It's finally ended, and we're a little bereft. Breaking Bad grew from being that weird little show that seemed destined to be overshadowed by Weeds to become a pop-culture bestriding colossus, winning critical acclaim and general adulation on a level not seen since The Wire. To distract ourselves from the gaping hole in our lives, we have put together the very best moments from the show - and please be warned that the final picture comes from the final episode, so don't click on to page 25 unless you have seen it! But with that warning in mind, let's cook...
N.B. This list takes into account what the Chief Cook of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, listed as his five favourite moments from the show, so if you're looking for the death of X or the explosion of Y, be sure to check out his high five here first.
‘Ozymandias’ – Season 5B, Episode 6/14
At first, it’s genuinely not clear whether Walt is being a despicable bastard or a despicable genius when he’s talking to Skyler over the phone Breaking Bad’s ante-penultimate episode. The proverbial shit has finally hit the fan, so at first it seems that he really has gone fully overboard, calling Skyler a “stupid bitch” and meaning it, warning her not to cross him with genuine malice. But when Skyler asks about Hank’s whereabouts, the penny finally drops.
Tears pour out of Walt’s eyes as he chokes back his emotions: he’s known all along that the police are listening in, and all of this has been another ingenious ruse, only this time, he can barely keep in character. The crowning glory of one of the best episodes of Breaking Bad – like other classics like ‘The Fly’ and ‘Fifty-One’, it was directed by Looper’s Rian Johnson – it’s guaranteed to turn all but the most stony-hearted into gibbering wrecks.
‘Half Measures’ – Season 3, Episode 12
It’s monologues like this one that have made Mike Ehrmantraut (and by extension actor Jonathan Banks) such a firm fan favourite. Banks modestly calls shooting this scene “a good day of work”, preferring to highlight the Jesse and Mike drop-off montage – “I don't think for all that time that we ever stopped laughing” – but there’s no doubt that this, pipping even his death or his unfortunate farewell to his granddaughter, is The Fixer’s finest hour. Watch it in full here, and try not to blub too loudly.
The irony of it is, of course, that a story that comes from a place of compassion for the weak leads to great violence. Mike means to encourage Walt to cut Jesse loose, to convince him that his partner is a danger, but instead Walt is motivated to run over two drug-dealers, and finish the job with a bullet to the head of one, in order to keep Jesse safe.
‘Gliding Over All’ – Season 5A, Episode 8
Die-hard Walt apologists (surely a dying breed) might chose to ignore it, but the fact is that everyone’s favourite former chemistry has all nine legacy members of Gus Fring’s empire killed in just two minutes. It’s not clear, either, that all nine are irredeemable scoundrels; they’re Mike’s security team and probably delivery personnel, and may well have been relatively innocent. So the simultaneous assassinations would be remarkable enough, but it turns out the men in question are in prison, and indeed spread out over three different prisons, so you can’t just walk into one cell with a gun and shoot them all in the head.
Instead, Walt hires Todd’s neo-Nazi uncle to deal with them via his contacts in the various jails, with all nine ending up either shanked, strangled, or burned alive. It is not pleasant viewing, nor is it pleasant listening, as anyone who ‘watched’ it behind their fingers discovered when they heard all those shivving sound effects emerge from their TVs.
‘Gliding Over All’ – Season 5A, Episode 8
Jesse searching for the Ricin cigarette (‘Stay On The Outside’ – Whitey), Wendy the prostitute plying her trade (‘Windy’ – The Association), Hank’s clue collecting (‘Word Mule’ – Jim White)… there are so many indelible musical moments in Breaking Bad, but the king of them all is the Crystal Blue Persuasion cooking montage that comes at the very end of Season 5A. This is your last chance to see the going when the going was good. The Empire Business is international now, Todd is proving an adequate Jesse replacement, Skylar is happy to launder all those mad stacks and the fumigation tent trick is working like a charm. It’s a glorious time to be making meth, and there was no better song to accompany it. That’s even though the title doesn't actually have anything to do with drugs: its writers, Tommy James And The Shondells, insist the words just “jumped out” from a part of the Old Testament.
