We have only a few days left during which Breaking Bad is still a show that is currently on television, so the Grantland staff has convened to give it one last HOF kiss on the cheek before sending it out to its dusty, bloody end. This time we're highlighting our favorite episodes of the series, the ones that stand out amid what most of us agree is already an all-time-great show. From "Fly" to "Face Off," here are the best Bad hours.
Season 3, Episode 10, "Fly"
Mark Lisanti: Season 3’s "Fly" — the first episode directed by Looper’s Rian Johnson, whose "Ozymandias" might stand as the best of the series — could be the most polarizing hour in Breaking Bad’s run. You remember it: The one where Walt, obsessed with the idea that the insect that's infiltrated the pristine confines of his superlab will contaminate the cook, spends the entire hour on an Ahabesque quest to destroy it before everything is ruined. Jesse stumbles into the middle of Walt's seemingly insane overnight pursuit — "So you're chasing a fly, and in your world, I'm the idiot" — ultimately finishing the fly-swatting job while an exhausted Walt, eased off the hunt by a cup of coffee Jesse dosed with sleeping pills, naps.
Oh, right, there are some other things going on: Walt's discovery that Jesse is skimming product, an offense that could get him killed by Gus; Walt's admission that he met Jane's father the night Jane died; Walt's frustration at his inability to explain the motives for his cooking to Skyler; the crushing guilt (Walt is still capable of experiencing guilt) of his calculating non-intervention in Jane's death. When Walt pressurized the lab, he wasn't messing around. By the end of it, you feel like they've been locked in a phone booth, not in the cavernous meth-fabricating palace Fring built them.
So dismiss this as a boring bottle episode if you must. There are no magnets, no train heists, no fatal standoffs in the desert. It's just two people chasing a fly.
Season 3, Episode 12, "Half Measures"
Zach Dionne: Stronger episodes of Breaking Bad exist, but none of them made me jump out of my chair and yell — while watching alone, headphone cord ejecting from headphone jack — like the climax of "Half Measures" did in 2010. Walt transforming his Pontiac Aztek into a gangster bulldozer was a watershed moment, raising the bar for adrenaline and drawing a thick, bloody line between the series' first and second halves. The way "Mr. White" blasted the surviving gangster in the head, execution-style, Heisenberg-style, was shocking not because the violence-averse schoolteacher from Season 1 was suddenly gone; it was shocking because Walt had turned into this beast a long time ago, and he no longer cared to pretend otherwise. Bonuses: The cold open featuring Wendy the hooker, a standout example of BrBa’s depressing montages soundtracked so joyously; Marie and Hank negotiating via hospital handjob.
Season 4, Episode 11, "Crawl Space"
Emily Yoshida: All my favorite TV shows have made me cry at some point. That may seem like a cheap measuring device to determine quality, but that's usually when I realize just how invested I've become in a story. When Breaking Bad pulls tears out of me, though, it tends to pull out a few vital organs with them, such as my broken, still-beating heart in the final scene of "Full Measure," and my completely short-circuited brain in "Crawl Space." I have a distinct memory of watching that torturous, trembling crane shot pull out of Walt's self-made in-house grave and finally cut to black, then sinking my head in between my couch cushions and waiting until I was no longer gasp-sobbing so as not to worry my neighbors in my thin-walled apartment building.
Until last week's "Granite State," the final scene of "Crawl Space" was the closest Walt had ever come to stepping all the way outside his circle of ego and seeing his situation for the futile shit show that it's been since the beginning, albeit in zanier form. This is when the Schraders started to get sucked into Walter's black hole, and it's when Skyler had to decide whether or not to buckle in for this suicide mission to nowhere. And the man at the center of it all is lying on his back in the dirt, glasses broken, laughing like a maniac because at that moment, a part of him really knows that it's all for nothing.
