The second season of AMC’s Better Call Saul premieres today, Monday, February 15, 2016. Viewers know that the show is a spinoff of the network’s popular crime drama Breaking Bad, which ran for five seasons and left a legacy as one of the greatest television programs of all time. Beloved by critics and audiences all over, it was sad to see the series come to a close in the fall of 2013 – even though fans are still enjoying misadventures in Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As we gear up for the return of James McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman, we’re taking a look back at the show that made him a household name. Breaking Bad is full of so many great moments, and for our money, these are the 12 best episodes of the series. The episodes are presented in order of premiere date. It’s hard enough to pick a dozen of the best. Ranking them would be impossible.
Cat’s In the Bag…
One of the greatest strengths of Breaking Bad was its willingness to embrace the consequences of the actions the characters took. Nothing was glossed over, nothing was off-limits. This was a show that ensured everything that happened had some kind of repercussion, and that tone was set in the very beginnings of the series in this first season episode, which sees Walt and Jesse try to deal with the corpse of drug dealer Emilio and the still alive Krazy 8.
Played for dark comedy, Walt decides the best course of action is to dispose of Emilio’s body via hydrofluoric acid, a plan that succeeds, except that it sends a bathtub crashing through Jesse’s ceiling. The episode also has a darker edge when Krazy 8 is locked away in Jesse’s basement, setting the stage for the great lengths Walt and Jesse would go in order to remain safe. Several series tropes are introduced in this episode, including Walt’s pathological lying to Skyler to cover his tracks and the uneasiness between Skyler and Jesse. The pilot may have been the first episode, but “Cat’s in the Bag…” is where Gilligan found the series’ voice and built on the foundation.
A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal
They say a story is only as good as its villains, and before Walt became one himself, he and Jesse faced some pretty intimidating opponents in their time together. The first of these was Tuco Salamanca, who distributed the duo’s meth during the first season. An unpredictable psychopath, Tuco presented more of a danger than a benefit, as illustrated by his vicious beating of an associate in front of Walt and Jesse. It showed that the two aspiring criminals were well in over the heads and completely unprepared for New Mexico’s underworld of meth dealing.
“A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal” also established how Walt and Jesse work well as a team, as they devise a plan to steal the chemicals they need to cook their product from a warehouse. Though it didn’t go smoothly (little ever did for them), they still accomplished their goal and were able to keep doing business. Their great heists became a constant presence as the series went on, becoming more elaborate. In addition, the seeds are planted for the inevitable Walter and Skyler divide; Walt decides to stick up for Marie stealing a baby tiara, which surprises Skyler. She warns her husband he wouldn’t want to know what would happen if she caught him in illegal activity, raising the stakes of Walt’s personal life.
As Breaking Bad went on, Jesse Pinkman became the show’s beating heart and emotional moral center. Even though he was cooking and dealing meth, Jesse never lost his conscience and tried to always do the ethical thing. To him, some things were bigger than selling some drugs and making money. As Walt morphed into a greedy and manipulative head of an “empire business,” Jesse continuously saw the larger picture of what was “right” in this crazy world.
The team started to flesh that aspect out in this second season episode, where Jesse goes to a junkie’s house to collect overdue payments. When he breaks into the house, Jesse is startled to see a young child living in such conditions and begins to take care of him. Jesse tries to help the kid have a normal day, playing peekaboo and making him meals when he’s hungry. At the end, when the mother murders the father with an ATM machine, Jesse sees no choice but to call 911 and have someone take the kid away. This episode showed Jesse was more than the junkie archetype and deeply cared about others, establishing his arc as the series went along.
Better Call Saul
The fateful first meeting with the criminal lawyer known as Saul Goodman is one of Breaking Bad‘s highlights. Released at a time where the series still had a black comedy edge, the episode is one of the more humorous in the entire catalog. Badger’s arrest in the cold open is a smartly executed sequence, and Saul’s interactions with Walt and Jesse are played for laughs (“You two suck at peddling meth”). It gave the show one of its most memorable supporting characters, who ended up becoming such a fan favorite that he warranted his own spinoff series to flesh him out further.
