Presenting, The Top 20 episodes of Breaking Bad…
by: Michael Shields and L.P. Hanners
It is hard to fathom, but it has been just over nine years since the premiere of Breaking Bad. And it seems like only yesterday that Walt was bidding adieu to this life, passing into repose amongst the instruments that bore into existence his truest of loves, his precious Baby Blue. In that time our obsession with Breaking Bad has scarcely waned. Thus, to address our amplifying withdrawal, we would like to take some time and revisit the series as a whole. To meticulously pluck through all the grandiosity, and cipher out the cream of the crop, we present The Top 20 Episodes of Breaking Bad.
The process wasn’t simple. In fact the time spent in deliberation over the episodes credited was extensive. Many factors were taken into account, including overall impact to the series and to the viewer, the importance of the episode within the scheme of the series, character development, media impact, and just pure awesomeness. We didn’t create a mathematical equation to calculate the exact pleasure derived from each episode, but we came damn near close. And so with that said, allow us to present the fruit of our labor. Buckle in as we take you on a trip down memory lane. Presenting, The Best of Bad…
20. OVER (S2, E10)
“We’ve got rot…”
Something special, and so unique, in terms of Breaking Bad’s raw power is its ability to chill you to the bone with just a simple phrase articulated with cutting precision. Whether it was Mike instructing Walt on the flaws of half-measures, or Walt acquainting Skyler with whom the true danger actually was (we will assuredly get to both!), a few meticulously vetted and shrewdly delivered words (or word in one case – “Run”) successfully act as the climax of the episode. It’s an amazing trick, and one the showrunners exercised often, presumably due to the immense talent that they had on hand in Bryan Cranston. But this maneuver, it seems, came to light at a time when Walt was preparing to retire from the drug game, diving obsessively into household projects to mask the loss of his precious empire. That is until he came upon a fellow meth cook shopping for supplies…
Sure, to some this could be the episode where we meet Jane’s father, or when Walt forced tequila shots upon his son, but we like to look at it as the episode where he redefined his legacy. Upon his cancer remission there was still a beast lurking within Walt, and it had already been given a name. When he tells the would-be cooks to “Stay out of my territory,” we saw a grizzlier reflection of this new entity. In that moment, Walt took ownership of his newfound craft. He would no longer be forced to stubbornly refuse Elliot and Gretchen’s money, or to dwell on Gray Matter at all. He had found his new life’s work, his Baby Blue ((The episode also featured one of the four black and white cold openings foreshadowing the finale’s audacious climax, and also introduced us to the crawl space underneath the White family’s home.)).
19. CORNERED (S4, E6)
“Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn’t believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly up. Disappears! It ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!”
It’s a curious case that the audience grew to dislike Skyler. As this list will zealously point out, Breaking Bad challenges the conventions of who the heroes and villains are, and it is unique that Skyler, through the course of Breaking Bad’s triumphant five seasons, proved that even the protagonists can be deeply despised. Her reactions to the challenges Walt levied upon her sailed over the heads of much of the audience, and her journey to define her own terms somehow challenged the conventions of what a housewife to a meth kingpin was supposed to be. It was unfortunate so many fans didn’t offer her the sympathy she deserved. Thankfully, Vince continued telling the story he wanted to tell, and fully believed in and spotlighted Skyler’s unimaginable journey. In “Cornered,” Skyler arrived at a milestone in terms of the profound significance of her role, when she manipulated Walt into opening up about himself. This fiery interchange, an unforgettable back and forth shared within their bedroom long devoid of love, brought Skyler to an important revelation about her family’s safety. “Someone needs to protect this family from the one who protects this family,” she tells the man who can’t even keep shiny red sports cars away from his sixteen year old son at that point. If you’re to wonder if there’s an episode where Skyler truly becomes Mrs. Heisenberg, proverbial burden and all, this is it.
18. DEAD FREIGHT (S5, E5)
“I’m talking about an ocean of the stuff.”
