'Breaking Bad,' 'The Blacklist,' 'Preacher': Misdirection in Opening Scenes Is All the Rage

THR talks with Vince Gilligan, Jon Bokencamp, Sam Caitlin and more producers about pre-credit scenes that often seem like misdirects and why writers are increasingly featuring them.
Courtesy of AMC

Few shows have ever been hotter entering their sophomore season than Breaking Bad. The AMC drama about a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin had become a critical darling from the get-go, and the anticipation for year two couldn’t have been more intense. And then, the season began. With an eyeball.

The first images were in black and white, showing an eyeball floating in a pool. And at the bottom of the pool was a pink teddy bear missing an eye. By the time the opening credits rolled, not one familiar character put in an appearance. It was as if this was an entirely different show. Which was precisely the point.

“We knew we were telling our story in a non-linear fashion, with the ability to cut back and forth in time, so an opening sequence like that was an extra tool in our toolbox,” explains Vince Gilligan, executive producer on Breaking Bad and its spinoff, Better Call Saul. “It’s all in service of creating a story that bears a second watching. We are going for something that’s not just watchable but rewatchable.”

Mission accomplished. By the end of season two, fans learned that the teddy bear had landed in Walter White’s pool after a plane crash caused by the bad judgment of an air traffic controller who had become overwhelmed with grief when his daughter died of an overdose of drugs supplied by Walter’s meth-making partner. What began as something out of left field eventually became the central theme of the whole season.

There have been a few shows over the years (often in the sci-fi genre) that kicked off an episode with some sort of misdirection, whether it was The Twilight Zone or The X-Files. Action movies like the James Bond series also often open with a scene that’s seemingly disconnected from the story that follows yet still manages to surprise and intrigue an audience precisely because it's so unexpected. You have to keep watching, keeping faith that what you just saw will meet up with the main story later. Most of the time, though, television has followed a much more predictable pattern.

“When I watched Dukes of Hazard and Three’s Company, I expected the same thing every week,” explains Blacklist creator/executive producer Jon Bokencamp. “Television has often been comfort food. You tune in each week and see familiar characters in a familiar world. That is something we try to build into the show, but something different and unexpected happens when you enter the story from a unique perspective. We make that our audience’s comfort food."

It takes a bold show to open an episode with a WTF moment that completely misdirects its faithful viewers. However, it seems that in this era of streaming and binging, more and more series seem willing to shake their fans up with unexpected pre-credit scenes.

Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul once kicked off an episode showing nothing but five minutes of a truck going through a border security check. Preacher’s first season featured one pre-credit teaser set inside a gondola in the Alps that crashes with unknown families on board. Another began in a previously unknown old Western town called Ratwater, which was dominated by lots of very bad (and unfamiliar) men.

Pre-credit teasers are also creeping into network series. NBC’s The Blacklist often opens with a mysterious vignette, introducing the bad guy of the week. Like the man who entered a motel room, removed his hair and teeth and clothes before we eventually learn he’s there to dispose of a dead body. Or when an episode opened in an African village where everyone is slaughtered except one boy who much later grows into series regular Dembe Zuma. 

“I hope people are more able to accept this device,” explains Preacher EP and former Breaking Bad writer Sam Catlin. “These sequences can’t be cliffhangers or eccentric storylines that are hooks and nothing else. The audience needs to be rewarded and not be confused. You want to intrigue them, and this is a great way to do it right from the top.”

Kicking off episodes of his show with unknown characters plunging to their death or a killer shooting his way out of a Western saloon are what Catlin considers “a way of expanding the vocabulary of our show. It used to be that TV tried to be everything to everyone. But now we have such specialized interests and so many different kinds of shows, with fans who are so passionate about them. People really get involved in the minutiae of a series, and I love to do whatever we can to encourage that level of engagement.”

It’s not just viewers who are challenged by an opening scene that has no connection to the usual storyline. These pre-credit sequences are apparently a way for writers and producers to challenge themselves. “Getting to do this is one of the most fun parts of doing The Blacklist,” says Bokenkamp. “When we talk about the episodes, one of my big questions is, ‘What’s the movie poster? What world are we going into?’ The pre-credit sequences are the best way to introduce that new world to the audience. It’s supposed to raise questions.”

Ironically, according to Bokenkamp, the sequences often begin as questions themselves. They start out “as a placeholder, a weird person doing something dangerous, while we figure out the rest of the story. Once we know who the characters are and where they’re going in the script, we can go back and build the whole story.”

Despite the increasing use of unexpected pre-credit scenes, though, they still cause anxiety for the networks producing the shows. Says Gilligan, “I’ve been at various networks and gotten notes on pilots and whatnot. There’s a constant drumbeat of notes asking if we can make things clearer. Mystery is great. Confusion is not. But for us, mystery keeps up viewers’ expectations. Clarity can sometimes be a wonderful thing, but it can also be the enemy of continued interest in your show.”

A perfect example is the beginning of Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season. It began with a heavily bearded Walter White celebrating his birthday in an unfamiliar diner, exchanging money with a stranger in the men’s room and then finding an M-60 machine gun in his trunk. And as it turns out, the producers also had no idea what they were setting up.

“That was one of those times when I was inspired by my seven years with Chris Carter on The X-Files,” explains Gilligan. “We didn’t think of it so much as a pre-credit teaser as much as it was just ripping off someone else’s show completely. We were in a situation where we wanted a cool image of Walt buying a machine gun in a Denny’s parking lot. That idea tickled us.”

The more everyone worked on the episode, the more layers were thrown into the sequence. “It wasn’t just the machine gun,” says Peter Gould, a fellow executive producer on Bad and Saul. “Walt was wearing different glasses and driving a car from New Hampshire. Why was he in New Hampshire? We had to figure that out as well as figuring what we were going to do with that machine gun. There was some worry about what we were possibly going to do with this sequence we’d created.”

This sort of reverse engineering for story ideas has been a critical component of Better Call Saul. The Saul Goodman character was very well established by the end of Breaking Bad, so if Gould wanted to create a new show exploring how he came to be, there had to be some surprising twists right from the start. There had been a fleeting line of dialogue near the end of Breaking Bad where Saul mentioned that in the best-case scenario, he’d end up running a Cinnabon in Omaha. That had been “just a joke thrown into the script,” according to Gould. “Then we realized we had to start taking it seriously.”

Cut to the first moments of the Saul premiere, black-and-white shots of a barely recognizable version of the title character cleaning up at a Cinnabon. There was still no clue about how he got himself there, and two seasons in, fans are still waiting for more scenes of Saul’s future. 

Ultimately, these pre-credit teasers represent an unspoken bond between show writers and show fans that goes far beyond the scene itself. “We often repeat a saying from Billy Wilder around here,” says Gilligan. “’If you give the audience two and two and let them make four, they’ll love you forever. I’ve learned that audiences are incredibly smart and will put things together quickly.”