Ten years after its debut, and with three seasons of a spinoff series doubling down on its excellence, it remains a fact: Breaking Bad — with its intricate storytelling and stellar performances; big, fun action scenes; patiently devastating character development; clever camerawork and stunning cinematography — has only gotten better with age (and many, many repeat viewings).
The worst episode of Breaking Bad is still better than the best episode of most other TV dramas, which makes ranking the series’ 62 episodes much more challenging than it might seem. But with the new season of Vince Gilligan’s companion series Better Call Saul upon us, we’re up to the challenge. The rankings below take into account a range of factors — pivotal moments, major themes, memorable performances, and the overall scope of Breaking Bad as an amazingly detailed story and character study — to come up with each episode’s proper spot on the list. Debate and discussion of these picks are more than welcome, but remember: Maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.
62. “Breakage” (Season 2, Episode 5)
Again, the worst episode of Breaking Bad isn’t … bad … but this is one of the few installments you could skip without missing any iconic moments (unless you consider seeing an anxiety-riddled Hank package his DIY beer, Schraderbrau, a crucial piece of BB history). What the episode does include is a pair of developments that will pay off in big, tragic ways throughout the rest of season two: Jesse meets Jane and rents the apartment next to hers, and Jesse and Walt also tackle a DIY project when they launch their own meth distribution project by employing Skinny Pete, Badger, and Combo to sling their product on the street.
61. “I See You” (Season 3, Episode 8)
Jesse’s playday in the new meth super-lab is a welcome scene of levity after the intense shootout between Hank and the Salamanca cousins in the previous episode. But the rest of “I See You” amounts to Marie and the Whites waiting around the hospital with Hank’s DEA brethren, along with a surprise visitor: local chicken restaurateur and DEA supporter Gus Fring, who generously delivers Los Pollos Hermanos meals to every cop in the building. Of course, Gus is actually there to calmly, coolly let Walt know he did his due diligence before their partnership began. Despite Walt’s perpetually ballooning arrogance, he’s still jarred by just how stealthily Gus manages to “hide in plain sight, same as you.”
60. “Mas” (Season 3, Episode 5)
The highlight of “Mas” is the opening montage, which tells the backstory of one of the show’s most iconic visuals: the RV meth lab. The reason Walt’s $7,000 life savings — handed over to Jesse for the purchase of an RV in the series pilot — bought such a hoopty? Jesse took the cash and blew most of it on lap dances and “Dom Perig-non” at one of Albuquerque’s finest gentlemen’s clubs, leaving him with only enough to procure the dilapidated RV from a friend of a friend (it’s Combo’s mom). But by episode’s end, Walt’s fortunes have changed: Thanks to Gus, he now has the state-of-the-art super-lab of his dreams, hidden underneath an industrial laundry. The overture strokes Walt’s chemist ego. The bottom line? Walt is cooking again.
59. “Hazard Pay” (Season 5, Episode 3)
It’s early in season five, but Walt is already in full-on manipulation mode: He lets Marie know about her sister’s affair with Ted Beneke. He meets Andrea and her son Brock, a rare bright spot in Jesse’s personal life since Jane’s death, and then underhandedly sows doubt into Jesse’s head about whether he’ll ever be able to truly open up to her about his life. As loathsome as Walt’s poisoning of Brock was, this feels on par on the evil scale: Walt selfishly protecting himself at the expense of his son-like partner’s quest to finally find some peace.
58. “Negro y Azul” (Season 2, Episode 7)
The end for cartel informant Tortuga (played by none other than Danny Trejo) is the beginning of Hank’s career and confidence-altering PTSD, triggered by the sight of Tortuga’s decapitated noggin atop a tortoise — which then explodes and kills another DEA agent. Other key beginnings in this midseason episode that will lead to fallout that unfolds all the way through to the final season: Skyler’s return to the workplace with Ted Beneke; Jesse’s relationship with Jane, even after she sees evidence he’s not your typical 9-to-5-er; and Walt using murderous rumors about Jesse to expand the business.
57. “Over” (Season 2, Episode 10)
All it takes is the slightest challenge to Walt’s ego or authority to bring out the worst in him, even when it comes on the heels of the good news that his cancer is in remission. Skyler throws a party, but the mention of Gretchen and Elliott’s “generosity” in paying for his treatment turns Walt’s mood harsher than the tequila shots he’s slamming with Hank. Walt even pours a few too many out for Junior before Hank steps in, leading to a perverse father-figure showdown between the two men. It’s a chilling illustration of one of the show’s major themes, and it comes to a head when Walt spies some unlucky at the hardware store trying to jump-start his own meth-making operation.