In what was perhaps the most cryptic of all the Breaking Bad cold openings, we shadowed a young boy navigating his dirt bike through the desert. This young man, who later we learn was named Drew Sharp, happens upon a tarantula which he examines and then places in a glass jar for safe keeping and further examination. A freight train’s horn is heard in the distance, and Drew sets off to investigate. It wasn’t until the episodes closing moments where we learned the significance of the young boy’s jaunt through the desert, when he is horrifyingly shot down by Todd for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and bearing witness to one of the all time great Breaking Bad capers, the methylamine train heist.
Before Season Five began, Jesse Plemons described Todd as someone who is “not what he seems.” This innocuous description was a peculiar set up for the audience, as no one was prepared when Todd’s silent demeanor suddenly became the scariest element on the show. Todd’s instinctual decision to murder an innocent child not only was a revelation about the lengths Todd was willing to go for Walt, but it also served as the final crushing blow in an episode that was comprised of a series of gut punches, from Walt bugging Hank’s office, to the bullying interrogation of Lydia, and the train heist and its startling conclusion.
17. PILOT (S1, E1)
“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change.”
How do we not levy praise upon the one that started it all? Not only was this our introduction to Walt and Jesse, but also to many of the iconic puzzle pieces that comprise this unforgettable tale: the Crystal Ship, the gas masks, birthday breakfasts, and of course, Walt’s underwear. Breaking Bad caught our eye immediately, hurling us into a mobile meth lab under the most dire of circumstances, before unveiling the motivations of our protagonist, an everyday man (“Mr. Chips”) who had received a death sentence that propelled him towards the unimaginable.
It’s hard to believe that Breaking Bad was as compendious as it was when you put its entire journey into perspective. The setting and events in this initial episode exist in stark contrast from what the show would become. Many of the show’s characters didn’t exist yet, and the pilot simply doesn’t broadcast the hulking intensity and breathtaking suspense of the show’s later years. But that doesn’t make this pilot episode any less meaningful. This is Breaking Bad’s humble beginning. This is where the bulkiest measure of Walt’s transformation occurs, when he takes his first steps toward the dark side.
16. NEGRO Y AZUL (S2, E7)
On the surface Hank Schrader appeared far from a complicated man. Brimming with machismo, and always quick with tasteless jokes and jabbing insults, Hank was, for a moment, Breaking Bad’s resident meathead, invariably cocksure and brash. That is until he was promoted and wrenched from his comfort zone and exposed to the true horrors that dwell along our southern border. Eventually, we delve deep into Hank’s insecurities and motivations, and discover a complex man whose depth of feelings were perpetually masked by his rugged exterior. Eventually we found out who Hank truly was, an essential character analysis that would never have occurred if Hank hadn’t encountered a tortoise hobbling through the desert.
Besides the explosive impact of Hank’s meeting with a tortoise ferrying a severed human head, “Negro y Azul” also housed a pivotal moment for both Skyler and Jesse. In this episode we are acquainted with Ted “Mr. Grabby Hands” Beneke, and we learn that he and Skyler have some history, a flirtatious past which soon manifests itself in many tense and significant moments between Skyler and Walt (“I fucked Ted.”). And as for Jesse, “Negro y Azul” features the poignant depth of connection between Jesse and Jane, culminating in easily the most heart-warming ending to any episode of the series, where Jane reaches over and tenderly embraces Jesse’s hand.
15. ONE MINUTE (S3, E7)
“Ever since I met you, everything I ever cared about is gone! Ruined. Turned to shit. Dead, ever since I hooked up with the great Heisenberg! I have never been more alone!”
If we were to gauge Breaking Bad’s villains by ruthlessness, none of the show’s villains could compete with The Cousins. Their ascendancy on the show was swift and concentrated, but impactful and unforgettable. One of the greatest examples of the visual poetry of Breaking Bad is how memorable the images of these two hulking brutes were on screen. In episode one of Season Three we are introduced to two tongue-tied gangsters as they slithered on all fours to the Santa Muerte shrine. It’s an indelible scene, as is the opener of “One Minute,” where we witness a young Hector Salamanca bestow some tough love upon The Cousins. “Family is all,” he tells them after nearly drowning one. Their lot in life sealed by their demanding upbringing, before long they would be sporting skull-toed boots, shark-skin suits and wielding razor-sharp axes while making their move on Agent Schrader in “One Minute’s” stressful climatic scene.
