PMC MAGAZINE”S BEST BREAKING BAD EPISODES
A Look at Our Top Ten Best w/ Comments from PMc Mag”s Very Own Breaking Bad Aficionado TYLER MALONE
By Tyler Malone
“Felina,” the finale of Breaking Bad, aired last night, and like countless connoisseurs of culture, we here at PMc Magazine were a bit devastated. Now what will we watch? Sure, there”s other great stuff on TV, but is there a show that can rival Breaking Bad? To celebrate the show”s brilliant run, we put together a list of what we think are the top ten best episodes of the series.
Note 1: Breaking Bad is one of those shows that really doesn”t have a bad episode, and has far too many perfect or near-perfect episodes, so creating a top ten is a risky endeavor because we”re bound to piss off some fellow fans. We know this, and apologize in advance.
Note 2: We warn any potential readers of this top ten that if you haven”t finished the series, you”re better off not reading this list, as spoilers were unavoidable. That said, if you”ve stayed on track, and you just finished the final episode this weekend with the rest of the world, then in the immortal words of Gale Boetticher singing Peter Schilling”s “Major Tom (Coming Home)”: “No need to abort, the countdown starts…”
10. “Felina” (Season 5, Episode 16)
Since I”ve only had a couple hours to think about the series finale (whose title “Felina” is not only an anagram for “finale,” but also takes on other, more revealing meanings), part of me is hesitant to let it sneak into my top ten. Is it as perfect as some other episodes that won”t make this list? The jury”s still out. Admittedly, it wasn”t one of those episodes, like “Ozymandias,” two weeks prior, that screamed for inclusion on a list such as this. And yet, “Felina” was a very satisfying end to one of the greatest shows in the history of television. Mirroring the moves of the narrator in Marty Robbins” cowboy ballad “El Paso,” where a wanted criminal returned to his home in the Southwest to die in the arms of his lover Felina, Walter White left the Granite State and returned to Albuquerque to die in the arms of his lover. No, the lover I speak of is not Skyler, though Vince Gilligan et al. made it quite clear that Walt did still love her and his family and did his best to set things right with them and admit some of his faults before he went off to do his inevitable dance with death. Instead, he died in the neo-nazis” meth lab, touching the chemistry equipment (his true Felina?) whilst a smile crept across his face, perhaps fondly remembering the good ole days with Jesse, perhaps proud that he had proven to himself and others that he was actually good at something, and one imagines perhaps most of all thinking about the fact that he had succeeded in what he set out to do in the series” first episode: his family will get a big chunk of money and be taken care of. Cradled by two loving arms that I”ll die for, one little kiss and Felina, goodbye.
9. “Face Off” (Season 4, Episode 13)
Coming right on the heels of two other phenomenal episodes (“Crawl Space” and “End Times“), both of which nearly made this list, “Face Off” is an explosive episode named not only for the final face off between Walt and his employer-turned-nemesis Gustavo Fring, but also for how Gus is left after their encounter, which is with his face quite literally off. It”s easy to forget with all the craziness that transpired in the first four seasons that it”s not until this season four finale that a main character actually dies. The death scene has that perfect Breaking Bad cocktail of humor and horror all the way from Hector Salamanca”s constipated face as he rings his bell his last few times to Gus Fring”s final fixing of his tie as though sprucing himself up to meet his maker. But beyond that scene, there”s the whole Lily of the Valley mess, and even if you saw it coming, the slow zoom on that flower pot at the end of the episode is the harbinger of all things broken bad in the final season.
