by: Michael Shields and L.P. Hanners
The definitive list of the greatest episodes of Breaking Bad ever (20-11)….
It is hard to fathom, but it has almost been one year since the finale of Breaking Bad. 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, The 20 Best Breaking Bad episodes of all time.
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 veted and shrewdly delivered words (or word in one case!) 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 see it more 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 16 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 all praises 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 3 ((“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)
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)
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 weeks 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.)). 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.
Before we move on to the best of the best, and reveal the Top Ten Greatest Breaking Bad episodes of all time, let’s take a slight glance to a few episodes 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 on the list. He was a man so integral to the show, and entertaining to behold, that a series unto his own is being 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 underappreciated. 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 recently 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.
Coming Soon: The Top Ten Breaking Bad Episodes of All Time…..