The Best Episodes of Breaking Bad

It’s official now: Breaking Bad can be safely pronounced the best show in TV history. Better than even Game of Thrones, it has delivered consistent trauma and unpredictable travesties, 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 and beaten as 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 — that 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 from Shelley is genius. The poem is about a traveler who encounters a crumbling monument in the desert, with no sign of the brutal empire this 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 kingpin.

2. Peekaboo. Season 2, Episode 6. Here the truth sank in: Breaking Bad was a game changer and officially my favorite show. 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 thundering piece of drama: Hank beats the feces out of Jesse, gets his badge and gun taken, and then, in the most riveting TV climax of the 21st century, 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 impossible 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 possibly 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. It’s amazing how this half-season packed so much in short space, and the story arc of Krazy-8’s captivity is the best illustration of that. 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.

The Five

I can’t remember the last time I read a novel like The Five.

If you like suspense, horror, and rock music, then this book is tailor made for you.

And for my money, it’s Robert McCammon’s best book since Boy’s Life.

McCammon’s horror novels of the ’80s were great: he gave us Amazon women who slaughtered men by night in a remote Pennsylvania village; city-slicking vampires running over Los Angeles; the descendents of Poe’s Usher family; a Russian werewolf infiltrating Nazi Germany. But in the ’90s he broke the mold. First with Boy’s Life, a coming of age story so literary it deserved Cliff Notes, and still does. (Think The Adventures of Tom Sawyer meets The Prince of Tides meets the author’s unique elements.) Then with Gone South, a throttling page-turner about a man on the run from a tragic mistake, yet moving toward a weird redemption without knowing it. Like these latter efforts, The Five resists genre-labeling and contains moments transcendent enough to read like classic literature.

So what’s it about? A dirt-poor indie rock band (called The Five, three men and two women), drive around in a van and play gigs across the southwestern U.S., chasing dreams of success. They finally get exactly that, but at a nasty price when a crazy ex-Marine sniper starts picking them off for comments made by the lead singer about soldiers in Iraq. Suddenly the band’s concerts swell in proportion to the media vultures, and with the fame comes devastation. It’s a nail-biter punctuated with slow pauses and soul-searching, both parts just as hard to put down.

The narrative is saturated with the author’s love for rock n roll. It’s no mean feat to make a reader “hear” music off the page, yet that’s what I was doing — crafting my own mental jams and drawing on textures from favorite bands. (You’ll make your own associations, but I imagined The Five as sounding grungy like The Smashing Pumpkins and searing like The Walkmen.) This was especially true for the signature song written by all of the band members instead of the usual two: it takes on a curious life throughout the story, as it’s born of harrowing events and each band member finds his or her muse at the oddest, eeriest moments.

There’s even some of the supernatural in The Five: it appears unexpectedly and with enough subtlety that you’re never quite sure if there is something ghostly or psychological going on. But for all its terrors, The Five is ultimately about the enduring power of music and the feverish creativity of artists. It’s a brilliant story, and one I’ll be reading again at some point.

Dexter: The Eight Seasons Ranked

The final season of Dexter wasn’t what we deserved. But at least Debra died; I’ll give the writers that. I was beginning to think our serial killer would depart the Grey Havens for the Undying Lands (“Argentina”), and let’s face it, happily ever after with Hannah would have been a cop-out. In some ways, the final scene still was, but things could have been worse.

On whole, Dexter has been a remarkable success story. It’s had its ups and downs, and surprising comebacks. There’s no question in my mind that the crown jewels are seasons 4, 7, and 2 — any one of these could qualify as my top favorite. Season 1 is great too, though it suffers slightly from “first season” syndrome. Seasons 5, 8, and 3 are problematic in varying degrees, but have their redeeming moments, and the less said about season 6 the better (though I say plenty below). Here are the eight seasons ranked from best to worst.