56. “Cancer Man” (Season 1, Episode 4)
This early episode is notable for dishing up some of the series’ trademark humor via a pair of gifts that keep on giving: Walt’s underpants and Kyle Bornheimer’s obnoxious, Bluetooth-headset-loving businessman, Ken. The episode opens with Hank telling his fellow DEA agents: “Personally, I’m thinking Albuquerque might just have a new kingpin.” Smash cut to Walt, sporting tighty-whities and a Ned Flanders mustache as he sloppily brushes his teeth. Bryan Cranston is the once and forever master of wringing humor from prime-time underwear, as he would continue to do on Breaking Bad and had done on Malcolm in the Middle before it.
55. “Down” (Season 2, Episode 4)
Jesse’s parents kick him out of his aunt’s house and take away his furniture, his friends won’t let him crash with them, his motorcycle and remaining belongings are stolen, and when he tries to break into a junkyard to sleep in the meth-lab RV, he falls into a neither empty nor clean porta potty. Sure, Walt’s going through his own stuff, but it’s here that the sneaky truth really hits home: Jesse’s usually the one who suffers the most for his and Walt’s bad decisions.
54. “Bug” (Season 4, Episode 9)
This is the episode where Jesse really begins to see Mr. White for who he is — someone who places a GPS tracker on his ride due to a lack of trust, despite everything they’ve been through. That valve of pent-up resentment bursts into a truly memorable, room-destroying brawl, ending with a bittersweet gesture that’ll break the heart of any Pinkman sympathizer: When a battered Walt pulls himself up, Jesse asks if he can walk. Walt nods. “Then get the fuck out of here,” Jesse says, “and never come back.”
53. “Shotgun” (Season 4, Episode 5)
Hoisted by His Own Petard: The Walter White Story would be an apt title for Walt’s bio, and it could very well be the theme of Breaking Bad. Here, Skyler buys Bogdan’s car wash in a genuine attempt to launder her hubby’s ill-gotten cash, thus keeping her family together. Still, Walt’s fragile ego is too busy being slighted by Hank’s belief that Gale was the true mastermind behind the blue Heisenberg meth. Emboldened and dangerously proud, Walter convinces Hank that Gale must have been copying someone — which is enough to make Hank reopen the case and, in the kind of delicious irony Vince Gilligan excels at, discover the drug connection to a certain fried-chicken joint.
52. “Bullet Points” (Season 4, Episode 4)
The badassery of Mike Ehrmantraut, illustrated: Upon discovering a chunk of his right ear dangling off his skull after a Los Pollos Hermanos shoot-out, Mike simply rolls his eyes. He’s merely … annoyed. All hail Mike.
51. “Thirty-Eight Snub” (Season 4, Episode 2)
But then again, even Mike is shook after the gnarly events of the fourth-season premiere, in which Gus’s box cutter gets the best of Victor. But perhaps more importantly: A tormented Jesse does all he can to not think about having murdered Gale — and, sadly, fails. This is who he is now; his fate is all but sealed.
50. “Kafkaesque” (Season 3, Episode 9)
But don’t get us wrong: Jesse may be one of the show’s most sympathetic characters, yet he’s not an innocent bystander. Like when he decides to sneak the overage from the meth lab — Gus’s meth lab — and sell it himself. Also key: This episode also marks the first time Skyler really aligns herself with Walt’s world, telling Marie that Walt won all his cash by, um, gambling. She even offers the Schraders a hunk of Walt’s “winnings” to pay for Hank’s recovery from the Salamanca shootout. The episode’s message is clear: Anyone can be tempted to break bad.
49. “Green Light” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Walt says he’s done with the drug business. Gus doesn’t see it the same way. It’s one of the slower episodes of the series, but one of Breaking Bad’s brilliant trademarks was to let (seemingly) little moments like these set up big, unexpected, butterfly-effect consequences down the road.
48. “Caballo Sin Nombre” (Season 3, Episode 2)
Walt, tossed out of the house by Skyler, breaks in through the crawl space and reclaims his home. A power move, yes, but Jesse does him one better: He hires Saul to buy his aunt’s $800,000 house for half the price. The real pizza de resistance of the episode, though, is Walt’s hapless, pissy toss of a pie onto the Whites’ rooftop, for better and worse: better, because it is one of the most enduring images of the series. But worse, because for years fans have been driving by the ABQ home where the scene was shot and trying their own pizza tosses, forcing Vince Gilligan to make a public plea for privacy on the owners’ behalf — and when that failed, forcing the owners to erect a six-foot-tall wrought iron fence.
