Nearly every Breaking Bad episode speaks to an indisputable fact: this show is an amazing artistic accomplishment.
The dark story arc series creator Vince Gilligan envisioned for Breaking Bad was simple, in a way: Mr. Chips becomes Scarface. Over the course of 62 episodes, the Emmy-winning drama delivered on the promise of its premise and became one of the best shows of the millennium. Viewers followed Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a genius chemistry teacher who turns to cooking meth after a cancer diagnosis forces him to take drastic measures to provide for his family. For five years, Breaking Bad unfolded as a constantly thrilling drama that built tension to almost unbearable levels.
It’s a show that presented impossible threats and fears, then worked them out in brilliant ways that felt logical and real. In a single episode, the drama could be hilarious, heartbreaking and truly terrifying. We hated the people we were watching, while also sympathizing with them. This duality, the multilayered storytelling and the eternally fascinating characters made Breaking Bad one of the greatest shows in television history.
Nearly three years after its series finale, and four years after the final and fifth season premiered (“Live Free or Die” aired July 15, 2012), we’ve ranked every fantastic episode of Breaking Bad. Join us in the comments with your top 10 (or 62), and please kids—don’t cook meth. It gets… complicated.
Now that Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) is a full-on, neck-slicing villain, it makes sense that Walt would want to protect himself. But the way it’s handled in “Thirty-Eight Snub” feels incredibly uncharacteristic of Walt. He buys a gun, but then his attempts to take down Gus are so sloppy. He barely hides his gun at the lab, tries to walk straight to Gus’s house to shoot him and even tries to turn Mike (Jonathan Banks) over to his side. For a guy who is usually so intricate in his plans, “Thirty-Eight Snub” just doesn’t seem like the Walt we know. The episode also marks the beginnings of Jesse’s new levels of depression. The mostly-silent Jesse (Aaron Paul) will do anything to keep his mind occupied, but then looks ready to explode when he’s finally left completely alone. Jesse’s depression—which includes heavy drug use and trying to exist in a never-ending party—is handled far better in “Open House.” But hey, even Breaking Bad’s worst episode is still pretty damn good.
After the somber realization in “I.F.T.,” “Green Light” finds the characters making definitive moves that will push them forward for the rest of the season. Since he believes it’s the only thing he’s good at, Jesse starts cooking meth again. Hank (Dean Norris) refuses to go to El Paso because he’s trying to track down Heisenberg. Gus decides to start purchasing meth from Jesse. Surprisingly, it’s Walt who has to be pushed towards any sort of action. He’s literally thrown money for a product he didn’t create. Although the third season takes a bit longer to get going, “Green Light” sets the scene for the rest of the season and propels things forward.
As Walt and Jesse start to put the drug life behind them, “Caballo Sin Nobre” shows us the far-reaching grasp of the drug world. Mike (Jonathan Banks) keeps tabs on Walt after Skyler (Anna Gunn) discovers who he truly is. Gus’ interest in the blue meth still exists long after Walt has turned him down. And the cartels from Mexico are seeking out Heisenberg. The first two seasons of Breaking Bad mostly focused on the White family and Jesse. But from the third season on, this world opens up quite a bit. “Caballo Sin Nombre” is a much-needed reminder of the secondary characters who will become increasingly important—and also that roof pizzas are rarely a good idea.
“The Cat’s in the Bag” truly begins Walt’s escalation into the new life he has built for himself. Walt not only lies to Skyler, but stands up to her—even though she’s in the right for being worried about her husband. “The Cat’s in the Bag” also is the starting point for Walt’s loss of conscience. He is tasked with killing Krazy 8, which he can’t bring himself to do. (This makes the following episode, “And the Bag’s in the River,” even more compelling.) We also see how he’s not even close to being the mastermind he’ll become. He struggles to stay calm in his difficult situation. Later on, Walt will be able to assess a situation and create a solution to his problem. But in “The Cat’s in the Bag,” he’s just as confused and scared as any normal person in his circumstances would be.