Dean Norris (Hank) and Betsy Brandt (Marie) are quoted proclaiming “One Minute” as their favorite episode in the series, which makes sense as their work within its tense confines was extraordinary. But the grandeur of “One Minute” isn’t limited to their impassioned exchanges, or the showdown between Hank and The Cousins alone. From the onset of the episode, where we find Hank releasing all of his angst upon Jesse’s face, we are subsisting at a level of peak intensity. Jesse’s lambasting of Walt from his hospitable bed where he sits disfigured and broken is as riveting as it is unforgettable. As is The Cousins’ encounter with the garrulous arms dealer in the back of an 18-wheeler truck. In “One Minute,” every moment matters, and every second counts.
14. HERMANOS (S4, E8)
“Is today the day, Hector?”
Brace yourself. Moving forward into this countdown, this definitive list of the ‘Best of Bad,’ you are going to hear a lot about Gustavo Fring. His addition to the cast so significant, the impression he made within those two fiery seasons, monumental. Once we were introduced to him, we instantly became curious. Insatiably so. We had to know more, and “Hermanos” opened the door to that insight.
“Hermanos” furthered the depth of our knowledge concerning Gus and Tio’s fractured relationship. And one doesn’t have to explain to another Breaking Bad enthusiast about the significance of this. The seeds of Gus’s empire were planted in 1989, poolside at Don Eladio’s compound, where something so important to Gus was hideously snatched from him – his pupil, his partner, his beloved brother. As Tio grinds his foot into the side of Gus’s neck, constraining him so that he is forced to stare into Max’s vacant eyes as blood gushes from his head, the fire within Gus is lit. Forevermore he becomes a changed man, with a purpose far beyond financial accomplishments. Retribution will be the candle that lights his way moving forward, and the lengths he will go to realize this objective brilliantly culminate within the exceptional Season Four.
“Hermanos” acts as the ultimate set-up, for what would be triumphantly knocked down a few episodes later (we must leave it at that, with reason I assure you…).
13. FULL MEASURES (S3, E13)
“Your boss is going to need me.”
Depositing us directly into the smoldering wake of the triumphant penultimate episode of Season Three ((“Half Measures” – which appropriately resides within our Top Ten.)), “Full Measures” attempts to pick up the pieces of Walt’s improbable and audacious rescue of Jesse. Yet, while trying to fix what has been broken, the pieces further crumble. By episode’s end Walt is being led to his execution, while Jesse sets off to save his partner, ultimately migrating towards the point of no return with one pull of a trembling trigger finger.
In “Half Measures,” we saw the length Walt would go to to protect Jesse. A murderous act of insurrection which was reciprocated in the follow up episode when Jesse executed Gale. Jesse’s first murder was not without consequences of course, yet fans of Breaking Bad would have to anxiously wait months on end to witness the fallout. And fallout there was, as Gale’s murder was a shot which resonated throughout the entirety of the series, as pivotal a turning point as the show has ever unveiled. The series was essentially retreaded, its significance such that we can easily look at the series as two distinct moments in time, before Jesse killed Gale, and after.
Gale’s murder was also a momentous turning point in Jesse and Walt’s relationship, with all their future interactions tainted by the shadow of Gale’s death, the crushing depth of Jessie’s guilt and the icy coldness of Walt’s indifference. Walt forcing Jess’s hand in this manner changed everything. The first half of Season Four would illustrated at length how devastating this was for Jesse, and there’s a reason for that, as Jesse might have always been a fuck up, but he was never a murderer. And Walt made him so.
In stark contrast to the stunning event which closed this third season, we find a younger Walt and Skyler in the cold opening house hunting, and being lead into their future home by a real estate agent. Awash with hope, and anticipation of a bright future, Walt wonders if this home is too small for their soon to be growing family. “We’ve got nowhere to go but up,” Walt assures Skyler. They really have no idea…
12. GLIDING OVER ALL (S5, E8)
“Been thinking about that job more and more lately. Maybe I should have enjoyed it more. Tagging trees is a lot better than chasing monsters.”
