“Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
From it first moments, Breaking Bad established itself as something special. Its scorching opening scene reveals a pair of slacks flying through the air, an RV careening through the desert, and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) inside, clad only in tighty-whities. Two men are unconscious inside; one of them has a gun. Walt’s actions, his tearful farewell to his family, and his final act of aiming that gun squarely at the approaching authorities are a textbook case of parachuting an audience into a story in progress, and letting them scramble to catch up; from frame one, creator Vince Gilligan throws us off-balance, and seldom allows us the opportunity to fully regain our bearings. The table for the series is set: it’s unpredictable and frazzled, and even at its most stoic, it packs a perverse, voyeuristic thrill.
“Crazy Handful of Nothin’” (Season 1, Episode 6)
At its essence, Breaking Bad is the story of a good man who turns very bad — “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as Vince Gilligan (and the recent Museum of the Modern Image exhibit) put it. It’s a slow progression from sympathetic, ill protagonist to murderous drug kingpin, but a key moment in the evolution occurs in the penultimate episode of the abbreviated first season. That year’s primary antagonist is Tuco, a drug dealer who doesn’t care for Walter and Jesse (Aaron Paul) horning in on his action with their superior product; this episode concludes with Walt outthinking and outfoxing their opponent, causing a giant explosion at Tuco’s hideout. He goes back to his car and sits in the driver’s seat — and the camera holds on him, holds, and then it pushes in, as he celebrates the moment with a growl that seems to explode from the darkest corner of his soul. It’s this milquetoast man’s first taste of a high so addictive it puts meth to shame: power.
“Peekaboo” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Forgive the personal sidebar: my wife does not watch Breaking Bad. We got to it separately, her a few months behind me (and on my recommendation), and “Peekaboo” was the episode where she had to stop. She’s basically a sunny person, kind and wonderfully sweet, and this was the point at which the show had become, for her, “too much,” “too dark,” and “too sad.” I can’t fault her response — this is the episode that spends much of its running time excruciatingly detailing Jesse’s attempt to collect stolen money from a drug-addled couple with a hijacked ATM in their living room. But for me, this episode spotlights one of the primary draws of the show’s early seasons (before Walt and Jesse became the high-tech cooks of Gus Fring’s industrialized lab): the lifting of rocks, and the observation of the various vermin scurrying underneath.
“Phoenix” (Season 2, Episode 12)
If you’re tracking the show via Walt’s steadily declining morality, here’s a big thumbtack on that particular corkboard: the episode in which Walt, while attempting to rouse Jesse from his drug-induced slumber, accidentally causes the choking death of Jane (Krysten Ritter), Jesse’s neighbor, girlfriend, and partner in addiction (and roadblock to Walt and Jesse’s lucrative association). Well, to be clearer, an accident precipitates her death, but Walt clearly could prevent it — and chooses not to. Cranston does some of his most bracing acting in this scene, torn between doing what’s right and doing what’s (maybe) smart, and realizing immediately the weight of his decision.
“One Minute” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Breaking Bad is most often considered as a morality play — and it lends itself to that interpretation. But it is impossible to understate the show’s power as nothing more nor less than a riveting entertainment, with crackerjack beats of action, tension, and suspense, and one of the finest examples of that is the heart attack-inducing conclusion of this episode, midway through Season 3, in which Walt’s DEA agent brother Hank (the wonderful Dean Morris) finds himself hunted in a parking lot, in broad daylight, by Tuco’s cousins. The episode is helmed by Michelle McLaren, one of the show’s MVPs, and the direction and editing of this sequence is tight, crisp, and efficient enough to put most Hollywood “action” product to shame.
“Half Measures” (Season 3, Episode 12)
There’s plenty to say about this powerful episode, in which Jesse has finally had enough and strikes back, consequences be damned. But frankly, when I think of this episode, I think of one thing: “RUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNN!”
“Full Measure” (Season 3, Episode 13)
Oh, Gale. Poor Gale. Season 3’s closest approximation of a sympathetic character, with his open face and his heartbreaking gee-whiz enthusiasm, is the casualty of the season’s jaw-dropping finale — along with what was left of Jesse’s innocence, and any notion that Walt’s once-pure soul had not been chipped away entirely. But that’s also the trickiness of the series: the solution Walt arrives at, to save both his and Jesse’s life, is sickening. But it’s also brilliant, the kind of one-step-ahead thinking that has so often saved his skin at the last possible second.
“Box Cutter” (Season 4, Episode 1)
The introduction of Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring late in Season 2 was important to counterbalance the deadening of Walter White: if he was going to do bad things and maintain at least some degree of viewer empathy, it would help to situate him against a character even more ruthless and coldblooded than he. Any questions about who was the more dangerous human being were laid to rest by this terrifying episode — particularly Gus’s deployment of the titular tool.
“Face Off” (Season 4, Episode 13)
But all good villains must meet their maker (presumably; we’ll find out for certain at the end of this season), and few have done so as memorably — and literally explosively — as Gus. “Face Off,” written and directed by creator Vince Gilligan, is like a master class in suspense storytelling, revealing just enough information to propel the narrative, then revealing its master plan nanoseconds before the big payoff. But that’s not enough for Breaking Bad; the episode’s quiet closing shot is like an extra, unexpected punch in the gut.
“Fifty-One” (Season 5, Episode 4)
Throughout the run of Breaking Bad, Walt’s wife Skyler (beautifully played by Anna Gunn) has remained one of the show’s most enigmatic characters, and her moral ambiguity has led to no shortage of jeering from viewers — weirdly, it seems like she gets more flack online than Walt himself. This most recent season allowed Gunn to dig even deeper into the conflicted fear and emptiness of Skyler, a mental state indelibly dramatized by the unforgettable image of her descending, wordlessly and fully clothed, into their backyard pool.
“Dead Freight” (Season 5, Episode 5)
Few scenes in recent memory, in any medium, were as gripping as the taut centerpiece sequence in this Season 5 episode (helmed by George Mastras, a regular writer making his directorial debut), in which Aaron, Jesse, and their crew heist an ocean of methylamine from a freight train. But superb craftsmanship is never enough for this show, which tops that scene with a shocking, unexpected, and altogether tragic murder.
“Gliding Over It All” (Season 5, Episode 8)
Vince Gilligan may have pinpointed Scarface as Walt’s end point, but the most recent episode more explicitly recalls Al Pacino’s other gangster antihero, from the cold deadness of Walter’s eyes in the opening scene to the Godfather-style dispatching of all Mike’s guys in prison. But what turns him around is not the realization of what he’s become; it’s Skyler’s terse and pointed question: “How much is enough?” And with that, he’s out, perhaps cleanly were it not for Hank’s chance discovery amongst the toilet-side reading material. And that moment triggers the memory — by the viewer but not the show, which is too tasteful to remind us — of how Season 5 began, with Walt on the run and an M60 in the trunk. Talk about a set-up.