47. “Mandala” (Season 2, Episode 11)
Walt often maintains that his drug life is all about providing for his family, but in this episode, he misses the birth of his daughter in order to make his first meth delivery to new associate Gus. And before she gives birth to Holly, Skyler’s off helping Ted Beneke hide his corporate malfeasance and singing a cringeworthy Marilyn Monroe–style “Happy Birthday” to Ted. It’s becoming clear at this point that the Whites’ marriage is spiraling to the point of no return, and it’s cemented that Walt’s first allegiance is to Heisenberg and all that persona entails.
46. “Buyout” (Season 5, Episode 6)
Mostly a setup for the rest of the season, “Buyout” features two key moments. First, Walt’s admission that he’s not doing all this for his family; he’s really in the “empire business,” determined to make up for his Gray Matter investment blunder (which doubles as his supervillain origin story). That chat is followed by one of the last truly funny scenes of the series: Jesse’s terrifically awkward dinner with Skyler and Walt at the White house. Jesse is a big fan of Skyler’s green beans with slivered almonds. “They are from the deli at Albertsons,” she dismisses. “Well, you know, good work on your shopping, then,” Jesse insists.
45. “No Mas” (Season 3, Episode 1)
While the whole city is dealing with the plane crash caused by Jane’s grieving father, Walt, Jesse, and Skyler make some life-altering decisions. Walt decides he’s not a meth cook anymore, turning down Gus’s $3 million overture; Jesse, reeling from Jane’s death, decides he’s a bad guy; and Skyler, finally aware of how Walt’s making all that money, decides to divorce him. But the real highlight is a group leader at Jesse’s rehab center, played by guest star Jere Burns, delivering one of the series’ most memorable performances as a recovering addict who accidentally killed his own child while high.
44. “Problem Dog” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Group Leader Jere Burns is back as Jesse attends a support-group meeting to confess how he killed a “problem dog” who hadn’t even done anything wrong. He also agrees, in spite of, not because of, a manipulative speech by Walt, to kill Gus. Walt’s other partnership hits a glitch, when Skyler realizes he makes more than $7 million a year and wonders how she can possibly make all those stacks of $50 bills seem legit. And while Gus is unaware that Jesse is gunning for him, he’s even less clued in to what Hank has found: Gus’s fingerprints on a Los Pollos Hermanos cup match prints in Gale’s apartment, which allows Hank to unfold for his DEA boss a theory about the seemingly kind fried-chicken magnate being a direct partner of the elusive Heisenberg.
43. “Madrigal” (Season 5, Episode 2)
She isn’t a Gustavo Fring–level baddie, but the introduction of Lydia, Gus’s American contact from the Germany-based Madrigal, nicely fills the need for someone to love to hate and hate to be entertained by. Of course, Lydia is also here keep the meth biz going post-Gus’s death: She becomes our guys’ main source of methylamine, a collaboration that spins a new web of connections and deftly carries the show to its conclusion.
42. “Abiquiu” (Season 3, Episode 11)
In a pivotal moment in Jesse’s development, he gets an up-close-and-personal look at the consequences of his trade via Andrea’s son Tomás, who, as part of a gang-initiation ritual, killed a man in a scenario that sounds a lot like Combo’s murder. Later, when Jesse visits the scene of Combo’s death, he sees Tomás selling Walt and Jesse’s signature cook. Elsewhere: Skyler insists on meeting Saul, who wants Walt to buy a laser-tag business. Skyler insists the car wash is a safer, more logical purchase. (Another loss for Saul!) It’s a revealing peek at Skyler’s ability to run a multimillion-dollar drug operation without the pitfalls — like, say, ego — that plague Walt.
41. “Sunset” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Hank is a bulldog when it comes to the hunt for Heisenberg, and he’s just inches from blowing the case open when he tracks down the RV meth lab — but alas, Walt thwarts him once again. More crucially for Hank: Gus sics the Salamanca cousins on the DEA agent. “May his death satisfy you,” Gus tells them. Truly chilling.
40. “I.F.T.” (Season 3, Episode 3)
Has Walt lost control of his life, or the people in it? When an increasingly distant and frustrated Skyler comes home from work to drop a bomb on him: Her day included some very personal extracurricular activities with Ted Beneke, an in-your-face declaration that she phrases much less delicately. Bonus: The episode’s cold open shows how Tortuga’s head came to be on that tortoise in Texas. (No surprise: The Salamanca cousins were involved.)
39. “Bit by a Dead Bee” (Season 2, Episode 3)
And the underpants return! And this time, they’re coming off. Walt needs a cover story for his disappearance at Tuco’s house, so he really goes for it by entering a supermarket, getting naked, and pretending to have fallen into a stress-induced fugue state. It’s enough to fool his family — most of them, anyway. But the seed of mistrust in the White home has been planted, setting the show up for major bouts of household dysfunction.
