To start, I should note that even though I’ll be previewing the fourth season of AMC’s absolutely stunning show Breaking Bad this week, it doesn’t actually premiere until next Sunday, July 17. I’m just reserving Listless next week for Pitchfork-related things. Also, spoilers ahead.
If you haven’t checked out Breaking Bad just yet, you really should. The story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who teams up with an ex-student (Aaron Paul) to cook methamphetamine, and what this does to his family and friends, has rapidly become one of the very best shows on television. Cranston has cleaned up at the Emmys the past few years for a remarkably nuanced performance, evolving slowly from a desperate man forced into a world in which he doesn’t belong to an equally desperate man capable of unspeakable things to protect himself and those close to him.
Today, I’ll be looking at what I’ll say are the five best episodes of Breaking Bad (the five most essential would be a wholly different argument), both for sheer entertainment value and for best capturing what makes this show so goddamn great. In chronological order,
The 5 best episodes of Breaking Bad (so far)
1) “Crazy Handful of Nothin'” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Through the entire first season (shortened by the writers’ strike), Walt is set up as an empathetic figure, a man whose death is suddenly imminent and unavoidable, who gets into a very dangerous profession in order to ensure that his pregnant wife (Anna Gunn), palsy-afflicted son (RJ Mitte) and unborn child will be provided for when he dies. In “Handful,” for the first time, the coming change in Walt is pushed to the forefront, when he begins to negotiate a deal with Tuco (Raymond Cruz), a local kingpin with an affinity for his own product. When Tuco abducts Jesse (Paul) in order to send a message, Walt becomes Heisenberg, his fearsome, fedora-wearing alter ego. In one of the single most badass moments of the entire series, Walt manages to manufacture small bombs in a crystalline form. Upon blowing up Tuco’s office by throwing just one at the floor, and brandishing the entire bag, Walt and Tuco enter into business together.
2) “Grilled” (Season 2, Episode 2)
Needless to say, Walt and Jesse’s dabbling with Tuco goes south, very quickly. Tuco’s paranoia about his employees leads to them being abducted and held captive in a small house in the middle of a desert. As the two debate how and when to kill him, their plans come dangerously close to being revealed when Tuco’s elderly uncle, himself an old kingpin, nearly reveals their plan. However, he cannot speak, and can only communicate using a desk bell. The sound of that bell, and the absolutely masterful raising of stakes it represents, still stands as one of the most indelible images show creator Vince Gilligan has managed to date.
3) “Peekaboo” (Season 2, Episode 6)
The first of two bottle-style episodes on this list, “Peekaboo” testifies to the strength of the characterization throughout this series. Jesse, who often flies back and forth between likability and cowardice, sits front and center for an absolutely horrifying hour, which finally sheds light on the other side of Walt and Jesse’s business: the customers. When one of Jesse’s dealers is stuck up by a methhead husband and wife, Jesse tracks them down to reclaim his money, only to be taken hostage. As Jesse watches the couple try to break into a stolen ATM, he begins to panic, a panic that’s exacerbated when he finds out that they have a small child, unfed and dirty. Jesse plays with the boy, and tells him to hide before the couple can return, a return that ends in a shocking burst of violence. Breaking Bad is all about moral shades of grey, and moments like the final 15 minutes of “Peekaboo” make this brutally apparent.
4) “Fly” (Season 3, Episode 10)
More fun with bottle episodes! By this point in the series, Walt and Jesse have found themselves working with a more professional operation run by Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), with a professional chemist’s lab. The downside is that Gus does not accept their penchant for secrets, and maintains a constant sense of ominous presence over their heads. So, when a fly makes it into the lab, a panicked and exhausted Walt puts the entire operation on lockdown until he can find and kill it. Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) guest-directed this one, and infuses it with a palpable sense of panic, that burns slowly and refuses to relent for even a split second.
5) “Half Measures” (Season 3, Episode 12)
By the end of the third season, Walt and Jesse find themselves precariously close to crossing lines. When a lover of Jesse’s inadvertantly gives him a tip as to the previous murder of one of his dealers, he goes out to find vengeance, only to get shut down by Gus, who tells Walt that in order to maintain a working relationship, Jesse may have to leave the picture. This leads to the chilling realization that full measures of action must be taken, and sets up for the two cooks to prove their loyalty to one another while crossing the one line neither were able to until just then.