It seems almost silly to try and say anything new about Breaking Bad at this point. Nevertheless, here I go.
Vince Gilligan has repeatedly described Breaking Bad as an exercise in character, in which he set out to see if he could, “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Except that description is not entirely accurate. If anything, Breaking Bad is about how every one of us has both a little Mr. Chips and a little Scarface inside. If Walt simply went from good to bad, the show wouldn’t be the complex and nuanced piece of television we all regard it as. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this last season has been the traces of kindness that have emerged, even as Walt has sunk deeper and deeper into darkness.
However, Breaking Bad is about that darkness, make no mistake. While it has touched upon social issues such as the war on drugs, America’s great recession, and the pitfalls of our modern healthcare system, Breaking Bad has a much more timeless theme. The exploration of good and evil in every man, and the tragic consequences of what happens when the evil overtakes the good, is as old as Greek tragedy. In this sense, the show is akin to The Wire. But when it comes right down to it, although the two have similar themes, Vince Gilligan isn’t the political firebrand that David Simon is. If Simon wanted to show what’s wrong with our social systems, Gilligan wanted to show what’s wrong with ourselves.
In this sense, Breaking Bad is much more similar to the other two dramas that have defined the last ten years of television, The Sopranos and Mad Men. All three shows are about individualism versus the social contract, and how the inner lives of human beings are constantly at odds with the outside world. And perhaps more importantly, all three shows are about the idea that no one is just one thing. Tony Soprano isn’t just a mobster; he’s also a father and a husband. Don Draper isn’t just a con man; he’s also a workaholic and a leader. Unsurprisingly then, Walter White isn’t just a drug lord; he’s also a teacher and a scientist.
But perhaps where Breaking Bad jumps ahead of the pack is that while we always knew Tony Soprano and Don Draper had sinister elements to their makeup, we used to think Walt was a pretty great guy. Hell, in some ways it’s hard not to still think of him that way. One of Gilligan’s masterstrokes is that every horrible thing Walter White does is all the harder to watch because at the beginning of the show it was so impossible not to root for him. Now, as the show comes to a conclusion, the heartbreaking fact is that we’ve been watching the disintegration of one man’s soul. Walter White is probably the most extreme antihero in recent years, because it remains difficult not to see him as a guy who is just trying to help his family. But since his ambition has taken the place where his compassion should be, it’s impossible not to conclude that Heisenberg has killed Walter White; in other words, goodbye Mr. Chips, say hello to Scarface.
Many people are already calling Breaking Bad the greatest show of all time. A recent Forbes article suggests this is largely because you can see that Vince Gilligan has been building to something from the show’s beginning. This is not entirely accurate though, since Gilligan has actually admitted that there was no end game for the Breaking Bad when he started out, and that he and his fellow writers planned each individual season one at a time as the show went on. This actually makes Breaking Bad all the more impressive when you consider that Gilligan and company did what Lost and so many other shows couldn’t. Not that they were winging it exactly, but that they didn’t have all the details worked out ahead of time, proves just how masterful Vince Gilligan and his fellow writers on the show really are.
But by now, it’s clear that the story is building to an intricately planned conclusion. It’s hard to gage anything accurately when you’re still in it, but if the series finale is as good as everyone is expecting, it’s entirely possible that Breaking Bad will end up holding the title of television’s greatest masterpiece, at least for awhile. But regardless of where it’s actually ranked in the pantheon of classic TV, it now seems impossible that Breaking Bad could be regarded as anything from here on out but one of the absolute best stories ever to grace the small screen.
The series finale of Breaking Bad airs tonight. Here are my picks for the top ten episodes.
10) “Fly” (Season 3, Episode 10)
“Fly” is probably my strangest pick for this list, and also the most unconventional offering Breaking Bad has ever aired. A bottle episode, “Fly” is one of those odd instances where a great show gets some of their best results by doing something that deviates slightly from the larger story. Other examples would be Mad Men’s “The Suitcase” (another bottle episode) or The Sopranos’s “Join the Club” (an episode built around an extended fantasy/dream sequence). It’s true that “Fly” is the least exciting episode in Breaking Bad’s otherwise wall-to-wall action-packed third season. The fact that it aired the same night as the Lost finale, another great yet tonally completely different piece of television, probably didn’t help either.
