I can’t believe I’m about to do this. I cannot fathom degrading myself, stooping to such a low level, to divide a show like Breaking Bad into “the top ten episodes” simply deemed by my subjective tastes. Nobody walks around, proclaiming to know the best brush strokes in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, or the best note Bob Dylan played, so why do we feel the need to break down a show’s singular components? TV is just as valid an art form as film is, but I guess since there’s an allotment of entertainment doled out every week like an IV drip, and shows are stretched beyond their years for a number of consumerist and corporate reasons (money being the first that comes to mind) we feel the need to rank the best seasons and episodes. Essentially, we’re just spinning our existential wheels, and endlessly bickering about various other iterations on the same thing, which is to pinpoint the defining moments of a show. To examine those perfect hours of plot, and to praise the well-crafted writing and acting and directing, as far and few in-between as they are.
But who am I kidding; it’s super fun to rank the best or favorite episodes. And I’m as much a problem as anyone else, and I don’t think it’s that bad to boil a show down to a list of ten episodes. It reminds us of why we love the TV shows we do, and keeping favorite episodes in the ether of time doesn’t necessarily hurt us, as a pop culture hungry society. I remember David Simon being very disappointed and distraught over Grantland’s March Madness style character battle of The Wire, where fans voted on a bracket of who they liked the most, citing it not only as a waste of time but a misunderstanding of the point of the show. That’s a fair assessment. But we can’t help it, it is in our nature to love fictional characters and to reminisce about that time Walter White poisoned that kid like we were a part of it. “Oh, remember that time Jesse killed that guy? Yeah, I was there. Right there with him man.” And where does the distinction lie between best and favorite, anyways? Ocean’s Eleven is the best of the trilogy, but my favorite is Ocean’s Twelve. Does that matter?
Any who, enough of my babbling, we have a job to do. This was an incredibly hard list to make, simply because there were too many episodes to choose from, and I inevitably had to leave off many favorites (like Face Off and Crazy Handful of Nothin’ and all of season two including 4 Days Out, which broke my heart to not include). I asked to get a top 15. Couldn’t. I tried to have an even amount of episodes from each of the five seasons. Impossible. Too many premiere episodes and finales? Tough shit. In my best efforts, though, I tried really hard and ended up feeling guilty about this whole process. I ranked my best favorite ten episodes by an undetermined criteria you’ll never know about because I’ll never tell you, and you, dear reader, are obligated to complain about it. I don’t mind, it’s okay, you’re completely justified. I want you to disagree with me, argue, call me an idiot. That just starts the discussion about why a show is good, and what it’s worth is, and why I think Season 2 is the best season, and etcetera. Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?
[box type="warning" ] One final note – if you have not seen all five seasons of Breaking Bad, do not read this list, as there are some pretty huge spoilers in this. But definitely watch Breaking Bad, because it’s good. [/box]
Runner’s Up: Take your pick of the litter. I had a number of episodes on this list, then were removed because of indecisiveness, such as the aforementioned Face Off, Crazy Handful of Nothin’, and 4 Days Out, and there were a number of other episodes I had to investigate and then cross off, like Phoenix, Hermanos, Full Measure, Gliding Over All, Fifty-One, Peekaboo, and if I list anymore that were in the short running, I’d literally list all 54 episodes. But man, was I close to just doing ten out of the thirteen episodes of season two. That good guys. Go back and rewatch. I’m talking season four of The Wire good, where it’s scary how well thought out and executed everything is from the get go.
10. “Salud” – Season 4, Episode 10
Characteristically, the episodes most people choose to be on lists like this are either one of three things: season premieres, season finales, or episodes with gigantic revelations/plot twists/character deaths/giant explosions. That’s how a lot of people remember shows, by their cornerstone story developments. “Which season was it that Jim and Pam got married in The Office?” is something people use to figure out when shows got good or bad, and a lot of landmark moments can carry the weight of a mediocre episode on its shoulders. “Salud” is not quite one of those episodes, despite the amazing ending scene, I think. If you take away that (awesome) series of events at the end, you still have a hearty episode leftover. The Ted storyline gets amped up, Jesse has a rousing success teaching others Walt’s meth formula, and the whole air of mystery surrounding the trip to Mexico pays off in a huge way. That pesky cartel we’ve been hearing about is killed off in one fell swoop, and Gus and Mike don’t get away unscathed. Best of all, “Salud” has my all-time favorite scene, a conversation between Walt and Walt Jr., that I’ll talk more about later this week.
9. “Box Cutter” – Season 4, Episode 1
Season 4 had to do a lot, in my mind, after the writers continued to write themselves into corners and impossible situations. And there was a longer wait (metaphorically) between the end of season 3 and the start of season 4. Gale got murdered, Walt was held at gunpoint about to be shot, and Jesse literally was left holding the smoking gun. How do you possibly come back from that? How do you top yourselves? Where is there left to go from there?
With that, naturally.
This was the beginning of an enormous cat-and-mouse game between Gus and Walt, and what better way to establish a villain of that magnitude than with such a grisly and brutal death. Of that guy whose name I don’t remember. Ironically, the opening scene is full of unbrightled joy and optimism, which is unusual for BB. Maybe it was all that talk of Walt’s 99% pure meth, that pissed off Gus so bad. The hatred he must have for HAVING to work with someone so good, but is so risky. Man, between the fallout of the Gale murder and what Skyler is up to, and the touches of comedy…oh who am I kidding, that box cutter death made even Mike looked shocked. At the premiere event, this episode was so bloody it made someone faint in the audience. Now get back to work.
8. “One Minute” – Season 3, Episode 7
Take everything I said about “Salud”, and apply it to “One Minute” tenfold. Strip away the spectacular shootout at the end, and you’re still left with a really good episode. Jesse has an emotionally devastating scene with Walt, where he quits, then unquits. And then Hank gets fired, then unfired. There’s an ever present sense of tension that permeates throughout “One Minute”, mostly because of the beginning (Hank beats the shit out of Jesse). Tension is something Breaking Bad does better than almost any show I’ve seen, but there are a few times it truly affects me to the point where I can’t tell if I’m watching a Hollywood Blockbuster, or a dinky TV show with a tiny production budget. It doesn’t get as exciting on BB as this single episode, and that’s even before Hank gets that phone call.
7. “Dead Freight” – Season 5, Episode 5
Take what I said about “One Minute” above, vicariously being an action film, and apply it to “Dead Freight” one hundred fold. One of the few pieces of media to make me stand up and shout at the screen (Black Swan and Inception being the others), this episode set the bar for intense moments possible on a television show. It is just a perfect encapsulated thriller, in a quaint episode that gets so much right, it makes my brain hurt to think no one has topped that since. How often does a show put all of its effort into one scripted sequence like that? And when was the last time you saw a thief steal methylamine, or anything other than the typical jewel, or briefcase of money? The first half of season 5 seems, to me anyways, to be a separate entity, and with that comes a smaller scale and fewer episodes, sure, but a more jammed packed and satisfying season from episode to episode. And season 5 had more than its fair share of outstanding moments, like Mike’s death and Walter planting the bug in Hank’s office, but just look at this kid.
Look at that poor kid. Look how cute he is, before he’s about to die in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t feel sorrow for his loss. I just felt pure adrenaline and stupefaction, consternation. Bill Burr, a gunshot, and a jar with a spider in it. That’s all you need, apparently, to blow my mind.