I can't choose the ten best Breaking Bad episodes because, like a lot of great TV dramas, it's all of a piece, and the pieces lose their impact if you consider them in isolation. So this is not a ten best list; I don't know what "best" means in this specific context, plus there are eleven titles on the list, for reasons that I hope you'll agree with. The only thing these episodes have in common is that I've thought about them more frequently than any other Breaking Bad episodes, recalling particular images, moments, and lines and then laughing or shuddering, sometimes both. They're the episodes that stuck in my craw and may never leave. You'll notice that while I have some stand-alones, many of my picks are part of a mini-arc comprised of interlocking chapters that just felt inseparable from each other.
Maybe it's best to think of this as my New Hampshire cabin viewing list — the episodes I'd like to have with me as I contemplate that barrel of money I can't spend and plot the downfall of my enemies, including the cruel bastard who left me two DVDs of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Seriously, who does that?
I tacked some runners-up on the bottom of this list, in case you were curious about which episode almost made the cut.
1. "Fly" (Season 3, Episode 10)
In an otherwise heavily serialized drama with a medium-size cast of regulars, the two-character "Fly" is one of the few episodes that works as a self-contained story, but those singular qualities aren't why it's in the No. 1 spot. It's a perfect Breaking Bad episode and a perfect hour of television. Structurally it feels a bit like a fine one-act play; its dialogue and monologues advance the series' plot while delving into the past and speculating on the future (and possibly foretelling it, if you buy the theory that the fly in some sense represents the doomed chemist Gale). As the episode builds toward a climax that's both comically and dramatically satisfying, it hits every color on the emotional spectrum and aces a dazzling variety of storytelling modes: silent movie slapstick (Walt and the broom!); Kafkaesque paranoia and grotesquerie; kitchen sink psychodrama; three-a.m.-in-the-dorm existential musing. Buried in the episode's anxious gut is a Walt monologue that could have turned into an explicit summing-up of Breaking Bad's worldview if the filmmakers hadn't had the sense to quit while they were ahead. "My God, the universe is random, it's not inevitable, it's simple chaos," Walt says. 'It's subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That's what science teaches us, but what does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man's daughter dies, it's me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?"
2. "Peekaboo" (Season 2, Episode 6)
Yeah, I know, it's a comparatively quiet, intimate episode, but I probably think about it more often than any Breaking Bad episode besides "Fly." "Peekaboo" is also my pick for the all-around greatest Jesse episode (and there are many strong contenders for the title). The A-plot finds Jesse heeding Walt's orders and going after the meth-head couple who robbed Skinny Pete in "Breakage." In addition to its harrowing moments (capped by that sickening ATM crunch) and its almost unbearable passages of degradation and sadness ("Skank!"), it's a showcase for many of the qualities that make Jesse fascinating: the mix of ineptitude and resolve; the way he'll seem helpless for long stretches and then suddenly devise a wise or expedient solution to a problem (and struggle to implement it), and most of all, his rapport with kids. The meth-head couple's neglected son throws a wrench into Jesse's straightforward mission. The kid awakens Jesse's buried decency (also indicated in the opening scene, in which Jesse declines to squash a bug — a recurring image, or scenario, throughout Breaking Bad) and turns him into a half-assed but spirited protector, a clumsy arbiter of morality.
There's a "Do as I say, not as I do" quality in his sputtering lectures, and that's a big part of why they're so funny; only in hell can a guy like Jesse become a guardian angel. (“How about you feed the kid a decent meal every now and then, huh? Give him a bath. Put some baby powder on him.”) You sometimes get the sense that if he weren't a druggie from high school onward, he might have settled down with the first nice girl he met and become one of those doting young dads who carries a diaper bag as if it were a courier pouch containing important diplomatic papers. But this is a hard world for people with decent impulses: As Jesse is performing the titular game, the boy's mom sneaks up behind him and knocks him out. The episode's B-plot is a doozy, as well: Skyler nearly learns that Walt's cover story about Gretchen and Elliott paying for his cancer treatment is a lie. This is capped by one of Walt's signature displays of corrosive pride: In a restaurant, he spews bile at Gretchen over Gray Matter and their shared past and blames her for ruining his life. When she says, "I feel so sorry for you, Walt," he growls, "Fuck you."
3-4. "Cat's in the Bag ... " " ... and the Bag's in the River" (Season 1, Episodes 2 and 3)
As the ellipses-laden titles suggest, these two chapters play like one extra-long episode. There's a clear dramatic spine — Jesse and Walt freaking out over a corpse and a prisoner — and the entire thing is agonizingly tense, but Gilligan and Bernstein leave plenty of room for Breaking Bad's characteristically dark humor (the bathtub gag) as well as set pieces that confirm this is a deeply moral show that's fascinated by the tension between expediency and decency. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Walter White embarked down the road to hell, but you could make a case for the moment when he garrotes Krazy 8 in self-defense not long after getting to know him well enough to think of him as a person instead of a horrible inconvenience. Everything after that is a long, steep, increasingly slippery slope. The significance of that act is confirmed by Walter's sudden acquisition of a new eating habit: He cuts the crusts off his sandwiches, as if in unconscious tribute to the prisoner he fed and then murdered.