But “Fly” is important because it sets up one of the show’s most important themes: one little thing can bring your life crashing down around you. We see it time and time again in Breaking Bad (the second cell phone, Gale’s notebook, Jane’s death, which leads to the plane crash.) In “Fly,” Walt begins to understand that no matter how smart or how determined he is, one little thing may ultimately be his undoing. This episode also contains Walt’s startling confession that, “I’ve lived too long. You want them to actually miss you.” This goes back to another key theme of the show, survival. “Fly” looks at human beings’ animalistic need (represented by the fly itself, as well as Jesse’s monologue about the opossum) to fight for survival at all costs. And although Walt says here that he’s lived too long, his actions throughout the rest of the show demonstrate that he feels otherwise.
9) “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Although not as perfectly cohesive as the rest of Breaking Bad’s five seasons (you can blame the writer’s strike for that), the show’s freshman seven episodes contain some of the most indelible moments in its entire run. Consider the first time Walt is forced to take a life (Krazy 8), Bryan Cranston’s hauntingly beautiful delivery of Walt’s speech about why he doesn’t want his cancer treated, and the explosion that “Heisenberg” causes at Tuco’s drug den. Yet it is the pilot that remains the most important entry of the season. It’s one of the best first episodes of any show ever, and perfectly sets up everything you need to know for the next 60 episodes. Within Walt’s deceptively simple speech to his class, we get what might be the most important piece of dialog in all of Breaking Bad: “Chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.”
It’s been said that the best television shows always have a line that perfectly sums up what the show is about in the pilot. Walt’s declaration that chemistry is the “study of change” tells us everything we need to know about him right there. This simple, humble, good-natured man is going to change into something volatile, unstable, and dangerous. Moreover, the pilot doesn’t just set up the important ideas of the show, it also kicks things into high gear right off the bat. Is there a more iconic image out of all the TV from the last few years than Walter White in his underwear, holding a gun, out in the middle of the desert? In this episode’s ability to both thrill us and make us think, it was clear right away that Breaking Bad was going to be something more than your average television drama.
8) “Phoenix” (Season 2, Episode 12)
“Phoenix” is sort of the halfway point in the story of Walter White. Here, he could still have a chance at happiness, at providing a better future for his family. But then of course, he lets Jane die, and there’s no going back. The thing about “Phoenix” is that when Vince Gilligan originally pitched it, he had Walt taking a more active role in Jane’s death. But by making Walt a conscious standby, rather than a participator, we get a taste of his capacity for cruelty, without it overtaking his entire too soon character. Each season, Walt has gotten more and more evil, but in “Phoenix,” we see that he still wants to be good. He truly believes that this is not only the best thing for him, but for Jesse too. Here, we see that despite his horrific actions, or rather in this case, non-actions, Walt could still justify everything he was doing. Of course, it didn’t stay that way for long.
7) “Salud” (Season 4, Episode 10)
“Salud” is most likely the best episode of Breaking Bad (if not the only episode) that doesn’t focus primarily on Walter White. Gustavo Fring was always a fan favorite, but over the course of season four, he became so much more than just a menacing adversary for Walt. In “Salud,” we see that much like Walt himself, Fring has always had something to prove. And in the notorious tequila scene, by God, he proves it. It’s one of those episodes that Breaking Bad does in many ways better than any show, in which the immaculately crafted tension manifests not only in blistering action, but profound character choices.
6) “One Minute” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Forget the last scene; even before the brilliant conclusion to this episode, “One Minute” is a great piece of television. Hank, who has always been a foil to Walt, both in his imperfections and his convictions, sinks lower in this episode than he ever has before. Jesse confronts Walt, in one of his most gut-wrenching scenes, and tells him that because of their relationship his life has fallen apart (a sad truth that would become only more apparent as the show went on). And on the other side of the coin, Walt fights to maintain the pseudo-father/son relationship he has with Jesse by lobbying to get rid of Gale (a telling action, considering Gale’s ultimate fate later in the season). And yes, the last minute is one of the most stunningly edge-of-your-seat moments in the history of television. All of this makes for a rare 45 minutes of television that is exceedingly excellent.
