The 25 Best Moments of Acting on Breaking Bad
Ask any fan of Breaking Bad, what is it that makes the show so great and they’ll all come back with different, equally valid, answers: it’s in the writing by Vince Gilligan and company, by turns hilarious, gut-wrenching and jaw-dropping; it’s in the white-knuckle nature of the whole adventure; it’s in the eclectic cast of characters and their gradual transformations that reveal who they truly are in the dark. But like all forms of visual media, one of the most crucial ingredients for success lies in the performances. They convince us to believe anything that seems unbelievable, they suck us into turmoil that doesn’t exist and leave us staring awestruck at our screens thinking, “I wish I could do that.”
Let’s be honest, when the show began back in 2008, none of us had any clue just how good these guys could be. Who would’ve guessed that “bitch”-spouting Jesse Pinkman would be the one who most frequently reduced the audience to tears? Who would’ve guessed that politically incorrect, over-the-top Hank Schrader was not only a total boss in battle but also a man capable of overcoming fears and shocking developments to get to the bottom of the case? And I suppose it’s now redundant to even mention this, but who would ever have guessed that girly, shrieking, brow-beaten Hal from Malcolm in the Middle would become the modern redefinition of the term “badass” as the inimitable Heisenberg?
While the numerous awards and adulation of the fan-base certainly speak for themselves, Breaking Bad would lack a distinct amount of its magic were it not for the talents of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris and all the rest of them. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else inhabiting the role of any of these now-iconic characters. And now, with a big Breaking Bad-shaped hole in our lives, it’s a good time for us to reflect and reminisce on all those moments that stuck in our brains and had us tripping over our words as we tried to articulate what it was about this show that made it such brilliant, must-see TV. Which is why I’ve compiled a list of the top 25 moments of acting in Breaking Bad, to celebrate the times when these actors really shone and showed us how much they and their characters had become one.
Before we start, though, a couple of side notes. Firstly, given how much the stakes rise over the course of five seasons, the following compilation is full of spoilers so if you’re not caught up yet and wish to remain untainted with forbidden knowledge, this is not your article. Secondly, try as I might, I wasn’t able to find corresponding clips for each moment, so some you’ll have to recall from memory.
So, with that said, let’s count down:
25. The awkward meter goes up -- Buyout (Season 5, Episode 6)
Breaking Bad has gone to some pretty dark places over the course of its six years so I thought it only fair to include at least one moment of light-heartedness. There’s been the eyebrows, the roof pizzas, the many immortal instances of “bitch.” But it doesn’t come much funnier than this cringe-inducing dinner scene with an agonised-looking Aaron Paul fantasizing about drowning himself in his glass of water when he fails to get the conversation going, Gunn’s Skyler evidently taking great relish in showing up her husband and giving a general air of “get-this-over-with” and Cranston’s Walt seemingly simmering with resentment all while considering his ulterior motives. Not much fun for our characters but great fun for us to watch and when it’s all over, Paul pretty much sums up the viewer consensus: “Thank God!”
24. “Someone has to protect this family” -- Cornered (Season 4, Episode 6)
Skyler White is an intimidated woman in this episode (more on that later) but ultimately, she won’t be cowed. Anna Gunn excels in this moment as she flat-out contradicts Walt and tells him that, yes, he is the danger and that’s not as cool as he made it sound. She wants to run but she loves her family too much to do that so all that’s left to do is for her to stand guard between the home-world and the drug-world. Yes, she’s not happy about it and yes, she knows she’s inviting all kinds of unfair criticism on herself but she can live with that. Skyler may have her army of haters, but in this moment, we’re all made aware of her quiet courage and dignity. An awesome moment for Gunn and another awesome quote for the Breaking Bad dictionary.
23. The sad state of Donald Margolis -- ABQ (Season 2, Episode 13)
Aaron Paul may be the one who gets to do the traditional big cry over the loss of Jane Margolis, but John de Lancie is equally heartbreaking as Jane’s long-suffering father Donald. Everything from the silent, defeated acceptance in his eyes when he sees the ambulance outside of Jane’s apartment to his numb wandering through Jane’s colourful, bursting-with-life apartment as he tries to pick out decent burial clothes to his absent-minded but ultimately fatal mistake at work that leads to the cataclysmic plane crash above Albuquerque makes us feel immense pity for him. The last we hear of him he’s been vilified across town and been driven to attempt suicide. It’s a shame we don’t hear more from Mr. Margolis but de Lancie’s powerfully subdued work in this episode means he won’t soon be forgotten.
