by Seth Amitin
Breaking Bad is finished, but it will not be forgotten. The story of Walter White made a giant impact on TV and will be discussed and debated for years to come. Now that we've seen every single episode of Vince Gilligan's epic series, we've come up with our list of Breaking Bad at its finest. There were arguably no bad episodes of this show, but these ten stand out as something special. Several other episodes almost made this list, including "Fly", "Half Measures", "Full Measure", "A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal" and the series-ending "Felina." But as great as those episodes were, the following ten episodes were Breaking Bad at its very best.
Suffice to say, full spoilers for the entirety of Breaking Bad follow...
Do you remember that split second when Gus walked out of Hector’s room and you thought, ever so briefly, that maybe he survived? How inconceivable was that? And then how hilarious it was when you were right to think it was absurd.
"Face Off" was an extraordinary episode from top to bottom, albeit very fast paced. It had a lot stuffed into it, partially because, with the show's future uncertain, the writers weren’t sure if this would be the last episode we would get. Because of that, it didn’t quite land all the punches it wanted to.
No matter, though. Gus was an elegant character and deserving of an ending as poetic as the one he got. Even though we saw it coming from a mile away, it was just as good as promised and one of the finest deaths of any character on TV.
Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) deserves a good deal of credit for his help in this series. At its two toughest points -- one with a spent budget (“Fly”) and one with a character adrift (“Fifty-One”) -- Johnson put together two amazing episodes that were not only interesting, but gave insight and perspective into a series that needed it at that moment (and his third and final Breaking Bad episode will appear on on this list as well).
“Fifty-One” gave us keen insight into Skyler. Skyler, at her most desperate, did something… desperate. She jumped in the pool in a fake attempt to drown herself. Or maybe it was real. We’ll never realy know. Her conversation with Walt in the bedroom afterward was maybe the most powerful scene in the series.
While many other people are going to remember quotes like “I am the one who knocks,” I’m going to remember Skyler’s panicked, “I don’t know! … I will count every minute they’re away from here -- away from you -- as a victory.”
As someone who’s always loved the dialogue on Breaking Bad that scene was like peering into an actual married couple’s bedroom and watching it all unfold. Unreal.
Nothing serious came of Jesse’s impotent rage or his gasoline pouring; it indirectly led to Hank’s death, but almost everything else did anyway. In essence, it was a minor pawn movement that looked greater than it actually was.
However, it was a very good episode on the state of Jesse. He was struggling up to this point with what to do with himself. As such a critical character and our last hope for someone to have something of a happy ending, he was critical to us.
“Confessions” never lost pace. It started with a slow burn on Jesse’s state of being and his insecurities. It matched that pace when Walt hugged him. It then said “Screw this” and burned everything Jesse had thought as he came to the realization that Huell had lifted the cigarette, which meant Walt was lying all along, which meant he was probably lying about a lot more.
This was Jesse’s greatest moment. After a year and a half of abuse and manipulation at the hands of Walt, he put the pieces together - and just when you thought he might get out of the show safely without ever knowing.
We were all rooting for this to happen, too. The scene of his realization -- particularly the direction where no words are spoken and it’s relying heavily on Aaron Paul’s acting ability -- was spectacular.
In a way, this is the one that started it all.
We knew from the pilot episode that Breaking Bad had tremendous potential. It was "Crazy Handful of Nothin'", though, that showed how well the creative team -- from the writers putting the ideas on paper to the actors performing it to the directors guiding it onscreen -- could capture a moment.
Walt’s first real "F*** Yeah!" moment was gorgeous. It was a major triumph. When he threw the fulminated mercury, the camera slowed to half speed just to show us how beautiful it was. The explosion was bright and brilliant. We had felt for most of the episode that Walt and Jesse had hit a brick wall and their plan was going to fall apart before it even started, despite having the goods. Tuco’s treatment of Jesse was cruel and made the explosion and justice that much sweeter.