38. “Open House” (Season 4, Episode 3)
Aw, Jesse. Never having gotten over his post-rehab self-assessment that he’s a bad guy, he continues to punish himself by turning his home into a war zone for strangers who are now stealing his appliances right in front of him. But this episode is stolen by the women of Breaking Bad. Marie, angry and beaten down by the bitter, grumpy, recuperating Hank, resumes her kleptomaniac activities, changing her identity as she visits open houses and pilfers tchotchkes. It’s a delightful little adventure for the quirky Marie — until she breaks your heart with a meltdown in the police station. Meanwhile, Skyler has an adventure of her own, playing hardball with Saul to buy the car wash. She kind of enjoys it, too.
37. “Gray Matter” (Season 1, Episode 5)
“Gray Matter” provides the key to understanding what motivates Walter White, who sold his founding stake in the research company that could’ve earned him millions of dollars and recognition in his field. Instead, he became a high-school chemistry teacher with a car-wash side hustle. So when he sees a trophy-lined study at his old partner Elliott’s birthday party — and gets a mostly pity job offer to help pay for his cancer treatment — his ego can’t handle it. Making meth is a way to provide for his family after he’s gone, yes, but it’s also the way to reclaim the power, promise, and “empire” he once felt was his destiny.
36. “Dead Freight” (Season 5, Episode 5)
One of the show’s coolest action plots — Walt, Mike, Jesse, and Todd’s intricately plotted heist of methylamine from a train running through New Mexico — is followed by one of the darkest, most disturbing moments. Having successfully procured a new supply of the chemical, the fellas celebrate the win, which was achieved without killing anyone. That is, until they turn around to see a young boy on his dirt bike. Todd takes out his gun without hesitation and shoots the kid, the only witness to their crime. It’s just the tip of how chillingly cold and casual Todd proves to be when it comes to death.
35. “ABQ” (Season 2, Episode 13)
The fallout from Walt and Jesse’s collaboration is literal: After Jane’s death is discovered by her air-traffic controller father, he distractedly causes the collision of two planes on the job. Skyler, meanwhile, decides to leave Walt after he confirms the existence of his second cell phone while under anesthesia. It’s a dark way to wrap season two, but “ABQ” also introduces one of the great gifts of the Vince Gilligan universe: Jonathan Banks. It’s almost too painful to mention that the Bad and Better Call Saul star has yet to receive the Emmy love he so richly deserves for his portrayal of Gus’s problem solver, Mike Ehrmantraut.
34. “Buried” (Season 5, Episode 10)
Walt and Hank’s inevitable confrontation happened in the previous episode, “Blood Money,” but this is where the game of cat and mouse truly begins, as Hank — thinking Skyler’s unaware of Walt’s activities — tries to question her before Walt gets to her. Walt, meanwhile, is busy burying giant barrels of money in the desert. And back at Hank’s office at the DEA, a gift awaits: Jesse, in an interrogation room.
33. “Cat’s in the Bag …” (Season 1, Episode 2)
… and the liquefied Emilio is in the bathtub. Until, that is, the hydrofluoric acid Jesse used to get rid of Emilio’s body eats through the bathtub at Jesse’s house. That causes the floor and ceiling underneath it to dissolve, and down rains the red, chunky goo that was Emilio. It’s a disgusting, shocking, and honestly not unfunny visual, and one that proves Breaking Bad will amp up its stakes moving forward.
32. “Seven Thirty-Seven” (Season 2, Episode 1)
It’s in this Bryan Cranston–directed episode we meet the charred, pink teddy bear, one of the more iconic symbols from the series. Furthermore, Walt and Jesse get kidnapped by Tuco, leaving every viewer tense with dread. It’s the kickoff of the only season of the show the writers plotted from beginning to end before the season began, and in many ways, it’s a classic Breaking Bad episode: a high-stakes hour that pays dramatic dividends galore.
31. “End Times” (Season 4, Episode 12)
Look at Walt manipulate Jesse yet again, this time using Jesse’s affection for his girlfriend’s son to his advantage. Walt makes Jesse think Gus poisoned Andrea’s son Brock, all so Jesse would be convinced to partner up with him to kill Gus. It works, as so many of Walt’s manipulations of Jesse do, even though their first attempt to end Gus’s life — planting a bomb in his car — fails because the intuitive Gustavo senses something is amiss. It’s a high point in the Walt versus Gus war, as Gus continues to prove he’s at least, at least, as clever as Walter.