“Kafkaesque” is one of the few times Walt realizes the lack of control he has in his own life and allows himself to embrace it. Everyone around him has incredible plans that involve him. Whether it’s Gus’ cartel, Hank shootout arrangement or Skyler’s lie to Marie about how Walt got his money, Walt takes the hands off the wheel (quite literally) and lets other people drive for a while. Jesse also has his own plans, which involve skimming off the top of their meth production to sell for himself. But, in a larger way, “Kafkaesque” hints at just how influential and brilliant Skyler can be in Walt’s drug goals and just how easily she can slide into this position.
In “Abiquiu,” one character realizes how bad she truly is, while another realizes just how bad he really isn’t. Skyler goes completely in on helping Walt launder his money and is pretty damn good at it too. Jesse tries selling meth to the people at his meetings, only to accidentally end up in a relationship with a recovering addict Andrea (Emily Rios). Unfortunately, Andrea never becomes nearly as interesting as Jane (Krysten Ritter) was. The story of her younger brother being the one that killed Combo feels like nothing more than a huge coincidence. Meanwhile, Walt is being treated as an equal by Gus, who invites him over for dinner. In many ways, “Abiquiu” sets up what will be important to these characters in the second half of the series. Skyler focuses on family and the shady business that will support them all. Jesse decides that the potential for his own family is the most important thing for him. And Walt see the power and importance he can still hold while hiding in plain sight.
“I See You” feels like a slight step down from the preceding episode, “One Minute.” But it’s integral to understanding Gus, Breaking Bad’s greatest antagonist, and his all-seeing power. The majority of “I See You” is simply about waiting. While Walt waits to see how Hank is doing at the hospital, Jesse screws around in the new lab. Considering how much has just happened, “I See You” is quite tame. Although, Gus does orchestrate the killing of many higher-ups at the cartels and gets Mike to kill Tuco’s last remaining cousin. But watching a man with no legs crawl after Walt is pretty silly. However, as we learn more about Gus’s abilities, there’s an unease under the veil of normalcy and the power that lies beneath.
On any other show, the main character admitting to his family that he has cancer would be a huge deal. Yet, on Breaking Bad , Walt’s confession occurs in one of the quieter episodes of the show’s first season. “Cancer Man” slows down the series, but in doing so, presents some key elements of Walt and Jesse’s personalities. Walt shows how prideful he is, bucking against asking his family for any help whatsoever—especially when Hank says he’ll take care of Walt’s family in case he dies. Walt also displays his rage coming out in more aggressive ways, like when he blows up Ken’s car. (Kyle Bornheimer’s douchebag character Ken will get his comeuppance in Better Call Saul). Jesse returns home, where he is misunderstood. Despite trying to escape the world of drugs, he discovers that if he applies himself to that world, he could reach the level of success his family wants for him. Even if it’s not exactly the way they want him to succeed. After three episodes full of big decisions and huge new choices, “Cancer Man” is a much needed hour that builds these characters into more than they were before.
After their first big fight in “Down,” “Breakage” returns to Walt and Jesse’s division of labor: Walt cooks the meth and Jesse takes to the street and sells the drugs. In doing this, we see just how strong of a businessman Jesse can be. He hires coworkers and makes thousands of dollars a night. “You need me more than I need you,” Jesse tells Walt and, for once, Jesse is completely right. He has the upper hand over Walt. “Breakage” also shows how Walt’s Heisenberg is already impacting the larger world around him. Hank’s shootout with Tuco not only earns Hank a promotion, but also gives him a case of PTSD. But, in the end, it’s Walt who has the upper hand in his own life. He suggests that Jesse kill the people who ripped him off, and, thereby, pulls the puppet strings in his favor.
