In honor of its second (and final) Emmy win for Best Drama Series, I’m devoting this week’s post to “Breaking Bad.” Novelistic in its observations and depth of its characters and cinematic in its visuals, it’s a show that means so very much to me. Fair warning: if you’re not caught up, you may not want to read any further.
As a farewell, here are my top 10 episodes (in two parts):
Season 2, Episode 2
This episode introduces one of my favorite characters: Hector Salamanca. He’s a wheelchair-bound drug lord who communicates with a service bell and may…or may not…be lucid. His nephew, an uber-paranoid drug dealer named Tuco, kidnaps Walt and Jesse. He holds them prisoner in a small desert house where he cares for Hector. There’s an agonizing suspense sequence centered around our protagonists’ attempt to poison Tuco’s food. The episode also plays up the dark comic undertones of “Breaking Bad,” as the writers have some fun with the characters’ assumptions about Hector’s mental capacity.
Season 1, Episode 1
The episode that started it all! Vince Gilligan and company squeeze a remarkable amount of plot and character into one hour. They set up Walter White’s family dynamic, his cancer, that he’s a man who feels unfulfilled. They establish his desire to cook meth and leave a legacy. The first episode introduces Jesse, Walt’s former dead-beat student, and his alpha-male brother-in-law (and DEA agent) Hank. There’s a great thesis statement for the series, where Walt talks to his students about chemistry being the study of change. Though I generally prefer slow-burn “Breaking Bad” to heavily plotted “Breaking Bad,” it’s hard not to admire all the creators accomplished here. They had a lot of pieces to put in place, and they were really going for broke the first time out.
As much as I look forward to seeing how a story will end, I’m pretty apprehensive when it comes to series finales. Thanks a lot, “Lost.” Surely nothing can live up to that hype and anticipation! But “Breaking Bad” did. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a great article about how the final episode is a Rorschach. If you want to see a clean and happy ending, it’s there. I watch those final moments and acknowledge that, yes, Walt dies in a way that pleases him most. He’s alone in his meth lab with the equipment that kept his blood pumping. And yet, how sad is that. The ending is also a great demonstration of the show’s on-point song selection. I still get a lump in my throat when Walt lovingly holds his gas mask to the sound of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.”
7.) “Dead Freight”
Season 5, Episode 5
“Dead Freight” might be the series’ most ambitious episode. Walt and Jesse, along with partners Mike and Todd, engineer a train robbery so they can restore their supply of methylamine. It’s a straight up Western! (Genre imagery and Jesse James parallels abound in this season.) The plan is to stop the train with an obstruction on the track, pump out the chemicals and replace them with water before anyone notices. So much tension hinges on watching the counter tick by. Dave Porter’s driving score makes this 10-minute robbery feel like a full episode of armrest-peeling suspense. And I haven’t even talked about that eerie cold open or its tragic bookend.
6.) “…And the Bag’s in the River”
Season 1, Episode 3
This is when I knew I was watching something really special. It completes a three-episode arc that started with a cook going bad in the Pilot. Walt and Jesse need to dispose of two drug dealers — one dead and the other still breathing. The latter is Krazy-8. Walt has him tied up in Jesse’s basement while he decides how to kill him. One of the things I appreciate most about “Breaking Bad” is that it doesn’t treat its audience like restless teenagers. Scenes are allowed to breathe. The show’s creators afford a lot of time to Walt’s first kill. Racked with guilt, he convinces himself that he can set the man free without reprisal. Only at that point, through a nifty bit of character writing, does he realize that Krazy-8 is armed. Now Walt can’t let him go, and he can’t keep him locked up. A recurring flashback of Walt in college, calculating the composition of the human body, adds a lot of poignancy to the episode.
Stay tuned for #5 through 1!