22. “The man I thought I was” -- One Minute (Season 3, Episode 7)
Hank Schrader undergoes a curious transformation in Series 3, beginning to “break bad” in his own, slightly more well-intentioned way. Seized by a voracious hunger to catch Heisenberg, he starts to go more and more off the rails, culminating in his vicious assault of Jesse. The aftermath of this incident finally pushes Hank into confronting his innermost demons. Dean Norris’s monologue alongside Betsy Brandt in the Schrader bedroom as they prepare for Hank’s hearing is one of those moments that made us realise the depths he was capable of reaching. Hank may be admitting his weaknesses, but he also seems stronger than ever before and with this piece of acting, sexist, racist Hank who seemed incapable of taking anything seriously is gone forever.
21. “With or without you” -- Half Measures (Season 3, Episode 12)
Jesse Pinkman has a good heart. Unfortunately, having a good heart and the best of intentions will only land you in trouble in the drug world. His plan to dispatch the drug dealers responsible for Combo’s death and the corruption of Andrea’s brother Tomas seems stupid, reckless and certain to end in death but Aaron Paul manages to win us over to Jesse’s frame of mind almost effortlessly. It’s the complete conviction in his words that make us realise how right he is – this is wrong and it must be stopped, whatever the cost. You’d think that if anybody could talk some sense into him it would be Walt and he tries his best but Jesse, for once, has the final word. Given how much Jesse values Walt’s opinion, that’s really saying something about how much this means to him. We know he’s not going to succeed with his plan but thanks to Paul’s work here (an Emmy well-earned, by the way), we’re convinced he could actually pull it off. And maybe he would’ve too if Walt hadn’t stuck his oar in.
20. Upstanding gentleman -- Granite State (Season 5, Episode 15)
It’s crazy to think how pivotal Todd Alquist becomes in the final run of Breaking Bad episodes. Yet from the moment he put a bullet into young Drew Sharp, we knew he was someone around whom we could never let down our guard. This spine-chilling moment where Skyler goes to tend to a fussing Holly and finds several balaclava-donning hoodlums around her baby’s crib only confirms that. Jesse Plemons is nothing less than immaculately polite and even tries to comfort the petrified Mrs White as he terrorizes her into submission, yet we feel every inch of his threats as the camera lingers on his intense yet empty gaze. What makes Todd’s sociopathic tendencies even scarier is that when he’s not being remorseless little bastard, Plemons plays him with an almost childlike obliviousness. Remember when he decided to adopt Drew Sharp’s pet tarantula? Ew.
19.”I am the danger” -- Cornered (Season 4, Episode 6)
The moment that birthed a thousand posters, mugs and t-shirts. “I am the one who knocks” has become so memetic over the years that it’s easy to overlook what a phenomenal piece of acting this is. It straddles the line between being strangely liberating and completely terrifying; liberating because it’s Walt unleashing the beast and standing up for himself, like we’ve rooted for him to since day one and terrifying because it’s shows exactly how far he’s come since day one. He’s wilfully terrifying his wife and seemingly enjoying the fact that he’s confirming her worst fears. This speech could very easily sound silly but Cranston just blazes with contempt, his tone so snarling and murderous you really feel like he might bite your head off at any second. Walt has killed in self-defence, chosen not to act when he could have prevented death and orchestrated the demise of others but this is the first time he seems consumed by genuine bloodlust. He’s as dangerous as he says he is and there’s no going back.
18. “I loved her” -- ABQ (Season 2, Episode 13)
The aforementioned “big cry” scene – Jesse’s response to Jane’s death is to seek the comfort of heroin, so it’s Walt to the rescue. This whole scene is a two-hander between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and both of them are completely arresting. Every time I’m left awestruck at Paul’s ability to go from drugged-out, slurring stupor to sobbing wreck in about 2.8 nanoseconds. His insistence that he’s responsible for Jane’s death is heart-aching stuff – you can feel how much he loved her. Cranston gives a genuine sense of regret and horror radiating off Walt. When he refused to help Jane, he was thinking of his own needs and now, faced with the consequences of his decision and how much he’s hurt Jesse, you can definitely see “What have I done?” screaming out of his eyes. Yet there’s also something strangely sweet about this scene – a brief flicker of father-son love as Walt promises to take care of Jesse. A gut-wrenching, impeccably acted moment that is now so much harder to watch thanks to “Ozymandias.” God damn it, Walt.
