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10 Years of Breaking Bad: the top ten episodes

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A decade may have passed since Breaking Bad first graced our screens, but the series has been rightly enshrined as the pinnacle of TV excellence. From its ground-breaking visuals to its compelling performances, Breaking Bad raised the bar for every drama that followed it.

To celebrate the show’s tenth anniversary, we’ve ranked the top ten episodes of Breaking Bad (even if doing so feels like asking someone to pick between their children). Spoilers ahead...

10. Fifty-One (5.04)

The image of Skyler White submerged in the family pool is one of Breaking Bad’s most haunting images. In Fifty-One, the episode that bagged Anna Gunn her first Emmy, Skyler is finally overwhelmed by her husband’s egomaniacal demands and lashes out in spectacular fashion.

Skyler’s unpopularity amongst a subsection of Breaking Bad fans is well documented, but Fifty-One only reaffirms how misplaced this vitriol is. Here, Walt is at his most unlikeable, buying flashy muscle cars to show off his wealth and perverting the birthday traditions of a year earlier through his lies and abuse. What a difference a year makes.

Skyler’s strategic pool dive at Walt’s birthday celebrations is an act of despair, but also a strategy to get her children away from the house. For all the ire she provokes in Walt and fans alike, there is an irascible strength to Skyler that neither can take away, and Fifty-One revels in it.

9. Pilot (1.01)

No ranking of Breaking Bad episodes would be complete without the pilot that started it all. The opening moments of Breaking Bad throw the audience in at the deep end, inviting viewers to watch a half-naked middle-aged man crash an RV in the desert.

Vince Gilligan has repeatedly described Breaking Bad as a show about change. The pilot is most powerful when viewed in this context, the foundation on which a revolutionary series would be built.

Whilst the pilot feels closer to a dark comedy than the visceral drama Breaking Bad would become, it also sets up the show’s preoccupation with transformation. It warns us that Walter White is a man who is undergoing a radical change; that Mr. Chips will become Scarface. It couldn’t have told us how it would shape the TV landscape itself.

8. Phoenix (2.12)

The penultimate episode of season two brings Walt and Jesse’s partnership to the brink of collapse. After figuring out that Walt has taken the drug money, Jesse cuts ties with him and demands his half of their stash. Walt reluctantly agrees after Jesse’s girlfriend Jane blackmails him.

The climax of Phoenix, when Jane chokes to death on her own vomit as Walt stands by, marks Walt’s most reprehensible act so far. The event ripples through the remaining seasons, marking it as one of the most influential scenes of the series.

Even as new life is brought into the world with the arrival of baby Holly, this episode marks the beginning of Walt’s truly destructive nature. For many fans, Phoenix is the point at which Walter White really became Heisenberg.

7. Crazy Handful Of Nothin' (1.06)

Breaking Bad has always been good at hooking its viewers with a powerful visual. The sight of Walt emerging from an explosion, his head shaved and his face bloody, is a tantalising set up for Crazy Handful Of Nothin’.

For all the terror and violence Walt has experienced so far, the empowerment that the meth industry has given him allows Walt to do something truly badass. With Jesse incapacitated after a brutal beating, Walt makes a deal with Tuco Salamanca and blows up his headquarters in the process.

Out of the ashes of that explosion comes Heisenberg, Walt’s criminal alterego and the persona that would embolden him throughout the series. Crazy Handful of Nothin’ takes the image of Walter White that Hank Schrader and others see and turns it entirely on its head for the first time.

6. Half Measures (3.12)

In the brilliantly tense Half Measures, Walt finds himself adrift between the cold logic of Gustavo Fring and Jesse’s hot-headed vengeance.

Despite seeing himself as a bad person, Jesse is outraged at Fring’s use of dealers who have induced children to kill; meanwhile Gus, who in Jesse’s words styles himself as a “reasonable businessman”, prioritises the continued meth sales over his business ethics.

Mike Ehrmantraut, the pragmatic fixer who’d become a fan-favourite, is the only one who sees the picture clearly. His titular monologue, in which he warns Walt he needs to commit to one course of action, spurs Walt to help Jesse murder the dealers. The climactic bloodbath sets the scene for all out war with Gustavo Fring.

5. Face Off (4.13)

Face Off begins with Walt disarming a bomb under Gus Fring’s car. The fact that it’s the least exciting moment of the episode should say something about how thrilling the season four finale is.

Chekhov’s gun dictates that if you show a bomb in act one, it should go off by act three. Fring’s vendetta against the Salamancas proves to be his downfall, when Walt convinces Hector to blow himself up to take Fring out.

So ends the life of Breaking Bad’s most formidable villain - after Walter White himself, of course. With Fring out of the picture, Walt is solidified as Albuquerque’s premier kingpin, one who’ll torch meth labs and poison children without remorse. Every moment of Face Off is exhilarating, and yet somehow it’s impossible to look away.

4. Crawl Space (4.11)

There are more explosive instalments of Breaking Bad, but the chilling Crawl Space conveys a creeping sense of dread unlike any other episode in the series.

No longer indispensable to Gus, Walt finds himself surrounded by danger from all sides. Hank’s investigation, Ted’s blackmail, and Fring’s threats against the White family all contribute to the positively claustrophobic tone of Crawl Space.

As Walt searches for funds to pay Saul’s extractor, a horrified Skyler informs him she has used the money to pay off Ted. Walt’s shift from horror to hysteria as he lies shrieking in the crawl space is so evocative and so unsettling that it lingers in the viewer’s memory long after the episode ends.

3. Fly (3.10)

Fly, a bottle episode where Walt obsessively chases a fly in Gus’s lab, is perhaps the most divisive instalment of Breaking Bad amongst fans. Nothing really happens in Fly - a guilt ridden Walt almost confesses to letting Jane die, but ultimately keeps his secret from Jesse.

Any viewers who dislike the episode’s slow pace could skip it without missing any plot, but to do so would mean missing out on some of the series’ finest performances.  Bryan Cranston’s frenzied ruminations on death and guilt give an entirely new context to his actions throughout the series, and foreshadow one of his cruellest moments in season five. 

2. Felina (5.16)

If nothing else, Felina deserves praise for being one of the neatest TV finales ever made, tying up every loose end in effortless fashion. Yet it’s far, far more than just the logical culmination of the series.

Felina nails the complex relationship that audiences have with Walter White, as viewers vacillate between wanting him to succeed or be punished. In his last stand, Walt salvages small victories from his defeat, as he transfers his barrel of cash to his children and takes out the last of his enemies, Lydia and Jack’s gang.

Yet the episode also allows the ones who Walt hurt express their unfettered hatred for him, as Walt is rejected by Skyler and Jesse one final time. In a show where every bad action has consequences, Jesse’s escape feels like an admission that he’s finally been punished enough. Likewise, Walt’s death at the heart of a meth lab, having taken a bullet for Jesse, is a fitting and elegant punishment for one of TV’s greatest antiheroes.

1. Ozymandias (5.14)

Despite five seasons of build-up, the highly anticipated collapse of Heisenberg’s empire is not what makes Ozymandias a legendary hour of television. Instead, it’s the merciless decimation of the White family at Walt’s hands that make Ozymandias the finest ever episode of Breaking Bad.

Hank’s death, the violent kidnapping of Holly, Walt’s confession that he watched Jane choke to death: each brutal, blistering moment of Ozymandias reminds us that the true focus of Breaking Bad was always what Walter’s transformation would do to those that loved him.

By the time we see Walt waiting in the desert for Ed the extractor, it’s clear nothing will be the same again.

Breaking Bad is available to stream on Netflix.

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