From Geek Goes Rogue TV Editor Zach Lorton, whose system is currently high…
on iced coffee…
Sunday night was the culmination of months of anticipation for those in a Walter White deficiency situation — the final 8 episodes of “Breaking Bad” began on AMC. And if you’ve been reading anything on the internet at all lately, especially if you’ve been reading this blog, you’re aware of that. You’re also aware that I’m more than excited, also mournful, that the final episodes are here.
On any given day, all over the internet, people compile their Top Ten Lists about shows they love, and “Breaking Bad” has certainly received that treatment. I’ve seen the lists. They are cliche, tired, and endless, and all claim to be one person’s opinion of the best, which is almost always biased in some way.
So the only way to beat them at their own game is to make my own list.
This one, however, won’t be what I necessarily consider to be the “best” episodes (I mean, really, what criteria would I narrow it down to in order to justify the use of the word “best”?), but rather, the most essential for viewing to those uninitiated. The highest achievements from the actors, the cleanest writing and directing, and pivotal moments for character development or introduction were all taken into consideration when putting together this list.
For instance, I love the show “Community,” or at least the first two seasons. Now that Dan Harmon is back in the saddle, I’m a bit more excited for the upcoming season. But his absence last season tells me that the charm of the show isn’t found in the core of its cast, but in the interplay between the characters. That kind of chemistry (ha!) starts with the writers and the directors.
Such is the case with this list, the Geek Goes Rogue Breaking Bad Top Ten Essential Episodes List. Each episode represented here is an example of fine writing and directing, made even more exquisite by superb actors.
1. Series Pilot — Season 1, Episode 1
This seems almost like cheating, but the beginning of every story has to include the impetus for the character to be properly motivated, the exposition necessary to give the viewer an idea of who’s who, and the tone of the series in general. The pilot episode gives us all that, and starts us on a roller coaster ride that we can’t help but wait until next week to find out how fast this thing goes.
Essential Scene: Walt’s explosion to Bogdan in the car wash. When Bogdan asks Walt to help with something that isn’t really in Walt’s job description, we see Walt finally go bat crap crazy, spewing vile in a last-ditch effort to tell his part-time boss what he really thinks of him and that lousy job. Lashing out, Walt walks away, swatting at product hanging from the wall, then turns to his boss, and in fairly awkward fashion, grabs his crotch and screams, “Wipe down this!” It’s only a moment, but in those scant seconds, we see a vicious and ruthless Walter White, and we catch a glimpse of he might do when pressed hard enough.
2. “…And the Bag’s in the River” — Season 1, Episode 3
Walter White’s not a killer, but he’s been tasked with disposing of Krazy 8, one of the drug dealers captured by him and Jesse who had previously threatened to kill them. Locked up in Jesse’s basement with a bike lock around his neck, Krazy 8 spends time talking to Walt about the retail store that he worked at with his father, trying to swing Walt over to the idea of letting him go free.
Essential Scene: After Walt realizes that one shard of ceramic is missing from a shattered plate, and realizing that Krazy 8 must have it, he concludes that he must kill Krazy 8 or be killed himself. When the moment comes, he takes no joy in taking the life of someone with whom minutes ago he had confided about his cancer diagnosis. The death is as painful to watch as it must have been to feel, and we see the life draining out of Krazy 8 slowly. Even though Walt has done this for his own survival, you can see the conflict in him during those final seconds. Walt’s frailty has been exposed, and he’s extinguished the only person who has seen it thus far.
3. “Crazy Handful of Nothin'” — Season 1, Episode 6
Walt’s body is reacting to the chemotherapy, Jesse figures out Walt’s diagnosis, and Hank discovers that a gas mask recovered from a meth cook site was stolen from Walt’s high school. Jesse is charged with finding a distributor so that he and Walt can make more money faster, and Jesse gets beaten down pretty hard by Tuco Salamanca, a well-protected but seemingly psychotic dealer. Walt finds out about Jesse’s condition, and heads to Tuco’s office to settle up.
Essential Scene: Walt demands payment for the meth Tuco stole, and before Tuco and his henchmen can react, Walt takes a lump of fulminated mercury (which looks like crystal meth) and throws it on the floor, creating an explosion that blows out the windows and lays waste to the rest of the room. Taking the entire bag, he holds it high and demands the money. Tuco relents, and after Walt makes his way back to his car, parked at a safe distance, he looks at the money, then grunts in angry victory, almost ripping the steering wheel from its place. He’s done it — he’s begun to secure his family’s future, and all he had to do was threaten a methed-up psychotic.