5. "Ozymandias" (Season 5, Episode 14)
I was tempted to rank this one even higher — it's one of the most thrilling hours of TV I've ever seen — but years of recapping have taught me to mistrust the adrenaline rush that lingers in the mind over the days and weeks that follow an emotionally overwhelming episode. Sometimes there's more heat than light, you know? Still, there's no getting around the fact that "Ozymandias" is a pantheon chapter of Breaking Bad; if I ever revisit this list, or lengthen it, don't be surprised if it rises higher — to the top, even. Like The Sopranos' "Made in America," it exploded in viewers' imaginations like a dramaturgical hand grenade. It prompted arguments about entertainment and art, and the morally unstable relationship between antiheroes and the fans who adore them, and what the show's characters were feeling and thinking at particular moments, and how much control they truly had over those thoughts and feelings, and whether we should treat statements of authorial intent like crossword puzzle answers and say, "Ah yes, got it — that's the right number of letters, that's all there is to it," or treat the creation as a living thing that has its own life force, and that, like Walter himself, contains multitudes, and is never quite as in control as it wants its audience to think.
"Ozymandias" was also one of Bryan Cranston's finest hours as Walter/Heisenberg. The whole episode was pitched at such intensity that the lines between the hero and his alter ego became blurrier than usual. The episode made you wonder who took baby Holly from the house, and who had Jesse dragged from beneath the car, and who thought up that phone call, and who executed it, and whether such psychological schematics are useful, or if they're just colorful but slippery bits of stagecraft, like Heisenberg's shades and porkpie hat. Was there ever really a Heisenberg? Was there ever really a Walter White? Are such questions meaningless in the face of such mysterious resentment and anger? And yet for all its grimness, "Ozymandias" is often hilarious and strewn with callbacks to earlier episodes, including a fleeting cameo by the trousers Walter lost in the pilot. It's got everything you want in a Breaking Bad episode, except maybe a scene of Jesse acting like a goofball. (As a couple of commenters have pointed out, the episode has that, too -- a brief moment of Jesse in the prologue, dorking around behind Walt as he talks to Skyler on the phone.)
6-8. "Crawl Space/End Times/Face Off" (Season 4, Episodes 11–13)
Even more than most Breaking Bad episodes, these three feel like interlocking pieces of a long, mostly linear, interdependent story: a Breaking Bad movie that's as exciting as the final three episodes of any season of 24, and much wittier. The short list of indelible moments includes Ted's accident (a Sopranos-worthy horrifying pratfall); Walt's maniacal laugh at the end of "Crawl Space"; the "Did he lie or didn't he?" confrontation between Walt and Jesse over Walt's poisoning of Brock (a precursor to Walt's phone call in "Ozymandias"); the climax of "End Times," with Walt planting a bomb in Gus's car and Gus figuring it out as if by Spidey sense; the long slow zoom into that incriminating flower pot; and of course the grotesque act of violence that gives the season finale its title. It's tough for me to say which climactic bit of actorly business I like better: the hellish joy in Hector Salamanca's constipated face as he rings his wheelchair bell for the last time, or Gus Fring straightening his tie in the doorway as the camera reveals the half-charred result of Walt's full measure; since one gesture leads to the other, let's call it a draw and deem these three episodes a self-contained unit — and a masterpiece of cinematic screw-tightening that ranks with the best of Hitchcock and the Coen brothers.
9-11. "Mandala/Phoenix/ABQ." (Season 2, Episodes 11–13)
The extraordinary climax of Breaking Bad's most meticulously plotted season, "Phoenix" and "ABQ" set up one of the show's central notions: that moral choices have a domino effect, causing personal and societal damage that we can scarcely imagine, much less undo. The flash-forwards to massive, mysterious destruction that dotted so many season-two episodes come into focus here, spurred on by Walter delivering a big meth payload to his new distributor Gus Fring — a job that was supposed to be Jesse's responsibility — and missing his own daughter's birth. When he punishes Jesse by withholding his half of the money, Jesse's new girlfriend (and landlord) Jane plays Lady Macbeth, spurring him to demand the cash or else. A pivotal moment in the Walter/Heisenberg dynamic finds our hero watching Jane choke on her own vomit and doing nothing to stop it — essentially a kind of murder through inaction. This leads to Jane's air traffic controller dad going off the deep end in "ABQ" and allowing two planes to collide over Albuquerque, showering the city (and the White home) with debris. The notion of moral fallout has rarely been visualized so bluntly. Beyond the deep, dark stuff, there's so much else to like in these three episodes, including Jesse's first taste of heroin (a scene I wrote a whole column about here) and the introduction of one of the show's greatest characters, Jonathan Banks's Mike, a fixer sent by Gus to handle the Jane situation. "And do I need to state the obvious?" he asks Jesse, then states it anyway: "I was not here."
• "Half Measures/Full Measure" (Season 3, Episodes 12 and 13)
Two of the darkest knockout endings in the show's run, back-to-back. As the titles suggest, they've got a call-and-response quality, with the second one seeming to answer the first.
• "Salud" (Season 4, Episode 10)
A great Walter-Skyler-Walt Jr. episode, and a great Jesse episode — and arguably Gus Fring's finest hour.
• "4 Days Out" (Season 2, Episode 9)
Arguably "Fly" did some of the same things as this episode, with a bit more polish and precision, but this is still one of the best Walt-and-Jesse-as-comedy-team episodes, and I still laugh when I picture Walt asking Jesse, "And now, what shall we use to conduct this beautiful current with, hmmm? What one particular element comes to mind, hmmm?" and Jesse replying, "Oooh, wire."
• "Madrigal" (Season 5, Episode 2)
Maybe not as powerful a Mike episode as that other great one in the first half of season five (“Say My Name”), but so perfectly structured and patiently built that I never tire of rewatching it. That scene with Mike and Lydia in the diner is a magnificent little comic short film; the scene with them in the house at the end is a miniature horror movie.