by: Michael Shields and L.P. Hanners
The definitive list of the greatest episodes of Breaking Bad continues with our Top Ten….
Last week we presented Numbers 11- 20 on our ‘Best of Bad’ countdown. Without further adieu we are thrilled to unveil The Top Ten Greatest Breaking Bad Episodes of All Time….
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 Sklyer 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)
“You brought a meth lab to the airport?”
“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 wthin 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 an 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 in to air was maddening, as “Tohajiilee” left us with the show’s grandest cliffhanger ever.
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 trapse 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 ot 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. That 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.
It 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