Throughout its first five seasons, Breaking Bad has proven itself equally adept at giving us lengthy, dialog-heavy character moments as it has at giving us crazy, heart-pounding action unequaled by most summer blockbusters. That’s the true genius of great TV, and what gives television an edge over movies. At some point (maybe right around the time of The Sopranos), writers and creative-types realized that the more we care about characters, the more we buy into it when crazy over-the-top shit happens to them. A Tarantino movie where someone loses a foot to a lawnmower would barely cause the viewer to bat an eye, but that same viewer went apeshit on Twitter for a week when it happened on Mad Men. And so here we are with Breaking Bad, a show that has one foot planted firmly in the real world with realistic, believable characters and one foot planted in the world of Vin Diesel and Tokyo drift. These are the best of those scenes, in my opinion. I could’ve gone with Top 20 or even Top 30, but I’m limiting myself to ten. It certainly wasn’t easy. (Spoilers for all five seasons below)
15. ABQ—Season 2, Episode 13. Skyler confronts Walt
Okay, so I lied. I’m doing fifteen. Sue me. This scene was the first of what turns out to be many blow ups between the Whites. Walt has accidentally revealed the existence of the much-discussed second cell phone while under medication, and Skyler does some digging. She waits until he’s well enough after his surgery to be left alone, and then she lays it on him: she’s leaving him. He has two days to get out. But what’s brilliant is that both we and Walt don’t yet know how boned he is. We’re encouraged to lie with Walt, to disassemble as much as possible. Maybe she just thinks Walt’s sleeping with Gretchen? Maybe she’ll only think he’s a cheater. That’s better than the truth at least. Throughout the several minute conversation, we learn that Skyler knows just about everything: the phone, the fact that Gretchen hasn’t paid the hospitals a dime, even that Walt never visited his mother. She’s got him dead-to-rights. It’s thrilling to watch and quite vindicating after two seasons of watching Skyler play the fool.
14. Grilled—Season 2, Episode 2 Walt, Jesse, Tuco, Hector and the bell
Tuco kidnaps Walt and Jesse, with plans to take them down to Mexico and join the meth-making business. But first…dinner! While Tuco makes the burritos, Walt and Jesse poison his stash, under the watchful eye of stroke-ridden Tio Hector Salamaca. This is the first of Mark Moses’ many wonderful performances as Hector. Using only a bell to communicate, the process by which Hector warns his nephew Tuco that Walt and Jesse have tried to kill him is long and difficult, and pulse-pounding in its intensity. But eventually, he manages to do just that.
13. Half Measures—Season 3, Episode 12 Walt says “Run!”
Jesse, feeling guilty after Jane, projects that onto Combo’s death and vows revenge on a couple of Gus’ goons who did the killing, even if it means getting himself killed in the process. Which is what Jesse has wanted for awhile, now. But after Gus’ goons kill a kid, Walt does the right thing and protects Jesse by hitting one goon with his car, and killing the other, setting in motion Gale’s death and everything that happens in Season Four. This marks the first time Walt has just straight-up killed a man in cold blood, although it was still justifiable, as it was to protect Jesse.
12. Half Measures—Season 3, Episode 12 Mike tells Walt a story.
Mike cements his status as a fan favorite in this scene, telling Walt the story of the time he was a cop and let a wife-beater off with a warning. It’s Mike’s way of telling Walt to let go of Jesse, but the opposite effect occurs.
11. One Minute—Season 3, Episode 7 Jesse is mad
Hank beats the shit out of Jesse, landing him in the hospital. Walt begs Gus to let him hire on Jesse as a partner to keep Jesse from selling drugs on his own and to keep him from pressing charges against Hank. When Walt goes to visit Jesse and tell him the good news, Aaron Paul as Jesse delivers the most heart-breaking monologue of the series, laying out all the ways his life has turned to shit ever since the great Heisenberg darkened his doorstep. And remember when we thought Jesse would be a bad influence on Walt?
10. Say My Name—Season 5, Episode 7 Walt kills Mike.
Mike’s warning against half measures blows up in his face, as Walt kills Mike for no other reason than petulance and jealousy. If you’re looking for the place Walt truly broke bad for good, it’s here. It’s his first murder that wasn’t committed to protect himself or Jesse or his family.
9. Full Measure—Season 3, Episode 13 Jesse kills Gale.
If there’s a character that we can truly love unreservedly in the world of Breaking Bad, it’s Jesse. We didn’t ever want him to ever have to kill anyone. But he did. Deal with it, bitch.
