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 10 episodes that stand out more than the rest.
10. Dead Freight (Season 5, Episode 5)
The Story: Walt and his on-again-off-again associate/former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) 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.