A secondary shout-out has to go to The Simpsons for their mickey take of this very montage, as well as to The Heisenberg Song from the Season 2 episode, ‘Negro And Azul’, which somehow also ended up in Grand Theft Auto V.
‘Cornered’ – Season 4, Episode 6
The best of the show’s immortal catchphrases, “I am the one who knocks”, takes precedence even over Heisenberg’s “Say my name” a season later. To put it into context, look at the real thing here (Goddamn right) and then Samuel L. Jackson’s take (Goddamn wrong) and imagine you’re an Emmy award judge trying to work out whether you should give Cranston his fourth little-golden-angel-holding-a-nucleus. A pretty easy decision, you’d think – you’re too scared not to give it to him. Instead, Damian Lewis wins it for Homeland, and the internet is suddenly in uproar. At least he won in it this year, right? Oh. As you were.
In any case, no other single moment better shows Heisenberg’s snarling rage, pride and malice than this hissed outburst, leaving Skyler White understandably horrified by the man she married.
‘One Minute’ – Season 3, Episode 7
"Two men are coming to kill you. You have one minute," a mystery voice tells DEA agent Hank Schrader. You also have one gun, one bullet and one shot at surviving this – and only then because one of the cousin assassins thinks shooting you in the head as you lie wounded would be “too easy.”
This scene is brilliantly played, from the wobbling camera to the discordant electronic music and even the way Hank nervously licks his lips. It’s a relatively rare piece of full-on action cinema in a show that usually prefers the quiet death or the close-up kill. Until the final season sent the show into hyper-tense overdrive, this was one of the most nerve-wracking scenes in the entire show, a tour de force for Dean Norris and a chance for a neat Quentin Tarantino hat-tip with the axe-retrieval truck shot.
‘Box Cutter’ – Season 4, Episode 1
So disturbing they named the whole episode after it, Gus Fring’s calmer-than-calm killing is one of the most violent moments in the entire show, kicking off the fourth season with the worst employee rallying speech there has ever been: "Well? Get back to work." To make matters worse for Jesse, Walt and Mike, they also have to dispose of the body, making that uncomfortable community anxiety headache they’re all enjoying throb that much more. Speaking to Empire about shooting the scene, Giancarlo Esposito called it “a brutal, brutal episode for me.”
“Normally I'm very nice on set and amenable to talking to folks, but this day I didn't talk to anyone,” he adds. “I was very, very, very quiet. And I let the whole world spin around me, because I knew that I wanted to be so focused and I didn't want anything to take me out of that. So that sort of became the way I worked. And, you know, if you talk to Bryan, he'll tell you that sometimes he was frightened by that. He's said I'd look into his eyes, and my eyes would just go dead. I wouldn't be there anymore. And that's part of what I do.”
‘Say My Name’ – Season 5A, Episode 7
Jonathan Banks has said that if he wrote for Breaking Bad, Mike would not have left his granddaughter Kaylee in the playground when the DEA were coming for him. Fortunately, Jonathan Banks does not write for Breaking Bad, instead sticking to the acting side of things as he gently pulls your heart out, your eyes somehow getting a little wetter as you see the conflict on Mike’s face: should he stay or should he go?
“I was about to shoot the [park] scene, standing next to my friend Charlie, who's one of the crew on the set, and he's just waiting there with a light panel next to me as I stand by the tree and look out.,” Banks explained. “And I was still dead set against leaving my granddaughter in the park. And yet you have to justify that. You have to say, 'It's a park, there are police, she will be all right, she will taken home.' But I turned to Charlie to get the emotion, Charlie who was just off-camera – oh shit, I'm reliving it now – anyway, I said, 'Charlie, would I ever leave my baby in this park?' And Charlie said, 'No, sir.' And that's where the emotion came from. And then I turned back to camera. So you talk about a collaborative effort...”