Outside of the individual moments, “Better Call Saul” is a standout for what it represents for Breaking Bad moving forward. Here, Walt and Jesse go further down the rabbit hole almost to the point of no return. In an effort to help Badger (and protect their own skin), the two go into business with a shady lawyer who promises to aid them in keeping their operation as fruitful financially as it can be. Saul is the one who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows another guy, and those connections come into play in devastating ways in later seasons. Walt and Jesse still may have been out of their element at this point in time, but this episode was when they pledged themselves to the criminal life for good.
The first foray into Breaking Bad for director Rian Johnson, “Fly” is one of the more technically innovative episodes in the series. Mostly confined to the super lab set due to budget constraints, Johnson found a way to make the show visually interesting with different POV camera angles and other tricks to keep it from becoming stagnant. His work behind the camera was so impressive that the showrunners invited Johnson back when he was done with Looper, having him helm two episodes from the final season.
Outside of Johnson’s directorial prowess, “Fly” makes this list because of what it does with the characters. It’s a fairly standalone episode in the serialized drama, so the team took the opportunity to explore Walt and Jesse’s psychology and relationship. It’s a complex dynamic where the two care for each other and can’t stand one another at the same time. Jesse is obviously concerned about his former teacher when he discusses his aunt’s bout with cancer, and Walt is still torn about being responsible for Jane’s death. Walt’s recollection of his opportune moment to die that slipped away is also one of the final times Mr. White was a sympathetic character, the viewer feeling his inner turmoil and plight thanks to Cranston’s masterful delivery of the monologue.
A majority of the time Walt and Jesse work for Gus Fring, they’re convinced that the kingpin is looking for ways to kill them as he grows his drug empire. Tensions are always running high with the trio, and things reach a boiling point when Walt kills two of Gus’ employees in an effort to save Jesse’s life. Now with Gale Boetticher experienced enough to run the super lab, Walt knows he’s done for unless he and Jesse can kill Gale and gain leverage over Gus.
Backed to the brim with suspense, “Full Measure” is everything a fan would want in a season finale. It’s a race against the clock as Mike hunts for Jesse and Walt devises a strategy to murder Gale before anything bad happens. It says a lot about how the characters have grown that Walt is at ease with killing his one-time assistant, and Jesse is pleading for an alternative solution (including witness protection and the DEA). In addition, this has one of the most jaw-dropping cliffhangers of the series, as Jesse pulls the trigger on the sweet and innocent Gale, a moment that will emotionally scar him forever. It’s an episode that toys with the viewer’s emotions. In a twisted way, we want to see Gale die because so much time has been invested in Walt’s journey.
Immediately following the third season finale, “Box Cutter” was the ideal set up for the elaborate cat and mouse game that emerged between Walt and Gus. By this point in the series, Gus had been established as a ruthless personality. Audiences were unsure what to expect the moment Gale died. Seeing Gus slice open Victor’s throat with the titular box cutter was a shock to the system that mortified even the hardened Mike Ehrmantraut. This was a no-nonsense villain who used extreme methods to get what he wanted. Murdering Victor was a strong message to Walt and Jesse.
The episode is also a standout moment of Walt’s defiance. He is no longer the scared chemistry teacher who couldn’t find it in himself to kill Krazy 8. Here, he stands up to Gus, who’s capable of anything, in order to prove his value to the operation. There’s also an illustration of the love and loyalty Walt feels towards Jesse, warning Gus that if Jesse dies, he will leave regardless of the consequences. Much like in “Fly,” viewers know that the father/son angle between Walt and Jesse isn’t as happy-go-lucky as they might want, but it was still touching to see. Jesse was convinced Walt only looked after his own best interests, but Walt showed Jesse that his partner matters to him.
As the series went on, Walt became defined by his sense of pride and hubris. Those traits are extremely apparent in the now famous monologue he delivers to Skyler during the beginning of this episode. “I am the danger… I am the one who knocks!” he exclaims when the family’s safety is called into question. This marked the real beginning of the unraveling, where the Heisenberg persona Walt created for his drug dealing business began to take over the family man viewers first met. In Walt’s eyes, an entire enterprise would cease to exist if he didn’t show up for work, and that makes him irreplaceable.
“Cornered” is also noteworthy for its Skyler story. When Breaking Bad began, she was seen as nothing more than a nagging wife, a nuisance who just couldn’t understand why her husband was manufacturing meth. As Walt became a monster, the tables turned and Skyler transformed into a character viewers wanted to see get away from it all, someone who didn’t ask to be put in this position. She even contemplates moving to a different state to escape, but decides to remain in New Mexico. As she says to Walt, “someone has to protect this family from the man that protects this family,” an admirable statement that was vital to her development.
