If you’ve been watching “Breaking Bad,” over the past five years, you may have recently seen me sobbing by the side of the road (at the thought of its end). Heck, maybe you’ve even joined me. There’s a group of us huddling by the bus stop with that decrepit poster of Walt and Jesse in their yellow suits. And then we saw Aaron Paul’s tweet:
…we fell to the ground and low crawled home.
PEOPLE, IF IT’S NOT ALREADY COMPLETELY OBVIOUS, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS AHEAD. And trust me, if you plan to watch, you don’t want to spoil yourself—so get out now.
There are a bunch of newbies power watching on Netflix before the summer finale, and several others of us doing a re-watch, which I highly recommend. It’s beautiful to see Walt’s transformation at a different pace, and to remind oneself where his character started out (for that matter, to watch several characters slide down the moral scale). I’d forgotten how many episodes featured Bryan Cranston’s teary eyes. And Jesse with that little red-headed kid…
Choosing these episodes was difficult (and certainly, you can argue your own choices). “Breaking Bad” is its own art; between the writing, the cinematography, and an exceptional cast, it’s probably the most consistent show on television. In five seasons, there has not been one filler episode. This is the first time I can say I’ve watched a show from the beginning and felt no worry about how the end of the story will go. I have complete and utter faith that Gilligan and Co. will bring this story to its logical and satisfying fruition. These are in order of appearance, but if I had to name the top episode, for me it would be “One Minute.”
Season 1, Episode 2: “Cat’s in the Bag”
I remember watching “Cat’s in the Bag” the first time and realizing that this show was taking us somewhere new…to a place where cringing and laughing and feeling our insides churn with disgust and confused morality was normal. The utter shock experienced as we see Walt’s face change when Jesse says the word “bathtub,” and the two watch as a dripping ceiling gives way to blood and guts and a gory, undissolved block of what used to be a human being—that set the tone for the entire series.
Season 2, Episode 2: “Grilled”
Ding, ding, ding! Say (or type) “ding” to any “Breaking Bad” fan and he immediately knows for whom the bell dings—Tio Salamanca. He will also know you’re likely discussing one of two episodes; “Grilled” is the first. From the moment a deranged Tuco pulls Walt and Jesse from Jesse’s car trunk, to the pair frozen on a couch in his uncle’s house, we wondered how the hell they were going to live through the hour. We sat on our own couches nearly as terrified. An attempt to poison Tuco goes horribly wrong as Tio dings his way through a set of harrowing question and *ding*-sers, the action moves outside, and Jesse manages to put a bullet in the maniac. But clever Hank, always just a half-step behind, has to finish the job; it’s one of many close calls between our favorite DEA agent and the boys.
Season 3, Episode 7: “One Minute”
When Tuco’s equally insane cousins arrive in town to avenge his death, we know something terrible will happen, but nothing could prepare us for the the when and how. Hank beats the crap out of Jesse, landing our boy in the hospital and Hank’s career in jeopardy. The episode minutes tick by with Walt checking out his new superlab and the cousins gathering weapons and protective vests; Hank is suspended and turns in his gun. Suddenly, time slows to a crawl and we’re thrown into the middle of the action…as Hank sits in his car in a parking lot, he receives a warning call that assassins are on the way—he has one minute. That last scene, Hank spots the shadows of the cousins coming at him; guns start blazing, tires screech; Hank shoots and goes down. We think it has to be over, Hank isn’t going to make it. But Marco is crazy like Tuco, and his greed gives Hank a moment to reload the bullet meant for himself. Even watching it now, I nearly cry. Who knew we were so fond of the boisterous, big lug?
Tie Between Season 4, Episode 7: “Salud” and Season 4, Episode 13: “Face Off”
The thread that ties these two episodes together is the Chicken Man himself: Gus Fring, played with precision by the brilliant Giancarlo Esposito. In another great episode, “Hermanos,” we learned that back in the day, cartel boss Don Eladio killed Gus’ business partner, Max Arciniega right in front of Gus; “Salud” gives Gus the chance to pay him back…spectacularly. We learn that despite the cold-bloodedness on display in “Boxcutter,” we still had absolutely no idea just how badass Gus was. For who else but Gus would drink tequila he poisoned himself, calmly go to the bathroom and vomit, then return to watch his nemesis die? The only other person who has been developing the same calm, cold heart is his own partner, Walter White. And in “Face Off,” we watch Gus’ pseudo-protégé put his own wicked plan into action (with the delightfully vengeance driven Tio/Hector) as he sets up a brilliant trap. The ding ding ding comes beautifully back into play, Gus realizes his mistake too late and in the only “Breaking Bad” scene that ever really gave me pause, he emerges from an explosion, straightens his tie and falls to the floor, dead. Adios, amigo.
Season 5, Episode 1: “Live Free or Die”
Mike nearly kills Walt; in a reversal of fortune, Jesse saves Walt’s life and the trio realizes that evidence collected after Gus’ death could implicate them all. Everyone—Jesse, Mike, Skyler—is terrified of what Walt has become. But the greatness and the delight in this episode lies in its humor, and laughter abounds. Jesse comes up with a ridiculous, but surprisingly effective idea to use a magnet to effectively destroy Gus’ computer hard drive, and thereby any evidence it held. It also spawned Jesse’s beautifully triumphant “Yeah bitch! Magnets!” exclamation, and Walt’s chilling “Because I said so.”
I know someone will mention “Say My Name,” and because of Mike (Jonathan Banks), I wish I could include it…but I still can’t even talk about it.