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Vince Gilligan’s bleak, yet thoroughly absorbing, and often surprisingly witty crime drama was a unique experiment in character evolution as we witness Bryan Cranston’s four-time Emmy-winning performance as Walter White transform from a meek, devoted family man to a selfish, monstrous drug lord. Told over the course of the five seasons, Breaking Bad is one of the most astonishing slow burns in narrative history, earning its place among the finest TV shows of all time.
To narrow down a series known for one-upping itself with practically every subsequent episode to just the 10 best is no easy feat and, quite frankly, sounds impossible, but I am going to try anyway. These are my picks of the most taut, heart-racing, exquisitely performed, and all around brilliant episodes of Breaking Bad.
WARNING: The following may contain major spoilers, so if you have not seen the show, maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.
10. Fly - Season 3, Episode 10
If you look at the top-rated episodes of Breaking Bad on IMDb, at the very bottom of the list, ranked at #62, is “Fly” with an average user score of 7.8. That may not sound too bad, but compared to the ratings of more widely acclaimed episodes, it is quite a dip. Yet, it has made this particular Top 10 list because, quite frankly, I believe it deserves more recognition than it has received.
In the series’ sole bottle episode, and the first directed by Rian Johnson, Walter White discovers the titular insect inside the meth lab provided to him by Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). This forces him and partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to spend and entire workday hunting down the “contamination,” complemented by a witty, one-sided debate on the correct spelling of “possum” (or “opossum”) and Walt’s reflection on how his criminal lifestyle rivals the value of his life. Yet, the episode’s true strengths lie in how it paints Gus as a villain threatening enough to convince a man his life depends on an issue as seemingly frivolous as a housefly.
9. Crazy Handful Of Nothin’ - Season 1, Episode 6
It is debatable which point in Breaking Bad’s narrative marks the exact moment that Walter White’s transition into a ruthless criminal mastermind really begins to kick into gear. Some might say the switch was flipped by the third or fourth year, but I would say we get our first inkling of who he is destined to become in the premiere season.
After deciding to continue his business agreement with Jesse, Walt becomes desperate for better funds and has his partner seek help with distribution from Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz), who turns out to be a hostile negotiator, to put it lightly. After Jesse’s first meeting with the drug slinger puts him in the hospital, a freshly head-shaven Walt pays Tuco a visit to lay out his own terms of negotiation, which include “a tweak in the chemistry” that proves to be literally explosive. While this threatening turn is clearly a performance, it is one convincing enough for even viewers to shed their pre-conceived notions of Walter White’s true nature.
8. Grilled - Season 2, Episode 2
Tuco returns for the last time on our list and on the series (before making a return on prequel series Better Call Saul). However, his reign as Walt and Jesse’s most sinister threat (at the time, at least) ends with an undeniable bang.
Picking up from where Breaking Bad’s Season 2 left off, Walt and Jesse are desperate to escape from Tuco, who is under suspicion of the DEA and plans to flee to Mexico with his partners. Meanwhile, Skyler (Anna Gunn) has Walt reported missing and his DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), looks into the investigation and finds clues that threaten to blow his operation wide open. Can Walt and Jesse make a clean getaway, not just from their crazed drug dealer colleague, but the authorities as well?
7. Pilot - Season 1, Episode 1
In the episode that started it all, we meet Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher (and part-time car wash attendant) with a loving family that is about to add a fourth member, who still seems somewhat unfulfilled. When he receives news that he has terminal lung cancer, he makes the decision to team up with his former student, Jesse Pinkman, to start a methamphetamine operation to be able to support his family once he succumbs to his diagnosis, but he soon discovers this new profession may be more life-threatening.
The premiere episode of Breaking Bad is one of the more expertly constructed introductions to a series. It perfectly familiarizes us with the protagonist, quickly ropes the audience in with its bewildering flash-forward cold open, and drops subtle hints to the show's overarching theme. When we first see Walt in his classroom describing chemistry as "a study of change," he is unwittingly referring to the metamorphosis he is destined to undergo.
6. Crawl Space - Season 4, Episode 11
Everyone has a favorite season of Breaking Bad, but the majority seem to favor Season 4, particularly for the meticulously winding tension between Walt and his ruthless employer Gus Fring. The tension comes to a world-shattering climax and Walt reaches the peak of his desperation in the season's eleventh episode.
When Gus catches word that Hank has come dangerously close to uncovering his operation with Walt's reluctant help, he severs ties with the cook completely, but not without threatening to kill his wife, his son, and his infant daughter before his exit. Walt enlists Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to help him relocate his family, which will require an immodest payment. However, when he heads home to retrieve the money from the crawl space underneath his house, he discovers Skyler took it to pay off her laundering former lover's debt to the IRS, inciting a startling bout of mania portrayed exquisitely by Bryan Cranston and resulting in one of the series' most breathtaking final shots.
