This Sunday, AMC’s Breaking Bad begins a final run of eight episodes, bringing the tale of Walter White to its inexorable conclusion. The show has become one of the great running masterpieces of the last half-decade of television, bringing the post-Sopranos model of anti-heroic TV drama to new critical highs (and terrifying new moral lows). What makes it even more impressive is that — in an era defined by ever-more-gigantic ensembles — Breaking Bad has unfurled its epic American tale with a relatively small cast of characters. While other shows opt for cast breadth, Bad has explored each character’s depth, sending them on fascinating byzantine journeys into the interior of their souls. This week, we’ll be taking a close look at all the show’s main characters and presenting a suggested viewing list for the five episodes that best define their arc. We started with alpha-male DEA agent Hank on Monday. Tuesday: Skyler White (Anna Gunn), Walter’s wife and sometime accomplice, who went from unwitting victim to money-laundering queenpin. Today, it’s Walt and Jesse’s cockroach of a lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk).
“Better Call Saul” (season 2, episode 8)
In Odenkirk’s first episode on the series, he makes an indelible impression as the sleazy – but highly capable – lawyer with an unforgettable TV ad that ends with the ubiquitous “Better call Saul!” When Badger (Matt Jones), one of Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) dealers, gets caught by the police, Goodman appears as Badger’s attorney. Walt and Jesse try to bribe Saul into making sure Badger doesn’t talk to the DEA, but Saul refuses the gesture. After being kidnapped by the meth-cooking duo, however, Goodman turns the tables, convincing Walt and Jesse to hire him as their counsel. By the end of the hour, Saul not only fixes the Badger situation, by setting Jimmy In-n-Out (Jimmy Daniels) up to take the fall as a fake Heisenberg, he also maneuvers his way into the White-Pinkman drug business, and establishes himself as the go-to dark comic relief that continues throughout Bad’s run.
“Mandala” (season 2, episode 11)
Saul connects Walt and Jesse with a mysterious client, who wants to buy a large amount of their product. (The mysterious client later turns out to be Gus Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who becomes a very important part of Walter’s descent.) Also of note – Odenkirk’s ability to deliver a one-liner is deliciously on display: “As to your dead guy, occupational hazard. Drug dealer getting shot? I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say it’s been known to happen.”
“Caballo sin Nombre” (season 3, episode 2)
Many facets of Saul’s personality shine in this episode, where he plays trusted adviser, slick attorney, and problem solver. He keeps Walt from worrying about Skyler’s threat to go to the police, deviously purchases a house for Jesse from his parents, while also deploying Mike (Jonathan Banks) to spy on the White family. It’s here we learn that Saul will work for his clients, but he also puts his needs before anyone else.
“Sunset” (season 3, episode 6)
How low will Saul go? Low enough to trick Hank (Dean Norris) into thinking Marie (Betsy Brandt) was in a bad car accident, using his secretary in the process. Saul receives a desperate call from Walt, who is trapped inside his RV with Hank practically beating down the door. Saul makes his secretary pose as a police officer on the phone, telling Hank his wife was badly hurt. Hank immediately leaves the scene, and Saul once again saves his clients from being discovered.
“Live Free or Die” (season 5, episode 1)
In a surprising display of his ethical limits, Saul grows tired of his partnership with Heisenberg, especially after realizing Walt poisoned a child in his ruse to maintain Jesse’s allegiance. He tells the meth kingpin he wants out. “You’re done when I say you’re done,” Walt says, refusing his lawyer’s resignation. Thus begins Saul’s realization that he’s just along for the ride on Mr. Chips’ journey to becoming Scarface. Goodman sets Walt, Jesse and Mike up with a new business cover, and the cooking begins anew. Saul, however, is never the same.
The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad begin Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.