#1. Season Four: Trinity. The most polished season. Brilliant, compulsive, calamitous. 5 stars. An astounding comeback from the mediocrity of season 3 (much like 7 after 6). Here we have a villain who makes the Ice Truck Killer look like a home boy, a narrative crescendo that escalates without fail, and a script that matches the relentless tension of season two. Frank Lundy’s return is used to great effect; his shocking murder causes Deb to meltdown big time (her scene from episode 5 had me in tears). But even that has nothing on Rita’s demise. I had to rewatch the end of the finale after I first saw it, I couldn’t credit what my eyes were telling me. As in seasons 2 and 7, Dexter finds himself out of control more than usual, killing his first innocent victim (the film director instead of his assistant), and letting Trinity get the upper hand too many times. The only slight weakness of this season is the side love affair between Batista and Laguerta: I didn’t buy it at all. Did they have to throw these two together just because they’re Hispanic? Not that it mattered. This season is a masterpiece.

Best four episodes. (5) “Dirty Harry”: In the aftermath of Lundy’s murder, Deb has a serious meltdown; Dexter sees Trinity kill his third victim and follows him home to his family, realizing that Trinity is “just like him”. (9) “Hungry Man”: Dexter spends a disturbing Thanksgiving with Trinity and his family, and ends up attacking him. This is probably my favorite episode of the entire eight seasons. (11) “Hello, Dexter Morgan”: Trinity zeroes in on Dexter and confronts him at the police station — in my opinion, the greatest cliffhanger of the entire seven seasons. (12) “The Getaway”: the second-highest rated episode in the show’s history — Dexter desperately tries to get the upper hand, finally kills Trinity, then realizes Trinity killed Rita first.

#2. Season Seven: The Bay Harbor Butcher, Take 2. The intimate season. Surreal, inquisitive, devastating. 5 stars. Jennifer Carpenter carries the drama almost entirely, and runs a gamut of emotions that frankly most actors wouldn’t be able to pull off. I’ve re-watched her intimate scenes with Dexter so many times, they’re that powerful: from learning Dexter’s secret, to tortured attempts at understanding and reforming him, to near acceptance alongside guilt-ridden lust, to finally, committing cold-blooded murder in order to protect him. It’s refreshing to see Laguerta finally pulling her head out of her ass, as I always found it incredible that she wouldn’t have been suspicious of Dexter once Rita was killed by Trinity (out of pattern) and Quinn started hounding her about the sketch of Kyle Butler. The mafia boss Isaak Sirko is the best guest star of the show’s run, hell-bent on vengeance only to bond strangely with Dexter in the end. And Hannah is the best woman to happen to Dexter (even better than Lila), a killer who sedately accepts her own nature as much as his. It’s a captivating season in all its moments, and marks an incredible comeback after the low-point of season 6; it’s too bad season 8 couldn’t keep it up and let Dexter go out strong.

Best four episodes. (1) “Are You…?”: Deb struggles with Dexter’s killing of Travis. (2) “Sunshine and Frosty Swirl”: Deb learns Dexter’s full secret. Hand-in-hand with the first episode, this one showcases the most powerful Dexter-Deb moments in the show’s history. (8) “Argentina”: a gorgeous and artistic episode that features harrowing dialogue sequences between Dexter and everyone — Deb (she pours out her guilt-ridden urges for him), Hannah (acceptance of each other, nature vs. need), and Isaac (who is moved by Dexter even while craving vengeance against him). (12) “Surprise, Motherfucker!”: the highest rated episode in the show’s history, for obvious reasons; Deb killing Laguerta outdoes even the shocker of Rita’s murder at the end of season 4; I was left utterly speechless.

#3. Season Two: The Bay Harbor Butcher. The relentless season. Wild, furious, insane. 5 stars. The show has always been at its best when Dexter is under the gun of the law, and Doakes is a more punishing adversary than someone like the Ice Truck Killer precisely because he’s a good guy. Season two has all the wild supplements and roller-coaster rides that make it impossible to stop watching for a moment — Dexter’s whack-job girlfriend Lila, who fuels his dark passenger under the guise of therapy; FBI hound Frank Lundy, by far the most compelling guest star of the entire seven seasons. It’s wonderfully ironic that Dexter’s “recovery” from serial killing in episodes 5-7 comes from Lila’s sponsorship; he then goes back to accepting his bloodthirsty nature when he returns to the normality of Rita at the end of episode 8. And it says something about how strong the script is when even the deus ex machina of Lila finding Doakes and burning down his cage (thus getting Dexter off the hook in more ways than one) plays so beautifully without feeling like a cheat. It’s also worth noting that episodes 5-7 are the center masterpieces which play on Batman, a Soderbergh film, and the children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are”, respectively.