17. “Not in Chile anymore” -- Hermanos (Season 4, Episode 8)
Up until this point in the series, Gus Fring feels like somewhat of an unknown entity, cool as can be but without much else to go on. How did he get this way? We finally find out in Season 4’s “Hermanos.” Like Walt, Gus once had a beloved partner, who was killed in front of him by the Mexican cartel 20 years ago and whom he’s been working to avenge ever since. Any of Giancarlo Esposito’s stone-faced, constantly thoughtful, chameleon-like work in Breaking Bad is interesting and thrilling as hell to watch but this flashback is his most revelatory moment. Gus’s emotional exposure does not feel contradictory to his usual persona, but complimentary – the more innocent, Walter-White-ish time of his life before the criminal alter ego came to the fore, if you will. We’re watching a performer every bit as adept at seamless transformation as his character. He may have ended up as an iconic villain but it’s a very humanising moment for the Chicken Man. Go get ’em, Gus.
16. “Just die already” -- Granite State (Season 5, Episode 15)
When we think of Walter Jr. the first thing that usually comes to mind is how the cosmos would collapse if he doesn’t have a plate of breakfast in tandem. But RJ Mitte kills it in this scene where he gives an on-the-run Walt Sr. a much-needed reality check. His beloved Uncle Hank is dead (presumed murdered at Walt’s hand), Skyler could be going to jail, he will have to live the rest of his life known as “Son of Heisenberg” and for what? A bit of money? Bryan Cranston is also exemplary, from his choked up “It’s so good to hear your voice” to his half-hearted excuses to his stuttering into stricken, chastened silence as Walt Jr. lets rip. He conjures up miraculous pity for a man who’s done so much evil. But Walt Jr. smashes the last of Walt’s pride with the ultimate damnation – to just to curl up and die and do the family one last favour. Walt just manages to pull himself back from the brink (thank goodness for Charlie Rose and coincidences) but the venom in Mitte’s words would probably make us consider giving up too.
15. “Ever since I met you” -- One Minute (Season 3, Episode 7)
Poor Jesse’s not having a good time of it in Season 3. “One Minute” probably sees him at his lowest – black and blue in a hospital bed after Hank set to on him because of Walt’s actions. His bitterness builds and builds until it finally implodes in this scene when Walt tries to wheedle him back into business. Interestingly, in the script this monologue was written as a straight-up angry tirade of refusal but Aaron Paul infuses his speech with anguish instead, turning it into a cry from the heart. The culmination of this monologue becomes increasingly hard to listen to as Jesse, breaking down, returns to deriding himself because that’s all he knows and understands. Cranston gives off the wince of a man stung by deserved criticism but ultimately this speech only gives Walt better understanding on how to play on Jesse’s weaknesses. In time it’ll become harder and harder for Jesse to say no to Mr White and, sadly, his stance here does not stick but what a firecracker moment for Paul.
14. Mike’s story -- Half Measures (Season 3, Episode 12)
Mike Ehrmantraut is one of the coolest characters on Breaking Bad, hands down. Like Gus, we were intrigued by his unfazed, “seen it all” attitude but we didn’t really know much about his roots. Until this moment when, with trouble afoot, he invites himself into Walt’s home and recounts to him a story from his days as a cop. Jonathan Banks’ delivery is as slow and methodical as any job Mike’s ever done, but there’s so many layers to it: his reminiscent protectiveness and pity for the poor battered wife he saw once too often; his frustration at his inability to do anything about it; his incredulous little chuckle and disgusted lip curl at the audacity of the abusive husband to be so nonchalant, then so cowardly. Banks’ speech takes on a mixture of heavy regret and unsurprised inevitability (“Of course”) when he recalls how his half-measure resulted in the death of that young woman. With that alone, you get the feeling that, by taking no more half measures, Mike can somehow make it up to her. Walt completely misses the point of Mike’s moral but for this moment at least, we can take in how much Jonathan Banks owns these words.