30. “Grilled” (Season 2, Episode 12)
Tio Salamanca is one of the more stealth standouts of the series, and here, in one of the show’s most tense episodes, is where we (and Walt and Jesse) first get to know the one-time drug-trade leader, who’s now wheelchair-bound, unable to speak, and dependent on his psychotic nephews. So much happens in this episode: Tuco, having kidnapped Walt and Jesse, spirals out while his captors try to escape; Hank shows up for a shoot-out, killing Tuco; and Tio rings a bell a bunch of times. Bonus: “Grilled” includes one of the show’s best off-beat openers, in which the rhythmic hydraulics of Jesse’s car act as soundtrack to the Hank–Tuco shoot-out.
29. “Box Cutter” (Season 4, Episode 1)
Yep, Jesse really killed Gale in the third-season finale — something fans still wondered about, even though “Full Measure” wasn’t intended to be a cliffhanger. Instead, the real shocker of this season opener comes when Gus uses the titular weapon to cut the throat of his henchman, Victor. It’s not shocking because we’re surprised Gus would do such a thing, or because he could do it so calmly. No, the real gut punch is that Victor is the victim, not Walt or Jesse. It’s chilling, because we can only imagine what he’ll do to the duo next.
28. “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal” (Season 1, Episode 7)
If this Pontiac Aztek’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’. Walt is feeling pretty frisky: He and Skyler skip out on a PTA meeting to get busy in the school parking lot. “Why was that so good?” Skyler wonders. “Because it was illegal,” Walt tells her. On the heels of his “Heisenberg” confrontation with Tuco, Walt’s feeling all kinds of confident that he’s got this drug thing down. But his next meeting with the psycho distributor, in which Tuco beats his own man No-Doze for making a simple remark shakes Walt, and ends the first season by making it clear to Walt, Jesse, and the audience that to tough it out in the ABQ meth game, you need more than some science magic and a cool hat.
27. “Granite State” (Season 5, Episode 15)
The penultimate episode of the series finds Walt and company as low as they can get: Walt can’t get his stolen money back from Todd and Uncle Jack; Saul is headed off to a Cinnabon future in Omaha; Jesse is kidnapped by Jack and Todd and forced to cook meth; and Todd kills Andrea in front of Jesse after he tries to get away. A lonely Walt escapes to a secluded cabin in New Hampshire, where he awaits monthly deliveries of food and chemo. Eventually Walt trudges off toward town with a box full of money he wants to send his family. But even after a call to Walt Jr. ends with his son wishing for his speedy death, Walt’s ego rears its head once again: When he sees Elliott and Gretchen, in a TV interview, disavow his contributions to the beginnings of Gray Matter, he can’t help but trek back to Arizona, where he’ll have the last word and wreak even more havoc and destruction on the ones he left behind.
26. “Say My Name” (Season 5, Episode 7)
It’s one of Walt’s most triumphant moments, when he makes new distribution partner Declan acknowledge who he is: Heisenberg. “You’re goddamn right.” Walt spits back. Mike, too, reaches his breaking point, yelling at Walt: “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch! We had Fring. We had a lab. We had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork. You could’ve shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But, no, you just had to blow it up, you and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man. If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now.”
This leads to one of the show’s greatest scenes: Mike, suffering from a gunshot wound by Walt’s hand, sits on a rock overlooking the nearby river. Walt keeps talking and talking. “Shut the fuck up and let me die in peace,” Mike says, and does just that.
25. “Better Call Saul” (Season 2, Episode 8)
They first made Saul Goodman’s acquaintance when Badger got busted, but it isn’t long before he’s providing legal counsel to Walt and Jesse, too, as well as money-laundering services to the White family. He’s also the man responsible for connecting Walt and Jesse with Gus and Mike, for better and worse. Despite his obvious flair, could anyone back then have imagined that this colorfully attired, fast-talking strip-mall lawyer could carry an equally terrific series of his own? Thank goodness Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan did.
24. “Live Free or Die” (Season 5, Episode 1)
Walt is insufferable after pulling off his plot to kill Gus in the fourth-season finale. He won’t let Saul quit, Skyler tells him she’s scared of him, and when he’s annoying the hell out out of his partners with his cockiness. Yes, Walt is feeling his oats quite nicely, but another one of those signature cold opens teases that he will soon find himself in a very different, lonely place, celebrating his 52nd birthday alone at an Albuquerque Denny’s. It’s a delicious installment because we’ve come to trust that when the BB writers tease the future with such a grand scene, the journey to getting there is going to be worth the ride. With this final-season premiere, there was little worry the series finale wouldn’t stick the landing.
23. “Phoenix” (Season 2, Episode 12)
A watershed moment in the series: “Phoenix” marks the point when Walt let Jane choke to death on her own vomit after she and Jesse go on a drug bender. Is Walt motivated by concern for Jesse, seeing Jane as a bad influence on his fragile addict cohort? Or is he motivated by concern for their business future? Either way, this pivotal scene is the point of no return for Walt.