Season 4, Episode 13, "Face Off"
netw3rk: A tightrope walk is gripping entertainment not because of the variety of possible outcomes, but because the price of one of the only two outcomes is unthinkably high. Make it across or it’s black bunting and bagpipes. Either Walter dies, here and now, and the series is essentially done, or Gus dies, and we keep on trucking.
Thing is, though, by all reasonable measures, Gus should win. He’s got the multimillion-dollar underground lab, professional button men at his beck and call, a seamless cover identity, and years of experience swimming with the sharks in the deep end of the international drug market. Walter White is a high school science teacher who’s been, until recently, cooking meth in a busted-up RV with a partner who’s a frequent violator of Biggie Crack Commandment No. 4. If Walt prevails in a way that rings hollow or if Vince Gilligan loses his nerve (hello, The Walking Dead), all that tension unravels and the story stalls.
We went into the Season 4 finale knowing that Walter had to win. What made the ending unforgettable wasn’t just Gus’s half-vaporized face and last-gasp display of cravat-adjusting vanity, it was also the relief that Gilligan & Co., with everything at stake, got Walt across that tightrope.
Season 5, Episode 1, "Live Free or Die"
Dan Silver: After the High Bridge Productions company card rolled at the end of "Face Off," the prognostication began. “If they just did THAT, what else could possibly happen?” (And given the events of "Face Off," “that” could mean a few things.) Speculation ran wild, and a near nine-month hiatus between "Face Off" and "Live Free or Die" seemed like a cruel, Tuco-esque punishment.
I’ll agree that "Live Free or Die" is not as memorable an episode as, well, most of the others chosen by my colleagues. But there are some hidden great moments in it — Mike feeding the chickens outside the clinic; the confrontation in the desert and ultimate professional union of Walt, Jesse, and Mike; and, of course, my all-time favorite Breaking Bad moment, Jesse’s reaction to the magnets.
But I’d argue that of all the episodes in the series, it had one of the tougher challenges — start the end game. Final seasons are tricky, but first episodes of final seasons are even more delicate (just ask Lindelof and Cuse). They need to wrap up story lines carried over from previous seasons, all while setting the pieces in place for the denouement and conclusion, not a cliffhanger. As such, "Live Free or Die" was the apex of the show’s narrative roller coaster, and the fans were about to find out if all the trust (and praise) heaped on Vince Gilligan and his band of Jesses (a.k.a. his writing staff) would turn out to be warranted or unjustified. Clearly, it’s the former.
Season 5, Episode 2, "Madrigal"
Andy Greenwald: I experienced the first three seasons of Breaking Bad like a tweaker: marathon DVD binges that left me jittery and wild-eyed, torn between calling my therapist and calling the corner bodega to see if they'd deliver another six-pack of beer. But even once I had caught up to the more traditional weekly dosage — I'm imagining fans lined up patiently in front of Nurse Ratched's window — I still experienced the show less as a series of individual episodes and more as gradations of a heart attack.
Which is to say: I'm not sure I have a favorite episode! I have favorite moments — the trippy first glimpse of the pink teddy bear in the pool; the introduction of Gus Fring and his wild, tequila-fueled revenge; anything that involved Mike being Mike — but they all stack on top of each other like Jenga blocks. The result is a wobbly tower of memory and anxiety that could tumble at any moment — but look how high it reached!
So for this impossible exercise I chose a late-series episode for its opening teaser, a scene that didn't feature a single member of our familiar cast. The first moments of Season 5's "Madrigal" occur in Hanover, Germany. We're introduced to the doomed Herr Schuler, one of Lydia's white-collar contacts who is up to his neck in Heisenberg's blue. In less time than it takes to boil an egg, let alone cook a batch of meth, Breaking Bad’s MVP director Michelle MacLaren filmed a honey-mustard streaked mini-movie about life and business, truth and consequences. It was our first glimpse of how big Walter White's world had gotten and how far his poison had reached. It was also evidence that Breaking Bad could easily have been a much broader show. And that its pinprick focus on New Mexico and bad old Walt was, like everything else about it, very much by design.