‘Thirty-Eight Snub’ – Season 4, Episode 2
Breaking Bad is full of inventive point of view shots. So much so, in fact, that Vimeo user Kogonada has compiled a supercut video of his favourites, including the shovel cam, the bottom of the meth tray shots, the toilet cistern, the pool, the Pink Teddy Bear falling to earth from the plane, all those money retrieval shots and many more. But the one that’s been welcomed most warmly into fans’ hearts is the Roomba shot, where the audience sees the world from Jesse’s plastic pal as it nudges into several passed-out partiers on his living room floor. It’s also notable – in Breaking Bad terms, at any rate – for not having any accompanying music.
Of course, the Roomba plays a role in the plot, when Jesse searches for his missing ricin cigarette and the little robot might have the answer, and there’s something vaguely sinister about the way the machine carries on about its business whatever is going on around it. Perhaps - knowing this show - it's a message: the world carries on with very little regard for what we think is the desperately important business of our lives.
‘Fifty-One’ – Season 5, Episode 4
Forget Skyler the slutty accountant or Skyler the Marilyn Monroe impersonator – Anna Gunn’s real stand-out moment was the pool scene, a challenge both technical and emotional for the actress. “I had to be trained to breathe with a regulator under water so we could do the stunt because it required me being taken to the deep end,” Gunn explains.
“I had to be dragged underwater by two guys, two divers, and put into a special wire cage with that blue skirt I was wearing so that it bubbled around me with that flower effect/design around my head, and then with the regulator in my mouth I had to, at the last minute, toss it off and open my eyes and float there. I am not a big water person and I definitely didn't think I could breathe with a regulator, so to be able to do that was a big deal and I was proud of that and it was a beautiful shot, so beautifully directed by Rian Johnson, who I adore, and our amazing special effects and stunt people.” You can check out a behind-the-scenes underwater shot of the moment in question here.
‘Half Measures’ – Season 3, Episode 12
Like something out of Grand Theft Auto, one-time cuddly chemist Walter White decides to dispose of his enemies by running them down in his car, just as his partner Jesse is about to get into a whole world of trouble by marching up to a pair of drug dealers to attempt to shoot them. Unfortunately, this move doesn’t fully dispose of the two dealers, so Walter gets out of his sensible little box car and puts a bullet in the remaining meth-slinger’s skull (with the dealer’s own gun, no less).
It’s such a shocking turn of events that the audience is hyperventilating as much as Jesse is, the bounce as the now-dead dealer is popped in the head leaving you, well, breathless. A moment ago it seemed that Walt was open to the idea of killing wild-card Jesse himself, so the sudden turn takes everyone by surprise. “RUN,” commands Walter. It fades to black at this point, but you can bet your last bump Jesse goddamn ran.
‘Face Off’ – Season 4, Episode 13
Very few TV shows can get away with an extended comic skit involving an old man wetting himself, but Breaking Bad is one. Taking his revenge on Hank by any means necessary, Tio Salamanca (Mark Margolis) gets the bald DEA agent back for what happened to Tuco with a few dozen Ouija board-based dings. The aged but still malevolent figure may have been robbed of both legs and speech by a stroke, but his ever-present bell allows him to indicate letters and slowly spell out words. Claiming he has information for the DEA, he gets as far as spelling out ‘S-U-C-K-M-Y’ and ‘F-U-C’ before they call it quits and he rounds off proceedings with an unceremonious grunt and a puddle on the floor.
It’s absurd, but it’s also a key plot moment at the same time. The combination is a regular trick pulled by Gilligan, his writing team refusing to just do a gag for the gag’s sake - see also: the perfect rooftop pizza toss and, more recently, Badger and Skinny Pete dreaming up an especially bonkers Star Trek episode pitch.