22. “… And the Bag’s in the River” (Season 1, Episode 3)
Walt tries to decide whether or not to kill basement prisoner Krazy-8 (RIP to his acid-dissolved cousin). When Walt takes a sandwich to his hostage, they begin to bond: Walter discovers he bought Walt Jr.’s crib at Krazy-8’s family’s furniture store years earlier. Walt is almost convinced to let him go, until he makes a heartbreaking discovery: Krazy-8, the only person Walt has shared his cancer diagnosis with, has been waiting for the chance to cut Walt with the shard of broken plate he had squirreled away. It’s one of the biggest emotional wallops in a series stuffed with them.
21. “Cornered” (Season 4, Episode 6)
“I am the danger … I am the one who knocks,” Walt crows to Skyler in one the show’s most haunting moments. His boast halfway through the penultimate season comes before he’s even handled his Gus problem, and before he fully understands the distribution side of the business. Walt isn’t concerned with quashing his wife’s fears; he’s angry she had them in the first place. A combination of great writing, timing, and delivery, it’s one of those scenes that has come to define our memory of the series.
20. “Blood Money” (Season 5, Episode 9)
The series ending continues to be telegraphed in a cold-open flash-forward that finds a full-haired, 52-year-old Walt of “Live Free or Die” visiting the White house, now in disrepair and covered in graffiti. Back to the present, the action picks up from the previous episode, when Hank’s bathroom reading finally provided him with evidence of who Heisenberg is. Walt, finding that his copy of Leaves of Grass is missing, runs to Hank’s house, and the showdown that’s been building for at least four seasons truly begins. Hank: “I don’t even know who I’m talking to.” Walt: “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.” It’s the episode viewers had waited a year for, a satisfying hour that suggests the end of the series is all too near.
19. “4 Days Out” (Season 2, Episode 9)
No other series or movie will ever make New Mexico scenery more dreamy than Breaking Bad did; color palettes and cinematography were integral to the the show’s storytelling, this episode being a prime example. Plans for a marathon cook session in the RV, against the glowy-orange and crispy-blue backdrops of the desert sky, goes horribly, hilariously wrong after Jesse accidentally runs down the RV battery and gets himself and Walt stranded in the desert with an exhausted water supply, dead cell phone, and no gasoline for their generator. It’s the ultimate Gilligan-ian irony: that gorgeous setting threatens to do them in.
18. “Half Measures” (Season 3, Episode 12)
Not only does Walt follow Jesse’s lead for a change – Jesse takes a stand against Gus when he discover that Gus’ associates employ children to commit murder – Walt puts his own best interests on the back burner in the name of supporting and protecting his partner. It’s a level of sacrifice on Jesse’s behalf we won’t see again by Walt until the series finale, and it’s perfectly timed to bring the original duo into a tight alliance, as Walt’s in nearing his most dangerous showdown yet with Gus.
17. “Full Measure” (Season 3, Episode 13)
The final two episodes of season three form an intense, crushing story that earns both of them a spot in the top 20. When Walt tells an unhappy Gus that Jesse has fled the state, Gus brings Gale in to assist Walt in the lab. Walt correctly concludes that Gus is actually using Gale to learn how to cook Walt’s product, making Walt expendable. The only way to fix this: kill Gale, says Walt. And it’s up to Jesse to literally pull the trigger. Is he capable of killing an innocent man, even if it’s the only way to save Walt? He is, and all it costs Mr. Pinkman is a piece of his soul, a loss from which he never recovers.
16. “Rabid Dog” (Season 5, Episode 12)
We jump ahead two seasons, where things have taken a drastic turn. Jesse wants Walt dead now that he knows the truth about Brock’s poisoning, while Saul and Skyler insist killing Jesse is the full measure Walt needs to take. “We’ve come this far … what’s one more?” Skyler asks with a coldness that says everything about where she’s at right now mentally. Despite their many squabbles throughout the partnership, this is the first time Walt and Jesse actually make plans for mutually assured destruction. With four episodes remaining in the series, it becomes a supremely suspenseful question: Who will survive — if anyone at all?
15. “Fly” (Season 3, Episode 10)
A polarizing episode that some people hate, and some people rate as one of the best ever, it rightly takes a spot in the top 25 percent of our list. It’s true, the pithy plot explanation of the Rian Johnson–directed episode is that Walt and Jesse spend many hours trying to catch a fly in the meth super-lab, lest it contaminate their product. That alone is a sign of Walt’s need to be in control. While the two wait for the fly to make a mistake, Walt dives deep on his life, and admits that it might be better for his family if he had died already. Jesse also opens up, too, by talking about Jane, prompting Walt to … fall asleep. Jesse kills the fly, and they leave the lab for the day having personally reconnected for the first time in a while, one of those increasingly rare bonding sessions that would sustain their partnership until those final few episodes of the season.