5) “Full Measure” (Season 3, Episode 13)
If Walt letting Jane die was when he dipped his toes into being a true bad guy, it’s in “Full Measure,” when he orders Jesse to kill Gale, that he jumped right in. For me, this was it. I could like Walter White, I could be compelled by Walter White, and in some cases, I could even still root for Walter White. But I could never see him as a “good guy” again. Moreover, I decided that I wouldn’t be sad to see him reap what he sewed. I don’t know how the finale will go; maybe Walt will die, maybe he’ll go to jail, maybe he’ll get away with everything. And if he does get away with everything, I’ll be fine with that. But I won’t be disappointed if one of the former scenarios play out either. In forcing Jesse to kill Gale, he not only took one man’s life, but severely damaged Jesse too. “Full Measures” begins the corrosion of all the goodness left in Walt. From here on out, he could not be saved. Yet in many ways, we learn just as much about Walter White in the episode prior to this…
4) “Half Measures” (Season 3, Episode 12)
“Run” might be the best last line in the history of television. But even leading up to the heart-pounding final scene of “Half Measures,” it’s clear that Walt has begun to think about setting things in motion that he won’t be able to be undo. As Mike warns Walt not to go down the path he’s headed towards, looking back, it’s hard not to think that Walt was already set upon being the king. In “Half Measures,” he takes his first steps towards seizing Gustavo Fring’s power, this setting in motions the events that occur through the rest of the series. When Walt does decide to defy Gus, we know now that he wasn’t just doing it for Jesse, he was doing it for himself. Of course, part of Walt’s decision in the last scene of “Half Measures” is clearly made out of his desire to protect Jesse. Yet as a father figure, Walt isn’t a very good one. True, he does stand up for Jesse whenever possible, but he never does it without wanting something in return (see, the episode above this).
3) “Gliding Over All” (Season 5, Episode 8)
In many ways, the beginning half of season five of Breaking Bad is all rise, and the second half is all fall. Of course to be fair, the last few perfect seconds from “Gliding Over All” is really where the fall begins. But before that moment arrives, we see Walt expand his business, pull a Michael Corleone, and then decide to retire in the prime of his reign. This is Walter White at the seat of power. He has schemed, murdered, and worked his way to the top of the drug world. All who question the supreme power of his kingdom should beware his mighty wrath. And then Hank decides to take a dump in the wrong bathroom.
2) “Face Off” (Season 4, Episode 13)
“Face Off” is, quite simply, a work of genius. Never has there been a cat and mouse game on television quite like the one between Walter White and Gustavo Fring. Season four of Breaking Bad started out slow, especially compared to the breakneck pace of season three. But as the show’s protagonist and the season’s antagonist squared off over a meticulously plotted 13 episodes, it eventually became evident that Gilligan and the other writers were working towards something mind-blowing (literally). Although it was easy to see where things were going, it was impossible to guess how we were going to get there. As Walt moves to take away Gus’s crown, we see how ruthless both men are in their desire to win at all costs. Survival, ambition, and change; all of Breaking Bad’s major themes manifest brilliantly in this mind-bogglingly fantastic work of art. And if there was any question left that Walter White had become more Scarface than Mr. Chips, those doubts were assuaged when he poisoned a kid.
1) “Ozymandias” (Season 5, Episode 14)
I thought long and hard about whether to go with this as my pick for number one. Ultimately, my decision just came down to he simple truth that I had more to say about it than any of the others on this list. While it might be too early to judge where “Ozymandias” falls in the ultimate ranking of Breaking Bad episodes, it would also be impossible not to include it on this list. For me, right here, right now, it’s also impossible not to put it at number one. If “Gliding Over All” was Walt getting everything he wanted, “Ozymandias” is him losing it all. There is a great shot, towards the end of the episode, following Walt and Skyler’s knife fight, where Skyler and Jr. look up in horror at the man they once called husband and father. The camera drifts away slowly, before, cutting back to Walt’s bewildered face. It’s a tragic scene; while Walt may have stopped doing what he was doing just to help his family a long time ago, he doesn’t realize it till this very moment.
As his wife and child stare up at him in disbelief, he can no longer pretend that everything he did was worth it. He has lost his family, the one thing he cared about the most, and even worse, he knows that his actions were selfish and he’s gone too far to take them back. And yet, just as “Ozymandias” paints Walt pretty monstrously, it also reestablishes some of his humanity. His darkness manifests when he orders Uncle Jack to kill Jesse, and then again when he tells him right to his face that he let Jane die. Yet a shred of light still shines through when he tries to save Hank, and when he calls Skyler to ensure that the cops won’t implicate her in any of his criminal activities. Granted, that speech is brutal, and it’s hard not to assume he also meant at least part of what he said. Nevertheless, in spewing such hateful vitriol, Walt was making one final attempt to save his family.
Take the episode’s brilliant writing, combine it with all time high performances from the whole cast and delicate work from previous Breaking Bad director Rian Johnson, and you’ve got the show’s best episode (so far). The central themes to the poem from which the episode borrows it’s titles are that time contextualizes what he know, kings inevitably fall, and everything changes. And in Breaking Bad’s overarching message about life, these ideas could not be truer.