I consider Breaking Bad the best show in TV history, better than even Game of Thrones. It delivered consistent quality in every episode, while ratcheting up its excellence to higher levels each season, so that by the fourth we were reeling insanely like Walt in Crawl Space, and by the fifth we felt battered like Jesse’s face in Ozymandias. Sixty-two episodes across five seasons, and not one of them a dud. But what are the best? Here they are, the top 20 (top 22 actually: two slots I take as a double episode), in descending order.
1. Ozymandias. Season 5, Episode 14. The crown jewel of the series has already acquired the mythic status of Doctor Who’s Blink, The Sopranos’ College, and Game of Thrones’ Rains of Castamere: the rare TV episode that sets an impossible bar. Hank is murdered, Walt loses most of his money, Jesse is tortured and made a slave (after Walt cruelly rubs in that he watched Jane die, could have saved her, and didn’t), Walt assaults Skyler and his son, and then beats a hasty retreat by, unbelievably, kidnapping his baby daughter. The “Ozymandias” title comes from the poem by Shelley, which is about a traveler who encounters a crumbling monument in the desert, with no sign of the unforgiving empire the king once ruled. The critical line of the poem — “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” — can be read either as Ramses II intended it, “Despair, weaklings, at my power!”, or in the better ironic way, that all things end, and thus even the mighty should feel dread over their impending doom and glory to be forgotten. That, in a word, is the chronicle of Walter White, high-school teacher and meth-lord.
2. Peekaboo. Season 2, Episode 6. Here the truth sank in: Breaking Bad was an official game changer. This episode is so strong it plays like a short film, in which Walt and Jesse are kept separate, their vulnerabilities exposed in dramatic ways. For Walt it’s his pride, which crumbles in front of Gretchen (whose elitist lifestyle could have easily been his), and he lashes out at in pure acrimony, while Jesse, for all his shady dealings, takes the moral high ground when it comes to children. There’s so much intelligence behind the story structure, and every single acting performance, from regulars and guests, is top-notch. And who doesn’t thrill to the infamous climax of the “skank” (or the “slit”, as she’s also called) getting so fed up with nasty name-calling that she crushes her boyfriend’s head with an ATM machine? Or her nameless kid who does nothing but sit around all day and watch TV ads for guns? Peekaboo is pure classic.
3. One Minute. Season 3, Episode 7. The midpoint of the show’s history is a pulverizing piece of drama: Hank beats the feces out of Jesse, gets his badge and gun taken, and then, in a climax that outshines Hitchcock, gets cornered and gunned down by Mexican gangsters in a parking lot. The entire episode is dominated by Hank and Jesse, but especially the latter, in performances that are downright chilling. His speech to Walt in the hospital is impossible to forget, as he promises — through a face so meat-purple it’s barely recognizable — to exact revenge on Hank, and spurns Walt’s request for a renewed partnership. But it’s also Hank’s best episode, as we see him in a rare moment of introspection with Marie, accepting responsibility for himself, only to be “rewarded” in the parking lot. The final act of One Minute is one of the show’s most commonly discussed and beloved for good reason.
4. Crawl Space. Season 4, Episode 11. By far the most harrowing episode puts Walt through the ringer six ways to Sunday. First he is forced to drive Hank perilously close to the meth lab, and so he causes a car accident to stall the investigation. Then he is disowned by Jesse. Then he is nabbed by Gus’ men and threatened in the desert, told that his family will be killed if he even slightly steps out of line. In pure desperation he goes to Saul and asks to make him and his family disappear, and returns home to retrieve the money to pay for a new life — only to find that Skyler paid virtually all of it to Ted. At this point Walt begins to cry and cackle like a maniac, Heisenberg taking over, when Marie suddenly telephones, leaving a frantic voicemail about a hit out on Hank’s head. No episode feels more disastrous, nor induces such insane levels of hopelessness and fear, as Crawl Space.
5. Fly. Season 3, Episode 10. The most divisive episode among fandom is a bottle psychodrama, set entirely in the meth lab (one of my favorite TV set pieces), with Walt and Jesse trying to swat an elusive fly lest it contaminate the meth product. The fly is like the lifeless RV in the previous season’s 4 Days Out, an obstacle for these guys to overcome, but also a device used to keep them in close quarters and put question marks over their relationship. The fly is also a metaphor, as Walt is going crazy over not just an insect, but his rotten marriage and guilt for letting Jane die. His apology to Jesse for the latter is a rare precious moment, a confession without Jesse even realizing it. Their physical sparring is great too: I love when the fly lands on Walt’s forehead, and he freezes, demanding through clenched teeth that Jesse swat the thing; the expression on Jesse’s face as he takes this golden opportunity to smash Walt as hard he can may well be my favorite scene of the series.
