When Breaking Bad first bowed in January of 2008, TV viewers were already cool with bad guys. Tony Soprano had died (or did he?) six months prior; Don Draper, the lead chauvinist of Mad Men, was born a month later. Still, the murderous mobster and the lying ad wizard had nothing on the high school chemistry teacher who, over five seasons, would turn into a tyrannical drug lord. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, aka Heisenberg, was a far more disturbing anti-hero than Tony or Don because he could be us: a no-name, never-was schnook who too willingly put his life — and those around him — in danger, all so he could finally be a success.
What else made Breaking Bad stand out? The Sopranos and Mad Men didn’t tell their stories the way Breaking Bad did. Breaking Bad was essentially The Godfather — the story of one allegedly good man’s corruption — Stretch-Armstronged out to 62 episodes. Each week the tale moved another inch forward. Or, if you will, took another step deeper into the abyss. Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator, used to pitch the show as Mr. Chips becoming Scarface. But Walter White was never Mr. Chips; he wasn’t even a good chemistry teacher. Like much of America, he was a Scarface waiting for a chance to get out.
Breaking Bad was a tight show, with almost no fat. That said, below we’ve collected what we believe to be the 15 episodes that stand out more than the rest.
15. Hermanos (Season 4, Episode 8)
The Story: In the wake of the Cousins’ death — arguably the show’s most intense sequence — we learn a bit about the backstory of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) as he’s called in for questioning and visits the crippled kingpin Hector (Mark Margolis) in his nursing home.
Why It’s On This List: Up until this point, Gus had been Breaking Bad’s most enigmatic character. He had the show’s best poker face, letting no one in on his thoughts or his history. Finally we got a Gus-heavy episode, one that manages to explain him without explaining him away. And it winds up adding yet another layer to the story, learning about Hector and fellow bigwig Don Eladio (Steven Bauer), who long ago murdered Gus’ friend Max, setting up a cycle of revenge that will play out over the rest of the season.
14. Better Call Saul (Season 2, Episode 8)
The Story: Walt and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) associate Badger (Matt L. Jones) falls victim to police entrapment, so his employers need some shyster lawyer to set him free. Perhaps this guy Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) will suffice?
Why It’s On This List: First off, great opening. Guest star DJ Qualls is so good at playing an undercover cop playing an addict — in a scene done in one, endless, tense long take — that the rest of the episode could never live up to it. And yet. Team Breaking Bad had another ace up their sleeves, introducing us to a character who would have the longest life after the show ended. And it turned Odenkirk, a comedic genius and one half of Mr. Show, into a household name, with a character that’s both comic relief and one of the sleaziest members of this beyond sleazy world.
13. Granite State (Season 5, Episode 15)
The Story: It’s the penultimate episode of one of the television’s greatest shows, and before Walter can wind his way back to Albuquerque for one final stand, we say goodbye to Saul Goodman, watch as Jesse gets screwed once more, and learn from Skyler that being married to a meth king isn’t as great as it seemed.
Why It’s On This List: It’s sandwiched between what is widely considered the show’s peak (“Ozymandias”) and its grand finale (“Felina”), but don’t underestimate it. There is so much pain and sadness piled into this episode, and if you thought the world of Breaking Bad was dark before, wait till you learn about Robert Forster’s “disappearer” and the fates, more boring than bleak, that await his customers. Meanwhile, poor Jesse, but also poor Skyler. We’ll later learn that Jesse gets a kind of happy ending, but Skyler, we discover, is on the skids, forced to work as a part-time taxi dispatcher to support her two kids. And there’s still another episode?
12. Crawl Space (Season 4, Episode 11)
The Story: After Gus wiped out Don Eladio and crew, Walter’s future is thrown into turmoil, with Gus firing him and telling him he’s going to kill DEA agent/Walter relative Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). When Walter tries to grab $500,000 to go into hiding, he’s shocked to discover his secret stockpile mysteriously comes up short.
Why It’s On This List: This is one of the episodes that’s essentially a growing panic attack, beginning slowly and then exploding with the finale, which finds Walter, covered in dirt and spider webs, laughing at his all but sealed fate. That image is one of the show’s most indelible, up there with Gus’ half-blown-off face. And it’s a great case of the Breaking Bad writing team giving them a challenge: Where does one go from here, where all, finally, seems lost? Indeed, it’s incredible that there’s an entire other season, plus the few episodes left in this one.
11. Box Cutter (Season 4, Episode 1)
The Story: Season 3 ended with Walter having Jesse kill Gale (David Costabile). It was a new low, even for them. And now they have to see whether Gus will retaliate or leave them alone or if they’ve simply bought time to make another chess move.
