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’ve been 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. Wednesday: Walt and Jesse’s cockroach of a lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Thursday: Jesse (Aaron Paul), Walt’s tortured on-again, off-again partner.
Now, it’s the big man’s turn. Walter White. Heisenberg. Formerly Mr. Chips, now Scarface – a character journey unparalleled in TV history, played brilliantly by the unparalleled Bryan Cranston. Here are five episodes that track the evolution of Walt from postmodern Willy Loman to walking vision of mythological evil.
“…And the Bag’s in the River” (season 1, episode 3)
Breaking Bad has become famous for the inexorable intensity of its narrative progression, which is a fancy way of saying that this show moves. It’s probably the plottiest of the current wave of great dramas, in the sense that not one episode feels wasted. (And it manages to keep moving without ever going over the edge, coughcoughHomelandcoughcough.) But the show established that rhythm by taking things slow. The second and third episodes of Bad’s first season zero in on the consequences of the first episode, as Walt and Jesse struggle to dispose of the bodies of two drug dealers. One problem: One of those bodies is still alive. And so we get the first great episode of Bad’s run – a tense standoff between Walt and Krazy-8. It’s mesmerizing to see Walt – who, at this point, still seems capable of walking away from the criminal life – internally debate what to do with Krazy-8. (At one point, he jots down the pros and cons of killing Krazy-8. The only con: “Killing is wrong.”) And it’s terrifying to see Walt finally take action. You’ll never look at a bike lock the same way again.
“Over” (season 2, episode 10)
Good news: Walter’s cancer is in remission! He gets to live! Bad news: He gets to live the rest of his life as a schnook, waiting around like everyone else. That’s the concept behind this episode, which sees Walt attempt in vain to return to his pre-meth suburban life. At this point in the show’s run, it was still possible to think of Walt as a basically good person who finds himself in strange circumstances. But this episode brings Walt’s vanity, and his magnificent loathing, to the forefront. At one point, he insistently keeps pouring his son tequila; when Hank tries to casually stop him, Walt exclaims impotently: “My son! My bottle! My house!” “Over” is one of the show’s quieter episodes, but it’s a fascinating portrait of what-might-have-been: The life Walt could’ve lived, and the life he wound up destroying.
“Fly” (season 3, episode 10)
In the bottle episode to end all bottle episodes, Jesse and Walt spend an endless day inside of the superlab struggling to eliminate a single pesky fly. In the process, they have a long freefloating chat, digging deep into their history together, their misbegotten dead dreams, and the nature of their sad universe. It’s basically a Samuel Beckett play – Waiting for Godot in a meth lab – and it’s about as close as Walt ever comes to confessing all of his sins to another human being. In that sense, it’s a devastating portrait of a human being trying (and ultimately failing) to form a connection.
“Cornered” (season 4, episode 6)
The show’s fourth season is the tightest sequence of episodes Breaking Bad has yet produced, essentially a thirteen-part chess match between Walter and his boss-turned-nemesis Gus Fring. There are too many great moments to choose from. Walt, pitifully beaten into a pulp by Gus’ enforcer Mike; Walt, unleashing a torrent of sickening laughter from his crawl space; Walt, triumphant in the wake of his final victory, telling his terrified wife: “I won.” But with all due respect, those moments – and just about everything else that has ever happened on television – can’t compare with this:
It’s every supervillain’s big speech, every criminal’s self-justification, every sinner’s non-apology. It’s the kind of speech that you can see people quoting out of context just for its awesomeness – like the Wall Street bankers who quote Gordon Gekko unironically, or the generation of kids who took Tyler Durden seriously. But it’s also terrifying, and a bit pitiful. (When Walt says those words, he’s on very thin ice with his employer.) So it’s also every emotionally abusive husband and father, and every great man who thinks their greatness makes them too important for the laws of human decency. It’s the Devil Himself, and it’s a bald suburban dad in a shirt with gigantic sleeves. This is why Bryan Cranston deserves to win all the Emmys, forever.
“Say My Name” (season 5, episode 7)
This episode begins with Walt’s great moment of triumph, the final and irrefutable transformation into Heisenberg. In a desert faceoff that suggests Sergio Leone filming a Hieronymus Bosch painting, Walt stares down some hardboiled men from Phoenix…and those hardboiled men can barely look him in the eye. It’s everything Walt has ever wanted. It’s his greatest moment. It doesn’t last. Jesse abandons him. Mike wants out, too – and ultimately has to go on the run. But before he does, he offers Walt an angry summation of his character. “You and your pride and your ego, you just had to be the man. If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right.” It’s the first time that someone has spat all of Walt’s failings in his face. And the reaction is swift: Walt shoots Mike, and has the temerity to apologize as the old man sits dying. In “…And the Bag’s in the River,” Walt took an entire episode to decide he had to kill someone. In “Say My Name,” it only takes him a second.