For a man that infamously began his drug-dealing career embracing blistering arrogance, Walt unwittingly succumbed to paranoia when production began in Gus’s super lab. Gus’s omnipresence within his state-of-the-art meth lab got the best of Walt. But Walt regrouped, and became hellbent on building an Empire of his own. At one point during the edgy “Gliding Over All,” that Empire had been erected, and all of Walt’s adversaries had been extinguished, freeing Walt to finally walk haughtily into the sunset. Except, he forgot about one little loose end…
From the visual callbacks to past episodes ((The re-emergence of the ricin, Walt’s re-encounter with the painting from “Bit By A Dead Bee,” the dented towel dispenser, etc..)), to Walt’s sad, sad story of how it’s lonely at the top, to the introduction of Uncle Jack and his brutal capabilities, “Gliding Over All’ was a rewarding mid-season finale which left us on the edge of our seat for months, eagerly awaiting the final episodes. Or more aptly put, awaiting for Hank to exit the bathroom, armed with the information that changed everything. Hank had finally come upon his White Whale, his Heisenberg, and he was right under his nose the entire time.
Editor Kelley Dixon is well known for her flair for cutting montage sequences. Her most renowned arrangements are on showcase within “Gliding Over All,” one representing the series’ most gruesome sequence of violence (10 men, across 3 prisons, in 2 minutes), and the other representing a 3-month time jump (or the rise of Heisenberg). Kelley won the Emmy for her work on this episode, and to her to her credit, using Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up” (during the prison murder montage) was her idea and it complimented the montage brilliantly. “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” the most appropriate song ever used in Breaking Bad, was all Vince though.
11. GRANITE STATE (S5, E15)
“Just leave us alone. You asshole. Why are you still alive? Why won’t you just, just die already?”
Following up the calamitous unravelings of “Ozymandias” is no easy task. An uphill battle if you will, but one Vince and his team embarked upon with unadulterated finesse. The show was running at a high-level at this juncture, deliberately moving towards its end point. The aftershocks of the previous week’s horrors were still being felt however, in masked intruders within the White residence to the pure horror which occurred upon Andrea’s doorstep. “Granite State” was cold, and a bit unnerving, as it lifted us far from our comfort zone, all the way to the desolate, icy mountains of New Hampshire.
“Granite State” opened upon a red van, which we realize immediately belonged to ‘The Disappearer,” whom to the delight of all was played by Robert Foster. His presence became so rewarding, a welcome distraction from the misery we were being consumed by ((Robert Foster’s late-series casting tickled our imagination, and made us wonder why was it that he wasn’t the one with the future spin-off.)) and the cruciality of his role cannot be understated for it was up to his character to extract Walt from the remnants of his fallen empire and to do the extraordinary, and lead us all into the final act.
In New Hampshire we waited anxiously with Walt as he debated his next move. Donning his pork pie hat he made his way off his isolated compound to take back all that he had lost. Realizing at the last minute the futility of this endeavor he turned back, muttering to himself, “tomorrow.” Fortunately, inspired by a television interview with Gretchen and Elliot, that tomorrow would come, in the form of one of the greatest series finales in the history of television.
10. PHOENIX (S2, E12)
“To water on Mars.”
It wasn’t until Walt’s last conversation with his wife in the series finale that he finally came clean. Where he finally acknowledged that this whole foray into crime was self-serving, an egotistical joy-ride of sorts. But this was far from news to those who tuned in to bear witness to Walt’s risky and narcissistic behavior weekly. This idea, that Walt’s motivation was purely selfish, was never more evident than during one of Walt’s first moments with his newborn daughter, Holly. Where he glowingly shared with her his most prized possession, his earnings. “Daddy did this for you,” he tells her. One could rationalize that as the truth. But we know better.
Up until the final moments of “Phoenix,” the name “Heisenberg” was simply a device to provide anonymity and to protect Walt and his family. After Walt stood idly by as Jane choked to death, this changed. Darker shades within the man were revealed, and a chilling duality manifested itself. Our beloved protagonist was suddenly far from gallant. There was more to Walt than we had ever imagined. He was capable of actions we never dreamed possible.
