In 2005, Vince Gilligan – a man who, at the time, was probably known only amongst the most die-hard of X-Files fans – was told by a Sony Exec. that his pitch for Breaking Bad was “the single worst idea for a TV show that I have ever heard in my whole life”.
Eight years later, Gilligan’s name would resonate around the world, and the world would never look at Chemistry teachers in quite the same way again.
2018 marks the 10 year anniversary of AMC’s ground-breaking series that went from “the single worst idea” to a critically acclaimed sensation that changed the face of television forever. Picking out the show’s best bits proves as difficult as, say, swatting a fly…
BUT, given it’s particularly special birthday, to celebrate, here at WTM? we’ve cooked up our picks for the 13 times Breaking Bad was simply a cut above the rest.
SPOILERS? You’re goddam’ right…
Now will someone please order me a Los Pollos immediately?!
- The Pilot – Season 1, Episode 1
An essential ingredient to any worthwhile story – be it TV, film, or a night out – is an intriguing and engrossing opening. Something to really clasp viewers in its narrative vice. Few creations would have the imaginative vision – or the balls for that matter – to kick things off by having the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle parading around the New Mexico desert in his tighty whities, frantically filming his family farewell video. Evidently, Breaking Bad is no ordinary television series.
An ingeniously gripping, wonderfully “what-the-fuck” way in to the world of Walter White that perfectly establishes the tone of the entire show, it was quite clear from the off that this was going to be something truly special.
2. Krazy-8: keep or kill? – Season 1, Episode 2-3
For most viewers, it’s the “This isn’t Meth” scene from ‘Crazy Handful of Nothin’ that takes the season one proverbial biscuit. However, it’s the earlier interactions between Walt and small-time drug distributor Krazy-8 that are actually the season’s most important aspect.
After their first meth deal goes horribly pear-shaped and Krazy-8 is left locked-up in Jesse’s basement, the panic-stricken pair decide that a coin toss is the only rational means of deciding who should be responsible for ‘disposing’ of the man downstairs. Walt loses.
It is here that BB‘s novelistic prowess truly comes to fore as we are asked to patiently watch the inner turmoil of a man trying desperately hard to postpone the inevitable: that taking another man’s life might just be the only thing to save his own.
It’s the first of many instances throughout Breaking Bad where Gilligan sends his characters down avenues from which there is no easy return; a predicament made all the more impactful by the fact that Krazy-8 – who might otherwise have been nothing more than a throwaway stereotype – is given sufficient character fleshing to the point of becoming a vitally important cog in Gilligan’s narrative machine. It’s here that Walt must fully embrace the life he has now chosen, and all that comes with it.
Of course, by season five, however, killing becomes almost second nature to him; but it’s here where his descent truly begins…
3. Better Call Saul – Season 2, Episode 8
So good, he landed his own spin-off series, Saul Goodman is categorically one of Breaking Bad‘s most important – and most memorable – players.
A crooked defence lawyer for the indefensible, and (often bad) advisory for both Walt and Jesse, Goodman first shows his face in season two and immediately starts stealing scenes with his concoction of sleazy hilarity, and cowardly, clumsy street-smart wisdoms.
Nabbing a large majority of the show’s best dialogue, Goodman (and actor Bob Odenkirk) swiftly and effortlessly embodies the quirky, Coen-esc tone that runs throughout the series – one made all the better with him in it.
But Saul is not simply there to make up the laughs, though. He’s vitally important to the plot, too, as the middle man who opens the door to Walt to a world filled with fierce, ferocious foes, and very few friends.
4. Jesse and Jane – Season 2, Episodes 5-12
In the world of Breaking Bad, it would be totally naïve of us to think that anyone could live happily ever after, even when it’s a pairing as neatly nursery-rhyme alliterative as that of Jesse and Jane.
Of the show’s many strengths, Breaking Bad is notable for it’s often brutally honest acknowledgement of the drug world and its impact not only on those at the business end, but on those who use and abuse.