‘Crazy Handful Of Nothin’ – Season 1, Episode 6
Breaking Bad doesn’t back away from a good explosion. Vince Gilligan’s favourites are Tortuga’s tortoise and Gus’s necktie correction, but a special commendation has to go to the mercury fulminate ambush, if only for the line “This is not meth” and the glorious shot of Tuco’s top-floor pad having its windows blown out. This incident also marks the first time we see Walt with a fully shaved head, and the first time he declares his alter ego to the underworld at large. That cutesy chemistry teacher is no more: this is Heisenberg, and he’s quite literally blowing the roof off this joint.
Frustratingly, those party-pooping Mythbusters have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s no way this “little tweak of chemistry” would have worked the way it was shown, with the dream destroyers explaining that even if Walt had a big enough hunk of fulminated mercury to do the job, everyone in the room would have died in the process. Next they’ll tell us that ‘wire’ isn’t an element.
‘Cat’s In The Bag…’ – Season 1, Episode 2
The second episode of Breaking Bad is the show’s acid test in more ways than one. Reminding viewers that its pungent tone is only getting stronger, the episode serves up a sumptuous stew of drug dealer carcass bathed in a bubbling broth of hydrofluoric acid, served on Jesse’s wooden floor.
Cranston is aware of this moment’s particularly divisive nature, citing Oprah as someone who bottled it once Emilio Koyama melted onto the hallway. “Oprah said, 'I just couldn't take the acid bath. The guts and the blood... Argh!' Whereas her friend Gayle (King – Editor-At-Large for O and co-anchor of CBS This Morning) was like, 'Oh, I loved that!' So she's on the path, but Oprah's like, 'I c... c... can't.'” Of course, hydrofluoric acid makes a couple more cameos over the course of Breaking Bad, breaking down both Victor and the kid in the desert in Season 4 and Season 5 respectively, with each instance harkening back to this inaugural splash landing.
‘ABQ’ – Season 2, Episode 13
The titles of the first, fourth, 10th and final episodes of the second season of Breaking Bad go like this: ‘Seven Thirty-Seven’, ‘Down’, ‘Over’, ‘ABQ’. This is no coincidence, as you’d expect from a show that layers motifs repeatedly. Likewise, if you spotted the picture of the pink teddy bear on Jane’s bedroom wall, or in the tree outside Walt’s house in Season 5B or in any of the other occasions the little furry pink fellow appears, that’s very much on purpose.
So much of the second season led up to this moment, when that which Walt has wrought leaps from Albuquerque’s criminal underground and into the air, into the lives of entirely innocent people. John de Lancie’s Donald, air traffic controller and Jane’s dad, identifies one of the planes as "Jane Mike Two One", swiftly correcting himself to "Juliet Mike Two One", but the audience knows it’s too late: that bear’s going Down Over ABQ.
‘Abiquiu’ – Season 3, Episode 11
Saul is a one-stop shop of sleazy one-liners, colourful analogies and even more colourful shirt/tie combos, so it’s a tricky to pick just one Goodmanism that stands out from the rest. Vince Gilligan plumped for Saul’s handling of Badger’s first bust back in his introductory episode ‘Better Call Saul’, mid-way through Season 2, and many would highlight his Kevin Costner confidence quip – “I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it” – or his Rocky ribbing after Jesse’s trip to the hospital (note the unusual tracksuit from Saul there).
But we’ve gone for his unfortunate flirtation with Mrs. Heisenberg, as Saul meets an opponent he finds it very difficult to either charm or bamboozle. “Walter never told me how lucky he was. Clearly his taste in women is the same as his taste in lawyers: only the very best... with just a right amount of dirty.” And no, The University Of American Samoa is not a real place, in case you were hoping to follow in Saul's footsteps.
‘Pilot’ – Season 1, Episode 1
So much happens in Breaking Bad’s pilot. The cold open alone contains enough detail to power half a dozen episodes of a lesser show. There are two dead bodies in the back of the Winnebago, Jesse with a black eye and Walt with no pants on, driving like a maniac. But there’s a curious moment at the very end, where if just one detail had been different, there would have been no Heisenberg, no Empire Business, no Crystal Blue Persuasion.