14. “Hermanos” (Season 4, Episode 8)
For so long, we had waited for the smallest nuggets of info on the mysterious Gustavo Fring’s backstory, and this episode is a gift rife with it. Flashback, 1989: Gus and his good friend Max — so close they named their joint restaurant business Los Pollos Hermanos in a nod to their brotherhood — approach Don Eladio about becoming the distributors of their premium meth. Instead, Don Eladio has Hector Salamanca shoot Max in the head in front of Gus, a major power play. This nicely sets up Gus’s vengeful obsession with Hector Salamanca (and, on top of that, provides a significant, equally compelling arc on Better Call Saul).
13. “Peekaboo” (Season 2, Episode 6)
Aaron Paul was deservedly nominated for an Emmy for this episode, the first of many times we see Jesse’s instantaneous bond with children, which happens when he goes into the creepy home of Spooge and Mrs. Spooge. The events that follow are tragic: Jesse plays peekaboo with the Spooges’ son, a sweet little boy who lives in front of a TV and immediately responds to the obviously rare bit of attention he’s getting. But after a tussle with the family, an ATM machine topples over, crushing the Spooge paterfamilias’s head. Jesse grabs their son and runs outside with him, where he calls the cops and tells the boy not to return inside. It drives home one of the show’s heartbreaking recurring themes: Jesse’s failure to become a strong father figure himself.
12. “Crazy Handful of Nothin’” (Season 1, Episode 6)
What a difference a porkpie hat makes to a fella’s confidence. Well, that and a crazy handful of fulminated mercury. Walt/Heisenberg gets Tuco to make a deal: two pounds of meth a week for $70,000. Walt also soaks Tuco for Jesse’s medical expenses. The rush from his power play gives Walt the biggest goose forward yet on his Mr. Chips–to–Scarface journey.
11. “Fifty-One” (Season 5, Episode 4)
The series began with Walt turning 50, but just a year later, Skyler and Walt’s marriage is effectively done. He’s made it to 51, and during a small family celebration in the Whites’ backyard, Skyler stuns Hank and Marie by walking into the pool fully clothed. As she’d hoped, they offer to give her some personal time and take Walt Jr. and Holly to their home for a while. Anna Gunn won an Emmy for her powerful, too often underappreciated performance as a depressed, terrified Skyler. Here, she seizes her own measure of power: “What are you waiting for?” an exasperated Walt asks. Skyler: “For the cancer to come back.”
10. “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)
Bryan Cranston won his first Lead Actor Emmy for the series pilot, where milquetoast high-school chemistry teacher Walter White spends part of his 50th birthday moonlighting at a car wash, lives on such a tight budget that he has to juggle credit cards to buy a pack of printer paper, is constantly ribbed by his macho DEA agent brother-in-law, and boasts a love life that’s reduced to distracted manual stimulation while his wife monitors an auction she’s hosting on eBay. Oh, and then he learns he has inoperable lung cancer, and decides to cook crystal meth with his former chemistry-flunking student, to ensure his family is financially secure after he dies, which is likely to happen in less than two years. That alone is a concept that hooks you. But this excellent first episode sets the tone for what’s to come: superb performances across the cast; a gripping visual style; and a delicious, unexpected mix of darkly humorous moments, intense action, and ever-increasing stakes.
9. “Confessions” (Season 5, Episode 11)
Skyler and Walt meet up with Marie and Hank at a Mexican restaurant, and they all know the truth about Walt. But that the series gives us the chance to watch the four of them confront each other about all that’s happened is one of the most satisfying payoffs of the final season. And the showdown doesn’t disappoint, especially when Walt gives his in-laws a DVD containing his confession. He owns up to cooking meth but shuffles the details to make it look like Hank is Heisenberg, and Walt was merely a victim of his machinations.
8. “Crawl Space” (Season 4, Episode 11)
Right up there with Cranston in his undies, that floating pink teddy bear, Skyler drifting into the pool, Hank on the john, and half-faced Gus, the moment when the camera pans to reveal Walt laughing hysterically in the crawl space of his house is one of the most unforgettable images of the series. Having found that more than half-a-million dollars of his blood money is missing, Walt just loses it. That it’s been used to pay off the IRS debt of the man who had an affair with Skyler? Well, going temporarily insane seems like a perfectly rational reaction to that situation.