Primarily, the first season of Breaking Bad is about Walt trying to escape the helplessness he feels in his life—whether it’s due to cancer, money problems or just feeling like a weak individual. After his first interaction with Tuco, Walt starts to gain a ridiculous amount of confidence. He fools around with Skyler during a PTA meeting, steals large amounts of chemicals needed for his meth lab and doubles his order from Tuco. But when Walt and Jesse watch Tuco almost beat one of his own men to death, Walt loses the confidence he has as “Heisenberg.” He’s more out of his element than he believed himself to be. “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal” finds Walt getting far too comfortable in his new life. But life, once again, pulls the rug out from under him and presents him with even bigger problems going into Season Two.
When Walt returns to the drug world, he’s presented with two very different partners in “Sunset.” There’s Gale, his current co-cook who is also mentally stimulating, and Jesse, who despite being frustrating, is also his first co-cook and definitely keeps Walt’s world exciting. We see that Jesse technically has the skills to cook without Walt, as he makes a batch of blue meth by himself. But he still gets in over his head. He leads Hank right to his RV/meth lab. Jesse has that desire to strike out on his own, but he’d still be stuck if it weren’t for Walt. The two escape getting arrested by Hank thanks to Walt’s quick thinking. “Sunset” is particularly rough for Hank. He loses his largest lead when the RV gets destroyed and gets tricked into thinking Marie is in the hospital. And Gus gives the okay for two silent assassins to come after Hank. Hank’s desire to catch Heisenberg has never been stronger.
When Walt decides to start making meth, he maintains that he’s doing this to help his family long after he’s gone. Yet, as we see in “Bit By a Dead Bee,” he doesn’t realize just how much this thinking ahead will hurt his family while he’s still alive. “Bit By a Dead Bee” gives us the first gigantic lie Walt tells his family. He returns from being kidnapped by Tuco in the desert and pretends to have amnesia by appearing in a grocery store naked. Not only does this show the lengths Walt is willing to go to, but also his incredible foresight. His newfound ruthless nature gives him the ability to flat out deceive in order to keep his secrets. He’s able to manage his family, the hospital and even Jesse’s situation with the cops with lies before he even leaves the desert. But the one person he can’t deceive is Skyler, who knows him too well to fall for all of his tricks.
“Negro y Azul” might seem like a step down in excitement from the rest of the season, but, in hindsight, it signals the beginning of the final steps of Walt actually “breaking bad.” As Jesse also gets closer to Jane, Walt pushes Jesse to be more ambitious in their attempts to take over the city. On the other side of the border and in the music video opening to the episode, we see the power that Walt and Jesse’s competitors have. Hank struggles to keep up, especially with the dangers that his new job entails. “Negro y Azul” presents characters whose barks are bigger than their bites (for now) and the ambition that could lead to their downfall.
“Gray Matters” shows what fuels Walt and Jesse: a desire to be more than just good enough, to have control and to excel rather than just squeak by. Jesse thinks he has a good job opportunity at a realtor, when really, he’s being offered a job as a sign spinner outside. He could take the easy job that his friend Badger has, but he knows he is capable of more. When Jesse and Badger decide to cook meth, it’s Jesse’s newfound desire for perfection that makes him throw away batch after batch of drugs. On Walt’s end, he’s given several lifelines by his old Gray Matter partners, first a job offer, then an offer to pay completely for his cancer treatment. But rather than allow his life to be controlled by someone more powerful than himself (someone who matters, at the title implies), Walt takes control of his own destiny. He doesn’t want to lose the opportunity to make another choice for himself.
Almost always in Breaking Bad, the dynamic between Walt and Jesse involves Walt trying to convince Jesse to do his bidding and follow his lead. “Half Measures” does the exact opposite. Jesse discovers that Gus’s foot soldiers hired an 11-year-old to kill his friend Combo. While Season Three has had Jesse embracing being the bad guy, this noble stand against these men and their actions shows Jesse’s conscience still exists. And so does Walt’s, as he ends up coming over to Jesse’s side by the end of the episode in spectacular fashion. By choosing his partner over his boss, Walt knows immediately that he’s starting a war. When Walt tells Jesse to run after he kills Gus’s two drug dealers, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a sprint, it’s going to be a marathon.