Under the belief that the sound of oncoming sirens is the sound of the police coming to get him, Walt steps into the road to shoot himself, but as he puts the pistol under his chin and pulls the trigger, it emerges that he hasn’t taken the safety off. Fiddling with the gun, it goes off harmlessly in his hand. The poor bastard may have been part of a team that won the Nobel prize, and later in his life may pull Machiavellian manoeuvres so devious only a demented genius could have thought them up, but Walter White is also a bit of an idiot at crucial moments.
‘Gliding Over All’ – Season 5A, Episode 8
Die-hard Walt Whitman fans should have seen this coming. With the title of the episode taken from poem 271 of W.W.’s Leaves Of Grass – which you can read in full here – this cliffhanger of cliffhangers had to involve the other W.W.’s magnum opus. But the way that Hank discovers the truth is so perfectly Hankian (to coin a phrase) that perhaps we all should have seen that too. To realise what was fist-gnashingly obvious in retrospect, on the can, after he’s had a few drinks and what he thought was a nice meal, only emphasises how stupid he’s been, and feeds so well into the rage-and-shame-filled panic attack he suffers minutes later in the next half-season.
Six episodes later, Hank will have died, his last words “You're the smartest guy I ever met, and you're too stupid to see — he made up his mind ten minutes ago" and "Do what you're gonna do" echo just how stupid (in his own way) Hank had been not to have noticed Walt’s double life all along.
Incidentally, the final line of the poem ‘Gliding Over All’ is ‘Death, many deaths I’ll sing’, which makes sense, considering ten people have been shivved off this mortal coil over the course of the episode.
‘Peekaboo’ – Episode 6, Season 2
Jesse has always had a soft spot when it comes to kids. Whether he’s taking the rap for this brother’s spliff, caring for this new girlfriend’s little boy or playing silly buggers with the son of two junkies, Jesse is never afraid to reveal his cuddlier side if a rugrat’s around. If Walt’s biggest weakness is pride, Jesse’s is caring too much about the children (and, well, drugs). Indulging in a game of peekaboo with Spoodge’s kid, he’s clubbed round the head by Spoodge’s equally methed-up missus and only gets away after the spectacularly-named tweaker meets his maker via the bottom of a cash machine.
What’s clear here is that Jesse is not a natural born killer. Unlike Walt, who eventually gets used to the idea, Jesse will do anything to avoid that sort of physical conflict, so when he’s eventually forced to kill Gale, he’s racked with guilt, tormenting himself with violent video games and trying desperately to overcome it all at his Narcotics Anonymous meetings. File this reticence under “Foreboding character traits” in your Breaking Bad filofax whenever you get the time.
‘Mandala’ – Season 2, Episode 11
Jane’s death is a huge tipping point in the history of Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan is definitely aware of this, speaking at length about it with us here, but there’s something else that Jane brings to the show that goes beyond Walt’s moral compass going haywire: Jesse’s relapse. Gilligan has gone out of his way time and again to avoid glamorising drugs, but in order to show the real effect of narcotics, there has to be the good with the bad.
The good is the extreme highs – if it didn’t feel great, people wouldn’t do it – and the bad is everything else it does to you, your family and friends, and your mental wellbeing. Here, in this loving Trainspotting homage, Jesse rises to the sky to show you, the Breaking Bad viewer, the other side of the Empire Business. But even on a cloud, he’s faced with disaster when Jane’s system collapses under the weight of the drug and she chokes to death while Jesse sleeps, oblivious, and Walt watches, calculating.
‘Buyout’ – Season 5A, Episode 6
As much as Walt says he was doing it for his family, that was never quite the case. That was a bonus – or, in Walt’s way of thinking, a great cover for his real feelings – but a real family man would never invite such danger and disgrace into his home. Walt did it to feel power for perhaps the first time in his life. The sad story Walt tells here is that he was emasculated long before he was washing cars on the side to make ends meet: he was scuppered years earlier, when things got complicated with Gretchen – the woman he loved and worked with – and he graciously bowed out of Gray Matter industries, selling his 50 per cent stake for just $5000.
