Season 2, Episode 12: "Phoenix"
Seeds that come to horrible, horrible fruition in "Phoenix," the penultimate episode of the show's second season (still, to this writer's mind, the show's peak, though season four comes damn close too). The shifting nature of the audience's sympathies for Walter White are, really, the heart of the show (again, it was pitched by Gilligan as a journey from "Mr. Chips" to "Scarface"), and it's possible to see "Phoenix" as the point of no return for the once hapless chemistry teacher. It doesn't start off on a particularly heroic moment: Walt misses the birth of his daughter Holly in order to make a $1 million drug deal. But there's at least a twisted morality there (he later shows his baby girl the cash haul, telling her "Daddy did that for you"), one that just he's clinging on to throughout the episode. Sure, he's using the website his son set up to crowdsource donations for his medical expenses to launder the cash, but he's got to do it somehow, right? And when he screws an off-the-wagon Jesse, out of his share of the deal (at least temporarily), it's with a paternal love for the kid, telling him he'll be paid in full once he's clean again. And it's this protectiveness that leads, in part, to Walter's most abhorrent act to date. Jesse's girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) blackmails Walt for the cash so they can start a new life together (swearing, semi-convincingly, they'll get clean in the process). But after a chance encounter with a man in a bar who is, coincidentally, Jane's despairing father (John De Lancie, in a lovely turn), Walt decides he can't give up on Jesse, and returns to the apartment, only to find the couple passed out from a heroin/meth combo. Suddenly, Jane, on her back, starts choking on her own vomit, and though Walt initially moves to help her, he stops. And waits. And watches her die. Whether he believes that this gets rid of a bad influence in Jesse's life, or whether he's taking the opportunity to remove a thorn in his side isn't clear—Cranston plays it with a beautiful ambiguity. But it's undoubtedly a point of no return for Mr. White, and the cost to his soul only gets greater in the following episode, when Jesse's air-traffic-controller father, stricken with grief, causes a mid-air collision that costs hundreds of lives. For all the gasp-inducing moments the show's delivered, this is the one that truly leaves you shaken to the core.
Season 4, Episode 13: "Face Off"
After season 3—one full of some of the show's finest moments, but perhaps less coherent and propulsive as a narrative than some of the others (Gilligan has admitted in interviews that much of it was plotted on the fly)—"Breaking Bad" came roaring back with the relentlessly tense fourth season. The third had ended with Walt ordering Jesse to kill his genial would-be replacement Gale, and from the opening episode "Box Cutter," which sees kingpin Gus kill a henchman with the titular weapon in front of a horrified Walt and Jesse, it's clear that while their positions are safe for the moment, it's only a matter of time before they cease to be useful. As such, season four is dominated principally by one obstacle for our dynamic duo to surmount: how to rid themselves of their greatest adversary, the South American chicken magnate/pillar of the community that is Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, in a performance of ineffable greatness). Finally, they manage it in season four closer "Face Off." Walt has a bomb intended to off his benefactor/nemesis, but Gus gets spooked, and suddenly he has no way of getting near him. Worse, Jesse is in police custody after the poisoning of his girlfriend's child, initially blamed on Walt but seemingly a frame-up to drive the pair apart from Gus. How they get out of their fixes is one of the finest examples of the show's back-against-the-wall plotting, culminating in the deeply satisfying conclusion—the bomb being detonated by Hector Salomanca (an extraordinary, wordless Mark Margolis), the terrifying uncle of early adversary Tuco, given the chance by Walt to take out their mutual enemy by ringing his ever-chiming bell, now rigged to the explosive device. The hospital room goes up in flames, but initially, it seems like Gus has somehow survived, as he walks out and straightens his tie. But in an extraordinary flourish that reveals how far Gilligan has come as a director, the camera tracks across to reveal that Gus is missing half his face. After all the build up, it should be a moment of triumph for our quote-unquote heroes, but you hardly feel like punching the air when Walt chillingly tells Skyler "I won." And the show confirms why in its final moments; a close up of a poisonous Lily of the Valley plant, revealing that Walt was in fact behind the poisoning of a child. Whatever moral code he once clung to, even as he once watched a girl choke on her own vomit, is long gone.
