The Hotness of Cold Opens: Breaking Bad and the Serial Narrative as Puzzle
Lisa Coulthard / University of British Columbia
With black humour and precise attention to character development, AMC’s Emmy winning series Breaking Bad has garnered critical praise during its three seasons to date. A serial narrative focused on a chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who starts manufacturing crystal methamphetamine as a way to subsidize his cancer treatment and ensure his family’s continuing financial security after his death, Breaking Bad offers a smart and frequently funny take on a “the ordinary guy turned gangster” narrative. Sure of his imminent death, White in the first two seasons embarks on a life of crime that does not change him so much as enables him to express the person he has always been. After the remission of his cancer, it becomes clear that there is more to his criminal ways than financial security as Walter White the meth cook finds confidence, satisfaction in his work and career success in ways that Mr. White the high school teacher never did.
Like many of the most highly praised series on television today, Breaking Bad expands this narrative premise into a long form serial narrative that builds upon events in a cumulative rather than episodic fashion. More than merely parsing out the story across a number of episodes, these contemporary examples of televisual seriality use the long form narrative to build mystery and intrigue in ways that have the audience searching for clues, hints or hidden meanings. In film studies, this tendency has been described in terms of narrative puzzles or games that function as complex nodes for viewer engagement. For instance, focusing on the mind game film as a variant of the puzzle film, Thomas Elsaesser argues that films such as Memento, Lost Highway, Fight Club and The Others operate as brainteasers that take delight in misleading spectators and involve them in fan-based cult-style reception. Noting that the puzzle structure of these films invites multiple viewings as well as a spectatorial attention to detail and minutiae, Elsaesser comments on the invested and frequently obsessive fan interaction with such films. Through fan forums, marketing and the creation of para-textual as well as textual games (for instance, games that arise from a film but also games within a film as in Lars von Trier’s clue based contest for The Boss of It All), these puzzle films take on a life beyond the diegesis itself. As Elsaesser terms it, a puzzle or mind game film is more than just a film, it is “a node that sustains and distributes a particular form of (floating) discourse.”1
While Elsaesser focuses on filmic examples, his argument is illustrated even more clearly in recent televisual innovations in long form serial narratives. Jason Mittell refers to television series such as The Wire as examples of a new “complex narrative,” a phrase in which “complex” is not a descriptive or evaluative adjective but rather a designation of a new form. This kind of complex seriality is easily connected to the kind of puzzle films that Elsaesser discusses, a tendency that encourages the kind of attention to detail and investment in story that are required in order to keep audiences over several episodes of what is in some way a single narrative. This form of seriality has been likened to the installment novel and even to poetry; comparisons that suggest the complexity and intensity of both narration and viewer engagement. As Elsaesser’s analysis suggests, the filmic or televisual puzzle is “part-text, part-archive, part-point of departure, part-node in a rhizomactic, expandable network of inter-tribal communication.”2
Turning back to the example with which I began, we can see how Breaking Bad provides a clear illustration of this kind of puzzle narrative in a televisual serial form. With active fan communities and even more active niche marketing by AMC, Breaking Bad manipulates the puzzle format in unique ways, the most intriguing of which is the variation on that television narrative standard—the cold open. Popular throughout the 1950s and 60s, the cold open is most succinctly defined as a pre-credit teaser that is not necessarily or directly tied to the action of the episode itself, but is rather an attraction on its own terms aimed at catching an audience quickly and convincing them to stay.
From the playfulness of the Los Cuates De Sinaloa music video for 2.7 “Negro y Azul” to the Lynchean 3.1 “No Mas” to the cryptic pilot episode, Breaking Bad’s cold opens have stood out: often surreal, tangential, temporally distanced and confusing, these opens are set pieces, unhinged or fractured from the narrative flow and style of the episode. The pilot episode, for instance, started with a shot of pants flying off a recreational vehicle as it sped down a dirt road and the ensuing distress of a middle aged bald man, who we will only later determine is the chemistry teacher turned meth manufacturer Walter White. Grabbing the audience through intrigue, this open displaced the temporal flow of the action by showing us the end of the episode first and then moved us backwards in time to reveal the cause and effect chain that resulted in this scene.
The puzzle nature of these cold opens is most obvious in the show’s second season, in which the cold opens for 2.1 “Seven Thirty-Seven”, 2.4 “Down”, 2.10 “Over” and 2.13 “ABQ” work together to provide clues for the climactic event in the final episode of the season: as the titles spell out, the culminating action of the season is the collision of two planes over Albuquerque. To parallel this titular puzzle, the cold open for each episode reveals a segment of mysterious action that turns out to be the clean-up of this horrific accident. What makes these opens a puzzle or mind-game rather than mere foreshadowing is that these clues are only detectable after the season has ended: they are retroactive clues, rather than hints to help us in a gradual unfolding of a mystery. That is, as the fan and marketing discourses created around the show make clear, these hints work in the nodal, paratextually motivating ways Elsaesser suggests and indicate the ways in which a variation on an old formal device works to further the innovations associated with the puzzle tendencies of complex narratives in televisual seriality.
Please feel free to comment.
I appreciate your linkage between the puzzle form and Breaking Bad‘s cold opens, and I wonder if you have any thoughts on the sometimes spectacular nature of some of the cold opens (I’m thinking particularly of the music video). How do these moments of spectacle affect our reading of the puzzle narrative?