Season 5, Episode 8, "Gliding Over All"
Bill Barnwell: "Gliding Over All," the final episode of the first half of the final season, is the quintessential Breaking Bad episode for a number of reasons. First, it's directed by Michelle MacLaren, the show's most daring and thoughtful presenter. (If you haven't, check out Andy's podcast with MacLaren from earlier this month.) As such, it doesn't just deliver a traditional BB montage, it provides arguably the two best montages in the show's run: first, the neo-Nazi killing spree of Mike's henchmen, and then the iconic "Crystal Blue Persuasion" montage that runs the viewer through those few heady months when everything in the meth trade simply worked. That overhead shot of the houses turning into fumigated meth labs, man. And then, of course, it provides a classic Breaking Bad climax. That final scene is heart-pounding because it works on a number of levels. The structure of the storytelling — cramming months of success into a montage — tells us that when we get out of the montage, something bad is going to happen. As viewers who frequent pop culture blogs too much, we have the meta-knowledge that this episode's status as the half-season finale tells us something big has to go down to fuel the second half of the story. And as things linger on the quiet dinner party, millions of terrifying possibilities pop up for what might be the catalyst for that big event. Of course, Hank's discovery of "Leaves of Grass" is perfect — it's unexpected and, yet, it makes total sense as an oversight by a kingpin who had been so meticulous until he didn't need to be. It was both a satisfying ending and an exhilarating warning of things to come. Breaking Bad hit that exact note more than any other show on television. That's why I'll miss it so much. #huellspinoff
Season 5, Episode 14, "Ozymandias"
Mallory Rubin: This pick isn't a matter of recency over primacy. Sure, the episode aired only two weeks ago, but it tore into me deeply enough to last for two decades. I'm also not sure that it's sane or rational to call something that caused me this much pain and distress my "favorite." But whatever, screw the semantics: This was a transcendent hour of television — the best, if not the easiest to consume, hour I've ever seen.
The greatness began with the very first frame, a tight shot of the boiling beaker at the center of Walt's and Jesse's first cook. The open was all about firsts: Jesse's first look at Walt's saggy undies; Walt's first lie to Skyler about whom he's with and what he's doing and when he'll be home for dinner; the dream team's first trip into the sandy, secret abyss. We found out in the prior episode that Walt had chosen to bury his barrels of cash at the site of his and Jesse's first cook, and this opening scene, wedged between the final sequence of "To'hajiilee" and the return to action in "Ozymandias," served as the perfect commentary on Walt's journey to that point: Despite his transformation from Walter White into Heisenberg, despite the metamorphosis that degraded a high school chemistry teacher into a murderous meth kingpin, Walt has merely been treading water. He lost himself, but he's standing in the same spot.
We knew that a lot of what happened in this episode was going to come at some point in the show's final few hours. We knew Hank was a goner; we knew Walter Jr. was going to find out about his father's misdeeds; we knew Skyler would rethink her newfound allegiance to Walt; we knew more horrible things would happen to Jesse the way they always do; we knew the Jane revelation would come into play. But that's actually what makes this episode such an astonishing achievement. Aside from the knife fight and the baby thieving, very few plot points were truly surprising. Heck, the poem from which the episode draws its name tells us everything we can expect.
But it didn't matter. Viewing "Ozymandias" still felt like watching something you love unravel right in front of you without being able to reach out and tie a knot at the end of the string to help keep it together. It's what Walt must have felt like, staring at Hank's corpse after his last-ditch effort to trade his millions for his brother-in-law's life had failed. Of course, Hank died because of Walt, not despite him. And because Walt can never accept blame, because Walt has to do whatever he can to regain control, we got one of the most agonizing scenes in Breaking Bad history: Walt handing his protégé to the Nazis, telling Jesse that he watched Jane die, and then leaving Jesse for dead. It was awful, but it was also perfect, just like the rest of the episode.
"Ozymandias" was a 45-minute-long kick to the gut and knife to the heart, and I loved every second of it.