7. “Salud” (Season 4, Episode 10)
What other series could make you so happy to see a villain get his revenge? Gustavo Fring does just that, traveling back to Don Eladio’s estate in Mexico — to the very poolside where he watched the murder of his friend Max — ostensibly to make peace and celebrate the cartel’s new meth cook, Jesse. But Gus has poisoned the bottle of premium tequila he gifted to Eladio, and fooled him by imbibing some of it himself. As Gus forces himself to regurgitate his portion, Eladio and his crew start keeling over. It’s a grand payoff for all that time Gus spent cultivating his cool, calm, patient persona. He finally gets to serve his revenge, straight-up.
6. “Face Off” (Season 4, Episode 13)
There’s the visual shock of seeing Gus’s half face, when he’s already half dead, after Walter carries out one of his shrewdest plots ever. Hector and Gus both want Walt dead + Hector and Gus want each other dead = Walt convinces Hector to detonate a suicide bomb that will also take out Gus. Forget chemistry, that’s just good math. But Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed the episode that would end the stellar Breaking Bad performances of Giancarlo Esposito and Mark Margolis, wasn’t done with bombshells in this gem: Jesse learns that Brock wasn’t poisoned by ricin, after all. He’d ingested some sweet berries from the Lily of the Valley plant, which a season-ending shot reveals is growing … in the backyard at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane.
5. “One Minute” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Aside from “Ozymandias,” there is no more intense, perfectly crafted, acted, and directed (by Michelle MacLaren) sequence in Breaking Bad than Marco and Leonel Salamanca’s attack against Hank. It starts with the DEA agent receiving a warning call that two people are coming to kill him in one minute, and ends with a brand-new ax landing on the ground, so sharp that its blade sticks in the concrete. Hank thinks it’s a prank at first, but all his cop training and survival skills pay off here as he fends off two cold-blooded killers in one of the most gripping parking-lot-set scenes in recent memory.
4. “Gliding All Over” (Season 5, Episode 8)
Another Michelle MacLaren–directed triumph, the episode starts with a brilliant sequence — backed by Nat King Cole’s bouncy “Pick Yourself Up” — where Todd’s Uncle Jack helps orchestrate the killing of ten men, spread across three prisons, in two minutes. That’s the good news for Walt. The bad news: At a party at Walt’s house, Hank takes a potty break and looks around for some reading material. He starts thumbing through a nice hardcover copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “To my other favorite W.W. It’s an honor working with you. Fondly, G.B.” it reads. The look on Hank’s face says it all, resulting in a blockbuster midseason cliffhanger that had viewers biting their nails for nearly a year.
3. “Felina” (Season 5, Episode 16)
It’s everything a series finale should be, wrapping up every major storyline, seeing our anti-hero get his revenge and face his consequences, touching base with fan-favorite supporting characters (hi, Badger and Skinny Pete!), and leaving some small pockets of hope for beloved survivors like Skyler, Marie, and, of course, Jesse. We still can’t hear “El Paso” or “Baby Blue” without getting teary.
2. “To’hajiilee” (Season 5, Episode 13)
Until Uncle Jack (in another scene-stealing turn by a supporting actor, this time the great Michael Bowen) and his group show up in the desert, Hank and Jesse think they have Walt cornered. Hank gets to arrest Walt, and Jesse even gets to spit in Mr. White’s face. But as Mike pointed out before his death, they all might have been better off with the devil they knew. When Walt throws in with Jack and his Nazis and that “Opie, dead-eyed piece of shit” Todd (as Jesse once referred to him), the situation turns on its head. But once Walt finally recognizes Jack & Co.’s true natures, it’s too late … they’ve arrived and the shoot-out begins. Walt’s ego has just insured his own downfall — fade to black.
1. “Ozymandias” (Season 5, Episode 14)
Writer Moira Walley-Beckett, Bryan Cranston, and Anna Gunn won Emmys for an episode that could not be a more perfect hour of dramatic television. There were still two episodes to go in the series, and yet “Ozymandias” (another Rian Johnson-directed installment) is such an emotionally trouncing run that it feels like viewers might have little left for dealing with the end. Walt offering his $80 million fortune to save Hank’s life, Hank’s immediate recognition that he’s already gone (“You’re the smartest guy I ever met, and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind ten minutes ago,” Hank tells Walt about Jack’s plans) … Walt, blaming Jesse for Hank’s death, pointing out his hiding place to Jack, then taking glee in admitting to Jesse he purposefully allowed Jane to die … Walt kidnapping baby Holly, then calling Skyler to confirm Hank’s death and carry out a harsh, ruse conversation that he hopes will prevent her from suffering any legal consequences … it’s still, all these years later, almost too much for a Breaking Bad viewer to bear, yet too classic not to rewatch any chance you get.