In the first third of Season Three, Walt is adamant that he’s done with the drug life, despite promising offers and silent twins with axes coming after him. But “Mas” brings him back in with a combination that helps him rationalize his actions. Gus presents Walt’s actions as noble and offers him a giant lab made specifically for him. Walt’s intent on proving that he’s better than his former partner (and former junkie) Jesse. In “Mas,” everyone finds people that will reinforce what they need to hear. Walt is a provider. Jesse needs to push harder. Skyler is in the right. And Hank has every reason to be scared. What they don’t know is that all this advice will only make things harder for them in the long run.
“Buyout” shows Walt with nothing left to lose but his business. He desperately tries to hold on to that as its being taken out of his grasp. In a rare glimpse of his true intentions, Walt tells Jesse he’s been on the bad end of a deal before-with Gray Matter-and he’s afraid making $5 million will haunt him when he could make $300 million. It’s usually easy to criticize Walt’s decision to keep cooking. But he makes a good point in not wanting to make the same mistakes again. “Buyout” also gets a fantastically awkward Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? dynamic when Jesse stays at the White’s house for dinner. When a man has got nothing left to lose, why not invite your meth cooking partner over to dinner, escape the clutches of Mike and potentially sabotage a deal that could earn your partners millions?
There might not be any two people more hurt by Walt’s consistent lies over the past five seasons than Jesse and Hank. They both feel like they had a real friend, but as new truths come out, it becomes obvious that Walt has been manipulating them for his own means. “Rabid Dog” has Jesse and Hank finally teaming up to take down their common enemy. And while this does seem like the dream team to destroy Walt, it also shows that Walt might still be the only person who truly cares about Jesse. Even while everyone else talks about how disposable Jesse is (Skyler, Saul and Hank all talk about letting him die), Walt maintains nothing is to happen to his apprentice. “Rabid Dog” shows Jesse’s ability to change. He has one bad idea, turns it into a better one before making a mistake and angering Hank in the process.
At this point in the series, Walt fancies himself an outlaw. What better way to further that idea of himself than to engage in a Great Train Robbery? “Dead Freight” features one of Breaking Bad’s biggest and most exciting heists, as the group successfully steals an entire train worth of methylamine without anyone ever knowing. “Dead Freight” builds and builds, giving the release of a heist gone perfectly. That is until Todd (Jesse Plemons) kills the only witness who needs to be taken care of, an innocent little kid on his bike. Todd’s cold-blooded nature becomes very important as the series finishes up. “Dead Freight” also places Jesse back in an uneasy position, after becoming too cozy so far this season.
“Just because you shot Jesse James, it don’t make you Jesse James,” Mike tells Walt near the end of “Hazard Pay.” Walt complains about how much his business expenses are adding up. But if you’re now the king after taking down the former ruler, who better to help you at the top than the last guard’s right hand man? In “Hazard Pay,” Breaking Bad shows us just how much Mike did in the Gus regime and just how much went into Gus’s operations that Walt and Jesse didn’t expect when their pay day comes in. But it’s also setting up many of the elements for the final season: the way Walt is able to manipulate Jesse subtly, Skyler’s depression, and Hank’s reentering the police force. The episode also introduces Todd, who works at the bug-bombing business that becomes Walt and Jesse’s new front. Maybe most telling though is Walt and his son watching Scarface. Walt says, “Everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?” A proud drug kingpin who flies too close to the sun? That should hit close to home.