Jane’s death was always such a seminal moment. So significant that the echoes of its occurrence were felt the remainder of the series. Weekly, we sat in ready for Jesse to find out, wondering how he would react when he did (which was all but imminent). It nearly occurred in “Fly,” but ultimately came to light as the series reached its heart-wrenching pinnacle (“Ozymandias.”). Just as Walt was forever seen in a different light after “Phoenix,” as too was the series as a whole. With Walt now capable of rank monstrosity, anything was now truly possible.
9. “CRAWL SPACE” (S4, E11)
“If you could kill me, I’d already be dead.”
The innate ability to raise tensions to the intensity of a fever pitch is a Breaking Bad trademark. So often the circumstances are so harrowing, so excruciating and tortuous, that it’s almost difficult to watch. And in no other episode is this more evident than within “Crawl Space,” a nerve wracking episode that finds Walt as desperate as we ever saw him. So desperate that we find him at episode’s end roaring with maniacal laughter in the dreggy crawl space beneath his home, at his wits end, and all but hopeless.
Walter White was continuously positioned between a rock and a hard place. This was half the fun, as watching Walt plot and hustle his way out of impossibly sticky situations was riveting. But “Crawl Space” was different. It felt dire, desperately so. Not only was Skyler in a precarious position (Saul’s “A-Team” was put in charge of that situation, to dubious results), but Walt was cloaked with a hood and dragged to the desert where Gus threatened to kill his entire family – meaning every word of it. When Walt found his crawl space devoid of his beloved money, over the sound of his demonic laughing you can almost hear Walt hit rock bottom with a resounding thud. “Crawl Space” appeared to be an irrecoverable moment for Walt, which rendered everything that followed in its wake that much more enthralling.
8. “FELINA” (S5, E16)
“I did it for me. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.”
If we had sat down to draw up this ‘Best of Bad’ list a mere few days after the series finale of Breaking Bad, entitled “Felina,” there is a significant chance this episode would top the list. The reason? The conclusion was just that satisfying. “Felina” was the ending that so many of us were hoping for. The one where our anti-hero found a measure of redemption necessary to attain peace, yet simultaneously paid for his sins with the steep price of his life. It was almost too good to be true.
Throughout “Felina” we traveled with Walt as he tied up all his loose ends. From finding a way to financially care for his children when he is gone (Supposedly, the point of it all…) to shockingly admitting to Skyler how intoxicating this adventure had been for him (The true point of it all!), “Felina” could have been an extraordinary journey all on its own. But as the final act to our grueling campaign through Albuquerque’s seedy underworld, it was the ultimate cherry on top. “Felina” will forevermore be hailed as one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) series finales in all of television. An impeccable conclusion to an outstanding show.
7. CRAZY HANDFUL OF NOTHIN’ (S1, E6)
“You got one part of that wrong. This is not meth.”
Take a moment to recollect. To think about the moment that Breaking Bad hooked you in. To try to identify that exact moment where you came to realize the electrifying capabilities of this fledgling AMC drama. For us this moment, one that nearly had us screaming at the height of our our lungs, feeling fully alive as Walt transformed before our eyes, was when Tuco’s office felt the wrath of a crystalline nugget known as fulminated mercury. In the same episode where he advocated for “no more violence,” Walt displayed his true power. It was a maneuver, a “tweak of chemistry,” which solidified his place in the game, and birthed the legend of Heisenberg.
As seen in the episode, Heisenberg’s first stand wasn’t as dreadful and evil as they would later become. He was greatly motivated out of his love and protection for Jesse, his new found partner in crime. From the moment we see Walt finally shaving his head, we’re behind whatever he’s about to do, for his allegiance to Jesse, his noble mission to support his family, and because of the fact that he was battling a ghastly disease. Things drastically change, but for this moment suspended in time, it felt honorable, and not to mention thrilling, to stand behind Walt.
6. FLY (S3, E10)
“Oh, if I had just lived right up to that moment…and not one second more. That would have been perfect.”
“Fly” is an intriguing episode in terms of its critical reception, in that you will find many who hail it as amongst the greatest of all episodes (we reside resolutely within this camp), and many who found it odd, and ultimately dissatisfying. It is no wonder many don’t grasp the episode’s splendor, as it is an irregular episode, so much so that after ingesting it for the first time you found yourself asking: What the fuck was that? But after further examination “Fly” manifests itself as a character study of our embattled duo that was unlike anything we had seen on the show before. It was a bold journey into the mind’s eye of our main characters at a point in time where they were internally struggling so vigorously with the situations they found themselves in.