6. Half Measures & Full Measure. Season 3, Episodes 12 & 13. With equally shocking cliffhangers, the final two episodes of the third season are hard for me to choose between. Half Measures focuses on Jesse’s fury over drug dealers who use kids to peddle product, and even kill them when they become liabilities. Walt refuses to help him, wanting to keep things smooth with Gus, until his stunning intervention — the sudden appearance of his car gave me a heart attack, not to mention his cold-blooded gunshot to finish off one of the goons still twitching on the ground. It’s a clear point of no return that puts Walt irrevocably on Gus’ bad side, and yet a further hardening of his moral compass. In Full Measure, the crescendo of tension keeps building, and the cliffhanger outdoes even Half Measure’s, with Jesse saving Walt this time. But there are two huge differences making this cliffhanger the more poignant. Killing doesn’t come easy to Jesse, and it’s upsetting to watch him agonize over shooting Gale, a completely harmless man (the second difference) who must die in order to make Walt valuable again to Gus. Walt, for his part, has his own desperate (and craven) moment, begging for his life when Mike insists he has no choice but to kill him, but is able to switch gears and yell the chemist’s address to Jesse at the last possible moment.
7. Salud. Season 4, Episode 10. Walt is at his lowest, and Jesse at his highest, in this searing homage to Scarface. Don Eladio is even played by Steven Bauer, who was Al Pacino’s right hand, and he’s the perfect cartel overlord, dripping menace under huge false smiles and receptions. The mass murder by the swimming pool is of course a Scarface kind of climax, Gus’ long overdue revenge, and I even find myself cheering the son-of-a-bitch on despite myself. (You have to admire a guy who has the balls to swallow and throw up poison.) And Jesse really comes into his own, saving Mike, but even before the shoot-out taking charge by barking orders at the cartel’s meth cooks and railroading them for having a messy lab. Walt, meanwhile, has a poignant moment with his son, breaking down and crying pathetically, at a point where season four’s madness is finally crushing down on him, and which would flatten him in the next episode Crawl Space.
8. Dead Freight. Season 5, Episode 5. After season four I wondered how Breaking Bad could take things to the next level. A train heist was an impressive stab and a slam dunk, but it’s the murder of the little boy in the final scene that defines something entirely new in the series. The heist was painstakingly planned so as to avoid innocent causalities, and in the end it didn’t matter. And there’s more, because Mike was hell-bent on killing Lydia because he was so damn sure she faked the bug on the barrels. But it actually was the DEA all along and she was truthfully helping them. They almost killed someone innocent (though Lydia deserves to die for other reasons), and the theme comes full-circle with the poor kid at the end. This episode gets better with more viewings, and not just for the heist; Lydia’s interrogation at the hands of Mike, Walt, and Jesse is a brilliant piece of bottle drama.
9. 4 Days Out. Season 2, Episode 9. A bottle episode, survivalist story, and character examination all in one. It’s also much the inverse of Peekaboo, which kept Walt and Jesse apart in their respective worlds. Here they’re stranded in the desert and can’t escape each other, and are able to bond as a result with more mutual respect. For all his outrageous contempt Walt has genuine paternal feelings for Jesse, who’s more endearing than he can show. I’m a complete sucker for drama that wrings suspense out of the mundane, and in 4 Days Out it’s the infuriating failures to jump start the RV, one involving a sudden and dangerous (though amusing) explosion. The toll of heat and hunger yield oddly touching moments, as when Walt laments he deserves to die — with heavy doses of self-pity, granted, but we feel for him still. And yet this was the last episode I sympathized with him so strongly. Not only do we get the news that his cancer is improving at the end, his moral compass takes a black turn when he allows Jane to die a few episodes later.
10. Face Off. Season 4, Episode 13. When we finally get closure in a season finale, it wraps everything up so brilliantly and with the appalling revelation — that final shot zooming in on the Lily of the Valley pot we long suspected — that Walt has indeed become a monster who’s willing to harm even children and manipulate Jesse any way he can. The title is both literal and figurative, and a solid exit for Gus Fring. It’s hard to believe this villain carried the drama so effortlessly for two and a third seasons; he was near impossible to bring down. Walt’s scheme was a pay-off that didn’t cheat a bit. Some of the show’s most demented humor is on display at DEA headquarters, when Tio is dragged in only to waste everyone’s time by answering questions with vulgar non-sequiturs. After so much terror and helplessness, Walt wins, at abominable costs. TV drama seldom has the patience to make victory so tortuously earned.