5. Dead Freight - Season 5, Episode 5
While many cite Season 4 as a favorite, Breaking Bad's final season (split into eight episodes separated by a year in between) is remembered for many of its more engrossing and, ultimately, heartbreaking moments. Despite how dark things had already been on the show up to this point, few episodes have ended with such a shocking jolt of devastation.
After their shady Methylamine supplier Lydia (Laura Fraser) nearly put their operation in jeopardy, Walt, Jesse, and their new partner, experienced veteran Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), receive a tip from her that will bless them with an enormous quantity: a train carrying gallons of the stuff. This sets off a thoroughly planned robbery of the supply that seems to off without a hitch, and excitingly so, reminiscent of an old school western. However, upon realization that an innocent child has witnessed the job, their colleague, Todd (Jesse Plemons), attempts to solve the problem by the committing the unthinkable.
4. Felina - Season 5, Episode 16
Speaking of unthinkable, as Breaking Bad was coming to a close, fans had no clue what to expect how Walter White would meet his ultimate fate. I think it is safe to say that "Felina," not just anagram for "finale" but a chemical formula that translates to "Blood-Meth-Tears," thankfully met expectations.
Feeling the weight of his mortality of living in seclusion for nearly a year, Walter White sets out to seek redemption from the bloody trail left from ensuring his earnings will be sent to his family, confessing to Skyler the truth of his criminal inspirations, and, despite originally attempting to murder him, rescuing Jesse from the Neo-Nazis' captivity. The remarkable curtain call ties up every loose end that, until Aaron Paul's feature-length epilogue El Camino in 2019, serves as a perfect example of completion, seeing this top-tier series go out while it was still on top.
3. ABQ - Season 2, Episode 13
A finale that absolutely surpassed expectations, however, was concluding the episode of Breaking Bad's second season, which indulged in foreshadowing an event of sinister effect, one incomprehensible hint at a time. The unsettling truth learned in the final moments of "ABQ" is one that would have you believe series creator Vince Gilligan is one deeply disturbed individual to have conjured something like this.
After Jesse's horrifying discovery of his girlfriend Jane's (Krysten Ritter) fatal heroin overdose (unaware Walt is to partially to blame), he enters rehab with help from Walt, whose trail of dishonesty has forced Skyler to leave him shortly, he returns home from a successful operation. Meanwhile, Jane's distraught father (John de Lancie) decides to return to his job as an air traffic controller, but, distracted by his grief, makes a mistake that sends two commercial jets hurtling toward each other right above Walt's house. He may not realize then, but the audience is well aware, that Walt has already officially become a purveyor of tragedy.
2. Face Off - Season 4, Episode 13
However, it was final episode of Breaking Bad's most, arguably, suffocatingly intense season that saw a huge weight taken off of Walt's, and the audience's, shoulders. On the other hand, the indelible conclusion of "Face Off" is not without its disturbing revelations.
Desperate to put an end to Gus Fring before the drug lord puts an end to him, Walt must turn to someone who despises him, but also shares wit him a hatred toward Gus: Tuco Salamanca's mute, immobile uncle Hector, who agrees to help kill Gus in a blaze of glory. However, when Skyler learns about the murder, and the audience learns of the despicable way Walt initially coaxes Jesse into helping him, the turbulent transition of Walter White's character into a full-blown antagonist has been made clear. If the focus of Breaking Bad was not this character's descent, "Face Off" would a victorious end to his story.
1. Ozymandias - Season 5, Episode 14
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” paints the portrait of a once mighty king whose dominion has been reduced to mockery, represented by the little that remains of a statue bearing his resemblance partially consumed by the sand underneath. That being said, it is clear why the third-to-last episode of Breaking Bad, written by Moira Walley-Beckett, is named after the famous poem. It marks the moment Walter White’s “kingdom” is reduced to bitter rubble as he witnesses the Neo-Nazis he hired to kill Jesse instead murder his brother-in-law, loses most of his loot to them, and, finally, becomes an enemy to his own family all in the same day.
Walt has always had a habit of citing his family as the driving force of his actions (despite the contradictory confession he makes in the finale) but “Ozymandias” sees that part of his world come crashing down right before his eyes. From Walt’s cold confession to Jesse about his late lover, to Skyler’s desperate breakdown as she watches her husband steal her infant daughter away, and the final phone call between the couple before Walt is forced to abandon the life he once held dear, this Rian Johnson-directed episode is one of the perfectly acted, unforgettably climactic, and paralyzing bleak hours of television you will ever see.
What do you think? Do agree that, out of all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad, these 10 prevail over all, or do you think I’m goddamn wrong? Let us know in the comments and be sure to check back for more updates and information on the groundbreaking series, as well as more ranked lists, here on CinemaBlend.