This deep into Breaking Bad, it’s rare to see Walter White as genuine as he is in “Salud.” There’s not one false moment from him throughout the entire episode. He confides in his son his only memory of his father (strange how little we end up knowing about Walter’s parents throughout the series) and accidentally calls his son “Jesse.” But “Salud” is primarily about Gus’ grudge with the cartels and seeking revenge decades after the incident of “Hermanos.” Gus’ meticulous nature is present everywhere, right down to how mechanically he throws up the poisoned alcohol he’s given to the cartel. With Jesse in Mexico getting traded to the cartels and Walt on painkillers and ruining his son’s birthday, it’s clear that both Walt and Jesse have made a huge mistake. Despite how they fight, they’re better together than apart.
As the title implies, “Confessions” does have many moments of realization, but very few come from Walt, the person who clearly needs to be confessing the most. Walt makes a “confession” video for Hank. It’s created to frame Hank for the meth business, but also shows Hank that Walt clearly does have something to hide. Walt asks Jesse to leave town for his own good, but Jesse knows he’s once again being played. Instead of telling the truth like Jesse wants, Walt just gives him a hug, which is probably what Jesse needed more anyways. In the episode’s final moments, Jesse discovers the truth behind the ricin cigarette, then gets Saul to confess to his and Walt’s involvement. “Confessions” is actually all about realizations and the truths that come out from a lack of confession. Jesse and Hank plead for the truth, but Walt can’t give that if he’s still got a chance.
As Mike becomes a larger player while the series winds down, “Madrigal” finally gives us a deeper look into Mr. Ehrmantraut. When Jesse and Walt ask him to be their partner, Mike doesn’t have to think twice about it, since he knows he can’t trust Walt. But over the course of “Madrigal,” we see how much losing two million dollars and having an assassin out to kill you can change a person’s mind. “Madrigal” also introduces Lydia (Laura Fraser) who shows the worldwide potential of how big the blue meth—and therefore Walt’s kingdom—can become. In giving us a deeper look at these two characters, we once again see characters who are doing morally questionable work for the sake of their families. But unlike Walt and maybe even Lydia, we can easily believe that all of Mike’s actions have been to help his granddaughter.
“And the Bag’s in the River” gives us one of the first great scenes of Breaking Bad. Walt sits down with Krazy 8, trying to decide whether to kill him or to let him go. The scene shows that Walt has interacted with Krazy 8’s family before—maybe even with Krazy 8 himself—and he starts to form a bond with the drug dealer. But before Walt lets his guard down, he discovers that Krazy 8 is playing him. Walt takes the life of the person he almost set free. We also get our first glimpses of the life Walt once led, where he was seen as a genius on the track to success. Thankfully, the fantastic Walt developments make up for the disappointing attempts to add depth to Hank and Marie, both of whom remain pretty silly at this point.
“Problem Dog” is the beginning of the end for Gus Fring, as so many different factions get closer to attempting to take him out. Walt gets Jesse to agree to kill Gus the first chance he gets, handing over a new vial of ricin. The cartels visit Gus, but clearly don’t show him respect or waiver from what they want. As Jesse gets closer in to killing Gus and is brought deeper into Gus’s inner circle, the weight of everything starts to bog down on him. He goes back to a group meeting and explains his intentions from the beginning in quite a rough scene. Finally, Hank returns to the police with his findings, linking Heisenberg to Gus and proving how brilliant he is at his job. As the fourth season reaches its halfway point, it’s not all about Walt, as he proclaimed in the previous episode. It’s all about Gus and just who will be the one to take him down and what that means for everyone else.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Breaking Bad presents its most heartbreaking episode of the series so far, by showing the dark depths of the meth world Walt and Jesse are helping create. When Jesse tries to get his drugs back from the addicts who ripped off Skinny Pete, he finds their home and the mistreated child that also lives there. Despite living in a world filled with harshness and difficulties, Jesse is a beacon of happiness and hope. He tries his best to give this child some semblance of a normal childhood in the day he spends with him. We also see the rationalization that Walt has made for his meth cooking, instead of just being about supporting his family, it’s also about deep-seeded issues, where he thinks the world owes him something. While Jesse gives hope, Walt destroys it. Walt throws away his friendship and the support of Gretchen in favor of keeping his pride and creating a new version of the truth that rewrites his own personal history to put him on top.