Walt’s meth-making was always to make himself feel like a hero, like someone with power; like the man he could have been if he still owned half of a company worth $2.16 billion. Vince Gilligan cites the prideful way that Walt turns down the Schwartzes’ offer in the fifth episode of the first season as “one of our finest moments”, and this obviously connects with his speech here, as well as the events of final two episodes.
‘Face Off’ – Season 4, Episode 13
At the very beginning of the final episode of the fourth season, Walt is sitting by his pool, spinning his gun on a nearby glass table. He spins it. He spins it again. He spins it one more time, and it points at something, nothing, you’re not sure. It could be a pot plant, it could be nothing. Walt pulls a face – he’s thought of something.
Cut to the very end of the episode, and after all that’s happened in-between, Walt is on the phone to Skyler:
Walt: “It’s over. We’re safe.”
Skyler: "What happened?"
Walt: "I won."
Note the “I” there, as well as the time Vince Gilligan gives the audience to decompress, showing Walt in his little White car, driving down from the multistory car park, glacing at the ‘Pollos Hermanos’ badge hanging from Gus’ car’s rearview mirror. Then there’s the real ending: the slow zoom to the pot plant from before, this time with the name of the plant showing: “Lily Of The Valley”. If you’re anything like the Empire office, there’s a small part of you that would have been happy if the whole show ended there, with Walt darkly triumphant and truly broken bad.
‘Dead Freight’ – Season 5A, Episode 5
Todd is pure evil. How else could you explain away his callous dispatch of a poor innocent child who happens to have seen The Three Amigos by the railroad track? There was no reason why the kid would have thought they were up to anything untoward, but Meth Damon - playing on his immense and unassuming likeability, especially for anyone who watched Friday Night Lights - went ahead and popped a cap in the little guy’s noggin anyway. Instead of being the wide-eyed ingénue that he appeared, it turns out that Todd has a serious dark side that may dwarf all those around him.
There are many different moments that Breaking Bad fans like to cite as the specific point that Walt went beyond the pale, but this was the instant we knew that in Todd’s case, well, he’s always been broken (and seriously creepy around Lydia, to boot).
‘Pilot’ – Season 1, Episode 1
Much is made of Walter White’s slow descent into evil, but looking closely at the very beginning there’s a sense that it was always there. In a discount clothing store to find new jeans for his 15 year-old son Walter, who lives with cerebral palsy, the whole family overhears a group of older boys making fun of young Walter’s speech and movement. Skyler, after comforting her son, marches to confront them, but is cut off by an icy and rather terrifying Walt, who kicks the bully in the back of the knees and asks him, “What’s wrong, Chief? Having a little trouble walking?”
When the hulking teen threatens Walt in turn, the proto-Heisenberg stares him down, swearing to exact revenge if the bully swings first. It’s our first sign that this mild-mannered teacher is capable of not just frustration but cold, burning rage, and the first sign that there’s quite a lot of bad there to be broken.
‘Felina’ – Season 5B, Episode 8
There are so many possible moments in this closer. The best scene, and the one that should earn a permanent place on both parties’ acting CVs, is the final scene between Walt and Skyler. One of the most poignant shots comes when Walt walks away from his son for the final time, blurring into nothingness behind a dirty window. And there are clever schemes and engineered machines and comic beats for good measure.
But the image that sticks in our minds is that of a dying Walt, lung cancer gaining an accomplice in a gaping stomach wound, staggering through the lab where Jesse has been imprisoned for months. He’s almost smiling, and it’s almost impossible to say whether that’s with a sense of pride in his acolyte’s accomplishments or a sense of rightness in once again being in the environment where he rules supreme. As he reaches out a blood-stained hand to a cooker (or something; we don’t run a meth lab so it’s hard to say) and smudges the silver surface, we see a reflection that looks like Heisenberg, but it’s Walter White who falls to the floor and lies, staring and unmoving, while the police rush around him like waves. It’s a fitting end to his brief, mad empire.