The following is taken from Breaking Down Breaking Bad, available in paperback and for Kindle.
The idea of selecting the greatest moments of a show filled with memorable moments is, admittedly, like asking to be slapped around for how absent-minded you are. Such a list can only ever spark a flurry of “how could you forget Moment X?” comments from readers.
Still, it’s worth revisiting these scenes not only because it’s fun to roll a mental highlight reel, but because many of them distill the essence of Breaking Bad down to a few memorable minutes. Yes, there are some that were painful to leave off the list – Gale’s murder and Hank’s shootout with the Cousins spring immediately to mind – but you have to cut things off somewhere. Taken as a whole, these moments, two from each season, serve both as an overview of what made this show so special while also just being damn good television.
The Bathtub Scene
Considering how dark the show eventually became, it’s easy to forget that Breaking Bad essentially began life as a black comedy. There were grim moments of seriousness, yes – it’s clear early on that this show won’t compromise when we see Walt strangle Krazy 8 in Jesse’s basement – but there is also an air of absurdity in those early seasons that is hard to ignore. The banter between Walt and Jesse is often hilarious, and there is a borderline slapstick quality to the physicality both bring to the screen (especially the clumsy, hard-luck way in which Bryan Cranston portrays pre-Heisenberg Walter White). No scene typifies this as well as the infamous bathtub scene.
After Walt is forced to poison a drug dealer intent on killing him and Jesse, Jesse is forced to dispose of the body. Walt instructs him to use hydrofluoric acid to dissolve the corpse but warns him that he must use a certain type of plastic container to hold the acid and the body. Jesse doesn’t listen. He dissolves the body in his bathtub instead. The acid then eats through the tub and the upstairs bathroom floor, resulting in a grotesque and hilarious waterfall of liquefied remains crashing through his ceiling. It’s sick, it’s demented, and it’s absurdly funny – pretty much everything that defines the tone of the first season.
Walt Gives Tuco A Present
If Walter White was anything, he was certainly resourceful. From the very first episode he showed himself capable of using his smarts to get out of a jam when he quickly concocted a poison gas to take out two drug dealers intent on killing him. In many ways this is what made Walt such an appealing anti-hero. He wasn’t a badass. He was an ordinary schlep who also happened to be brilliant. And in those rare moments when he did stray into badass territory, well, he was as cool as they come.
When psychotic local drug boss Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) steals a generous supply of meth from Jesse and then hospitalizes him with a beating, chemistry teacher Walter White does the perfectly logical thing for a pasty old chemist to do: he confronts the dealer in his lair. Walt demands money for the meth that was stolen, as well as a partnership with Tuco. When Tuco balks and Walt’s life appears to be in jeopardy, Walt pulls out what looks like a chunk of meth and throws it to the floor. That “meth” was actually an improvised explosive. The windows are blown out, Tuco is left in a daze, and a newly-bald Walt leaves with his money – and a newfound sense of power. It was our first glimpse of Heisenberg coming out to play, and it was badass.
Don’t Call Her Skank
As the delightful bathtub scene showed, Breaking Bad was not afraid to get a little gross. That scene was played in a humorously dark way, but a grotesque scene in the second season replaced humor with horror and in doing so served as one of the show’s rare reminders that the substance peddled by Walt and Jesse ruins lives.
At the urging of Walt, Jesse arrives at the home of two destitute meth addicts only to find that they have a young child. His concern for the neglected boy puts him off his guard, allowing the addicts to take Jesse hostage. The two parents are unstable, though. When the husband’s constant taunt of “skank!” finally pushes his wife too far, the wife pushes a stolen ATM onto his head, crushing his skull. The entire sequence is sickening, showcasing the depravity of the addicts for whom Walt and Jesse are producing meth, but the sound of the husband’s skull being popped is what pushes it over the top. It’s more than an exercise in being gross, though. The scene sets the stage for Jesse’s eventual moral awakening by igniting his concern for children in neglect, making it one of the most important in the series.
Walt Just Watches
There were hints early on that Walter White was perhaps a little more vile than we initially believed. We could almost forgive him getting into the meth business given his situation – he otherwise seemed like an affable family man, after all – but there were things that troubled us. Asking Jesse to murder people, for example, or the way he verbally and emotionally abused his partner in crime. Still, we forgave Walt his transgressions because we were entertained and we thought perhaps deep down inside he really wasn’t that bad. Boy were we wrong.
When Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter), finds out that Walt is withholding a large sum of money from Jesse, she takes the kid gloves off and blackmails Walt into paying up. He does. She and Jesse then plan to skip town, but first they want to have one last drug binge. Walt shows up to try and reconcile with Jesse and finds the pair passed out. He attempts to wake Jesse, accidentally pushes Jane over onto her back, and she begins to choke on her own vomit. If she is not rolled back onto her side she is going to die. But Walt just watches. That he watches with some degree of horror only underscores the idea that he knows exactly what he’s doing. This man, this father, watches someone’s daughter die simply because he knows she posed an obstacle to him. Once Walt opens this door and steps into the darkness, there is no going back.
Skyler Pulls No Punches
Skyler White wasn’t exactly Breaking Bad’s most popular character. While we were engrossed in Walt’s increasingly dark adventures, Skyler did her damndest to steer Walt away from his darker side. When the White family started to fray at the seams thanks to Walt’s erratic behavior, Skyler tried to hold things together and put a stop to Walt’s strange doings. Essentially, for many in the audience Skyler White was the brooding, frowning obstacle between us and our fun. It certainly didn’t help when she dropped a bomb on the guy who was (at the time) our hero.