“One Minute” is one of the rare episodes that focuses mostly on Hank, and with that, we get one of the best performances in the show through Dean Norris. Hank started off as a loud mouth and can still, often, be that. But in “One Minute,” we see how tender he can be with Marie when he’s faced with the idea of losing her, and how much of a badass he can be when he faces off against the two assassin twins at the end of the episode. Hank was very much one-note at the beginning, but now we see the many layers that makes him one of the show’s most fascinating characters. “One Minute” also features phenomenal moments from Jesse, as we see the darkness and anger that has been brewing beneath the surface, come out against Walter. “One Minute” has two of Breaking Bad’s best supporting characters coming to terms with their anger and their fear, and features remarkable performances from Norris and Aaron Paul.
In a season that mostly had Walt and Jesse on the outs with each other, “Full Measure” ends the third season uniting them again for the sake of self-preservation. While Season Two ended by showing us how easily Walt can kill an innocent person and rationalize it in his head, the third season ends with Jesse killing Gale, without, as we will see in the upcoming seasons, the capacity to handle it. The third season is largely about setting up for the rest of the series, the main players, the changing dynamics and the power of this gigantic world. But “Full Measure” shows exactly what Season Three has been building to, a sort of Walt and Jesse vs. the world mentality, which has been escalating until this tense, painful conclusion. “Full Measure” ends Breaking Bad’s calmest season by shocking the audience back and getting them ready for what is still to come.
“Say My Name” begins like a bullet, with Walt’s pride knowing no bounds, even demanding that a new drug dealer call him Heisenberg. But eventually, Walt’s head finally pops, letting his ego get in the way of logic. In a fit of rage, fear and once again pride, Walt shoots Mike over the names of the men that Mike has. What follows is a sad realization that could almost define the entire final season and maybe the series in general: Walt tells Mike, “this whole thing could’ve been avoided.” Sure, Walt could’ve gotten the names some other way, but he allowed his power to get the best of him instead of using the brainpower that got him this far. Yet after weeks and months of people telling Walt that he should stop while he’s ahead or just go with the flow, he realizes he’s caused his own path to go this way. For once, everyone but him was right. This whole thing could’ve been avoided. All of it.
“To’Hajiilee” is, in many ways, the episode that Breaking Bad has been building towards since the beginning. It places Walt against Hank and Jesse, and gives us the long-anticipated moment when Walt actually gets arrested. The clicking of the handcuffs is almost a relief. ”To’Hajiilee” pits the wit of Walt and Jesse against each other, with Jesse winning. Jesse knows to play to Walt’s greed and pride, whereas Walt’s biggest flaw might just be underestimating Jesse’s intelligence. ”To’Hajiilee” is largely a big sigh of relief and excitement over Hank and Jesse finally not being outsmarted by Walt. That is, until Todd’s Nazi uncle and friends start their shootout.
Endings are tough. But Breaking Bad’s ending was foretold right from the first episode, when Walter White explained that chemistry is “growth, then decay, then transformation.” For five seasons, we saw the growth and decay, but “Felina” gave us the transformation. We finally get a Walt without Heisenberg, a man who has learned from his mistakes and wants to fix them before the end. In that way, maybe the biggest problem with “Felina” is the convenience of it all. He finds a way to leave his family money, makes amends with Skyler and Jesse and kills all of his enemies before he [supposedly] dies. He even finally gets to use that damn ricin! Yes, we’ve seen Walt suffer quite a bit near the end of the fifth season, but “Felina” ends the series by (almost) giving Walt a clear conscience. Its only flaw might be that it wraps all its loose ends up a bit too perfectly.