Within the last two acts of the episode we find Walt grappling with and rambling on about the meaning of his life as he slowly succumbed to the effects of sleeping pills. It’s some of the finest acting of Bryan Cranston’s career, and the most introspective we ever saw Walter White. Within the course of this episode Walt and Jesse continually challenge each other. Walt rightfully accusing Jesse of stealing their product, and Jesse, in turn, justly accusing Walt of being insane. It was a tug of war on multiple levels, which eventually devolved into a war on a common house fly. Walt would later spill his guts about Jane in the heat of vengeance, but here it almost happens out of friendship. A truly remarkable and nerve-wracking moment.
In a surreptitious ode to co-workers everywhere, “Fly” locked us in the lab with Jesse and Walt. We could practically smell the chemicals wafting through the air, as the claustrophobic room consumed us. “Fly” landed us squarely in the middle of the series, appropriately capturing the moment in time before their problems multiplied, and like a row of dominoes these troubles kept tumbling until the very end.
5. 4 DAYS OUT (S2, E9)
“4 Days Out,” is such an unprecedented episode because if you were to examine it on its own, it somehow acts as a terse synopsis of the series (stay with us here…). A man becomes desperate because he essentially is facing a death sentence (Walt noticing the white spot on his lung on his x-ray as the episode commences). Despondent, he lies to his wife and decides he must do what he has to to support his family posthumously (“make hay,” a.k.a. cook). Things don’t go as planned and Jesse and Walt bump heads (“Is this just a genetic thing with you? Is it congenital? Did your, did your mother drop you on your head when you were a baby?”), share moments (“Whatever happens, your family will get your share.”), and ultimately work their way through all the obstacles before them. The episode even includes one of Walt’s patented MacGyver moments. It truly has it all.
In this masterpiece’s final scene, after a fortuitous meeting with his Oncologist, Walt erupts in a gratuitous display of testosterone overload, suddenly beating his fist to a bloody pulp on a towel dispenser after catching a sight of his reflection in it. Evoking the feelings of an impassioned battle cry, declaring that “I still got things left to do,” or perhaps a voice begging from within for someone to save him from himself, this moment profoundly foreshadows so much of what is to come in the series. This episode acts as a telling indicator of the struggles Walt would be confronted with, both internally and externally, along the long and arduous road ahead.
4. HALF MEASURES (S3, E12)
Throughout this comprehensive list we have been awaiting the moment to sing the praises of one of Breaking Bad’s most intriguing and pivotal characters, Mike Ehrmantraut. Now is that moment. If you were to amass all the choice elements of the characters within crime dramas and concentrate them within one person, Mike would be the result. Mike is a man of few words, but he rarely says anything insignificant or uninspiring. With his granddaughter’s well-being his primary motivation, Mike became a fan favorite, a supporting character that was both strategic and brilliant, whose unique abilities allowed Breaking Bad to be so much more than it was before his introduction.
There is a scene within “Half Measures” where Mike pays Walt an unexpected visit. His intention was to pass along some advice garnered throughout his lengthy career. In this scene Mike explains the danger in not taking consummate control of a situation, in not acting with full and thorough resolve. “No half measures,” he tells Walt. Today, Aaron Paul (Jesse) sports a tattoo on his arm which reads, “No Half Measures,” a nod to one of the most powerful scenes of the series.
But the real significance of “Half Measures,” a moment that was as stunning as it was exhilarating, was Walt’s spontaneous and radical reaction to learning about Tomas’s death, and realizing Jesse is in dire need of help. Heeding Mike’s advice (well, sort of…) Walt acts, leaving us with a shocking reminder that Walt was continually growing more dangerous and unpredictable. With one word (“Run”), Walt sent chills down the spines of Breaking Bad fans everywhere, whilst growing the legend of the almighty Heisenberg.
3. SALUD (S4, E10)
“Fill your pockets and leave in peace, or fight me and die.”