8. “Crazy Handful of Nothin”” (Season 1, Episode 6)
Before there was Gustavo Fring, there was Tuco Salamanca. You couldn”t really have two more different antagonists for Walt, and yet they”re both terrifying in their own distinct ways, and each forces Walt to take steps towards becoming terrifying in his own distinct way. Let us not forget that it is in order to confront Tuco, who is introduced in this episode, that Walt invents the Heisenberg persona, and it is from then on that our uncertainty over his principles (see what I did there? see what they did there?) truly begins. When that confrontation happens at the end of this episode, Walt as Heisenberg McGyvers his way into the dominant position in the situation by carrying a bag of fulminated mercury into Tuco”s lair, and detonating one of the explosive crystals to show Tuco he means business. To paraphrase the line in Cool Hand Luke from which this episode gets its title: Oh Walt, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin”.
7. “…And the Bag”s in the River” (Season 1, Episode 3)
The pilot episode of Breaking Bad had me at hello, or to be more specific: had me at khaki pants flying against a perfect crystal blue sky followed by the frantic gas-mask-and-whitey-tighties-wearing Walter White driving a Fleetwood Bounder recklessly through the desert. But it wasn”t until episode three came about that we got our first look at true Breaking Bad perfection. This episode”s inclusion on our top ten list represents the series in those simpler times when Walt was Walt and Jesse was Jesse and their dynamic was what drove the show. This is pre-Heisenberg, this is before Walt gets in to the “empire business,” this is back in those halcyon days when he had to make a list of pros and cons before deciding upon whether or not to kill a guy. Nice touch, BB writers. It”d be kind of adorable, if we didn”t know where all this inevitably leads.
6. “Grilled” (Season 2, Episode 2)
Part of what made Breaking Bad so compelling was that there was always the anxiety that Walt would get caught. Maybe that”s why so many viewers continued to stick by him through thick and thin as the series progressed and as Walt”s nefarious deeds escalated, because we had been complicit in his dealings by knowing about all these shenanigans from the get-go, and we started there with him wanting him to stay one step ahead of Skyler and Hank and everyone else. It”s hard to let that go; it”s not easy to change horses midstream, to switch one”s allegiances, even as your guy slowly goes down the rabbithole of (im)morality. “Grilled” was one of those episodes where they were almost discovered, where it almost all came crashing down around Walt and Jesse, but somehow they eked out a victory in the end, and Tuco, their first true nemesis, died at the hands of Hank (who doesn”t realize, and won”t realize for another two and half seasons, that he very nearly caught his brother-in-law breaking who-knows-how-many laws). This episode also taught me a valuable lesson in life: Never eat a burrito when a mute man is frantically ringing a bell at you. There”s likely something wrong with the burrito.
5. “Half Measures” (Season 3, Episode 12)
One episode that I regret couldn”t make this list is “Full Measure,” which is a personal favorite of mine and likely would have been our number eleven were we granted more than a top ten. I speak of it here because “Full Measure” and “Half Measures” are perfect companion pieces, and not just because of their complimentary titles, or that they came back-to-back at the end of the third season. At the end of “Full Measure,” Jesse killed Gale Boetticher for Walt, but that was only after the events of “Half Measures,” where Walt killed two rival drug dealers in an effort to help Jesse, in addition to having had saved Jesse from Gus numerous times, arguing for his life, and even putting his own on the line. Mike”s argument for “no more half measures” in this episode acted as a catalyst for the show to ratchet up the series” intensity. Though anxiety was always a piece of the Breaking Bad viewing experience, from here on out, intense heart palpitations became part and parcel with the watching of the show.
4. “Dead Freight” (Season 5, Episode 5)
When Mike Ehrmantraut said to Walt in “Hazard Pay,” “Just because you shot Jesse James, don”t make you Jesse James,” we never could have guessed that Walt and his crew (Mike included) would end up proving Mike wrong just a couple episodes later. They do so by becoming very much like the James Gang in “Dead Freight” when they decide to rob a train and carry it out with mathematical precision. The writer and director of the episode, George Mastras, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing a while back, has said that he “looked at [the train sequence] as kind of a microcosm or a mini-movie of what the show[...]is about–which is about challenging the audience: “Why are we rooting for these guys?”" And this is where the Jesse James connection invariably leads: Why do criminals and villains attract us so? Why do we often forgive them their deeds by nature of knowing and sympathizing with their past and/or their motivations? (Even when we see them do unfathomably horrible things, as we do at the end of this episode, with the shooting of young Drew Sharp.)