Breaking Bad could’ve easily dragged out the revelation that Hank figured out Walt was Heisenberg for the rest of the series, but by the end of “Blood Money,” Hank and Walt are fighting in Hank’s garage with the truth finally out in the open. Hank here is completely shell shocked, both saddened and infuriated by his discovery. He’s been circling the truth for months. Now with the final piece in place, it all clicks together so perfectly. But Hank solves the mystery at the worst possible time—Walt is decidedly out of the drug business and his cancer is back. This doesn’t make Walt less of a monster, but it does make the situation that much rougher. Watching Hank figure it out, and Walt knowing that Hank knows, ends one of Breaking Bad’s biggest questions. “Blood Money” does the incredible build up justice.
At the beginning of Breaking Bad, Walt began cooking meth out of necessity. It was a quick way to make plenty of money to cover his medical bills and to support his family. In “Over,” Walt makes the decision that will be his downfall: this is no longer about necessity. This is about pride, greed and most of all, power. Walt wants to have control, whether it’s over his own family (he tries to win his son’s respect back by getting Walt Jr. drunk), his home (he works on repair after repair) or over his drug business (he threatens a new duo that want to stake their claim on Heisenberg territory). In the past, Walt was a dead man that was just biding his time. With “Over,” Walt has a second chance and instead chooses to continue in his same pattern without regard for what that means.
When is enough, enough for Walter? Is it when he has killed ten men within two minutes to protect his name? Made so much money that it can’t easily be counted? Or when he’s won his family back? When given the option to end on top once again, Walt finally takes it. In “Gliding Over All,” he’s proven his dominance in pretty much every way. Despite having no major enemies left, it’s too late. Hank finally puts the pieces together and figures out Walt is the Heisenberg he has been searching for. Yet Walt’s decision to leave the business isn’t a change of heart or a recognition of his wrong doing, it’s more due to the general malaise that has fallen over his actions. When there’s no one coming for you and you don’t have your partner, the job of meth cook becomes just that: a job, monotonous and bland as any other one.
By stranding Walt and Jesse in the desert, “4 Days Out” does plenty of phenomenal character work in a short amount of time. We see Walt’s frustrations over how much he’s already hurt his family. And Jesse starts to realize he should’ve followed his heart and not come along with Walt, a problem that will only expand the further we get into the series. But by putting these two alone together for the better part of a week, we also get a true sense of the bond between them, as co-workers, as student-teacher and almost as father and son. The last segment of “4 Days Out” acts as almost pure relief, as Walt’s science gets the two out of the desert and Walt learns that his cancer is in remission. What should be the happy ending to his recent struggle is actually Walt’s realization that he’s too far in. His actions, without the righteous aspect of leaving money for his family, are pure unnecessary deceit.
In the final lines of dialogue of Season Four, we see the duality of Walt, as well as the terrifying power he has now. When he tells Skyler near the end of “Crawl Space,” “It’s over, we’re safe,” it’s because he has blown up Gus Fring and destroyed the meth lab that Hank was so close to finding. But in his next line “I won,” it’s clear that this wasn’t just about protecting his family, it was about being the best, about being the champion. It was about remaining the man who knocks. “Crawl Space” hints that Walt poisoned a child, something that would’ve been unheard of last season. Now there’s nothing he won’t do to claim the throne. Of all of Breaking Bad’s finales, “Crawl Space” is the most remarkable. The episode showcases Walt’s genius, the power of what Jesse and Walt can do together and the relief of tension that Breaking Bad excels in.
When asked about the specific moment that he believes Walt truly became unredeemable, Bryan Cranston has often mentioned the final moments of “Phoenix.” Walt has murdered people in the past, but always for his own safety. As Walt stands by, watching Jane die, it’s slightly for self-preservation and to help Jesse get away from the drugs he’s using. But it’s also just easier for Walt to let Jane die. He shows his newborn daughter the million dollars he made and asks her, “Want to see what your dad did for you?” And that’s also, really what “Phoenix” is all about: the lengths that parents will go for their children. For Jane’s father, it’s tough, judgmental love, threats of police and the insistence of rehab. In Walt’s mind, letting Jesse’s girlfriend die is what is best for Jesse, but more importantly also for himself.
