Breaking Bad’s Five Greatest Episodes
It's never too early to reminisce, is it?
Note: The following feature contains spoilers about previous episodes in the series. Maybe don’t read it if you’re still stuck at ‘Ozymandias’. Otherwise, don’t worry, there’s nothing at all in here about tonight’s series finale; we wouldn’t do that to you.
Breaking Bad fans, it’s time for a group hug. Today’s the day we reach the end of this physically and emotionally exhaustive ride. Whatever their fate, the finish line for Walter White and Jesse Pinkman is in sight.
Given Vince Gilligan’s propensity for doing exactly the opposite of what his program’s legions of fans expect to happen, it’s a fair bet that Breaking Bad’s final 75 minutes will contain more than a few unexpected twists and turns. The only things we really know the episode will entail is a sawed-off machine gun and a cigarette full of ricin. Oh, and some badass Nazis with a penchant for Ben & Jerry’s.
So, as Walt coughs and splutters his way back to Albuquerque for one final showdown, we thought we’d pay homage to five of Breaking Bad’s finest episodes to date. Damn, we’re going to miss this show. Bitch.
‘Grilled’ – Season 2, Episode 2
Back in 2009, Walt hadn’t been completely overtaken by his alter ego Heisenberg and he was still afraid of the immediate fear of death (I know, right?).
Kidnapped by one of the show’s early villains, Tuco, Walt and Jesse are forced to a ramshackle house in the middle of nowhere. Here, they meet Tuco’s ailing uncle Hector Salamanca, who will play a major role in future seasons with his menacing stare and the bell on his wheelchair. Tuco — the episode title refers to the grill he wears on his teeth, which makes him look suspiciously like James Franco in Spring Breakers — declares his intention to take Walt to Mexico to force him to cook for him.
The tension throughout the episode is palpable, as Walt and Jesse unsuccessfully attempt to plot their escape by poisoning Tuco (anyone for a ricin-laced burrito?) before Hank arrives and there’s a good old-fashioned Breaking Bad shootout. Our so-called heroes escape just in time.
Meanwhile, back at home, Skyler plasters the neighbourhood with posters featuring her missing husband’s face. Three seasons later, those same neighbours will drop their groceries paralysed with fear at the mere sight of Walt.
‘Fly’ – Season 3, Episode 10
At least once a season, Vince Gilligan likes to slow the usual breakneck pace down. He’s never done it as memorably as in season three’s ‘Fly’ — arguably the most polarising episode in Breaking Bad history.
Directed by Rian Johnson, whose recent ‘Ozymandias’ also ranks among the show’s best episodes, ‘Fly’ is set entirely in Gus Fring’s superlab and features no characters aside from Walt and Jesse. It’s a self-contained character study in psychology, as Walt spends 47 minutes obsessively trying to capture a fly that threatens to contaminate his oh-so pure product.
There are some moments of comedy — Walt flailing around with his rolled-up newspaper is very Wile E. Coyote — but the episode is better remembered for its poignancy. A drained Jesse opens up about his aunt’s cancer battle, while Walt appears on the verge of revealing his involvement in Jesse’s girlfriend Jane’s death but frustratingly can’t spit out the words.
Visually, ‘Fly’ is a masterpiece with its multiple POV camerawork and wide, sweeping shots. Who knew a meth lab could be so beautiful?
‘Full Measure’ – Season 3, Episode 13
The season three finale is best viewed in conjunction with its predecessor, ‘Half Measures’. In that episode’s chilling final scene, Walt coolly executed two local drug dealers before Jesse could get to them first. With a simple gunshot to the head of one of the wounded men as he lay on the ground, any trace of good ol’ family man Walt was vanquished for good.
‘Full Measure’ packs plenty into its 47 minutes. With Jesse on the run, Gus appoints chemist Gale Boetticher as Walt’s new ‘lab assistant’. The two men are kindred spirits, as a particularly jaunty cooking scene attests.
But hey, nothing in Breaking Bad ever ends happily. Convinced that Gus will dispose of him the same way he dealt with the cartel, Walt realises the only way he can save his job, let alone his life, is to end Gale’s. “I saved your life Jesse, are you gonna save mine?” urges Walt at a hastily organised meeting in a laser tag centre.
The season ends with one of the program’s most chilling moments: a physically trembling, tearful Jesse knocking on Gale’s door with a pistol to do the deed. For all of Jesse’s good intentions, this was the moment he never truly recovered from.
At least we, as viewers, got Gale’s karaoke video (trainspotters: it’s Peter Schilling’s ‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’) to remember him by.
‘Crawl Space’ – Season 4, Episode 11
‘Crawl Space’ is most memorable for its closing scene. A frantic Walt, reeling from Gus’s threat to kill Hank, needs $500,000 to go into hiding thanks to one of Saul’s many “men”.
With the sound of a loudening thump echoing our racing heartbeats and adding to the tension, Skyler informs Walt that the money’s gone. She gave it to her boss Ted (yes, he who the season’s third episode ‘IFT’ — ‘I Fucked Ted’ — is named after).
As Walt perhaps realises the absurdity of the situation — his wife gave his meth money to the man she cheated on him with — he goes from yelling to a hysterical, hyena-like laugh. As Skyler slowly backs away, the camera pans out to reveal Walt sprawled flat on the ground, dazed and confused like something broke in his brain. It’s one of Bryan Cranston’s finest moments, and reason enough for the episode’s admission into the Breaking Bad hall of fame.
Elsewhere, there’s a chilling desert confrontation between Gus and Walt, and Jesse shows his sensitive side by being the best father figure his girlfriend Andrea’s son Brock could hope for. Well, aside from the murdering and the meth.
‘Ozymandias’ – Season 5, Episode 14
“Is Breaking Bad’s ‘Ozymandias’ the greatest episode of TV ever written?” asked The Independent’s Tom Mendelsohn last week. The answer could quite possibly be yes.
The episode — directed by ‘Fly”s Rian Johnson – lays about five bombshells on the table, one after the other. First up, Hank dies at the hand of Todd’s uncle Jack, less than 10 minutes into the episode. Despite a shattered Walt falling to the ground in shock — echoing Gus’s reaction to his partner’s killing years earlier — even his brother-in-law’s death doesn’t stop him from wanting Jesse’s blood.
After helplessly watching on as Jack and his posse steal his barrels of money, Walt coldly instructs them to take care of Jesse. Instead, Todd opts to take him home and interrogate him. Before the disbelieving, betrayed Jesse is led away, Walt coldly informs him what viewers had known for seasons: that he witnessed Jane’s death. “I could have prevented it, but I didn’t.”
Later, Walt Jr — the only innocent party left — finally learns about his father’s extracurricular activities. Oh yeah, and Walt is also held at knifepoint by Skyler and retaliates by kidnapping baby Holly as the police depart for the White house.
Any of these storylines could’ve caused Twitter to melt down on their own, but combined they created one of the most emotionally gut-punching hours of TV of all time.
Kathryn Kernohan has written about TV, music and other pop culture delights for The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Time Out Melbourne, and more. When she’s not at her laptop, she’s avoiding spoilers for the latest episodes of her favourite TV shows, which is easier said than done. Find her @kathrynkernohan