At his most desperate, Walt showed Tuco what will really was. It was the beginning of Heisenberg.
Probably the easiest placement on the list. Gus meets with cartel. Gus kills the entire cartel. Mike wields some piano wire and strangles a dude. Gus nearly kills himself with poison.
In terms of loose ends, "Salud" was probably the weakest episode in the series. Where were the police on this one? What happened in the aftermath of the cartel? Who filled the power void in Mexico?
It didn’t really matter, though. "Salud" made for riveting TV and I’m glad they didn’t try to answer these questions. It would’ve taken a great deal of time to show it and in the end it would’ve proved inconsequential.
But what made this one so good was just how the action hit us. The cartel has always been violent, so guns and shootings sounded more likely. To see Gus execute such a deadly plan so quietly, so strictly, and so patiently was a great reward to all of the viewers. Those last 10 minutes were completely worth it, even if it wasn’t as nuts-and-bolts tight as some of the other episodes.
Do you remember how hard it was for Jesse and Walt at the beginning? “Bit by a Dead Bee” is a good refresher course. Jesse and Walt escaped Tuco and realized they had to come up with stories to explain their disappearances. Walt showed up in a market in only his underwear while Jesse faked shacking up with a prostitute and a bunch of meth for a few days.
It’s tough to say what made this episode so great. It weighed everything the series had done to that point and used the 45 minutes as a time to reflect on where they were. Jesse and Walt had to come up with elaborate stories for why they went missing - which were as tenuous and unbelievable as you’d imagine. They worked though because other characters didn’t believe their stories and the episode was about narrowly escaping, just as they had narrowly escaped Tuco. It could’ve easily turned into the writers dusting their hands and moving on, but it didn’t and this was the first time we saw just how talented this writing team was.
The episode is anchored by three shots of Walt looking at a painting. The painting is of people on the shore waving goodbye to a person on a boat. Each time he sees it, he’s reminded of how he could leave his family. It’s heartbreaking and it’s the first time in a while we see Walt again as the man he once was. He wasn’t strong or angry or demanding or crazy. He was a desperate man about to die. And he wanted to live.
In the episodes that followed, “Bit by a Dead Bee” gave Walt the impetus to get back into cooking. But he and Jesse just went through hell and back and were lucky enough to make it out alive. The entire episode is a reminder of how painfully and woefully inadequate they were for the jobs they wanted.
And then, as usual, the exploration of the psychological impact of what they had done to themselves - and to their families - was as impressive and powerful as any other episode in the series. I almost didn’t want to see them go back into the breach again, but considering they did, I think we’re all better off for it.
This was the start of the action. We had moments in this series before “One Minute” that were absolutely gripping, but nothing ever matched the tension this episode had. It was sudden and direct and in our face.
The action in “One Minute” was almost straight from a movie. Hank, with some thanks to his PTSD, snapped directly into action as soon as he spotted one of the cousins behind him, pinning one of them between his car and the one behind him. The rest was a gorgeous, thrilling action sequence that gripped viewers long after the axe stuck itself into the asphalt next to Hank’s head. There wasn’t a wasted shot. What a rush.
What made this episode and the action so sharp was nobody saw it coming. We saw Gus mentioning to cartel members that he had an alternative for the cousins, and that was about it. It made perfect sense for them to go after Hank, too, and for Gus to give Hank the warning. It was win-win for Gus.
As for this episode’s place in the series, it was the first sign that an action scene could be executed so perfectly within Breaking Bad. We got more later, but this was an outrageous, wonderful example, expertly directed by Michelle MacLaren.
We always knew Gus had some intense backstory involving the cartel, ever since he was the negotiator to get the cousins off of Walt’s back. It wasn’t until “Hermanos” that we learned the full details, which were about as cruel as we imagined. The difference between this and every other episode was how those facts were presented.