From the beginning, Breaking Bad excelled at building tension to incredible extremes in seemingly inescapable situations. In “Crawl Space” however, Breaking Bad becomes less of an intense thrill and more like a horror film. It’s not as if Gus hadn’t had power over Walt before, but because he straight up tells Walt that he could kill his whole family, Walt ends “Crawl Space” in a rare moment of understanding. He cackles in his crawl space, laughing at the absurdity over what his life has become. His partner has turned on him. He’s fired from his meth job. His family is in danger. His brother-in-law has murderers coming after him and all his money is gone to his wife’s former lover. All the insanity we’ve seen over four seasons finally hits Walt all at once. More than ever before, “Crawl Space” ends with Walt in an impossible situation, clueless as to what he can do without his power, influence or money. His biggest fear has been to be helpless in his own life and now, thanks to his pride, he’s even more helpless than ever before. He’s left only to lay, and wait for death to come looking for him.
“Fifty-One” takes place exactly a year after the series premiere, where Walt learned he had cancer. A year ago, he cared desperately about his family and what they thought of him. Now, he’s done giving a shit. From every aspect, “Fifty-One” excels. The directing and cinematography are even more gorgeous than usual, especially in the scene where Skyler walks into the pool numbly, shot almost as if she’s getting ready to drown in Walt’s blue meth. The writing is spectacular, as are the performances. In one of the best scenes Breaking Bad ever created, Skyler fights with Walt over how she’ll keep the kids safe from him, only to accept her best option is to wait for his cancer to come back. Skyler’s depression shows how much she has changed in just a year, and the episode shows the effects of Walt’s decision to pick Heisenberg over his family and how he’s willing to risk everything for the power he now has.
“Ozymandias” is everything one could ask for in an episode of Breaking Bad. From the moment Hank is shot, it’s as if all the air escapes your lungs and you’re not able to breathe again until the final credits roll. Watching “Ozymandias” is bearing witness to a year full of bad decisions, lies, deception and death as they cave in on Walt, destroying his family and ending with him running away from his problems, on his way to a new life and new identity.
But the episode also takes us through all the emotions we’ve ever felt about Walt, all in the span of one hour. Starting off with a flashback to Walt and Jesse’s first cook, we see Walt once again as the naive, desperate schoolteacher whose only goal was to leave his family something once he was gone. Even after Hanks’ death, “Ozymandias” makes us feel sympathetic for the pain that Walt is feeling. But once Hank is dead and Walt’s money is mostly gone, we see Walt for the first time with truly nothing to lose. As many times as this show has made us think that we’re at this point before, this is actually, finally it.
Anyone and everyone in his way is an enemy. He allows the Nazis to take Jesse away, but not before pouring salt in the wound by telling Jesse he let Jane die. When he returns home, Walt Jr., the sole source of good in the show, finally knows the truth about his father and calls the cops on him after an intense fight over a knife with Skyler. When Walt steals Holly as he makes his escape, there’s a deadness in his eyes. His family is over. His life is over. Now there’s nothing he won’t do. As if there wasn’t any question, bad is completely, irreparably broken.
Through his camera work, Rian Johnson makes every moment of “Ozymandias” feel completely claustrophobic, as the world is closing in on itself—it legitimately feels that way throughout the episode. Everyone in the entire series is at the lowest point we will ever see them and there’s nothing left to do but accept the gravity of the situations that Walt has put them all in. “Ozymandias” is a car crash you can’t look away from, even though it’s been long in the making. “Ozymandias” is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. For Tuco, his end was getting shot by Hank. For Gus, it was getting half his face blown off. For Walt, it’s watching all of his mistakes and bad decisions crash down on him, along with the weight of losing everything he’s ever cared about.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. He’ll send you to Belize. You can follow him on Twitter.