As Jesse looks to begin a new chapter in his life, he moves into a new flat. There he meets feisty neighbour and landlord, Jane. He’s a recovering addict. She’s a recovering addict. It’s a match made in BB heaven that, for Jesse, might just be a way out of a meth life that has chewed him up and spat him back out. The show’s deft use of doors acts as a neat thematic motif here with the pair’s budding romance presenting the classic tale of two lonely, damaged outcasts opening new life avenues for one another; ditching the drugs and instead injecting themselves with art, culture and museum trips. It’s one of the few times in the entire series that we see Jesse genuinely happy.
But Gilligan’s figurative doors tragically swing both ways, and we soon find ourselves watching the couple slowly slide their way back through one that they know very well. At first, the highs are a euphoric, bonding experience for both – during a knowing nod to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Gilligan boldly reminds us why people use drugs in the first place: because it makes them feel good. But, sadly, the ugly face of drug abuse quickly rears its head when Jane dies of an overdose while Walt watches on, leaving Jesse with a fast-track ticket to rock bottom.
It’s a shocking, heart-breaking, but absolutely necessary moment in the series, key to both the evolution of Walt and Jesse, and the show’s contribution to the pertinent dialogue around America’s drug problem.
5. The Plane Crash – Season 2, Episode 13
It is little coincidence that the titles of four episodes in Breaking Bad‘s second season are as follows: ‘Seven Thirty-Seven’; ‘Down’; ‘Over’; ‘ABQ’.
The explosive season finale was the climatic ocean to which all the season’s seemingly disconnected sub-plots eventually led – and finally explained those random episode intros involving that fuckin’ burnt teddy bear.
For all the show’s unconventionality, there’s an ominous foreboding to almost everything that happens in Breaking Bad. The butterfly effect of Walt watching Jane die was perhaps the most shocking and devastating of the lot, and the plane crash was a quite literal message from above warning an unbeknownst Walter that shit was really about to hit the fan.
6. Fly – Season 3, Episode 10
Fans of the show might have been left a tad befuddled when season three’s tenth episode put on hold every other plot line in favour of a bottle episode – namely, a 47-minute game of cat-and-mouse between Walt, Jesse and a fly that enters the lab and threatens contamination.
It’s a totally odd, seemingly strange deviation from the show’s main action; but is also one of the best – and most important – episodes in the entire show.
Directed by The Last Jedi‘s Rian Johnson, ‘Fly’ acts as a vital dissection, and a key developer, of the relationship between Walt and Jesse. In their increasingly audacious and humorous attempts to squat the fly, we witness Walt’s dominance and manipulative power over Jesse, as well as the subservience of Jesse to go along with Walt’s plans with little questioning. It’s also the episode in which Jesse opens up to Walt about the guilt he feels for Jane’s death – made all the worse in the knowledge that Walt could have saved her.
Interestingly, the episode also marks the first time Jesse kills something; an act that foreshadows the murder of Gale Boetticher just three episodes later. But, perhaps most impressively, ‘Fly’ serves as a subtle narrative roadmap for the series in its entirety. The theme of entrapment; the slow descent of a man into a life of madness and obsession; the turbulent relationship between Walt and Jesse.
And the fly itself? A metaphor for guilt? The illness Walt cannot shake? An allegory for Walt’s constant, and increasingly dangerous, desire for more? Or perhaps the freedom Jesse so badly craves which Walt repeatedly swats? Take your pick…
7. Walt and Gus talk memories – Season 3, Episode 11
Gustavo “Gus” Fring is one of the greatest villains to ever grace our TV screens. By the end of Breaking Bad, so too is Walter White.
At first business partners in a thriving drug empire, Walter’s growing thirst for power soon takes him to the point of no return. As a result, Walt and Gus eventually enter into a deadly game of ‘kill or be killed’.
But the seeds of conflict are sewn ever so subtly long before, during an effortlessly tense dinner scene at Gus’ home at the end of season three.
