37. “Grilled” (Episode 2.02)
“Grilled” is one of the best early examples of Breaking Bad’s brilliance in escalating tension, where new, surprising stakes come out of nowhere. Walt and Jesse are kidnapped by Tuco, which already sets the bar high. The action escalates to include trying to poison Tuco, avoiding his uncle Hector ratting them out, and then trying to kill Tuco before Tuco kills them. If all that wasn’t bad enough, “Grilled’ ends with Hank’s arrival, making this plot even more difficult for Walt. Yet it’s “Grilled” that gets us to the Hank that we’ll know and love for the rest of the series, toning him and his inappropriate jokes down quite a bit and showcasing him as a great cop that loves his family dearly.
36. “Seven Thirty-Seven” (Episode 2.01)
With “Seven Thirty-Seven,” Season Two of Breaking Bad begins to show a stronger interest in long-term storytelling by focusing on the true danger to Walt and his family and Jesse, and by building tension that rarely ever dies down from here on out. It begins inconspicuously enough—with a burnt stuffed animal floating in the White family pool. But unlike previous episodes that hinted at big things to come later in the same episode, “Seven Thirty-Seven” gives us clues to the rest of the season. After realizing how insane Tuco truly is at the end of Season One, Walt and Jesse decide they need to take care of him. If Season One set up the basic premise of Breaking Bad, “Seven Thirty-Seven” starts Season Two off by blowing this show up in phenomenal ways. The show now has huge stakes, with dread around every corner and monsters growing stronger every moment.
35. “Cornered” (Episode 4.06)
“All of this, it’s all about me,” Walt proclaims as he tries to figure out why Jesse is being kept from him in “Cornered.” It becomes clear that he is the center of the universe in his mind. Not his wife, not his kids, but old Heisenberg himself. “Cornered” shows the monster that Walt believes he is, as he tells Skyler “I am the danger.” The episode makes spending Bodgan’s first dollar earned at the car wash on a soda seem like one of the most sinister things Walt has ever done. But as Walt shows just how bad he’s truly become, Jesse continues to show the gifts that he didn’t know he had. Gus sees something in him that Walt never did. As the penultimate season reaches its halfway point, Breaking Bad doubles down on who these characters will be in the final stretch. Walt is a straight up monster now. But Jesse has a spark in him that needs to be nurtured, so he (and we) can see the greatness that was always there.
34. “Mandala” (Episode 2.11)
“Mandala” is all about short-term decisions made with the best intentions, only for them lead to long-lasting consequences. In an attempt to make their situation safer for themselves after the murder of Combo, Jesse and Walt try to go into business with Gus Fring, who we meet for the first time in “Mandala.” Even though it seems like Walt often knows what he’s doing, the carefulness and specificity of Gus introduces us to someone who may be even smarter than Walt. After the death of Combo, Jesse falls hard into drugs, dragging Jane down with him as she introduces him to heroin. Skyler also witnesses her first glimpses at shady business and decides to help Ted (Christopher Cousins) cover up indescrepencies in his books. But at the end of “Mandala,” Walt simply has to choose between making a million dollar deal with Gus, or being there for his wife as she goes into labor. With very little thought, Walt goes with drugs, proving what has now become most important to him.
33. “Granite State” (Episode 5.15)
After seasons of hinting that Saul knows a guy who can make people disappear, Walt finally gets in the vacuum repairman’s van and start his new life. Considering Walt has stood up to large problems before, completely running away proves that the Heisenberg in him is dead. Although he does now want to actually do what is best for his family. Unfortunately it’s too little, too late. He waits for months in his New Hampshire hideout for the right moment to make some sort of contact with his family. When he does, his son tells him he wishes he would die. It’s at this moment that Walt truly gives up. He calls the cops and waits for them to show up. However when he catches Gretchen and Elliott on The Charlie Rose Show, it brings a little of the Heisenberg back in him. In the penultimate episode of the series, Walt is ready to return west and do the right thing—no matter what the cost.
32. “I.F.T.” (Episode 3.03)
For the first two seasons, the battle between Walt and Skyler was one-sided, with Walt holding all the secrets and Skyler grasping for answers. But with “I.F.T.,” we see Skyler finally getting the upper-hand. Once Walt decides he’s going to move back in, her attempts to get him kicked out by the police do nothing. Yet, as Walt says, without his family he has nothing. So by sleeping with Ted, Skyler destroys the one thing that has motivated Walt. “I.F.T.” excels because some key characters are mostly silent. Jesse calls Jane’s old phone simply to hear her voice mail. Skyler is quietly intense when she returns to her home that, once again, now includes Walt. But when Skyler says those three words hinted at in the title—“I fucked Ted”—it’s as loud as a bomb going off.