Best four episodes. (5) “The Dark Defender”: Dexter takes a road trip with Lila to kill the man who murdered his mother. He fights his urge to kill, and has fantasies of himself as a comic book superhero. (6) “Dex, Lies, and Videotape”: Dexter struggles with the lies Harry told him, and with threats of being discovered by Lundy’s surveillance and Doakes’ snooping. He begins a wild fling with Lila, and kills the copycat Bay Harbor Butcher — not because he “needs to”, only because he “has to”, insisting on his free will and choice, per Lila’s therapy. (7) “That Night a Forest Grew”: Dexter seizes control on all fronts, sowing confusion amongst his colleagues, breaking into houses to have sex with Lila, and making an innocent man look guilty in order to make Doakes look bad; Doakes attacks him. (9) “Resistance is Futile”: Dexter gets dragged in front of Lundy and Matthews, with his blood-slides waiting on a table. He and Doakes fence off in the Everglades.

#4. Season One: The Ice Truck Killer. The classic season. Iconic, smart, foundational. 4 ½ stars. It’s hard to remember the days when an insecure Rita gave Dexter a blow-job in Halloween costume, Deb was just graduating from blue uniform, and Astor and Cody were the size of hobbits. It was the season we got to know Dexter through his most iconic slayings (the child molester, the drowner of destitute immigrants, the psychiatrist counseling rich women to kill themselves), his trademark inner voice loaded with humorous subtext, and flashbacks of his childhood weaved brilliantly into the storylines. While an excellent season, the show was finding its footing, and the overarching drama doesn’t carry the same unrelenting tension of the above three. The Ice Truck Killer’s identity unfolds to a perfect beat — revealed as Rudy at the end of episode 8, Dexter’s brother at the very end — as do our hero’s repressed memories. This is classic Dexter.

Best four episodes. (6) “Return to Sender”: Dexter is horrified to learn that a kid saw him kill the married couple who were drowning Cuban immigrants in the previous episode; great foreshadowing of season two, with Dexter so close to being discovered by his own police team. (8) “Shrink Wrap”: Dexter seeks counseling from a therapist who encourages his depressed patients to commit suicide; great fencing between these two as Dexter sits on the psychiatrist’s couch. (10) “Seeing Red”: Dexter remembers his childhood trauma, triggered by a bloodbath left by The Ice Truck Killer; he also takes care of Rita’s bullying ex-husband. (12) “Born Free”: Dexter confronts the Ice Truck Killer, who is his own brother; this season finale is of course legendary.

#5. Season Five: The Barrel-Girl Gang. The derivative season. Manic, traumatic, redemptive. 4 stars. As in season three, Dexter acquires a partner in crime, but this one falls in love with him instead of knifing him in the back. Unlike season three, we now have engaging subplots: the Fuentes brothers, one of whom Deb ends up shooting at the night club, and of course Quinn’s hiring Liddy to spy on Dexter, though this is somewhat a repeat of Doakes. The weakest parts of the season are Julia Stiles, horribly miscast as Lumen, and the endgame which sees Deb confronting the “vigilantes in love” through the curtain without demanding they show themselves — preposterously unbelievable. But the idea of a fun-boys’ rape club was a good move and offered something new in place of isolated and unrelated killings Dexter carries out in the other seasons. And the “Take It!” episode centered on Chase’s convention was a jaw-dropper.

Best four episodes. (1) “My Bad”: the aftermath of Rita’s murder; Dexter comes to terms with grief. (4) “Beauty and the Beast”: Dexter keeps Lumen locked up until he can trust her; shades of Doakes. (8) “Take It”: the season’s high point — Dexter attends Chase’s convention fueled by manic mobs; Cole Harman seizes Lumen, and Dexter executes him; Lumen realizes that Dexter kills not for justice but because he needs to. (10) “In the Beginning”: a fan favorite involving a lot — DVDs of the barrel girl victims getting raped and tortured; at the station Dexter quietly promises Jordan that he’ll be safe from the police, though not from him; Liddy closes in on Dexter; Lumen’s first kill.