11. The Cat’s in the Bag & The Bag’s in the River. Season 1, Episodes 2 & 3. These two blend so as to be indistinguishable, and are easily my faves of the first season. Crazy Handful of Nothing may contain Walt’s most critical moment, but Cat and Bag deliver scenes more powerful (if less explosive) and retain a deeply classic feel. Jesse dissolving Emilio in his bathtub of acid, which later falls through the floor, remains the best “science” scene of the series, and Skyler’s tearing Jesse a new one for “selling Walt pot” is a hilarious interaction. Things turn bottle as Walt is left alone to agonize over his first cold-blooded murder, and he even bonds with Krazy-8 in the desperate hope that this thug will just leave him alone if he lets him go. It’s an awful decision precisely because Walt hasn’t become a monster yet, and the way he writes up a pros and cons list is weirdly realistic, the way you’d almost imagine a nerdy high school teacher working up the justification. Still more realistic is changing his mind, unable to go through with something like this — the way all of us would chicken out — until he sees the piece of the broken plate.
12. Grilled. Season 2, Episode 2. Comparisons to Hitchcock are often made with this one, in which murderous suspense is wrung out of a confined setting. Of all the Breaking Bad villains, Tuco is the most dangerous — yes, even more than Gus — for his vicious temper. He kills people (even his own bodyguards) on a whim, or because he’s too high, or because they say the wrong thing with the best intentions. Walt and Jesse’s captivity in front of Tio is sweat-inducing, and the failure of the ricin plan so frustrating, that when the shoot-out explodes between Hank and Tuco, it comes as pure apocalyptic exhilaration. Jesse’s begging that he doesn’t want to die (see left photo) was so convincing it made me feel like I was watching something real. And let’s not forget the hilarious prologue, which has Hank egging on a roomful of DEA agents about getting a raging hard-on to bring down Tuco (“Oh sorry, ladies, I mean ‘tumescent with anticipation'”)… if he only knew where trailing Jesse would lead him.
13. Box Cutter. Season 4, Episode 1. The suspense continues exactly where the season-three finale left us hanging. It’s characterized by a punishingly slow pace, sweat-inducing claustrophobia, and terrifying stretches where no one speaks. We know that Walt and Jesse can’t die at this stage, but we think they might anyway. Gus is revealed as a stone-cold monster, as everything implied in the last season is made explicit when he seizes his own henchman and slices him up with a box cutter, his eyes never leaving Walt and Jesse as he does it. It’s a major gorefest, with great use of acid to dissolve the corpse afterwards. Special credit must be given to the flashback prologue which shows Gale telling Gus that he needs to hire Walt, since no one else can cook meth so pure. The genius of this is that before we’re sure it’s a flashback, the sight of Gale makes us think Jesse missed shooting him at the end of Full Measure!
14. Bullet Points. Season 4, Episode 4. This is way, way underrated. It opens with the best Walt-Skyler sequence of the series, their rehearsal of the script Skyler has prepared in order to explain Walt’s “gambling addiction” to Hank and Marie. It’s a hilarious to-and-fro, with Walt waxing indignant over his atrocious lines, how crappy they make him look (“And how do you look bad?” he demands of Skyler, “Where’s the ‘I slept with my boss’ bullet point?”). It’s a great moment that shows these two bonding (if bickering) after so much distance and alienation in the third season. Suspense ratchets up in Hank’s bedroom, however, where he shows Walt Gale’s notebook, which displays a heart-stopping adulation for “W.W.” The interplay between the two men is extremely subtle and nerve-wracking, and it’s hard to tell if Hank is seriously entertaining the idea that it could actually refer to “Walter White”. I always suspected that Gale had been writing an ode to both him and Walt Whitman at the same time, which the mid-season 5 finale confirmed.
15. Granite State. Season 5, Episode 15. The aftermath of Ozymandias is about Walt and Jesse going to hell, and I love that Walt’s hell takes place in my home state of New Hampshire; it even looks like it was shot here in winter. Jesse’s hell is made worse by the most upsetting event (to me) in the entire series — Andrea getting shot by Todd, with Jesse forced to watch. So Walt is now dying of cancer, and Jesse is truly wishing he were dead. Meanwhile, there is Skyler, confronted by Jack’s thugs in a terrifying living room sequence, which marks the third Holly threat in season 5B (Marie tried kidnapping her in Buried, and Walt did kidnap her in Ozymandias). But the best part comes at the tail end, with the reappearance of Gretchen and Elliott on (wait for it) the Charlie Rose show, with the man playing himself. It was a brilliant stroke bringing back Gray Matter, the only thing at this point that could make Walt reverse his decision to turn himself in: his pride remains his Achilles heel.