After finding out that Walt was manufacturing meth, Skyler demanded he leave the house. Walt refused. So in an effort to drive her meth-producing husband out of the house and away from her children, Skyler chose a tactic that set fans against her once and for all: she slept with her boss, then immediately went home and told Walt about it in rather, ummm, direct language. “I fucked Ted” quickly became one of the most memorable lines of the show, and seeing that Skyler could be just as ruthless as Walt became one of the show’s biggest gut punches.
Don’t Just Stand There, Jesse
Mr. White wasn’t a particularly good or kind father figure to Jesse Pinkman, but it can’t be denied that despite the regular abuse thrown at Jesse by his frustrated elder, there was a streak of genuine caring there, too. Something about the young man triggered a protective streak in Walt.
When a horrified Jesse sought revenge on two drug dealers who first used a child to shoot his friend Combo, and then killed that same child (who also happened to be his new girlfriend’s brother), the act was destined to be a death sentence for Jesse. If the drug dealers didn’t kill him, their boss, Gustavo Fring, certainly would. Walt knew this, so just before Jesse walked into a hail of bullets Walt appeared out of nowhere, ran down the dealers, shot the lone survivor in the head, and commanded Jesse to run. It was a stunning moment in a show filled with them. Not only did it drop our jaws, it was an exclamation point on the growing unease between our meth-cooking duo and their chicken-cooking boss.
Walt Has a Nervous Breakdown
As brilliant, focused and capable as he was, Walter White was never a calm man. From the very first episode he was prone to fits of futile anger, clumsy frustration, and childish belligerence. Despite these failings, however, the one thing he was not prone to do was to give up. He had done that before, after all, when he gave up on Gretchen and Gray Matter. Look where it left him: with a life he hated. With the cancer giving him a deadline he couldn’t ignore, giving up on reaching his goals was no longer an option. So when Walt finally cracked, he cracked hard.
Walt, realizing his days are numbered now that Gus has another way to cook Walt’s blue meth, arranges to have he and his family “disappeared.” All he needs to do is pay Saul’s guy and the Whites can avoid being another set of numbers in Gus’s body count. But as Walt discovers, Skyler gave their money away. Her intentions were good – to protect the family from an IRS investigation that would blow the lid on Walt’s illicit income – but it doesn’t matter. She doomed them. And so Walt lays there in the crawl space in which their money had been hidden, laughing hysterically as the camera pans up, up, up and the air fills with an ominous drone. Television is rarely this potent.
Gus as the Terminator
A case can be made that Breaking Bad went from a cult hit to a cultural phenomenon with this scene. That unforgettable moment was perhaps the biggest “Holy SHIT!” of the entire series. Despite the still relatively small audience at the time – 1.9 million viewers tuned in, or just 1/5th the number who watched the show’s finale – the Internet exploded with glee, shock, excitement, and a wave of proselytizing from fans urging everyone and anyone to watch this show. For those who watched it live or without spoilers beforehand, it will likely remain one of the most memorable TV moments they ever see.
After an entire season of cat-and-mouse games between Walt and Gus, Walt rigs Hector Salamanca’s wheelchair with explosives. Gus comes in to once again taunt his old adversary, but Hector is able to have the last laugh. He triggers the explosive, blowing his nursing home room to shreds. Then, unbelievably, the camera pans to the door where we see Gus strolling from the room, calm, collected, and inexplicably still alive – but only for a moment, because as the camera continues to pan we see that half his face has been blown off down to the skull. He adjusts his tie, collapses, and dies. Walt wins. The audience cheers. And the show cements its place in legend.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Breaking Bad frequently shocked us over the years, but it was never shocking just for the sake of being shocking. Even its most over-the-top moments served a greater purpose. The crash of Wayfarer 515 was a lesson in the law of unintended consequences. Murder-by-ATM underscored the reality of what meth does to people and horrified Jesse onto his path towards a purer sense of morality. Gus Fring’s half-blown off face was as symbolic as it was shocking. So when a 14-year-old boy is shot in cold blood, you know it’s not simply to make us gasp – even if it does make us gasp.
Walter, Jesse, Mike and Todd had just gotten done hijacking a train’s supply of methylamine when they realize a kid on a dirt bike, Drew Sharp, has been watching them celebrate. Walt had earlier warned that no one must know about the heist, so before anyone can react, Todd shoots the kid. As an audience we were left numb, especially since the murder came at the end of a light and fun heist sequence, but not as numb as Jesse, who has an affinity for kids. The shooting ends up fracturing the short-lived post-Gus meth crew, sets the stage for Todd becoming one of the show’s most hated villains, and reminds us that in the world Walter White has created for himself, no one is safe. Not even children.
Walt Offers A Friendly Warning
We had been waiting five years for this moment. Hank, the coarse but diligent DEA agent we eventually came to respect, was destined to discover that his brother-in-law was the elusive Heisenberg. The tension had long kept us on the edge of our seats, and the delicate balancing act Walt had to play to continue his role as a drug lord even while maintaining the facade of a normal family man was one of the show’s greatest sources of drama. In some ways, that dichotomy defined the show. So when Hank finally found out the truth about Walter and confronted him, we expected something big.
Instead of something big and explosive, though, Breaking Bad’s creators defied expectations and gave us a small, quiet moment more powerful than any explosion could ever be. Hank is certain Walt is Heisenberg, he just needs to build a case. Meanwhile, Walt suspects Hank is on to him, and goes to Hank’s house to confront him. With the garage door down and the lights dim, the two square off, Hank seething both at Walt’s betrayal and at knowing Heisenberg was under his nose the whole time, Walt not worried about being caught as much as he is about having his image as a good family man shattered. And then Walt, knowing Hank doesn’t have a rock solid case yet, offers a dire warning: “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.” It was heart-stopping stuff that opened the final stretch of the series with an air of menace that would last through the finale.