Many may find it unique that an episode which we nominate within the top three is a little light on Heisenberg, but that’s sort of our point. His (near) absence hardly detracts from the grandeur of this monumental episode. As Breaking Bad began its ascent into television royalty, it became evident around Season Two that in order to elevate the already swelling intrigue, Heisenberg would require a nemesis. He got that and more in Gustavo Fring, an intellectual equal who began as an ally, only to develop into an ideal adversary. Maturing into a core character expeditiously, Gustavo’s backstory was one of vital importance, as how would a man with his intellect, a thriving businessman, proudly thrive in a seedy underworld rife with methamphetamine? In no time at all we learned that Gustavo had an axe to grind, which he did so in jaw-dropping fashion within the thrilling confines of “Salud,” during what we would argue is the most tense and thrilling moment in all of Breaking Bad (heightened with finesse by Dave Porter’s bone-chilling score).
This episode, and its exalted concluding moments, was hardly just about Gus righting a terrible wrong, but about Jesse and his coming of age. As the episode commences, we hear the sound of a single-engine plane, soon to be boarded by Gustavo ((Carrying a conspicuous looking gift-box invoking the dramatic principle known as ‘Chekhov’s Gun.’)), Jesse, and Mike. But before they do, Gus, in a moment of sage counseling, reassures Jesse. “You can do this,” Gus plainly states. It’s a prophetic assurance, as Jesse went on to seize his moment at the Cartel’s super lab (“Stop whining like a little bitch, and do what I say.”) and to liberate both Mike and Gus from Don Eladio’s compound. It is in “Salud” where Mike and Gus are rewarded for putting their faith in Jesse, for mentoring him, and where Jesse’s instincts find their strength, maturing into an ability not just to be led, but to lead.
Although this episode is devoid of a legendary Walter White moment, it is not devoid of Walter White. In a touching and telling moment with his son Walt Jr., Walt, still battered from a brutal fight with Jesse, confesses that it is all his fault ((As he falls asleep he calls Walt Jr. Jesse, a highly significant misstep.)). Later, he pleads with Walt. Jr. to remember him as he once was, while Walt Jr. would rather remember him as the authentic blubbering mess from the evening before, a time when he truly was “real.”
“Salud” was a celebration, a true revelation of how tremendous of an ensemble cast had been assembled here. The title of the show itself, Breaking Bad, suggests the point of view of the anti-hero. And for at least one episode, Gustavo was the hero we rooted for, “gliding over all,” as he boldly found a fitting way to settle an old score, to close a perpetually gaping wound, and to take Jesse on the journey of a lifetime.
This was a perfect episode, in every sense of the word.
2. OZYMANDIAS (S5, E14)
“My name is ASAC Schrader and you can go fuck yourself.”
In 2013, during the height of Breaking Bad’s popularity, you couldn’t hop onto the internet without confronting news of this episode. The hype was overwhelming. In time, it would revolve around the promise that director Rian Johnson’s episode, entitled “Ozymandias,” was, as Vince Gilligan said, “The best episode of the entire series.” The actual 7-day lead into its airing was maddening, as “Tohajiilee” left us with the show’s grandest cliffhanger of the show’s run.
Incredibly, all of our worst fears were realized. “Ozymandias” was devastating. The landscape of the show changes completely as Walter goes on his bridge-burning spree, and this traipse through his own undoing is pure eye-candy. Editor Skip McDonald and Cinematographer Michael Slovis worked very closely with Rian to provide the episode’s motion picture majesty. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how the whole series would have suffered if this episode had failed. This is where all that was built up by Walt over five glorious seasons was burned meticulously to the ground. It’s rare to see something deliver on astronomical levels of hype, and in one solid hour of television everything had changed, and all hope for a positive outcome to this frenzied ride was appropriately, lost.