16. Crazy Handful of Nothing. Season 1, Episode 6. Many fans say this is the daddy of season one (though I insist on Cat and Bag at #11), and for obviously good reason. Walt officially breaks bad by assuming his Heisenberg identity, signaled most dramatically by the shaving of his head. It symbolizes rebirth as much as an acceptance of cancer, and indeed this is how Walt remains looking until the tail end of the series, after the pivotal Ozymandias. Blowing up Tuco’s hideout is perhaps his quintessential badass moment; only someone with nothing to lose could explode a capsule of mercury fulminate and remain in the same goddamn room. If you can’t trust someone with nothing to lose, you can’t trust Walter White, and that’s something Jesse couldn’t learn.
17. Better Call Saul. Season 2, Episode 8. This episode is a crowd pleaser with a lot of twisted comedy. It introduces the character of Saul, who I initially was displeased by until he quickly became “family” like every other character. The Badger plot and arrest of the wrong Heisenberg is somehow both ludicrous and genuinely suspenseful, and little surprise that Hank smelled a rat and knew they didn’t get the right guy. Speaking of whom, he has great interactions with Walt here, and I’m not talking about the absurdly hilarious one where Walt stops his car in front of his, blocking the DEA stakeout. The moment in the bedroom shows Hank defensive and unable to discuss his problems, and Walt in his early days of shrewd manipulation masked as concern.
18. Sunset. Season 3, Episode 6. The penultimate set-up for the mid-season apocalypse of One Minute has Walt hunkering down in Jesse’s RV, as Hank stands outside about to bust the door down until he thinks twice about the legal ramifications. It’s incredible suspense and a brilliant interplay between all involved, as Walt whispers advise to Jesse, who in turn yells at Hank through a bullet-ridden door about warrant requirements, bitch, and then — in what is truly a cruel but necessary move — as Hank waits outside the RV for his warrant to arrive, Walt engineers a bogus phone call reporting that Marie is in the hospital from a car accident. Meanwhile, in the background, Gus Fring bends over backwards to preserve Walt against Mexican revenge, by sending Tuco’s cousins after, yes, Hank as an appeasement offer. Both of these threads, of course, spell dire consequences for Hank, in the next and best episode of season 3.
19. Hermanos. Season 4, Episode 8. This is Gus’ episode, paving the way for Salud, book-ended by critical events from the past, especially the execution of Gus’ partner by the swimming pool. In the present, Gus is brought in for questioning by the DEA, and faces down their questions without (unlike the viewer) breaking a sweat. Hank is the only one who remains unconvinced, and so recruits Walt to go behind the DEA’s back and plant a bug on Gus’ car, resulting in bladder-bursting moments of Mike glaring at them from one car lot over, and then Gus inside the restaurant advising Walt with a smile to do just as Hank tells him. But my favorite, favorite scene comes in the best Walt-Jesse moment (at least dialogue-wise), as Jesse tries brushing off the threat of Hank and Gus with the quip, “Isn’t this like algebra? Where you take a plus-douchebag, add it to a minus-douchebag, and get, like, zero douchebags?” Walt’s slam: “Let me give you some real math: Hank catching Gus equals Hank catching us!”
20. Felina. Season 5, Episode 16. The series finale starts out quiet and ends Scarface-explosive. The first is Walt’s invasion of Gretchen and Elliot’s home, the second is his bearding the skinheads in their den. That the “hit men” training their “rifle beams” on Gretchen and Elliott turned out to be Badger and Skinny Pete with flashlights was a priceless exit for this comedic duo, and I’m delighted they got to play such frightening parts for their first and only time. And the way Walt managed to kill all of the skinheads (save for Todd, strangled by Jesse in over-deserved payback) was beautiful. Felina gives us closure in a way that remarkably doesn’t feel like a cheat — Walt finds a way to get his money to his son after all; he provides the location of Hank’s body; he poisons Lydia with the ricin; he annihilates Uncle Jack’s men and saves Jesse; most importantly, he owns his monstrosities in two acts: (1) confessing to Skyler that “everything he did” was never for his family, but for himself; (2) offering Jesse the gun to kill him.