In literature, prologues establish a story at some wiser remove, as in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. Or they promise the reader an exciting story by jumping into a dramatic moment, as in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (analyzed). Often a prologue does both, offers a survivor’s perspective and a taste of the drama of his surviving.
A few weeks ago, AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad opened its fifth and final season with a revelatory and risky prologue, puzzling for what it revealed. By last Sunday ’s episode—with only two more to go—viewers have seen the power and utility of this move in intriguing them and shaping their reactions. The prologue that has weighed on our minds exploded like a time bomb Sunday night.
Breaking Bad is the story of how Walter White, a meek, resentful, and broke high school chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, becomes a meth-maker after he’s diagnosed with cancer. In the past four seasons, viewers have watched White edge into evil as he becomes a drug kingpin. We see him learn to live by the cruel parameters of his criminal world. And become trapped by his own ego—a brainy man who underestimates others at every turn—as his intelligence turns to hubris.