Season 5, Episode 5: "Dead Freight"
One thing we'd argue sets "Breaking Bad" (along with "Mad Men" and a few select others) apart from other shows like "House of Cards" or even "Game Of Thrones" is the way that it can serve the serialized master story while also delivering a contained, thematically coherent mini-movie every week. Stick another forty minutes onto "Dead Freight," perhaps the best example of this, and you'd have one of the best action movies of last year. Walt's now his own boss, but his supply of methylamine is drying up. At the suggestion of panicky, shifty executive Lydia (Scottish actress Laura Fraser, a fine addition to the show even if the character is basically a riff on Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton") they decide to rob a train containing 100,000 gallons of the stuff, a job that's sure to lead to bloodshed, until a brainwave from Jesse leads to a seemingly perfect plan. The result is the single best action sequences in a show that's full of great ones, as Walt, Jesse, Mike (Jonathan Banks) and new protege Todd (Jesse Plemons) pull off the heist of the century. It's breathless, knuckle-whitening stuff (beautifully directed by longtime show writer George Mastras), with a scope of the kind you rarely see on television—it's no surprise that this is the most expensive episode of the show to date. The caper is a success, but once more, there's a price to pay; as they celebrate, they're surprised by a young boy on a dirtbike, who the eager-to-please Todd guns down without a second thought. Jesse's anguished cry ensures that, while the adrenaline was pumping only seconds earlier, now you feel like you've been punched in the gut. If that was the only classic scene in the episode, it'd be a contender, but there's also the delicate negotiations between Walt and Skyler, who now loathes him with every fiber of her being, but remains his business partner, and a cracking moment where Walt fakes a breakdown in Hank's office in order to plant a bug. We had our reservations about the early part of season five as a whole, but if the back half of the season contains anything as good as "Dead Freight," we'll be delighted.
Honorable Mentions: A shorter version of this feature would have just read "all of them." But nevertheless, there was some that didn't make the cut that stung a little more than others. Among season one, we're big fans of episode five, "Grey Matter," which delves into Walter's backstory more, and shows that pride is his original sin, as he turns down an offer from his one-time business partner to pay for his medical expenses. Episode six, "Crazy Handful Of Nothin," is a cracker too, not least for the scene where Walter first dons the Heisenberg guise and blows up drug dealer Tuco's hideout.
As we said, season two is our personal favorite, and there's plenty that could have made the list from that. There's "Grilled," which sees off Tuco, and introduces Hector in a breathlessly tense extended scene south of the border, while "Peekaboo" pits Jesse against a methhead couple played by Dale Dickey and David Ury. Meanwhile, episode 9, "4 Days Out" brings perhaps the show's finest director, Michelle MacLaren, into the fold for a near-bottle episode where Jesse and Walt drive into the desert for a mammoth cooking session.
While it lacked the laser focus of other seasons, we've been perhaps unfair to the third series by not picking any episodes from that. Season opener "No Mas" is one of the best first episodes the show ever had, seeing Walt finally coming clean to Skyler and Jesse in rehab. The third episode, "IFT" is the flipside, as Walter forces his way back into the family home, while "One Minute" features one of the show's most memorable scenes, as Hank faces off against the fearsome Cousins, only just making it out alive. If we'd had our way, episode 10, "Fly," might have cracked the list—another bottle episode crackling with tension and character beats, as Walt and Jesse attempt to find possible contamination in the lab. That said, some, including our editors, find guest director Rian Johnson's ("Looper") stylish work overbearing both here and in his season five episode, so it's left to this section. Lastly, the two final episodes of the season see a classic ramping up of things, culminating in the death of poor old Gale.
Season 4 is as consistent as any, from opener "Box Cutter" to the finale we wrote about above, but among its other highlights are "Hermanos," which sheds some light on Gus Fring's backstory, bottle episode "Bug," tenth episode "Salud" which sees Gus wreak a terrible vengeance on the cartel south of the border, and "Crawl Space," which has one of the most devastating conclusions the series ever featured. As for season 5? The opener, with the ingenious magnet heist, is a keeper, as are the last two episodes, which feature Mike's death and Walt's seeming retirement. As for the second half? We'll find out how it turns out from Sunday. Check back here for our recaps of every episode as we head toward the finale of the show.