#6. Season Eight: The Brain Surgeon. The strange ride. Awkward, disjointed, final. 3 ½ stars. The final season was many things — a psycho-therapeutic drama, a dark comedy, a renewed romance — but not the epic payoff it should have been. Once Deb recovered from her meltdown, the dramatic intensity vanished. Once Dex mentored Zach, it felt like a lazy repeat of seasons three and five. The return of Hannah is something I looked forward to, but she wasn’t used well this time, and that she acted so stupidly as a fugitive by not disguising herself in public was ridiculous. That being said, this isn’t the worst Dexter season; it’s certainly better than the sixth, and I think even better than the third. Ironically, what saves it is the awkward tone. Premised on a psychiatrist who trained Dexter to channel his urges through the guidance of Harry, and whose own serial-killing son is running amok jealous about this, the scriptwriters did the only sensible thing and played it for laughs. The result isn’t what we wanted, but it’s the only way this material could have worked at all.

Best four episodes. (1) “A Beautiful Day”: a good pickup from the season-seven shocker, and convincing contrast between Dexter wanting to feel grief over Laguerta but simply enjoys his freedom, and Deb’s self-destructive behavior. (3) “What’s Eating Dexter Morgan?”: the best episode of the season, for Deb’s confession. She and Quinn play the parts to perfection, and the intervention by Dexter and Vogel is priceless. (8) “Are We There Yet?”: the only way to put three serial killers in a hotel room and then at a dinner table together, is to play it for laughs, and it strangely works — a lot better than Vogel in jeopardy in the surrounding episodes. (12) “Remember the Monsters?”: no, it’s not the exit Dexter deserved, but it could have been a lot worse, and Deb’s death was appropriate.

#7. Season Three: The Skinner. The empty season. Stale, flat, mediocre. 3 stars. Even the worst of Dexter is better than most of what runs on TV these days, but this season is relatively disappointing, especially in view of the top-notch seasons that sandwich it (2 and 4). Most of the subplots and side-stories go nowhere, and we don’t care enough about them even if they did. Dexter gets increasingly domesticated by Rita who becomes rather irritating. The main feature of Miguel Prado, however, is quite good, and offers a fascinating sketch of what friendship with the true Dexter looks like, as well as the inevitable outcome when Miguel can’t control his demons. The narrative crescendo reaches its peak in episode ten, then peters out to something less than impressive over the last two episodes. Dexter’s marriage at the end is the inverse of Rita’s shocking murder at the end of the next season: unpromisingly banal. As for the Skinner, he remains off-stage until the very end. It looked as though Dexter was on a downslide with this season, and few would have believed that the raging comebacks of seasons 4 and 7 were possible at this point.

Best four episodes (2) “Finding Freebo”: Dexter questions the code Harry taught him, kills Freebo, and is caught by Miguel who thanks him for the murder. (6) “Sí Se Puede”: Dexter has serious inner arguments with his father about having a friend like Miguel; he and Miguel abduct a convict being transferred. (8) “The Damage a Man Can Do”: Dexter introduces Miguel to parts of Harry’s Code, and they both kill a bookie together. (10) “Go Your Own Way”: Dexter contemplates (a) killing Miguel, (b) dissolving the friendship, and (c) gaining the upper hand, until he realizes only (a) is the viable option after a big blowout.

#8. Season Six: The Doomsday Killer. The go-nowhere season. Pointless, pretentious, laughable. 2 stars. The lowest point of the show’s run consists of being jerked around by the obvious for too long, as it becomes clear by episode 4 that Gellar is imaginary. Travis Marshall is the true villain, and not a very good one. The season jumped the shark in other ways, such as with the “Nebraska” episode (the worst in the show’s history), Deb’s love-urges for Dexter (though lemonade was made of this drama in season 7), and the entirely unrealistic showdown between Travis and Dexter, as of course nothing bad will happen on a show like this to a child like Harrison. What saves this season from a rock-bottom rating of “1” is the apocalyptic backdrop: the Doomsday Killer is a great concept, and his tableau killings some of the most demented slayings that have ever been on display, from the dismembered horseman riding down the streets of Miami, to the angel of death, to live baby snakes being planted in a victim’s abdomen. If this material had been worked around decent plotting, this season could have been quite good.

