The finale of Breaking Bad is arguably the most anticipated TV finale in years, so even those who haven’t seen a single episode might want to be part of this moment in TV history. (It’s the moon landing of meth-kingpin Greek tragedies.) So we wanted to give the uninitiated an opportunity to actually enjoy the Breaking Bad finale parties that they have been invited to without having to binge-watch the whole thing all weekend (and there’s probably not enough time to do so anyway). These are the twenty basic things you need to know in order to follow what’s happening on Sunday night. Not only will you be entertained by the finale, but you will avoid being thrown out of the party for interrupting with questions like, “Wait, why is that Jesse guy so sad again?” (Spoilers from the series follow, but if you’re reading this and haven’t seen the show yet, that’s kind of the point.)
1. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) started the series as a meek 50-year-old high school chemistry teacher and car wash employee who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, decided to cook and sell crystal meth to make money to leave his family after his death.
2. Walt is married to Skyler (Anna Gunn). Together they have two children, teenager Walter Jr. (he goes by Flynn) and baby Holly. At first, Skyler didn’t know about the drug stuff, but she was slowly brought in. She eventually helped Walt launder money through his old car wash, which he bought. She has a sister named Marie (Betsy Brandt), whose husband, Hank (Dean Norris), was a DEA agent.
3. The show is set (and shot) in Albuquerque.
4. Walter (or Walt), knowing nothing about distributing drugs, partnered up with his former student, a burnout named Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Over the course of the series, they developed a father-son relationship, though one in which the father was usually berating the son.
5. Before he was a teacher, White was a brilliant chemist with a Ph.D. from Caltech. After graduating, he started a company with Elliott Schwartz and his girlfriend Gretchen called Gray Matter Technologies, and eventually sold his stake for $5,000 and broke up with Gretchen for reasons that have never quite been explained. Gretchen and Elliott later got married and Gray Matter went on to become a billion-dollar company on the back of Walt’s original research. Walter has always been resentful about this.
6. The premise of the show, as described by creator Vince Gilligan, is to turn a character from Mr. Chips into Scarface. From season one through the first half of season five (the fifth season was split into two parts), Walt slowly rose to prominence as a drug manufacturer, under the pseudonym Heisenberg. He was known for cooking blue meth with a 99.1 percent chemical purity and wearing a black porkpie hat. By the end of the first half of season five, he had built a drug empire and made upwards of $80 million.
7. To get to where he got, Walt had to do a lot of terrible things. Though it was hard for him to kill for the first time, he seems to grow increasingly comfortable with it as the show goes on. This violent, vengeful, angry, power-hungry part of his personality is often thought of as being Heisenberg. The question that has lingered is whether Walt has always been Heisenberg or Heisenberg has slowly taken over.
8. For the finale, you won’t have to know most of the terrible things he did. But there are two things you should:
8a. At the end of season two, Jesse was dating Jane (Krysten Ritter), who got him into heroin. Walt, concerned about Jesse’s drug habits, didn’t want to give him the $480,000 cut* of a recent big sale until he cleaned up. Jane blackmailed Walt, so he acquiesced. Walt, worried for Jesse’s safety, returned to Jesse’s apartment later that night. He walked in on them passed out and then saw Jane, who was on her back, start to vomit and choke. Walt did nothing and just watched her die.
8b. At the end of season four, Walt needed to get Jesse on his side to take down a major drug kingpin, Gus Fring. He did so by poisoning Brock, the young son of Jesse’s girlfriend, Andrea, and convincing Jesse that Gus was responsible. Brock lives, and though Jesse and Andrea stopped dating, he generally cares a great deal about both and continues to financially support them.
9. Though he was a drug dealer at the start of the series, Jesse seems to have a sweet nature. When Walt had him kill someone at the end of season three, Jesse was shaken, as opposed to empowered by it, like Walt. Jesse continued to work with Walt, because Walt is a skilled and persistent manipulator.
10. Jesse got out of the drug business at the beginning of season five. Needing a new partner to cook meth with, Walt took the polite Todd (Jesse Plemons) under his wing. Todd seemed nice at first, but is actually a heartless psychopath who blithely shot a child who stumbled onto a train heist masterminded by Walt. His uncle Jack is a member of a gang of neo-Nazis, whom Walt first meets when he hires them to kill a whole mess of folks. They also take over Walt’s meth manufacturing business after Walt decides he wants out at the end of the first half of season five.
11. Walt’s cancer has come back.
12. Brother-in-law Hank figured out that Walt was Heisenberg, the drug lord he’d been obsessed with nailing, and tried to bring him to justice. He recruited Jesse, after Jesse figured out that Walt was the one who poisoned Brock.
13. Walt hired the Nazis to kill Jesse.
14. It all came to a head in a big desert shoot-out, in which Hank (who had just arrested Walt) was killed by the Nazis, and Walt spitefully told Jesse about watching Jane die. The Nazis found all of Walt’s money, which he had buried in the desert, leaving him with just $10 million or so. The Nazis took Jesse with them and kept him in an underground cell as a slave, forcing him to cook meth.
15. When Jesse tried to escape his cell, they caught him and took him to watch Todd kill Andrea. They said if he didn’t cook for them, they would kill Brock.
16. Todd has a crush on Lydia (Laura Fraser), a twitchy executive who worked with Walt to distribute his product to Europe and will do the same for the Nazis, if the quality of the product is high enough.
17. After the shoot-out, Walt tried to disappear with his family and his money. He came home right after Skyler, having been alerted by her sister that Hank had arrested Walt, had told Flynn the truth about his parents. Realizing that Walt’s panicky return means something went horribly wrong in the desert and that Hank is likely dead, Skyler refuses to leave. They get into a big fight and Flynn interceded, telling his dad to leave. Walt fled, changed his identity, and moved to a cabin in the New Hampshire mountains.
18. Months passed in the cabin, which Walt was forbidden to leave. He lost weight, grew a beard and his hair back (oh, he was bald most of the show), while getting chemo delivered by a fixer who came by every four weeks. Obsessed with the state of his family (who the fixer told him are being hounded by the cops and just scraping by), Walt finally left the cabin to find a local bar to call his son to make a plan to secretly send him money. Flynn screamed that he wished Walt would die already and hung up. A broken Walt then called the cops, said it was him, then left the phone off the hook so they could trace his location. He sat down at the bar and saw Elliott and Gretchen, now the very wealthy owners of Gray Matter on TV, on Charlie Rose distancing their company from Walt and his infamy, saying his only contribution was the name. This pissed Walt off, and the cops arrived to find him gone; this is how the series’ penultimate episode ended.
19. Through a flash-forward seen earlier in the series, we know that Walt, with a fake ID, bought a gun, came back to Albuquerque, and picked up a vial of ricin from his abandoned and trashed old house. Background: Walt made this ricin in season four; it was never used, but has been talked about a lot. Jesse thinks Walt used the ricin on Brock. (Here’s a thorough explanation of the whole ricin thing.)
20. The series has taken place over two years: It began on his 50th birthday, and the flash-forward (that will pick up at the finale), showed him eating at a diner on his 52nd birthday.
Enjoy! (And shame on you for not having watched this earlier.)
* This post has been corrected to change the amount that Walt owed Jesse.