Why It’s On This List: Among its other distinctions, this one has the most tense scenes in the show’s history. Eventually Gus pays his dastardly employees a visit at their lab, during which Walt awkwardly and unconvincingly makes the case that, by putting their futures in jeopardy, Gus is responsible for Gale’s death. Gus only utters five words, but they (and what he does to his henchman Victor) speak volumes. It’s clear from this episode that one of these three — Walt, Jesse, and Gus — won’t make it out of this season alive.
10. Dead Freight (Season 5, Episode 5)
The Story: Walt and Jesse hatch a crazy plan: They will rob 1,000 gallons of a substance, one that will ensure they can continue making meth, from a freight train as it goes through a “dark territory” in nowhere, New Mexico.
Why It’s On This List: For one thing, it gives Jesse Plemons’ Todd — the casually psychopathic exterminator-turned-drug world heavy — his first significant work on the show. (His blood-curdling final act in the episode made him instantly iconic.) For another, ignoring all the normal plot machinations afoot, this is an excellent example of a “bottle episode”: a largely self-contained unit in which the show can try something new. And what “Dead Freight” tries to do is turn Breaking Bad into an Ocean’s Eleven caper, complete with a lengthy trial-and-error build-up and then the thrilling pièce-de-resistance. And just when you’re cheering that these drug peddlers have improbably pulled off the perfect heist, you get that punchline, dragging you back down to hell.
9. Say My Name (Season 5, Episode 7)
The Story: Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) has finally had enough. The one-time Gus Fring fix-it man is unhappy working with Walt, and simply wants to look after his beloved young granddaughter. His attempts to extricate himself do not go well.
Why It’s On This List: Arguably more than any other show, the many, many deaths peppered throughout Breaking Bad’s five seasons hurt. Sometimes they’re majestic, surreal, even kind of funny, as was the case with the kingly Gus Fring. There’s no other way of looking at Mike’s death: It’s a tragedy. And it hurts. Walt kills him less out of necessity than arrogance and rage, and all we’re left with is a flawed but at heart decent man sitting on a log by the river, reflecting on what could have been, waiting to die. No matter what Mike’s done in his life (and he’s done plenty bad himself) he didn’t deserve to spend his final moments telling the jerk who killed him to shut up.
8. Salud (Season 4, Episode 10)
The Story: The story thread about the Mexican cartel headed by Don Eladio Vuente comes to a sudden and amusingly violent close, when Gus visits his hacienda with a special bottle of tequila.
Why It’s On This List: One thing Breaking Bad was particularly great at was parceling out its big gotcha moments. There would be three or four consecutive episodes of patient plot-building, followed by a release so spectacular you wouldn’t know what hit you. This is one of the best whacks aside the head. At this point, Gus wasn’t long for the Breaking Bad world, but shortly before he got his, he showed off his skills, massacring a hacienda’s worth of adversaries in one glorious, delirious swoop. Gus wins, but not for long.
7. Full Measure (Season 3, Episode 13)
The Story: The nails are tightening around Walt and Jesse. They’re in the employ of Gus Fring, but Gus knows he no longer needs them. After all, he has Gale, the lovably dorky chemist trained by Walt to be an easier-to-control version of him. But can one really kill a guy who sings old Italian songs in the correct Milanese dialect?
Why It’s On This List: Breaking Bad knew how to go out. Each season ends with a beautiful bummer, our two heroes taking another step towards hell. Season 3 went next level, and it would continue to go next level. But there’s something particularly gutting about this one’s conclusion. It’s the point when there’s truly no turning back: Walt proves how far he’ll go to stay alive, while Jesse’s the one who actually has to pull the trigger. Walt doesn’t even show much regret, but Jesse is a bundle of nerves as he stares at the flabbergasted, panicking face of the man he knows he must kill. From here on out, Walt and Jesse are simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
6. Fly (Season 3, Episode 10)
The Story: Walt and Jesse spend the majority of this episode at work, trapped in their cavernous lab, trying to make meth. And they would have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for some meddling fly.
Why It’s On This List: Here’s another bottle episode, so distinguished it was even directed by no less than Rian Johnson, post-The Brothers Bloom and soon for Looper and a little film called The Last Jedi. He keeps an episode that’s most a single set from becoming visually monotonous or too theatrical. But what really distinguishes “Fly” is how it’s rooted in Walt and Jesse’s fractured relationship. At one point they were almost father-and-son. Then they grew apart — partly because Walt indirectly killed his beloved girlfriend, Krysten Ritter’s Jane Margolis, the previous season. Walt has not yet confessed to the almost-murder, but he’s still capable of guilt. Him trying to tell Jesse his secret, but failing makes the episode hurt, and the pain meshes nicely with the sight of two grown men losing every last nerve trying to squash a stupid bug.