31. “Bug” (Episode 4.09)
A few episodes prior, Mike said that Jesse is loyal, but that his loyalties might be to the wrong person. In “Bug,” we see that Mike was absolutely right. On the Gus side of things, Jesse is trusted and protected—saved by a sniper thanks to Mike. He’s even invited to Gus’s house for dinner when Jesse has questions to ask. On the other hand, when Jesse doesn’t do exactly what Walt wants him to, Walt spies on him, comes over to his house, insults Jesse and starts a physical fight. Jesse could likely take down either of these leaders, but he’s still weighing the options of both. With “Bug,” it’s clear that Jesse is leaning more towards Gus’ side and it’s hard to blame him.
30. “Open House’ (Episode 4.03)
For the female characters of Breaking Bad, “Open House” is sort of a weird episode. The show goes back to the strange arc of Marie shoplifting—this time from open houses. Also, after Skyler purchases the car wash Walt used to work at, she worries over the $300 bottle of wine Walt bought to celebrate the occasion. It’s odd for her to be scared that it’ll destroy the illusion that they’re poor, since they’re openly paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a car wash and for Hank’s treatment. But “Open House” gets bonus points for featuring my personal favorite scene in the entire series—a sequence that lasts less than one minute, of Jesse riding go-karts solo. As Fever Ray’s “If I Had a Heart” plays, we see Jesse participating in an activity that should be incredibly fun for him. Instead, the tears well up in his eyes and we can see the pain and the destruction taking over his mind. There’s no joy there anymore. He is just a shell. In a flurry of quick reaction shots, there’s one second-long shot where Jesse screams at the top of his lungs, before going back to the emptiness. It’s one of Breaking Bad’s most brilliant sequences—a simple, quiet look at extreme depression, where nothing can make a person happy, no matter how hard they try.
29. “Breaking Bad” (Episode 1.01)
In the series premiere, we begin to see what creator Vince Gilligan calls Walter White’s evolution from Mr. Chips to Scarface. After getting beaten down by crummy jobs, lack of money and just a general dissatisfaction with all attempts at “The American Dream,” Walt begins to use his chemistry skills and make the most of his talents by cooking meth. As he tells his partner Jesse Pinkman, “I am awake.” It’s almost as if the awareness of his own mortality lets the beast within him come out for the first time in his life.
“Breaking Bad” shows us hints at who Walter will eventually become—the dedication he has to creating a near-perfect product, the intensity that can come when he’s threatened and especially the dedication he has to his family (at least at first). While Breaking Bad is absolutely the story of Walter White, the pilot’s biggest flaw is the lack of substance given to everyone else. Early on, Jesse is a childish meth cook who slings out homophobic slurs, while Hank is as obnoxious as possible. At the very least, we see the determination in Skyler, and the same desire of wanting to protect her family. Understandably, Breaking Bad will evolve into something much greater than the first episode can present. But there’s already shades of the lengths Walter and this story could potentially go.
28. “Better Call Saul” (Episode 2.08)
In our first introduction to Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), AKA Jimmy McGill, “Better Call Saul” gives us a supporting character similar to Hank. At first, we believe there’s little below the surface. But, as with Hank, there’s quite a lot going on that we just haven’t learned about yet. We learn that he has a past as McGill, but also that he’s an excellent lawyer who at least wants to try to be on the straight and narrow. When Walt and Jesse take on Saul as their legal representation, it opens up a whole new world to these two up-and-coming drug dealers. With big opportunities presenting themselves to Walt, Hank cracking down on Heisenberg and Jesse and Jane beginning their relationship, “Better Call Saul” creates a perfect storm of ambition and deterrents to that ambition.
27. “Bullet Points” (Episode 4.04)
In huge ways, “Bullet Points” sets up the end of the series two years before it happens. We see Hank get ridiculously close to figuring out who Heisenberg is and we get Saul explaining the witness protection type program that will end the series and begin Better Call Saul. What’s crazy about “Bullet Points” is that it’s only a few degrees away from a series finale. Walt and Skyler tell the almost truth to Hank and Marie. Hank almost figures out who Walt truly is. Walt almost calls it quits and goes with Saul’s relocation guy. And Jesse almost seems like he’s about to be taken out and killed by Mike. “Bullet Points” gives us plenty of ideas and situations that seem insane, when you think about them actually happening. Of course, by the end of the series, the insane starts to become the reality.
