Breaking Bad, which returns for its fourth season on Sunday night, is known for a number of things; among them, a protagonist who is rapidly becoming an antagonist, a charming homeboy fond of the word “bitch,” and blue meth. The show also traffics in a particular kind of drawn-out, super-tense suspense sequence, the kind that inspires teeth knashing, jaw clenching, breath holding, finger pulling, and other stress-coping strategies. Think of the scene in season two when Walt and Jesse are stuck in a mad drug dealer’s lair, waiting for his associate to rat them out using not his voice, but a bell — it feels like it takes forever. On the occasion of the show’s return, here’s a list of the ten tensest moments in the first three season — some violent, some less so, but all of which contain the trademark Breaking Bad habit of making you wait. For. It. Let us know the ones we’ve missed.
The least dangerous moment on this list comes when Skyler calls the cops on Walt after he’s moved back into the house against her will. Walt Jr. looks on, as does the baby, while the cops divide Walt and Skyler up. Walt plays the sweet science teacher and doting father, as Skyler grows increasingly frustrated, realizing that there’s no way for her to get Walt out of the house. Death may not be an option, but the scene is still nerve-racking — divorce is rough, too.
In an attempt to prove he shouldn’t be messed with, Jesse tracks the methheads who ripped off Skinny Pete to their filthy home, complete with a little boy who looks like he just stepped out of Deliverance. Things get extremely dodgy when Jesse is knocked out by the female methhead, Mrs. Spooge, and comes to lying on the floor. Trying to go unnoticed, lest they use his gun on him, Jesse witnesses the Spooges’ get in a stupid fight culminating with the Mrs. dropping an ATM on her husband’s head and popping it like a grape.
In the first of Breaking Bad’s bottle episodes, Walt and Jesse go far, far out into the desert with plans to cook for the whole weekend. Things go well, until it’s time to leave, and they realize the battery has been drained (don’t leave the keys in the ignition, Pinkman!). Jesse and Walt get increasingly desperate and dehydrated, sweat, shiver, cough up blood, and face up to their mortality in an episode no less claustrophobic for taking place in the wilderness.
Having just broken back into his house through the floor, Skyler’s wishes be damned, Walter is taking a shower. Joyful and bubbly, at his most euphorically self-righteous, Walt contentedly scrubs his head while the supremely menacing Cousins walk through the front door and take a quiet seat on his bed, ax at the ready. The camera cuts back and forth between these two scenes, amping up the tension. Walt towel-dries looking like he could burst into “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” opens the door on what should be a pair of well-dressed killers, and … the Cousins have left, thanks to Gus’s timely intervention.
This was the series’ first “stop breathing and watch scene.” Krazy 8 and his rasping lungs have been locked to a pole in Jesse’s basement for a few days, while Walt tries to talk himself into killing Krazy and Krazy tries to talk him out of it. After a few long conversations, one over a beer, Walt realizes Krazy can never be trusted, walks down to the basement, promises Krazy his freedom, and chokes him instead, while Krazy goes after his leg with a piece of broken plate. The strangling seems like it goes on forever.
In the show’s second bottle episode, “The Fly,” Walt becomes increasingly obsessed with killing a housefly in the lab. Jesse drugs the unhinged and sleep-deprived Walt, in the hopes he’ll take a nap and calm down. Instead, an altered Walt begins to talk about when would have been the perfect moment to die — right before he visited Jesse and Jane the night she ODed — and he tells Jesse about encountering Jane’s father at a bar that same night, and apologizes to Jesse sincerely for Jane’s death. Jesse just thinks that Walt’s being nice, but the audience knows better — and also that Walt can’t keep his mouth shut while high. (See: telling Skyler about the two cell phones in the hospital.) Walt manages to toe the line, before dropping off to sleep.
Hank, who has just turned in his gun and lost his job, gets in his SUV and receives a phone call: They’ll be there in one minute, to kill him. Hank pans the parking lot, starting to panic, but only sees regular shoppers. Thirty seconds of this desperate searching later, the Cousins finally appear, guns blazing.
In the season-three finale, Walt — about to get shot by Gus’s associates — places a call to Jesse telling him to hurry up and murder the very helpful lab assistant, Gale. Jesse, who has up to now been adamant that he’s incapable of murder, books it to Gale’s house, knocks on the door, and tremblingly holds a gun to Gale’s head for what feels like forever. Gale begs for his life, Jesse almost bursts into tears, and the camera cuts to black as the gun goes off.
At the beginning of season two, Jesse and Walt find themselves trapped out in the desert with Tuco, waiting for Tuco’s cousins to come pick them up and take them down to Mexico. Scenes with Tuco are always tense (other contenders: Tuco and Jesse’s conversation at Tuco’s office; Walt and Tuco’s conversation that ends in explosions at Tuco’s office; Tuco beating a guy to death in the abandoned car lot; Tuco picking up Walt at his house), but this sequence is by far the most distressing. First, Walt and Jesse discuss how to escape right in front of Tuco’s Tío, who is mute and in a wheelchair, but otherwise with it. Then they attempt to poison Tuco’s burrito, a plot his Tío foils. Then, Tío starts ringing his bell like a mad man. Tuco has to figure out what his Tío means with all this ringing, and, slowly, painfully, with each question, the truth comes out: Walt and Jesse can’t be trusted. On to the shoot-out.
Hank, desperate not to go back down to bloodthirsty El Paso, has doubled down on finding Heisenberg. His newly intensified search has led him to Jesse, whom he stakes out in hopes Jesse will lead him to the mobile meth lab. Jesse being Jesse, he does so, bringing Hank right to the RV that Walt, Jesse, and all of their boiler flasks are already inside of. A standoff ensues, with Walt whispering talking points to Jesse — since Hank can’t be allowed to hear his voice — while the owner of the RV lot sasses Hank, both barely keeping him at bay. The situation is resolved when Walt gets Saul Goodman’s secretary to place a really manipulative phone call to Hank, ultimately leading to the horrible, though less-drawn-out scene in which Hank beats up Jesse’s face.