October 6, 2013

Breaking Bad’s 10 Best

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Well, we’ve made it one week so far, and, from the looks of it, we’re going to be just fine in a world without more Breaking Bad. That being said, The Sun would like to offer one final feature on what pretty much everyone has canonized as one of the greatest television shows of all time. Breaking Bad was stellar from start to finish, but, like any show of this caliber, there were some episodes that approached something close to perfection. Below, you can check out the 10 episodes we ranked above the rest. It’s an impossible task that will piss off fans no matter what (“Where’s ‘One Minute’?” ‘Felina’?!), yet we hope you’ll revisit these episodes when you have some free time on your hands or, better yet, when you don’t.

1. Phoenix (Season 2, Episode 12)

Our number one pick does not boast the kickass firepower of “Face Off” nor the perfect dramatic unity of “Fly” or “4 Days Out.” Indeed, the one where Jane dies is very typical, in action and narrative structure. What it does do better than any other episode, however, and through the most moving, startling ways, is come to grips with what makes Walt tick. From Walt beaming as he shows newborn Holly the stacks of cash hidden in the garage to his look of wounded pride when Walter Jr. posts a charity site for his father’s cancer, money — for, and within, the family — appears to be Walt’s motivating factor. But things complicate when Jesse and his girlfriend Jane blackmail Walt for Jesse’s cut. Walt standing over Jane’s asphyxiating body, allowing her to die, is horrible enough, yet it arrives just moments after, by mere chance, he runs into Jane’s father at a bar, where they talk about the difficulties of “family” and how “You can’t give up on them.” Money sets the pieces in place while one man’s selfish need for control assumes the truest power. “Phoenix” is the turning point of the series, as well as a perfect microcosm of all Vince Gilligan was going for. And it is devastating.

2. Ozymandias (Season 5, Episode 14)

No, the episode named by dozens of critics, thousands of IMDB users and even Vince Gilligan himself as the best episode of the series is not our number one pick. But that does not mean it is unworthy of the heap of praise it has received: “Ozymandias” is Breaking Bad at its most thrilling, its most powerful — and its most sickening. From the moment Walt’s “shattered visage lies, half-sunk” in the sands of To’hajiilee, it is clear he, and by extension, we, have turned a dark corner; as the AV Club’s Donna Bowman succinctly points out, the Spaghetti Western vibe of Breaking Bad’s highly stylized previous episode devolves into a veritable “horror show.”

Unsurprisingly, Bryan Cranston is at his absolute best in “Ozymandias.” As the empire he has built is reduced to rubble, with nothing remaining but a solitary barrel of cash, Cranston earns his accolades, presenting both the frantic desperation of a man trying to salvage something from nothing and the chaos of two personalities clashing into one. Even as he rats out his former partner, kidnaps his own daughter and threatens his wife over the phone (albeit to ostensibly help her), it is disconcertingly difficult not to feel sympathy for Walter.

“Ozymandias” works breathtakingly well on all levels; as a character study, as a thrilling climax and as a perfect nightmare scenario, where our greatest fears for these characters, spurred from the earliest moments of this series, become a reality.

3. 4 Days Out (Season 2, Episode 9)

This bottle episode (an episode filmed on mostly one set and a limited budget) is impossible not to love. After discovering what he thinks is a ghastly tumor on his x-ray, Walt recruits Jesse to cook one last batch of meth, far out in the boonies. What starts as brilliant comedy — Jesse lectures Walt on artist Georgia O’Keeffe: “She does these vagina pictures” — nosedives into survivalist horror, when the RV’s battery explodes and Jesse pitches all their water on its fire. Walt nearly gives up hope and accepts death, which is right around the corner for him anyway. It takes Jesse’s persistence to shake Walt out of it, plus a great line where Jesse declares with confidence that “wire” is a chemical element. Things get back onto track … until Walt receives his x-ray results back: He’s clear, in remission. After hugging and crying with his family, Walt retreats to the bathroom, where he beats a paper towel dispenser to shit. He already accepted death and evil in his life, and without one, he’s destined to succumb to the other.

4. Fly (Season 3, Episode 10)

Thank God for budget constraints. Like “4 Days Out,” “Fly,” the acclaimed and largely self-contained masterpiece from Breaking Bad’s third season is a bottle episode. On a functional level, its plot adds little to the overall story arc, and if you’re looking for tense gunfights or nursing home explosions, look elsewhere. Yet, as a singular allegory for Jesse and Walt’s mercurial relationship, a darkly comic exploration of the forces at work in Breaking Bad’s universe, “Fly” is unmatched. In the episode, Walt, suffering from insomnia and paranoia, becomes fixated on finding and killing a fly that is “contaminating” the lab.  At the heart of this tale, whose sensibility lies somewhere between the obsession of Moby Dick and and the absurdist slapstick of Waiting for Godot, is a monologue delivered by Walt in another of Cranston’s finest hours. “My God,” he exclaims, “the universe is random, it’s not inevitable, it’s simple chaos. It’s subatomic particles in endless, aimless collision. That’s what science teaches us, but what does this say? What is it telling us that the very night that this man’s daughter dies, it’s me who is having a drink with him? I mean, how could that be random?” Unable to resolve the existence of justice in a disordered universe, he gives up trying. As he defeatedly tells Jesse just before the episode’s close, “It’s all contaminated.”