Sat at opposite ends of the table from one another (note the very deliberate framing here) Gus and Walt break bread, before conversation turns to that of memories, and the power they hold. Gus muses poetically about their arbitrary nature; how the Chilean dish he has prepared contains ingredients that individually hold no significance to him, but fuse together to create flavours and aromas that ignite vivid tales of yesteryear. Walt, ever the scientist, quickly rebukes this by explaining that memories are the result of a bodily process; one where information is consolidated in a small organ in the brain known as the hippocampus.
Not only does this brief exchange exhibit Walt’s superior intellect and dying sense of sentimentality, but also holds a foreboding significance, given how truly different the two men are from one another. A peaceful co-existence was never going to be on the cards.
8. Gus’ Backstory – Season 4, Episode 8
As well as being one of the most dastardly villains in television history, Gus Fring is, for the most part, a total enigma. An emotionless psychopath from Chile, the drug lord with the iciest of ice-cold stares is given very little exposition for us to play with, making his rise to the top all the more intriguing.
With a backstory largely shrouded in mystery, the only snippet of Gus’s past life that Gilligan allows us is a short flashback during season four’s ‘Hermanos’ episode. But, this nugget of character insight is all we really need.
Partners in business – there’s quite possibly a romantic companionship here too – a younger Gus and Max Arciniega arrive for a meeting with Don Eladio and the unpredictably volatile Hector Salamanca to discuss setting up a potential business venture. After hearing them out, Salamanca mercilessly murders Max in cold blood while a visibly distraught Gus watching on, helplessly.
It’s one of the only moments we see Gus show any thread of emotion, and serves as a pivotal moment in our understanding of Gus’ motives. And, as a result – if only for a brief time – we find ourselves empathising with someone who has no qualms ordering a hit on a child and remorselessly slicing the throat of one’s of his henchmen with a box cutter just to make a point.
9. The Great Train Robbery – Season 5, Episode 5
One of the earliest moving pictures told the 11-minute tale of a train robbery that remains one of the cornerstones of early cinema. In the twenty-teens, a train robbery of a similar nature acts as one of Breaking Bad – and TV’s – most monumental, cinematic episodes. Running just shy of fifty minutes this time around though, the bandits in question – Walt, Jesse, Mike, Todd, and that ginger crony of Saul’s – pull off a daring desert heist to claim 300 gallons of Methylamine by halting a train and replacing the stolen chemical with water to evade detection.
It’s a fantastically exciting and exhilarating watch that takes us back to the classic westerns of the past. However, whereas in the 1903 film, the perpetrators get their comeuppance in the form of a bullet to the chest, in true BB fashion, it’s not the criminals here who pay the price, but an innocent child who happened to stumble across them.
With little hesitance – save for a wave that brilliantly captures his psychopathic nature – Todd guns down little Drew Sharp for just being there. To the devastation of both Pinkman and viewer alike, it is easily one of BB‘s most shocking moments, and a damning reminder that the life of crime claims even the most innocent of lives…
10. Hank discovers the truth – Season 5, Episode 8
Breaking Bad is a series where subverting audience expectations is as common as the combination of letters ‘B-I-T-C-H’ that roll off the tongue of Jesse Pinkman.
Even the moment the show had spent five seasons meticulously building towards; the moment every viewer had been preparing for – Hank finally discovering the truth about Walt – came as a surprise to us all.
The lengthy game of cocky cat and methy mouse finally reached it’s climax mid-way through the final season – but not in the way we might have expected it to. There’s no explosive showdown, or nail-biting detective display here, oh no. Instead, Gilligan hands us one of the show’s most pivotal scenes via a slightly tipsy, off-duty DEA agent attending a family party who needs to take himself to the bathroom. There, he reaches for some suitable reading material, and it’s on the toilet of all places that Hank stumbles across his earth-shattering discovery. And yet, despite the porcelain backdrop, the scene is no less powerful; and Hank’s realisation – one of shock; one of dumbfounded rage – is etched across his face for all to see.
