By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com August 7, 2013 at 2:00PM
This Sunday sees the beginning of the end of an era. Because on Sunday, AMC will premiere the first of the final eight episodes of "Breaking Bad," which over the last five-and-a-bit years has firmly taken its place among the pantheon of TV drama, winning an ever-growing following, rave reviews and fistfuls of awards. For the uninitiated (and really, how many of there can you be now?), the series follows Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher already struggling to make ends meet when he's diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Desperate to provide for his family, he teams up with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a deadbeat former student, to cook crystal meth. Complications, as you might imagine, ensue.
It was a fairly grim prospect for a TV series (terminal illness + crystal meth isn't exactly "The Big Bang Theory"), and it wasn't on many radars in advance of its debut—Cranston was best known as a sitcom star, creator Vince Gilligan hadn't been heard from much since "The X-Files," on which he was a writer/producer, ended, and AMC had only just begun dipping their toe into the TV waters, albeit with the excellent "Mad Men." But the reviews were sterling, both for Cranston and for the show, and if anything, the series has only gotten better and better over time.
The five thrilling, darkly comic seasons have tracked Walter in his transformation from, as Gilligan has described it, "Mr. Chips to Scarface," going from a well-liked, somewhat submissive teacher to the feared head of a major drug operation, who's vanquished every enemy that he's faced along the way. With perhaps two exceptions: Jesse, whose relationship with Walter has faced more and more ups and downs over the years, and his DEA brother-in-law Hank, who, as the first part of season five closed out, had just realized what Walter has been up to all this time.
We're just days away from finding out how the final eight episodes will play out, and to honor the series' return, and its last hurrah, we've picked out our five favorite episodes of the show. As you might imagine, it wasn't the easiest task to narrow it down, and caused a certain amount of screaming matches in Playlist HQ, but we think we've found five that show the series at its very best, and track Walt's own arc over time too. Take a look below, and let us know your own "Breaking Bad" highlights in the comments section. Beware *spoilers*, obviously.
Season 1, Episode 3: "And The Bag's In The River"
There's no doubt that "Breaking Bad" hit the ground running with its pilot and second episode—visually distinctive, thrilling and much more entertaining than its cancer + meth premise suggested. But it's the end of episode two, "The Cat's In The Bag...," when Jesse botches the acid-bath disposal of a rival dealer's body, leaving his remains all over his house, that you realize that the show's not quite like anything you've ever seen before. And that's where things pick up with the third episode, "...and The Bag's In The River," which proved to be a first season highlight, and cemented exactly how terrific a series it was going to be. With one dealer splattered all over Jesse's house, there's still one more, Krazy 8 (Max Arciniega), alive and kicking and chained up with a bike lock in the basement. And the question of his fate makes up the bulk of the episode, and one of the best scenes the show's done to date. Having flipped for the question of who'll off the dealer, Jesse scarpers to the comfort of a prostitute, telling his former teacher "Coin flip is sacred!" Walt is left weighing up the options, and no matter the reasons he can find for letting Krazy 8 go, the con is still there—"He'll kill you and your entire family if you let him go." Still, after he collapses from a coughing fit bringing his captive a sandwich, Walt bonds with Krazy 8, in a slow, extended scene that sees them finding a shared humanity, and Walt telling his prisoner about his cancer, the first time he's done so to another soul. It's an incredible piece of writing and performance, Gilligan's script waxing and waning like a great stage play, and backed with tremendous support from Arciniega, it's the moment where Cranston really hits his stride as Walter, particularly after he kills Krazy 8 anyway (the dealer had hidden a stray piece of crockery to use as a weapon), strangling him brutally with the bike lock in a breathlessly tense fight. It's far from the episode's only pleasure — there's some spiky phone calls between Walt and wife Skyler, and an enjoyable subplot where Hank, believing Walt Jr to be smoking pot, attempts to scare him straight. But even five seasons later, it's that basement scene that's seared onto our brains.
Season 2, Episode 8: "Better Call Saul"
No series on TV does the set piece or memorable sequence better than "Breaking Bad," and a list of indelible images or scenes from the show would be a long one. But the show isn't just about crashing planes or blowing faces off or robbing trains; it's amazingly compelling even in its quieter moments, and something like "Better Call Saul" demonstrates that there's no such thing as a "filler" episode on this show. In the pre-credits teaser, Jesse's dim-witted pal Badger (Matt L Jones, who's always a pleasure when he turns up) falls victim to the urban legend that an undercover cop has to tell you that he's a cop, particularly embarrassing when that undercover cop turns out to be DJ Qualls from "Road Trip." Walt and Jesse are terrified that he'll roll over on them, so they end up enlisting the help of one of the show's best-loved supporting characters: shady attorney Saul Goodman. As played by "Mr. Show" veteran Bob Odenkirk, Saul is introduced in a hilarious, almost Tim-and-Eric-esque fake commercial that demonstrates (like the "Ballad Of Heisenberg" cold open around the same time) how close the show can brush against absurd humor while still staying grounded. But Saul's genial nature hides an almost terrifyingly competent stone-cold operator, and the way that he handily gets the boys, and Badger, out of a corner by finding a duplicate Heisenberg to take the fall makes it clear that, with his help, they're going to keep moving on up to the big leagues. This is all leavened with a dig into one of the series' most fascinating relationships — the one between Walt and his brother-in-law Hank. We get the first glimpse here that the DEA agent is not the invulnerable badass he's been making himself out to be, wracked by the beginnings of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after losing a number of his team mates down in Juarez, only to get a pep talk from Walt (who's simultaneously working against him). The introduction of Saul aside, the plot doesn't take leaps and bounds forwards here, but there's no sense, as in lesser seasons, that the show's simply shuffling the pack and waiting for the last few episodes to move forward. Though in the burgeoning relationship between Jesse and his landlord Jane, seeds are certainly being sown...