Thanks Charlotte! And yes, absolutely. I quickly ran out of space in this article so I didn’t get much time to really discuss the cold opens in any detail (maybe for next column), but a lot of these cold opens function in spectacular ways that foreground non-narrative, visually abstract and acoustically experimental attractions. In some way they can be likened to the suspended space of the opening credits that I discussed elsewhere. Visually restrained, Breaking Bad’s opening credits take a secondary role to the cold opens. However, other than the music video, which is in my opinion a moment of suspended playfulness, even the most abstract of the cold opens usually fit into some sort of puzzle scheme — for instance, the plane crash, the fly, Jesse’s bouncing car.
Great points about how BB uses the cold open to create puzzles & complexity in a show that otherwise is quite linear in its plotting – the show’s complexity comes through more in its psychological depths than storytelling trickery. I was struck by the difference between seasons 2 & 3 in terms of the opens: season 2 highlighted flashforwards, either with the 4 visions of the post-crash clean-up or intraepisode visions of the future (like the bouncing car). Season 3 employed more flashbacks to moments referred to in previous episodes, but otherwise left unexplored: Jesse & Jane at the Georgia O’Keefe museum, Jesse “buying” the RV, Walt & Skyler buying their house. These glances backwards into such moments don’t foreground puzzles like the plane crash, but make character psychology and experiences more complex, highlighting character growth (or devolution) and deep-seated issues.
Thanks Jason and yes absolutely! I actually cut a paragraph on these third season cold opens, which I agree work completely differently, but are still part of a complex narrative structure. As someone who came to the show in the third season, these opens were puzzling in a different way, and put bluntly, frequently frustrating; to the initiated they work in the opposite way, making us feel as if we are somehow sharing memories with the show itself. This is most obvious in those Jesse moments where in previous episodes we saw the actions around an event that we now see unfold in more detail. This is an unusual cold open strategy and one worth investigating in more detail. It is also worth examining the way in which each season operates as a kind of “act” in a narrative arc: and the cold opens for each season have a certain degree of internal unity of style and focus.
In Lisa Coulthard’s article, The Hotness of Cold Opens: Breaking Bad and the Serial Narrative as Puzzle, it discuss how Breaking Bad uses a complex serial narrative to intrigue the audience.
Within the article it states that Breaking Bad expands, “the long form narrative, to build mystery and intrigue in ways that have the audience searching for clues, hints or hidden meanings”. These puzzles create active fan communities and a “more active niche marketing by AMC, Breaking Bad manipulates the puzzle format in unique ways, the most intriguing of which is the variation on that television narrative standard—the cold open”
The “cold open” is a strategy that Breaking Bad also uses to gain attention from the audience. A cold open is a technique of jumping directing into a story at the beginning or opening of the show. By doing so, “these opens a puzzle or mind-game rather than mere foreshadowing is that these clues are only detectable after the season has ended: they are retroactive clues, rather than hints to help us in a gradual unfolding of a mystery”
The only argument against this strategy would be it may be to complex for a certain audience. Also, it can sometimes be hard to follow the show. However, Breaking Bad isn’t for everyone.
Like you, I came to Breaking Bad later in its run and had therefore heard of the show’s mysterious cold opens before experiencing them myself. I find it interesting how this show takes a technique that has become so normalized for police procedurals, such as Law & Order or CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, as well as a show like House, and tweaked it in such a fashion that is nearly works in the opposite way. Shows like Law & Order use cold opens before the credits in order to provide background information on the case as well as create a sense of dramatic irony by giving the audience information that, at first, the show’s protagonists don’t have until they piece it together, usually by the midpoint, then allowing the audience to figure out the rest along with the detectives in the show. Breaking Bad, however, uses cold opens that seem to operate in increasingly different ways. The cold opens used in season 1 seem to be the most traditional, offering bit of information to the audience that the show’s characters do not know about and therefore letting the viewer piece together evidence as the episodes progress until, finally, we get to find out exactly how the characters’ actions led us the the climax presented in the opening. It is in this way that, as you say, “Breaking Bad manipulates the puzzle format.”
Season 2, while still presenting a climax, uses cold openings a bit differently to Season 1 in that they aren’t so much about showing the audience a moment before telling them how the characters get there, but rather are about raising questions that the audience has no way for getting the answers to until the show allows for it. Essentially, Season 1’s cold openings provide the climactic moment to each episode, allowing the audience to piece together the puzzle as events unfold until, eventually, the climax occurs. Season 2 on the other hand uses short scenes, first of an eyeball floating in a pool, then of a Teddy Bear floating on a pool and onward, until the moment the plane crashes over Albuquerque. However this format less presents pieces of a puzzle than teasers of an event soon to come, as the show in no way builds to the plane crash beyond these openings.
I also find it interesting how you talk about Walter White’s breaking bad as a “life of crime that does not change him so much as enables him to express the person he has always in,” and I think this is exemplified in the name Heisenberg. Walter White is a name that was bestowed upon him by his parents, and he had no more control over his name than he did of his life before he broke bad. Giving himself a new name, Heisenberg, acted as a sort of baptism in drugs, if you will, allowing Walter to give himself a new identity, a new focus, and take control over the direction his life is headed. This control, in turn, allows him to provide for his family in a way that he couldn’t while working two jobs before.