5. Felina (Season 5, Episode 15)
The Story: This is the end of Walter White, and also of Todd, and also of the Neo-Nazis, and of a few others. But mostly it’s the end of Walter White.
Why It’s On This List: What kind of final episode did Breaking Bad get? Did Gilligan go ambiguous and combative à la The Sopranos? Did he end it cynically, as Mad Men did? Or would he go bizarre, just like the (in)famous conclusion to St. Elsewhere? In some ways, Breaking Bad plays it safe: Walter White dies, just as you knew he would. Perhaps it would have been more cruel for him to live on, to have to endure knowing what he did and how many lives he’s destroyed. But his ending is well-earned: In his final moments he’s just a rando by himself, surrounded by no one, unmourned, unloved, a stiff, a loser who could only ever be someone by embracing his worst self.
4. One Minute (Season 3, Episode 7)
The Story: DEA agent Hank Schrader is closing in on Walt and Jesse. This is awkward because Hank is Walt’s brother-in-law. The episode begins with Hank losing his cool and beating Jesse to a pulp, causing him to get suspended without pay. It ends with the scary cartel cousins, out to get Hank out of the picture, ambushing him in a parking lot, leading to one of the show’s great set pieces.
Why It’s On This List: There are many nail-biting stand-alones on Breaking Bad, but none better than Hank’s parking lot showdown. It’s not simply that it’s as good as any movie. (Breaking Bad remains one of the most “cinematic” TV shows.) It’s also not just that it’s a huge release after two-and-a-half seasons of will-he-or-won’t-he tension around Hank getting hip to Walt, something he wouldn’t do for another two seasons. It’s that Hank could easily die. It could go either way. Making it worse: We’ve come to like the bro-y doofus. This is one of the few episodes that is Hank-centric, and had he died it would have been a fitting farewell. Instead, he lives on to get a send-off he never deserved.
3. Face Off (Season 4, Episode 13)
The Story: Walt and Jesse have already tried to kill Gus with a car bomb. That didn’t work, but perhaps they can get him when he visits an elderly kingpin who hates his guts?
Why It’s On This List: Remember the end of Season 3? When Walt forced Jesse to kill lovable Gale? Those guys are long gone. By the following season’s finale, Walt is a blood-thirsty, remorseless agent of death. And Jesse? He’s given up fighting Walt — for now. Of course, this is a bit different: One side has to go, and it might as well be Gus, the eerily calm kingpin who wants them dead, too. Gus’ death isn’t a tragic one. Indeed, he goes out like a king. He’s still alive after a bomb goes off literally in his face, taking half of it out — a bit of Cronenbergian body horror slipped onto a non-premium channel. Of course, with Gus out of the way, there’s nothing holding Walt back from becoming his worst self. But for now, enjoy the sight of one of television’s most iconic semi-villains correcting his tie with one half of his head conspicuously absent.
2. Pilot/Cat’s in the Bag/And the Bag’s in the River (Season 1, Episodes 1-3) (tie)
The Story: Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher who learns he has inoperable lung cancer. He’s worried about the financial security of his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), their unborn child and their son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), who has cerebral palsy. One day, Walt reconnects with an old student, Jesse Pinkman, a low-level drug dealer. Walt learns he can make really good meth, and that making meth can be quite profitable. Anyway, this terrible plan goes comically awry, and eventually this middle-aged rando is in a basement, forced to murder a total stranger.
Why It’s On This List: Yes, Breaking Bad got better as it went on, but in some ways it never got better than how it started. The show hit the ground running, from the flash-forward opening that introduces a pantless Walt wearing a gas mask, driving an RV filled with comatose bodies, then busting out a gun at some as-yet-unseen assailants. Explaining how Walt got there — and showing what horrors come next — took a full three episodes, ending with a murder that hurts both victim and perpetrator. Origin stories don’t come any better, and if you aren’t hooked right away, then we’re not sure what to say.
1. Ozymandias (Season 5, Episode 14)
The Story: This is the end — almost. The penultimate episode begins with Hank finally being offed, not by Walt, though he’s still to blame. The rest finds Walt essentially getting his affairs in order, which in his case means spitefully telling Jesse he let Jane die, getting into a fight with Skyler and Walt Jr., kidnapping his infant child, and getting in a van to begin his new life.
Why It’s On This List: “Ozymandias” is widely considered not only the best Breaking Bad episode but one TV’s finest hours, period. And we’re not going to argue. It’s Walt repeatedly finding a new bottom to hit, having destroyed not only his life but anyone who ever had the misfortune to meet him or be his relation. Rian Johnson returns to the director’s chair (his third time) to ensure everything’s clicking, everything’s firing on all cylinders. Given where the episode ends, it’s a sock in the gut to know one episode still remains. Seriously, what on earth could be next?