One of the larger subplots during Gus’ time on Breaking Bad was his tenuous relationship with the Mexican cartel, who were responsible for murdering his partner Max, many years earlier. Seeing the backstory of what happened to Gus was a crucial component of his character, since it made him a well-rounded person. He was painted in a sympathetic light, making his decision to poison Don Eladio and the other cartel members hauntingly relatable. It’s one of the few times audiences were rooting for Gus, the comeuppance greatly deserved.
The drama back in Albuquerque is just as compelling, as Walt deals with the aftermath of his fight with Jesse in “Bug.” There’s a great sequence involving Walt and his son, where the elder White shares a story about watching his own father wither away, wishing that Walter, Jr. didn’t have to endure a similar thing. In addition, Skyler “lending” Ted Beneke more than $621,000 was a plot twist with serious ramifications for Walt’s plan to escape safely, which paid off in the last episodes of the fourth season.
The Walt vs. Gus conflict came to its explosive conclusion in the season 4 finale. A masterpiece of suspense, this thrilling episode sees Walt forced to team up with an old adversary, Tio Salamanca, due to their mutual hatred for Gus. It was a genius move that few people saw coming, including Gus himself. Ever since he started working with Walt, Gus had been two steps ahead of his employee. Now, Walt got the upper hand, proving that he just might have been the smarter of the two. Gus’ final scene is one for the ages, including a bait-and-switch where it looks like he may have gotten away cleanly before meeting his demise.
As hard as it might be to believe, Gus’ death is arguably not the biggest moment in this particular episode. The mystery surrounding Brock’s poisoning is solved, with the reveal being Walt was behind it all. He manipulated Jesse into believing Gus did it so Jesse would go along with the plan to murder him. The last shot of the lily of the valley plant still lingers in our minds and, given the show’s history of never running away from the consequences, it was apparent that this wouldn’t be the last we heard of Walt’s diabolical scheme to intentionally hurt a helpless child.
If Walt, Jesse, and Mike are to continue their drug business, they realize that they need methylamine so they can cook their product. Sparing the life of supplier Lydia, they learn that there is an “ocean” of the chemical on a train and devise a strategy where they can steal the amounts they need without killing anyone on board the train. In a sequence that’s pulled from a heist film, the group (along with Todd) accomplish their mission. It’s an exciting bit that’s tense and nail-biting, especially when the Good Samaritan shows up and almost derails the whole thing. The plan was Jesse’s brainchild, another opportunity where he proved his worth and smarts.
This is also the episode where Todd infamously shoots the child Drew Sharp, which in essence is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Jesse was never quite the same after Drew’s death and began searching for a way out. As seen in the following episode, “Buyout,” Walt is basically unchanged by the events and carries on as if nothing happened. It’s a far cry from where the pair started their partnership, and with one pull of the trigger, Todd dismantled the whole thing and made it impossible for things to return to normal. Everyone had gone too far.
Perhaps the finest episode in the entire series, “Ozymandias” is one of the defining moments in dramatic television. It was here where all hell broke loose and all of Walt’s actions started to work against him. The entire time he cooked meth, he had managed to keep his family (relatively) safe from harm. But Hank got sucked in too deep and is killed by Uncle Jack. The money he worked so hard to obtain is stolen by Jack’s gang. Any remorse Walt feels for Jesse is thrown out the window when he confesses he watched Jane die. And that’s all in the first few minutes.
“Ozymandias” is full of time bombs that viewers knew were coming for a long time, including Walt, Jr. discovering the horrifying truth about his parents. Hank’s death caused an irreparable fracture in the family, with everyone turning against Walt. Despite everything that transpires, Walt still cares very deeply about Skyler and his children, and in an emotional moment offers her an alibi by lying on the phone in an attempt to remove all suspicions from her before leaving for good. It underscored the main theme of the entire series. No matter what happened, Walt wanted his family to be secure in the long run and would do whatever he could to ensure that happened – even if it meant kidnapping his own daughter.
Those are our picks for the greatest episodes of Breaking Bad, but off course this list is not meant to be all-inclusive. Be sure to share your favorite episodes and moments in the comments section below!