4. “Peekaboo” — Season 2, Episode 6
After one of Jesse’s dealers gets stolen from, Walt charges Jesse with recovering either the money or the meth. Jesse goes to the home of Spooge and his wife/girlfriend (we’ll call her “Skank”, since that’s the only thing Spooge calls her) to recover, and when he gets there, he finds a dirty, seemingly abandoned 5-year-old boy. Skyler talks to Gretchen, one of Walt’s former partners, to thank her for the money she thinks Gretchen has given to them for Walt’s treatment, and Gretchen confronts Walt about including her in his lie. Eventually, Spooge and Skank return to the meth house with a stolen ATM, subdue Jesse, and while Spooge is underneath it trying to break it open, Skank, tired of all the name-calling, tips it over on Spooge’s head, killing him.
Essential Scene: Actually, all of Jesse’s interactions with the little boy are heartbreaking. He plays peekaboo with him, makes him a sandwich, and moves him into another room when he realizes things might get violent with Spooge and Skank. This episode is a great foreshadow of what happens in season 3, and we get to see more deeply into Jesse’s character and the compassion he’s capable of.
5. “Phoenix” — Season 2, Episode 12
Jesse’s girlfriend/landlord’s daughter Jane helps Jesse blackmail Walt of the money he’s actually owed, and Jane’s father threatens to throw Jesse out and send Jane back to rehab. She talks her way out of going until the next morning, and she and Jesse get high one more time. Walt stops to have a drink at a bar, where he runs into Jane’s father, and the conversation motivates Walt to not give up on Jesse, for whom he has developed a kind of fatherly relationship.
Essential Scene: Since Walt truly cares for Jesse, he breaks back into Jesse’s apartment to try and talk with him. Shaking Jesse, he inadvertently knocks Jane from her side onto her back. He is unable to rouse Jesse, and Jane begins to choke on her own vomit. Walt’s instincts kick in and he starts to help, but stops, and allows Jane to asphyxiate. It’s a decision he makes for his own good, since Jane knows about Walt and Jesse’s business, but as Jane dies, we see Walt struggle with the decision he’s just made. It’s a haunting moment, and one where we realize that Walt has turned a corner he may never come back from.
6. “One Minute” — Season 3, Episode 7
Without a doubt, this is one of my absolute favorite episodes. So many pivotal moments are featured here, including absolutely stellar acting by Aaron Paul and Dean Norris. Tuco’s twin cousins are seen as children in a flashback, with Uncle Tio teaching them — through violence — about the importance of family. Hank is seen beating Jesse to a pulp because of a hoax call that made Hank believe his wife Marie had been in a serious collision. The beating is the impetus for Jesse to press charges and plan a lawsuit against Hank, and when pressed, he announces his plan to offer Walt to the police if he should get caught (“You’re my free pass … b***h.”). Walt later convinces Jesse to join him in America’s Meth Kitchen as his 50/50 partner, while Hank deals with the repercussions of his illegal beatdown of Jesse. The episode ends with Hank, after having been suspended, receiving an encrypted phone call saying two men are coming to kill him; ambushed by the cousins, Hank smashes one with his vehicle, gets shot several times, and finishes off the other with a bullet to the head.
Essential Scene: This episode is probably the performance that gave Aaron Paul the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor. And every time I watch the ambush scene at the end, I can’t breathe until the ending credits. But the central focus of this episode is really Hank. He’s finally forced to face up to the slow unraveling he’d been going through since his stint in El Paso, and he comes to terms with what he’s done. The most poignant moment is after his deposition, he makes his way to the elevator, where the door opens to reveal Marie waiting for him. The doors close, and we cut to a shot inside, with Hank and Marie embracing, Hank sobbing into her shoulder as the weight of everything just pours out of him. The next shot shows the elevator door opening on the ground floor, and Hank and Marie are facing forward like nothing had happened, and they exit the elevator. Really, a heartbreaking moment, and one that casts Hank in his most human, most vulnerable moment so far in the series.