Best four episodes. I honestly can’t come up with favorites for this season. There are compelling moments with Brother Sam, who is well played by Mos Def. And as I mentioned, the Doomsday tableaus (the chopped up horseman, the brutal angel of death hanging, etc.) are priceless. Not to mention the scene where the homicide team stumbles into Travis’ trap and gets dumped on by buckets of blood. But is there any episode which really impressed me on whole? Not really, no. The season’s focus is on a mind-puzzle that we solve from the get-go, and once it is revealed, the rest of the season is substandard drama. I was personally let down by the over-arching theme of religion that had such potential but went nowhere.

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My Dream Campaign for D&D

I wish I had the time to DM like I used to. I still read D&D gaming material and even design adventures, but rarely can find the time or people necessary to get a good campaign off the ground. But what if? What if I could take, say, a three-month vacation from life, assemble a dream team of players, start them green, and turn them into deadly heroes assuming they can survive?

This is how I’d do it: my dream campaign run. Those familiar with my ranking of the Golden Age modules won’t be surprised to see the familiar choices, though I’ve reworked some of their plotting and titled the adventures accordingly. I base them all in the world of Mystara (click on upper right), which is suitably reminiscent of medieval Europe, and vastly superior to Greyhawk. The titles hint how I’ve modified things in some cases, and #8 is almost entirely my own module and design. These are all punishing adventures, and some of the high-level ones are nasty and not for kids.

It’s fun to dream like this, and who knows, maybe I can make a massive D&D campaign like this happen someday.

(1) The Invasion of Saltmarsh. Levels 1-3. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, and The Final Enemy. I’d run this campaign almost exactly as presented in the module trilogy, and place the town of Saltmarsh on the eastern coast of Karameikos. It’s less traditional than the Caves-of-Chaos way of starting out new PCs, but an excellent thinking person’s adventure that builds non-stop suspense. A later version of the first module adds a brilliant twist, and is the one I’d use: the haunted house that’s really not haunted is haunted after all, which ends up confounding the smugglers as much as the PCs. The second module is the underrated part, where nothing is as it seems either, and a hack-and-slay approach will backfire. The third module explodes into a bloodthirsty conflict that demands all of the PCs resources, not least because the true enemies are amphibian and live in underwater caverns. They do nasty things there, like sacrificing their own babies to sharks, and torturing every other race they can get their hands on. If the PCs survive the entire mission, they reach 4th level.

(2) Crimson Nails. Levels 4-5. The Lost City, modified for higher levels and with some new plotting. My title rips off the Conan classic (“Red Nails”), which the module of course is inspired by. To make an even stronger connection I build the plot around the Usamigaras cult gaining incremental power through the ritualistic slaying of rival cult members, whilst under a secret alliance with the Zargon priesthood. The Lost City has always been my favorite module for epitomizing the pulp fantasy roots of D&D, and it still fires my imagination on every page. The underground civilization that’s been corrupted by a Cthulhu-like creature is brilliantly conceived, the Cynidiceans who obsess masks and costumes and get baked on acid. The three renegade factions stay clean of this and adhere to the old gods, but they dislike each other, and will invariably use PCs as pawns in their covert agendas. As for its location, I’d place it in the Ylaruam desert between the cities of Parsa and Sulba, per the module’s suggestion. Slaying its challenges should get the PCs to 6th level.

(3) Amber Fire. Levels 6-7. Castle Amber, in conjunction with The Principalities of Glantri gazeteer. I start things in Glantri City, where streets are waterways, religion is heresy, and wizardry saturates the atmosphere. Prince Stephen Amber was murdered by his insane relatives, as per the module, but they were unwitting pawns of another prince. PCs will probably narrow it down to two of the ten princes — the Flaem and the Alphatian, as each covets knowledge of the Radiance, which Stephen guards access to — but can easily mistake the true culprit. As for Castle Amber itself, it remains the best example of a module offering so much in short space. First, there’s the castle with two large wings, an indoor forest, and a chapel; second is the underground dungeon with well-planned surprises, ending at a magical gateway to -; third, the old home of the Ambers on an alternate world resembling medieval France, where the PCs must acquire four artifacts to return to – ; fourth, Stephen’s tomb, where lies the means to return him to life. The insane Ambers are a terrific cast, probably the best NPCs ever created. Obviously, I’d place the castle where the module has it, in the Amber principality of New Averoigne. Rescuing Stephen and exposing his true enemy puts PCs at 8th level.