5. Better Call Saul (Season 2, Episode 8)

As a sign of the show’s many layers of greatness, Breaking Bad’s funniest episode is also one of its most cinematically ambitious. It opens with a single long shot of a lanky dude coercing Badger into selling him some meth. When that dude turns out to be a DEA agent and the deal a bust, you realize that long shot was probably a camera in a surveillance van across the street. Brilliant! The introduction of everyone’s favorite bus-stop lawyer, Saul Goodman, produces some of the series’ most memorable lines (“Faith and begorrah! A fellow potato eater!”) and leads to a criminal-for-hire taking the fall for Heisenberg — but only after everything goes wrong. It’s as rigorously edited a sequence as any meth-making or prison-shanking montage, and a million times more hilarious.

6. Crawl Space (Season 4, Episode 11)

A single moment alone justifies this episode’s inclusion on any Top 10 list. In case you can’t remember the iconic moment to which we refer, here’s a refresher: Walter enters the crawl space for which this episode is named, expecting to find the money he needs to escape Gus Fring with the vacuum man. Instead, he finds an empty basement. Panicked, he begs Skylar to explain where the cash has gone, and she tells him, in a tone of measured terror, that she has given it to Ted. Walter, beginning to lose track of his sanity, breaks down. as the camera pans out, framing Walt in a coffin of his own misdeeds, he laughs maniacally. All the while, the sounds of mechanical feedback echo as the only sound in a void. There is only terror — then the credits roll.

Oh, and the rest of the episode works well, too.

7. Madrigal (Season 5, Episode 2)

Better than “Box Cutter”? “Dead Freight”? “Face Off”?! With its cocktail of tones, palettes and character moments, yes, “Madrigal” earns its rank. The cold open delivers a concentrated shot of delirium as a blank-eyed and silent German businessman taste-tests various condiments before committing suicide by automated external defibrillator. As a way to show the scope of Gus’ and Walt’s meth empire, the scene could not be more off-the-wall. From there, you get Jesse’s anguish over his “misplaced” ricin, Lydia’s horrifying pleas to Mike as he holds a gun to her head and Walt’s sickening bedroom abuse of Skyler. Good shows can live off dynamite set pieces and season finales, but only the greatest keep you riveted as the pieces are slowly put into place.

8. Face Off (Season 4, Episode 13)

First off, let us clarify that “Face Off” would be higher if not for the last scene’s Lily of the Valley reveal, which we buy but still consider a stretch. That being said … wow. Gus and Walt’s game of chess ends with a pawn, wheelchair-bound Tio Salamanca, taking out the mighty king. “Ding-BOOM,” read a card tacked onto the writers room’s board months before they wrote this episode, and we are grateful Gilligan and co. pulled all the stops to make it happen — even the ricin gambit, sure. But we most love Uncle Tio’s extended flip-off to the DEA, communicated one letter at a time, in order to lure Gus into Walt’s trap while ensuring he dies without becoming the most dreadful of creatures: a rat.

9. …And the Bag’s in the River (Season 1, Episode 3)

Classic moments are scattered throughout this early episode, often marked by Breaking Bad aficionados — myself included — as the one that got them fixed on the series. Among these, two deserve “classic status” among the pantheon of great scenes. First, the cold open, where the camera switches off between Walt and Jesse struggling to choke back vomit as they clean the hydrochloric acid-soaked remains of Jesse’s former partner, and a younger Walt discussing the mysterious chemistry of the human body with Gretchen, then a fellow chemistry student. Second, a more simple, but equally powerful, scenario: Walter weighing the pros and cons of killing Krazy-8, a meth dealer who had previously attempted to kill him and Jesse.  The sole pro? “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” In a single scene, Cranston and the writers manage to encapsulate Walter’s constant justification for his actions: he must protect his family, and it is better they than he. As the show goes on, of course, Walt bastardizes this logic, letting, “I did it for family!” justify increasingly heinous actions. In doing so, he becomes the danger.

10. Dead Freight (Season 5, Episode 5)

Breaking Bad has it all, as the above list has attempted to illustrate. From slapstick humor to mortal terror — and everything in between — the show manages to pay homage to several forms of art while paving a strikingly original path. In “Dead Freight,” Gilligan and Co. take on the caper. In fact, in the vein of the Westerns they so love to reference, the writers have Walter and his team pull off a train robbery. Of course, they do not go in guns blazin’ — though the murder of Drew Sharp provides an exception. No, Walter is smarter than that. In one of the most captivating exploits of the series, they use ingenuity (science, bitch!) to pull off their bold plan. It is a fine example of Bad’s flexibility, and a thoroughly entertaining watch from start to finish.

Honorable Mentions: “Over” (Season 2, Episode 10), “Box Cutter” (Season 4, Episode 1), “Gliding Over All” (Season 5, Episode 8), “Half Measures” (Season 3, Episode 12), “To’hajiilee” (Season 5, Episode 13)