number scraped off. He knows how bad it will be if he is caught with such an illegal weapon, but he needs the protection. Alongside of these scenes, we see him in flashback househunting with his pregnant wife, looking forward to a better and more aspirational future, even though he already has the cancer that is slowly killing him.
But the chemistry teacher has been living in two worlds for too long. As Season 4 progresses, that separation becomes harder and harder to maintain
Breaking Bad has multiple visual references to John Ford's The Searchers, with its famous opening and closing shots of dark interiors with doors opening onto colorful desert vistas. This has to be a deliberate choice, since those shots are so famous, and they are used so often here. The Searchers is a story not only about a man's desire for revenge, but also racism and the deadly culture clash that existed in the old frontier West. We may think we have moved on past those days, we may pride ourselves on being more civilized and enlightened. But Breaking Bad, with its consistent nod to The Searchers in those visual cues, is a reminder that the same tensions exist. The frontier in America is as wild and lawless as ever, and there is the same stark separation between darkness and light.