We saw Gus finding Hector in his wheelchair. Both of the cousins were dead; Hector’s family line ended with him. The cartel would be two episodes away from being finished. Here came Gus, all dressed like he just got off work at Los PollosHermanos. He was calm and patient and he held his hands in his lap. Hector couldn’t move and was forced to listen: This is what comes of blood for blood. Sangre por sangre.
Cut to a flashback of Gus and an early business partner meeting Don Eladio and Hector for the first time in Mexico in the late ‘80s (even though Gus’ suit looks mid-70s). The scene started partially warm and friendly, but took a threatening turn when Eladio started asking why they were selling biker crank in their territory. From there, the scene became a ticking time bomb. It finally went off with Hector pulling the trigger on the business partner, yet it still shocked the heck out of viewers because the focus was on Gus while the partner was talking. The lack of audio was startling as Gus lunged at Hector and when Gus was pushed to the ground and forced to look at the blank, dead expression on his partner’s face, you realized Gus had been waiting 20-some years just for the moment to sit across from Hector knowing he was a lonely, crippled old man with nothing left in the world.
Cut back to Gus sitting in front of Hector and his plan has come to fruition.
It was delicious. It took some fortitude to wait some 25 episodes after the introduction of Gus to show us that brief insight into his history. Of course, this was about as much as they ever showed us into Gus and his background. It’s part of what made Gus such a fascinating character.
At #2 comes probably the most misunderstood episode at the time of its airing (with a slight nod to “Fly”). While we were all expecting some kind of greater punishment upon Walt, the producers and writers wisely decided to make his punishment far more obtuse. Jane's death didn't affect Walt (or the viewers) much, but it affected the people around her.
The plane crash ending -- along with all of the shots of the pink bear in the openings of “Seven Thirty Seven”, “Down”, and “Over” -- was an intense build up. The crash itself was a metaphor for the eventual karmic retribution Walt would receive and also pointed out just how oblivious he was to creating the very disaster he caused. It foreshadowed much greater things for Walt. It showed the viewers just how good this creative team was. They were geniuses for this. They would only top themselves one more time all series.
In retrospect, I should've given it a higher rating.
While "Granite State" and "Felina" functioned as an epilogue of sorts, tying up some crucial loose ends, “Ozymandias” was Breaking Bad's real ending. There was nothing this show built toward more than the dissolution of the White family. Walter had done so much behind his family’s back that, by the time the cat was out of the bag, the bag was in the river. There was nothing Walt could’ve said or done to fix the situation.
And by God did it pay off.
Directed by Rian Johnson, “Ozymandias” was the cataclysmic event of the series. There were times when the action was ramped up and we were satisfied with the fallout, but there was nothing that even came close to how good this episode was.
Certainly other shows could’ve picked up from the “To’hajillee” ending and kept it going, with Hank and Gomie in an Alamo-type stand-off, fighting off an army of Ubiquitous Neo-Nazi Bad Guys. I don’t think any other show would’ve blown past the action to get to the point of it, though. The creative team showed not the violence or battle, but what mattered most: the aftermath. The first 10 minutes were so much more powerful than showing any actual violence – besides that tragic final bullet to Hank, of course.
Walt then turning on Jesse was just as painful. Walt fleeing and Skyler and Walt Jr. turning on him was even more painful. It was all so personal, down to the shots of Jesse looking at the birds in the air at with the gun to his head; and the simple, awkward, physical fight that Walt and Skyler had.
The episode was a grab bag of hair-on-fire action. The White family dissolved, the in-fighting, Walt Jr. finding out, a knife fight, a baby kidnapping - everything wrapping up in Walt’s vanishing. The lone wolf ran across the screen to tell us that this was indeed the end of the five-season journey. It never lost pace, it didn’t stuff too much in, it didn’t lose focus, and it burned everything we’ve known for the past five seasons to a crisp in 45 minutes.
It was the perfect, painful ending for a series that was so destructive. And we still got two terrific episodes afterwards.