3. “Bullet Points” (Season 4, Episode 4)
Unsurprisingly, Walter White is my favorite character on Breaking Bad–and I”d argue he is one of the most compelling characters in TV history–but if I had to pick a second favorite character on the show, though a number of the show”s major characters would be in contention, I”d likely choose Gale Boetticher. The episode that sealed the deal on this choice was “Bullet Points,” even though Gale is dead by this episode and technically doesn”t even appear in it, except via video. But how glorious is that video? As Gale karaokes to the song “Major Tom (Coming Home),” we can”t help but lament the fact that this joyous learn”d astronomer had to die. The most surprising thing about “Bullet Points” though is that the comedy of a purple-ascot-wearing Gale counting down “4…3…2…1,” phenomenally funny as it may be, isn”t even the best part of the episode nor the best part of the scene in which it appears. That goes to Hank jokingly accusing Walt of being the “W. W.” addressed in Gale”s notebooks, and Walt, hands raised, feigning submission, replying: “You got me!” It”s a scene so fraught with tensions and secrets and conflicting motivations, but not without plenty of LOLs as well–a perfect distillation of the Breaking Bad formula of mixing heart-pounding, anxiety-inducing drama with laugh-out-loud, pitch black comedy.
2. “Fly” (Season 3, Episode 10)
“Fly” is certainly Breaking Bad at its artsiest. This has caused it to be a point of contention in Breaking Bad fandom. Most either love it or hate it, and I admittedly am one of the lovers. Though there”s another episode called “Kafkaesque,” I”d argue this is the most Kafkaesque of the series. It”s essentially a one-act play about two guys, one fly, and a whole heap of shit going on under the surface, with the fly sort of symbolically buzzing around that shit, as flies are wont to do. Like an even more fucked-up version of Sartre”s No Exit, this episode is both a nightmare and a joy to watch: a viewing experience that fills one with a conflicted sense of art-house excitement and existential dread that I”m sure some workers at Madrigal Electromotive could properly explain because it has to have it”s own word in German. It also contains one of Walt”s best philosophical musings, one that sums up the universe of the show and the universe in which a show this wonderful was created: “My God, the universe is random, it”s not inevitable, it”s simple chaos. It”s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision.”
1. “Ozymandias” (Season 5, Episode 14)
If “Fly” represents one pole of the world of Breaking Bad, “Ozymandias” perfectly represents the other. While “Fly” is the least action-packed of the series” episodes and shows an artsier, more philosophical side to the show, “Ozymandias” is plot-driven, pulpy, and should come with a Surgeon General”s warning as a potential cause of heart attacks. That, of course, doesn”t mean it”s without art. Filmed by Rian Johnson–the filmmaker who also directed our #2 episode “Fly,” in addition to his critically acclaimed films Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper–“Ozymandias” is the episode that embodies everything the show is about narratively, thematically, tropologically, philosophically, etc. “Fly” may actually be my favorite of the series, but “Ozymandias” makes the most sense in the top spot because it is the episode that best defines the show. It takes it”s title from the Percy Shelley poem of the same name, which tells of an empire in ruins. (Side note: the season five-b teaser that features Walt reading Shelley”s “Ozymandias” may be the greatest teaser for a TV show ever.) With Hank murdered, Jesse kidnapped, Walt Jr. devastated, and Walt out a whole shitload of money and on the run to New Hampshire, the Albuquerque desert never looked as bleak as it did in this devastating episode: Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.
Tyler Malone is a writer and editor. He is the Editorial Director of PMc Magazine.
Breaking Bad is a critically-acclaimed TV show created by Vince Gilligan.
Written and Compiled by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy of AMC
Design by Marie Havens
Breaking Bad, Photography Courtesy of AMC