13. Standing by -- Phoenix (Season 2, Episode 12)
Arguably Walt’s first truly evil moment. Krazy 8 and Tuco we could excuse because they were out to kill him. But Jane was defenceless and not liking the sway she had over Jesse was a petty excuse. It would be so easy to just have Heisenberg completely take over and have Walt react to this with zero emotion. Instead, we see the slow tic of each thought going through his mind – his instinctive reaction to help, his stopping in his tracks at the realisation of this opportunity, the horror at himself for even considering it, then the little devil on his shoulder saying “You can take advantage of this”, his frozen stance as Jane continues to choke and retch and his almost unwillingness to even look at her as she finally expires. Cranston tears up with dismay as the weight of what he’s just done hits him. Jane was someone’s daughter, someone’s girlfriend, but he thought nothing of the grief he’s just unloaded on them, only his own self preservation – which wasn’t really in much peril to begin with. Then he wipes his eyes and tightens his jaw. What’s done is done. Sometimes, in the game of survival, innocent lives must be lost. And with that, a good chunk of viewer sympathy was lost too. Bravo, Mr Cranston.
12. Without a word -- Box Cutter (Season 4, Episode 1)
Given how chilled out Gus seems about everything, viewers were left wondering for a year what his reaction would be to finding out one of his prized chemists had just been eliminated by the other one. None of them saw this coming. We expected to see Gus snap for the first time. Instead, he’s as precise as ever and all the more disturbing for it. He is so furious he’s literally beyond words and uses that to ultimate intimidating effect. As he voicelessly dresses up in a laboratory suit like some kind of abattoir worker, we know something violent is about to go down. Cranston babbles desperately, trying to fill the damning silence but as a box-cutter wielding Gus circles Walt and Jesse like prey, we’re led to think it’s all over for our two heroes – until he slits the throat of his employee Victor instead, right in front of them. Not even blood spraying in his face and the death throes and gurgles of Victor faze him. He just stares. Esposito has done scarily calm, but this takes it up to eleven. Still, as a motivation, it works and Gus’s sole line of the scene (“Get back to work”) is just the final little shove needed. Eek.
11. Pride and ego -- Say My Name (Season 5, Episode 7)
Walt comes full circle and emerges as the villain of Season 5A and this scene where Mike gives him a dressing down only confirms it. With his plans in tatters, having been forced to abandon his granddaughter and go on the run, Mike is pissed and lets Walt know exactly what he thinks of him before they part ways. He’s the only person in the series who flat out tells Walt how grossly overconfident he’s become and how he’s dragged everyone down with him just to get there. Jonathan Banks gets to spill his guts in a way we haven’t seen him do, utilizing some choice phrases, boiling over with disgust and not caring who knows it. Cranston is terrific with his narrow-eyed, tight-lipped “You did not just say that” scowl. He looks utterly petulant for such a powerful figure. Mike, unfortunately, doesn’t know that if there’s one thing you should never, ever do, it’s undermine Walt’s pride and ultimately he pays for these words with his life. But at least he was able to say them. It’s the high that Banks deserves to go out on.
10. Gas can rage -- Confessions (Season 5, Episode 11)
Walt’s poisoning of little Brock Cantillo and subsequent manipulation of Jesse in order to deal with the Gus problem was his final leap into irredeemable territory. Jesse fell for it because he just couldn’t believe his mentor could be that cold. From then on the moment where he discovered the truth was a time bomb waiting to detonate. It took until Season 5’s “Confessions” for him to finally piece it together and, once he did, he flew off the handle completely. Aaron Paul is positively volcanic as he beats Saul Goodman to a pulp then speeds round to the White house with every intention of razing it to ashes. We’ve seen Jesse angry before but this time it feels so much more explosive because he’s been borderline catatonic for two and a half episodes. All the fire had been drained from him and now he feels very much like the rabid dog that Saul christens him as in the next episode. Paul may not have had as much material in these final episodes, but he wrings every last drop out of that gasoline-soaked cliff hanger. One thing’s for sure – don’t tell him to calm down.