26. “Shotgun” (Episode 4.05)
In the span of one episode, “Shotgun” starts with Walter White powerful and ready for blood, and ends with him completely out of control in his own world. Walt is his own worst enemy, in every possible way here. Drunk on wine and too proud to keep his mouth shut, Walt proclaims that Gale isn’t the genius Hank is looking for, that he needs to keep looking. It’s the one way Walt can get credit and gain control of his own life. So much else is out of his control. Skyler buys the car wash with his money. Walt Jr. is deciding what car he wants. And Gus and Mike are taking Jesse for trips as Walt cooks. Since the beginning, Walt’s downfall has always been of his own creation, but in “Shotgun,” he ensures it.
25. “Fly” (Episode 3.10)
“Fly” is probably the most divisive of Breaking Bad episodes, considering it’s, well, an episode about Walt and Jesse trying to kill a fly. Featuring some of the more dynamic directing in the series (by future Star Wars Episode VIII director Rian Johnson), “Fly” is a bottle episode with many of the same dynamics of “4 Days Out” but with more in-your-face directing. But beyond that simple premise, “Fly”’s core has Walt and Jesse coming to some harsh truths. Jesse finally admits just how much he misses Jane. Walt comes to the conclusion that maybe it would’ve been better for his family if he’d died by now. As the show gets more intricate, sometimes it’s just nice to get back to basics and spend time solely with Walt and Jesse, and explore their dynamic.
24. “Down” (Episode 2.04)
Perhaps one of the most brilliant aspects of Breaking Bad was its ability to present what we believed to be rock bottom, before showing us, by the next week, just how much worse things could truly get. The first major example of this comes in “Down,” in which Jesse and Walt’s seem like they can’t get much lower—Jesse is evicted from his house and Skyler is barely talking to Walt. The world keeps beating down Jesse until he has no real future except in the meth lab. Walt is trying to keep his family together. He tries almost anything—except telling the truth. When these two men reunite after days of being emotionally destroyed, the result is their first explosive argument which follows Walt’s first blowout with Skyler. While everyone is trying to dig themselves out of the trouble Walt has helped them get into, Walt is continuously digging himself deeper and deeper, without being aware of the consequences, or even caring.
23. “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” (Episode 1.06)
Much like the pilot episode, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” presents us with an insane climax of events, only to make us wonder how the hell we get to that extreme. In fact, “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” is, in many ways, mirroring moments from the pilot. It shows us the beginning of Walt’s battle with cancer and the beginning of this other side to him. When the episode starts, it seems strange to see a bald Walt walking away from a building that has clearly experienced an explosion. But, in hindsight, we’ve really just witnessed the birth of Walt’s kingpin alter ego “Heisenberg.” As this transformation begins, Walt becomes fearless, able to bluff with close family members and even face off against drug dealer Tuco. With the shaving of Walt’s head and the creation of “Heisenberg,” the meth cook in Walt is no longer temporary. It’s quickly becoming the dominant part of his double-sided life.
22. “No Mas” (Episode 3.01)
The third season premiere finds all of Albuquerque dealing with the fallout of the deadly plane crash caused by Walt’s actions. “No Mas” is all about acceptance and understanding and the fight for both-towards others and towards ourselves. Walt Jr. struggles to understand why his parents are splitting up. Walt tries to rationalize his errors, then comes to the (wrong) conclusion that he’s not a criminal. While Jesse learns (also wrongly) that he’s the bad guy. Yet it is Skyler’s discovery that her husband is a meth cook and Walt’s admittance of this fact that has the longest lasting consequences. It’s the nail in the coffin that Skyler needed. Walt’s exhaustion with his deceptive lifestyle, coupled with the loss of his family makes him believe he’s done with drugs for good.
21. “End Times” (Episode 4.12)
Walt has been in plenty of desperate situations in the past. He’s been trapped in the desert. He’s been stuck in a meth-cooking RV with Hank right outside. And that’s not even considering the cancer that started off this whole series. Those other situations would’ve only ended badly for him. But in “End Times,” continuing the hopelessness of “Crawl Space,” Walt knows that his family is also in danger and that means all bets are off, in terms of how low he can go. “End Times” is one of the episodes that works even better when you know the full story. On first viewing, it seems as though Gus has poisoned Brock to get to Jesse and that, because of this, Walt is willing to help Jesse take Gus down. Of course Walt is actually, once again, the master manipulator. He’s poisoned Brock to get Jesse on his side, to take down Gus, thus protecting himself and his family. Even sadder, in hindsight, is the kindness that Gus shows to Jesse in his time of despair and the fact that, had Walt simply told Jesse that his family was in danger, Jesse would have definitely helped his partner. While much of Breaking Bad’s excitement diminishes slightly once the whole story is known, “End Times” is one of those rare episodes that only gets better once the rest of the story is revealed.