1. FACE OFF (S4, E13)
We all knew it was coming. Just what it was we weren’t exactly sure. But as the camera deliberately trailed Gustavo from his car and into Casa Tranquila, we knew we were in for a ride. We knew we were on the cusp of something big. The tension here, as Gustavo took his final meeting with Tio Salamanca, was astonishingly palpable. You could see it in Tio’s eyes, his snarling grin. You could feel it in the air, as Tio wildly clicked his bell. And finally, you could see it in Gus’s realization, that he had been bested. And as Gus stoically emerged from the smoldering room, literally half the man he was upon entering, and as he adjusted his tie – true to the man he was in even his last moment – the nation emitted a simultaneous, stupefied gasp. We hadn’t seen anything like that before. And haven’t since…
With this moment, television history was made. An episode that began in the thick of war, ended with our vestigial protagonist victorious. However, we were far from done. As the hypnotic sounds of Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi’s “Black” set the mood, we were whisked off to the Walt residence for the final moments of the incomparable Season Four, and unto their backyard where sitting conspicuously poolside in an orange vermillion clay pot flourished a white flowering plant labeled, “Lily of the Valley.” A simple plant implicating Walt in arguably his most hideous act yet. It was the perfect reveal, and an apt closing to a flawless episode.
“Face Off” was an earth-shattering episode, that within it holds a moment that every Breaking Bad fan can vividly recall. The unforgettable explosion that blew away half of Gus’s face, while simultaneously blowing our minds!
Breaking Bad 2008-2013
Bonus Reading – Honorable Mentions
Some love for a few episodes that just barely missed the cut, a glance at those that didn’t break into the Top Twenty, but one could argue, they should have…
BETTER CALL SAUL (S2, E8)
“You don’t want a criminal lawyer, you want a criminal lawyer.”
Bob Odenkirk is one of the main elements to Breaking Bad’s periodic table of success. His presence is always more than welcome, and we’re ashamed to admit that Saul Goodman is not adequately represented in The Top 20 Episodes of Breaking Bad. He was a man so integral to the show, and entertaining to behold, that a series unto his own was developed. Who can forget the moment we first met Saul, and how he talked his way into the lives of two low-rent criminals? Without Saul, the world of Breaking Bad doesn’t balloon in the manner it did. Walt and Jesse’s “Empire Business” doesn’t even get off the ground without their criminal lawyer.
PEEKABOO (S2, E6)
“You have a good rest of your life, kid.”
Incomparable in its grittiness, “Peekaboo,” is hands down the hardest Breaking Bad episode to watch. It’s disturbing, haunting, and downright depressing. Leading us into the authentic abomination of the crystal meth underworld, “Peekaboo” scares us straight with its undisguised glimpse into the depth of depravity many sink into while trapped by the unyielding hold of the glass pipe. At the heart of the episode is Jesse, and his earnest concern for the son of a couple of worthless junkies. “Peekaboo” highlights Pinkman’s natural inclination for what is right, and helps us understand why we root for him so vigorously throughout his plagued, torturous journey.
ABQ (S2, E13)
“After a certain point, time off doesn’t help.”
“ABQ” was the culmination of the most succinct and deliberate season of Breaking Bad period. The black and white flash forwards that had mesmerized us all season manifested themselves in a disaster which seemed to transcend the show’s narrative. The Wayfarer 515 tragedy, coupled with the the loss of Jane was devastating, and a fitting end to a season that rid us of the scourge that was Tuco, introduced us to Saul Goodman, and bestowed Jesse with the love of his life. “ABQ” is also note-worthy as it was our introduction to Breaking Bad’s resident fixer, Mike Ehrmantraut.
PROBLEM DOG (S4, E7)
“I made you my bitch.”
This remains one of our favorite episodes for one reason, and one reason alone: Aaron Paul’s performance. Aaron Paul’s Jesse is a polarizing character. In many circles his characterization of this gifted yet lost soul is under-appreciated. But dismissing the fact that this man went toe-to-toe with Bryan Cranston for 62 episodes, while earning two Primetime Emmy Awards (2010 and 2012) ((He was also nominated for his outstanding work in the final-half season.)) is not something you will find here. Aaron was brilliant throughout the entirety of Breaking Bad, and none more so than the moment he confessed to his N.A. support group about a “problem dog” he put down, an obvious nod to Gale Boetticher. He went on to admit to the group that his intent was to sell them drugs, exclaiming to the group leader, “I made you my bitch.” It is easily one of Jesse’s most engaging scenes of the entire series, and a riveting display of Aaron Paul’s acting chops.