8. Salud–Season 4, Episode 10 Gus poisons all of Mexico.
The brilliance of a show like this one is that even the Big Bad, Gus Fring, can be sympathetic. We can even root him on under the right circumstances. And these were those. In an earlier flashback, we see that the Mexican cartel is responsible for killing Gus’s (friend? lover?) pollo hermano ten years prior, back when Gus was new to the drug trade. Gus has never given up his quest for revenge. Finally, he’s given an opportunity and he takes it, managing to poison the entire Mexican cartel along with himself. But the others don’t have a medical crew set-up nearby. This is a fantastic side-adventure featuring Gus, Mike and Jesse, and makes me long for the spinoff/prequel; Gus and Mike: The Early Years.
7. Gray Matters—Season 1, Episode 5 Pillow talk
Walt doesn’t want to accept charity from Elliot and Gretchen and would rather just die in peace rather than have them pay for an expensive operation he needs. So Skyler sets up in intervention that she micro-manages with an iron fist. No talking unless you are holding the pillow. Everyone must tell Walt to keep on fighting. But then Marie flips the script and tells Walt to do what he wants, and Hank changes his mind and takes her side, much to Skyler’s chagrin. Then Junior gets in on the act, angrily calling his father a coward for not fighting back. (Side note: Junior sure has aged a lot in the last “year”. If the Whites weren’t so wrapped up in their own problems, they surely would’ve taken him to a doctor by now). Finally Walt declares under no circumstances will he have the surgery, only to change his mind the next morning. The whole thing is riveting and hilarious from start-to-finish, and marks the first time in the series that I personally knew that this show was special and I was all-in.
6. Buyout—Season 5, Episode 6. Jesse has dinner with The Whites.
Probably the funniest scene in the series. Watching Jesse fumble his way through the most awkward dinner ever while Walt glowers at his drunken wife had me laughing harder than anything that’s ever happened on Modern Family.
5. IFT—Season 3, Episode 3 Walt returns home
After discovering Walt has become a drug dealer—make that manufacturer, Skyler has kicked him out of the house, vowing to turn him in if he ever contacts her or the family again. This is unacceptable to Walt, who after a couple weeks, calls Skyler’s bluff and just…comes home. Just like that. Anna Gunn’s acting here is spectacular as she calls the cops, furious that Walt is making her the bad guy in front of Junior. And equally furious that he’s right. She can’t turn him in. Of course this all this leads to a great retaliation, and the episode’s title.
4. Face Off—Season 4, Episode 13 Tyrese, Gus, Hector, and the bell
Gus meets his maker in the most theatrical and apropos way possible. Bonus points for the way Vince Gilligan manages to sway our sympathies, first to rooting for Gus as he takes out the cartel and then back to rooting for Hector as he takes out Gus. With the bell.
3. One Minute—Season 3, Episode 7 Hank has one minute.
Hank receives an anonymous warning that some men are coming to kill him. Coming real soon. As Hanks’ redemption arc from frat boy to honorable cop was complete, it was easy to think that the character was about to be toast, making his victory over the twins all the more thrilling.
2. Sunset—Season 3, Episode 6 Hank corners Jesse and Walt
Hank has tracked Jesse down, discovered the existence of the RV, and is about to bust the whole case wide open. Walt tries to get rid of the RV and is confronted by Jesse, who has unwittingly led Hank right to them both. With any other show, Hank knocking on the door of the RV with Walt and Jesse caught like rats on the inside would be an acceptable season-ending cliffhanger. But on Breaking Bad, it’s an act-break in the first half of a midseason episode. Walt and Jesse manage to get out of it, with an assist from a friendly libertarian junkyard owner and our hearts are in our throats the whole time.
1. Crawl Space—Season 4, Episode 11 Walt is laughing in his own grave
Everything about the scene is perfection. Walt rushes home after a meeting with Saul. He needs money to pay a guy to help him and his family escape. Otherwise, it’s the end for all of them: Walt, Skyler, Junior, Holly. Even Hank and Marie. Walt goes down to the crawlspace to get his money, but it’s gone. Skyler knows where it is. She gave it to Ted “IFT” Beneke. Walt snaps, laughing hysterically, as Skyler creeps down the hallway, getting a panicked call from Marie. “Marie…it’s going to be okay”, followed by howls of laughter by Walt. And then we see Walt in the crawlspace, still chuckling. But now it looks just like a grave. Blackout.
Somehow I think most of these will be bumped right off the chart by whatever Vince Gilligan’s got in store for the final eight.
Breaking Bad’s final season premieres on AMC this Sunday night. Join us each week for Ryan’s continuing coverage of the crumbling of Walter White’s empire.