11. Hank’s death – Season 5, Episode 14
If the whole premise of Breaking Bad is for the protagonist to become the antagonist, then it’s also a show about the unlikeable becoming the likeable. In the case of Hank Schrader, he spends the majority of seasons one and two being the brilliant, but arrogant, masculine DEA agent and the chalk to brother-in-law Walt’s cheese.
Then, in season three, Hank is left fighting for his life after a near-fatal shootout with the cartel. With his legs out of action, and his masculinity dented, our perception of him begins to change. Hank becomes desperate and depressed, but in doing so becomes ultimately much wiser and more appreciative of the support network around him. Come the show’s final season, and Hank has firmly become the embodiment of moral righteousness and Walt the figure of narcissistic villainy.
And then, with the bitterness of inevitability souring our screens, we arrive at the desert in the aftermath of a shootout, where Hank lies wounded, finally face-to-face with the man he has been chasing this entire time. With Jack and his posse of white supremacists poised with their pistols, Hank turns to Heisenberg and delivers perhaps the show’s most damning line: “You’re the smartest person I ever met and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago”. As Walt pleads with Jack, Hank’s final words are punctuated by a single gunshot that rings through the surrounding canyon. And with that, not only has the show lost one of it’s most beloved, but also kills off any last remaining scrap of justice.
12. The final exchange between Walter and Skyler – Season 5, Episode 16
They say that behind every great man is an even greater woman. If Breaking Bad is anything to go by, that most certainly doesn’t work for bad men?
Skyler White is arguably the most important character in Gilligan’s entire show. Throughout, she is the voice of reason; the rational, moral compass whose needle is pointed firmly towards tirelessly doing what’s best for her family. Strong willed, determined, and fiercely loyal almost to a fault, to the point where her own happiness is severely compromised, her breakdown in season four is a genuinely tough watch (real credit to Anna Gunn’s terrific performance).
And yet, whichever way you look at it, Skyler remains the only obstacle in the show that Walt can never truly overcome. Their final exchange in the series’ final episode – where she allows Walt to say a final goodbye to his daughter – cements Skyler as the show’s most compassionate character and is a quietly, and powerfully understated scene that acts as the show’s finest example of an immovable force meets an impenetrable fortress.
Which one’s which we’ll leave up to you…
13. Jesse and Walt bid farewell – Season 5, Episode 16
And in the end, when all was said and done, there were two.
In a show of so many paternal relationships, the one between a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher and a junkie former student is far and away the series’ most explored. From RV road buddies, to a drug empire that ultimately comes crashing down, the relationship between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman is the crux of Gilligan’s masterpiece.
And come the series’ final season, fate has turned them from long-time business partners to the worst of enemies. Jesse squeals to the DEA. Walt orders a hit on his life. Both have been left with nothing. All of which leads to a final showdown where uncertainty looms heavy in the air.
As it transpires, after spending five whole seasons ruining it, Walt saves Jesse’s life as he wipes out Jack’s entire crew with an ingeniously deadly car-boot machine gun. In the bloody aftermath, Walt and Jesse are left facing each other down with Jesse poised, gun in hand, finger on the trigger. Despite everything, and with the knowledge that Walt is already dying (and in many ways has already been long dead) a tearful Jesse – the show’s most wounded soul – is unable to pull the trigger on his former mentor. What we then expect is the heartfeltiest of heartfelt farewells.
Instead, what we get is silence. What we get is a single stare; a single look. The pair quietly go their separate ways for the final time – Walt to die, and Jesse to a future of uncertainty with scars that may never heal. It’s a masterfully understated goodbye that makes for an immensely powerful adios to two characters – and a show – that has helped change the face of television drama forever.
Thank you Walt. Thank you Jesse. Thank you Vince.
Thank you Badger for your Star Trek pitch – we think it’s totally bitchin’!