20. “Hermanos” (Episode 4.08)
Before someone inevitably takes him down, “Hermanos” humanizes Gus in a way we haven’t seen before. The episode shows us his past, while also showing the genius and meticulous thought that goes into his preparations in staying hidden in plain sight. By showing the death of the other “Pollo Hermanos,” at the hands of Hector, we learn more about their history together, and we learn that Gus was always mysterious. In the present, we get an excellent scene in which Hank and the police department interrogate Gus in relation to the death of Gale. Gus has a perfectly chosen answer for every one of their questions. From the way Gus distracts the cops in order for Mike to kill the last of the assassin brothers, or even the way he throws the cops off with the GPS tracker, we’ve seen how meticulous Gus can be in his preparations. But “Hermanos” shows maybe the one time Gus was careless, how one of his loved ones was murdered because of him. It’s almost as if all of Gus’s actions since then are to make sure he’s never that careless again.
19. “Buried” (Episode 5.10)
With Hank now aware that Walt is Heisenberg, it is now Skyler who must deal with Walt’s biggest fear—the family being torn apart. Walt runs to what really matters to him—the money—and leaves Skyler to deal with the wrath of Hank and Marie on her own. Despite how much Walt has hurt her, she keeps quiet, sure that Walt will probably get out of this situation as he always does. “Buried” is filled with melancholy. It’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for this show to become. Everyone has finally discovered who Walt really is. But watching this family fall apart is awful. Hank vows to put Walt away, while Marie desperately tries to take the kids out of the White household. What’s even more difficult is knowing that they don’t think things can get worse, even though they absolutely will.
18. “Live Free Or Die” (Episode 5.01)
So much of Breaking Bad has been about how helpless Walt feels in his life. So after claiming “I won” once he killed Gus, we see Walt as king in “Live Free Or Die.” There’s an unchecked amount of confidence in his post-Gus wrap up. He gets Mike over to his side and matter-of-factly decides he’ll destroy Gus’s laptop in police custody. But all that confidence and pride is gone in the season premiere’s flash-forward. It cuts ahead to two years since the pilot episode. Walt has a different identity, a full head of hair and overwhelming loneliness. “Live Free Or Die” creates the trifecta of Walt, Jesse and Mike. They use magnets to destroy the aforementioned laptop, once again employing the science-based problem solving within Breaking Bad that never stops being fascinating.
17. “Box Cutter” (Episode 4.01)
Season Four wastes no time in turning Gus from villain hiding in plain sight, to straight up monster with “Box Cutter.” The season premiere gives pretty much everything one could want from an episode of Breaking Bad and succinctly catching us up with all these characters and what their paths will be this season, even if some characters only get one scene. For Walt and Jesse, Gus sends them a message that, as Jesse puts it, says “if I can’t kill you, you’ll sure as shit wish you were dead.” With a small amount of screen time, we see how great Skyler has gotten as being deceptive, and how rough Hank’s injury has been on Hank and Marie. With this new terrifying Gus, “Box Cutter” presents a danger unlike anything Walt and Jesse have ever faced before. The episode also nails the intensity and misdirection that Breaking Bad does so well and sets up the entire season beautifully.
16. “ABQ” (Episode 2.13)
Walt’s biggest fear is that the family side and the Heisenberg side will combine in a way that will be disastrous – almost like two runaway planes crashing into each other. “ABQ” shows how these two sides are quickly seeping into each other in big and small ways. Gus gives some money to Hank’s donation jar for Walt. The website that Walt Jr. made for his father’s surgery is being used to launder Walt’s money. And his deception over his business has Skyler leaving him. But even though Walt’s blue meth is far away from him-now being sold in all the neighboring states, except New Mexico-his actions have a far reach. By letting Jane die, he has emotionally wrecked her father, which causes him to allow two planes to crash when he returns to his air traffic control job. Walt might think he’s out of harm’s way, but the falling debris is still close enough to cause damage.