(4) Whirlwind. Levels 8-9. Master of the Desert Nomads and Temple of Death, with little modification. I flesh out the evil theocracy a bit more, since the modules are vague about what these clerics believe or why, and imagine something unique in D&D: a monotheistic religion comparable to fundamentalist Islam. The region of Hule calls to mind Khomeini’s Iran, with the Master an Ayatollah equivalent, and fanatical monotheists can resonate well with post-9/11 D&D players. I title the adventure after James Clavell’s novel, which depicts the emergence of Iran’s fundamentalist state in the ’70s. The rest is as is, including the Great Waste location (west of Sind), and these modules contain some of the greatest encounter areas in the history of D&D. The first is a desert wilderness of horrors, at the end of which waits an abbey run by (what appear to be) a benign group of monks who (in actuality) are strange undead-like creatures who show their true hideous forms when the sun goes down. The second is a mountain pass of wild obstacles leading to the nation responsible for desert raids and holy wars. If the temple can be infiltrated and the Master killed, 10th level is a sure bet for the PCs.

(5) The Harrowing. Level 10. Vault of the Drow, in conjunction with material from Dragon #298, and a modified version of The Harrowing published in Dungeon #84. It takes place after the Eilservs rebellion and priestess wars, when Eclavdra is pardoned by Lolth and allowed to resume leadership over the Eilservs clan. She appears to be in the highest of divine favors, but in fact is still working against Lolth: she was impregnated by the demon lord Graz’zt in a foul rite, and the sacrifice of this offspring will give Eclavdra the power to challenge and kill Lolth. The child is a mental juvenile but a physical adult, and has been living in the Alabaster Slab (the brothel of the dead), employed as a whore who deals out lethal sex. She is further cursed with lawful good alignment as required by the ritual, and has no idea what’s in store for her. The Harrowing takes place in the Demonweb Pits on the Abyss, but before entering this death zone the PCs must navigate the legendary underworld where dark elves betray, rape, and kill each other (most of the rapists and killers being women); spiders, demons, and undead walk the streets; and torture parlors, drug saloons, and other obscenities thrive under a weird purple-black atmosphere. If the PCs stop or prevent the Harrowing, they will have saved the surface world (the Broken Lands and Glantri) from a dire invasion, and richly earned their 11th level.

(6) The Rains of Ragnarok. Level 11. Modified version of the Aesirhamar module published in Dragon #90, in conjunction with The Northern Reaches gazeteer. Most of the adventure takes place on Gladsheim (Ysgard) and Niflheim (Hades), and has the Norse gods using the PCs to do their dirty work. A war hammer as deadly as Thor’s Mjolnir has been created, in fact even deadlier: Aesirhamar can initiate Ragnarok in the hands of Loki, and if merely touched by a good deity it will turn him evil. Mortal PCs thus need to retrieve the hammer and destroy it with powerful magics. On top of this they are being hunted by forces sent by the queen of Ostland, who is outwardly a religious progressive but secretly a follower of Loki; she will do anything to counter the high priests of Odin and Thor who sent the PCs to Gladsheim in the first place. The awful thing about the Norse apocalypse is that the forces of evil are destined to win, and should the PCs fail, that means the obliteration of Odin, Thor, Frey, Heimdall, etc — and a flood of chaos on the nations of Ostland, Vestland, and Soderfjord. Even worse: destruction of the hammer can start the apocalypse if the PCs aren’t careful, and reversing that requires exceptionally shrewd thinking. Success propels them to 12th level.