7. “Fly” — Season 3, Episode 10
This episode is unique in that it features a slice of life and really focuses only on Walt and Jesse. Walt becomes obsessed with a fly that has gotten loose in the lab. Having stayed overnight to try and get it, Hank warns Jesse when he returns the next day that they can’t cook with the fly still alive because it will be contaminated. Time passes as they try to kill the fly, with a scene that has them breaking down and being authentic with each other about life, mortality, and what means the most to them.
Essential Scene: Really, the whole episode. You can’t take one scene out of this one and have it be the same. So much is communicated in so little throughout that every detail either foreshadows or symbolizes something else about these characters, Walt in particular. All this fuss over a fly? For Walt, it’s all about the details.
8. “Half Measures” — Season 3, Episode 12
From the opening montage reminding us who Wendy is and what her occupation is, to the lame-brained idea Walt has about having Jesse arrested so that he doesn’t get killed, Marie betting Hank in an intimate way so that he’ll leave the hospital and continue his physical therapy at home, and Jesse and Walt confronting the drug dealers who had killed the brother of Jesse’s girlfriend Andrea, this episode hits every point it needs to. Not a scene is wasted.
Essential Scene: I actually have two. The first is the meeting between Mike and Walt, where Mike reveals to Walt that he works for the same man Walt works for, and his involvement is much deeper than Walt thought. His story about having been a beat cop and releasing a scumbag who later killed his wife is so mesmerizing that you wonder why Mike hasn’t had a bigger part until this point in the series. His description of the murder scene leaves a mark on the viewer as indelible as it was in the mind of the cop who witnessed it. The second scene is the confrontation at Gus’ trailer between Walt, Jesse, and the two drug dealers who had been using kids to sling their product. An indignant Jesse is given a quick lesson in who the boss really is, but when he stands his ground to Gus based on sound reasoning, we see there are some things that Jesse won’t stand for, huge paycheck or no. Principles are principles, and crossing Jesse’s leaves you no outs. But in this moment, Jesse also begins to realize exactly how dangerous a man Gus can be.
9. “Cornered” — Season 4, Episode 6
My gosh, so much good stuff happens in this episode. Jesse’s hanging out with Mike, who is keeping him occupied while he runs errands. Walt buys Walt, Jr. a Dodge Challenger in order to make up for being a nimrod dad. Bogdan insults Walt as he’s handing over the keys to the car wash, but Walt returns the insult by refusing to give Bogdan his framed first dollar from when the car wash opened, then using the dollar to buy a soda from a vending machine after Bogdan leaves. Jesse’s off with Mike, trying to track down a stolen Los Pollos Hermanos tub with the blue meth inside it; while he’s gone, Walt brings in several of the laundry workers to help clean the meth lab, only to get them deported afterwards.
Essential Scene: The two scenes of Walt and Skyler confronting each other feature some of the best relational writing in this episode. As Skyler expresses concerns that Walt’s life could be in danger, his pride gets the best of him, and he launches into it: “You think I’m in danger? I AM THE DANGER. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!” Later in the episode, Skyler and Walt have it out about Walt’s irresponsible financial decisions. Walt claims that everything he has done has been to protect his family. After putting her foot down, however, Skyler responds: “…someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
10. “Face Off” — Season 4, Episode 13
I’m sure everyone thinks I chose this one because it’s the one where Walt finally takes out Gus, but there’s so much to love about this episode. The pacing is spot on, the little details speak volumes (“Honey, “DEA” ain’t a word.”), and Walt enlisting the help of Tio Salamanca to carry out his plan is an unexpected, yet ultimately poetic end to Gus’ reign.
Essential Scene: Take your pick. Walt clumsily bringing the pipe bomb into the hospital. The long tracking camera shot on Gus as Tyrus goes into the nursing home first to make sure everything is clear. Tio’s conference with the DEA. Saul Goodman’s assistant blackmailing Walt for $25,000. And of course, Gus’ bitter end that could have led to a crossover episode with “The Walking Dead.” As far as I’m concerned, AMC could have ended the series right here, and it would have still been satisfying. Thank God they didn’t, though.
Do you have a favorite episode of “Breaking Bad”? Which one made you a fan? Which one made you begin to hate Walter White? I’d love to hear your responses. My review of the new episodes will come soon, so stick around.