(7) Dark Tower. Level 12. The module by the same name, with a modified timeline that aligns with events in Mystaran history: circa 1500 BC (with the Nithian Empire on the rise), Mitra builds his sanctuary in the obscure mountain pass, and leads his crusade against the snake demon Set; they both perish in battle and become gods; c. 1000 BC (when Nithia hits its peak), Mitra’s priests build the White Tower over the prospering sanctuary village; c. 500 BC (as the gods destroy Nithia), Set attacks the sanctuary with his Dark Tower, his minions devastate the area, and the village and both towers are buried deep underground; later treasure seekers settle in the mountain pass, go digging, and awaken the Dark Tower’s evil; they are driven to slay their children in a night of hell-possessed fury. Fourteen centuries later (c. 1000 AC, the Mystaran present) these same inhabitants remain, cursed by immortality and unable to leave the mountain pass (which I locate between the northern highlands of Ylaruam and Soderfjord). What keeps them there? What lies beneath the earth? The buried village, of course, along with the White and Dark Towers; rival priesthoods warring in close quarters; sadism and sacrifice opposed by paladins; artifacts needed to slay the Sons of Set. If Dark Tower doesn’t bury the PCs (a big if), they’ll attain 13th level.

(8) The Blinding Claw of Torremor. Levels 13-14. The Village of Hommlet plus two locales designed by me. It’s a three-part module that breaks down as follows: The Crippled Village (Hommlet, which I locate in the Emirate of Nithia in Ylaruam), where the PCs attempt to exorcise a possessed girl and investigate a local chapel dedicated to Osiris. The investigation uncovers The Buried Temple which was used in decades past by a sacrificial cult of Pazuzu, and which in turn leads to Torremor, the 503rd layer of the Abyss. Here the characters ascend The Lord’s Rook and attempt to destroy Pazuzu’s throne. The plot steals shamelessly from The Exorcist and its prequel Dominion, and focuses on The Blinding Claw, an artifact detailed in Dragon #329 and which gives Pazuzu ridiculously easy access to the Prime Material Plane and makes him an unbearable foe to confront, whether in his true form or through a possessed victim. It’s a module that offers a bit of everything: a horrifying ritual in a village setting, a dungeon layered with traps and suffocating evil, and finally a showdown on the Abyss where the stakes are as high as they get (and damn near impossible to overcome). If all these segments are conquered, the PCs get two levels, putting them at a well earned 15th. (Note: the entire module is available here.)

(9) Circles of Hell. Levels 15-16. Inferno, Fight-On #3, and The Gazeteer of Hell. This design of Hell has been 33 years in the making, and based on an astounding vision of The Divine Comedy. In that spirit I follow Dante’s plot structure: the PCs are geased by a sage named Virgil to guard him as he goes through all nine circles of Hell, the only escape from which comes at the bottom of the ninth. Virgil is writing a tome on the devils, and wants to document everything first hand. Volunteers for such a suicide expedition are non-existent, so he resorts to using others (the PCs) by force. The mission is to survive and escape, and “enjoy” the wonders of Hell — sadistic wastelands of contrapasso torture. Despite the Christian source material, this vision of the damned translates brilliantly to a pagan D&D context, even the first circle which in Dante was for virtuous souls whose only crime was not knowing Christ; here, likewise, it isn’t a place of torment like the other circles, rather a state of shadowy bliss for “noble atheists” who had the simple misfortune of existing before the gods made themselves known. I put Virgil in Thyatis City (the Rome of Mystara), and if the PCs can survive his foul geas, they will emerge from Hell at 17th level.

(10) Against Acererak. Levels 17-18. Return to the Tomb of Horrors. If they’ve made it to this point, the PCs have proven to be unstoppable, but that’s about to change. If the classic Tomb of Horrors is virtually impossible to get through, its sequel is completely impossible: three times as long and ten times as outrageous. I deny that any PCs in the history of D&D have prevailed against Acererak’s Phylactery without the DM fudging, dumbing down, or making allowances here and there. This is a module that can kill on every bloody page, and the tricks to staying alive are ludicrously out of reach. But that’s the whole point, much as it was in Gygax’s original. Those who object to the Tomb of Horrors don’t realize that old-school gamers thrived on challenges that were unfair, because dungeons were something to “beat” in the way video games were, unlike the group therapy games that pass for dungeons today. This final chapter of the PCs lives — for that’s what Return to the Tomb of Horrors will surely be — takes them off the main continent, east to Alphatia and the Isle of Dawn. Skull City lies hidden in the swamps near Edairo, and from there, it’s to the Negative Material Plane where Acererak’s fortress humbly awaits. The demi-lich will succeed in his plot to annihilate the prime material world, but at least the PCs will go down fighting the fight of their lives.