9. Last ditch plan -- Fifty-One (Season 5, Episode 4)
The first few episodes of Season 5A see Skyler growing more and more fragile and afraid of her husband until her desperation reaches its peak in “Fifty One”, the episode which won Anna Gunn the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series. With Walt lording it up, she fakes a suicide attempt in the family swimming pool and gets the kids out of the house, as per her plan. What follows is a hideously tense exchange of marital warfare. Cranston is skin-crawlingly repulsive as he stalks Skyler around the bedroom, shooting down all of her plans and deriding her for even thinking she could beat him. Gunn is completely heartbreaking as, voice cracking and eyes full of tears, she admits that Walt’s right. But she’s got one last ace up her sleeve and it’s so effective that it finally gets Walt to shut up – she’s waiting for his cancer to come back. This marriage will never be the same again. And on a side note, Skyler’s jab: “I thought you were the danger.” Exquisite.
8. “You’re goddamn right” -- Say My Name (Season 5, Episode 7)
Walt’s megalomania reaches its zenith in the penultimate episode of Season 5A. He takes enormous glee in talking himself up as the greatest meth cook in America, possibly the world. Cranston is smooth as silk as he makes everyone else around him feel like idiots. He plays fellow drug dealer Declan like a fiddle, as messing with people’s heads and finding their Achilles’ heels is now second nature to Walt. Declan goes from being able to stand his ground to barely being even to look Walt in the eye. Now Walt’s true side has come out. Noble family-man he most certainly isn’t, but all the same, Cranston pulls us into Walt’s excitement and arrogance. Against our better judgement, we’re egging him on because he’s just so damn cool right now. When Walt smirks and proclaims that, goddamn right, he’s Heisenberg, the transformation that Vince Gilligan has talked about endlessly, the “Mr Chips to Scarface”, is now complete and the disempowered, downtrodden chew toy of a man in the pilot is no more. But Walt can’t sit atop that peak forever and soon things will begin unravelling so he’d better savour it while it lasts.
7. The point of no return for Jesse Pinkman -- Granite State (Season 5, Episode 15)
Just how low can Jesse be brought? The answer is this low. After a daring escape from Neo-Nazi enslavement and quick recapture, Jesse has to face the consequences. None of us ever imagined the show could be this cruel, but it was. Poor, innocent Andrea, whose only crime was caring about Jesse, is murdered by Todd (“This isn’t personal”) on her doorstep as a bound and gagged Jesse is forced to watch in a nearby car. His reaction is probably one of the biggest tearjerkers of the entire series. Devoid of dialogue, his muffled howls feel raw and primal, conveying more grief, horror and remorse than words ever could. The camera hangs on his swollen, sobbing face for nearly a minute, drawing us into his agony until its borderline unwatchable. After Jack twists the knife further by reminding him there’s still Brock, Jesse just gives up. He has nothing left to fight for and no purpose to go on living. Nobody has to say anything. We just know. The Jesse Pinkman we fell in love with is gone forever. Stellar, painfully believable work from Aaron Paul (wow, this must’ve been a tough night’s shoot) that could only fail to move the hardest of hearts. Anybody for a tissue?
6. “It was you” -- Blood Money (Season 5, Episode 9)
Most fans thought this moment would arrive much later in Season 5B. But, in Episode 1, when Walt comes round to the Schrader house, playing the I-know-what-you-know act, Hank just can’t stand it and the long-awaited confrontation arrives way sooner than anticipated. Dean Norris is like a burst vessel, piercing Walt with the mother of all death glares before knocking him flat. He clings to Walt as if torn between wanting to embrace him and throttle him. We believe every word of Hank’s threats, but his hurt and horror is also extremely palpable. The sadness in his voice as he tells Walt he doesn’t even recognise him anymore…just, please Emmys, nominate Dean Norris this year. But we can’t forget Bryan Cranston (who also directed here) whose reactions here are so telling of how far gone Walt is. He never acts outraged at these accusations, instead feigning innocence, then playing the cancer card. And when those don’t work, he recognises a threat and systematically destroys all of Hank’s possible options and, when Hank bares his soul, Walt’s advice to him is to “tread lightly.” It’s a two-faced gesture – its Walt saying, “I don’t want to hurt you, you’re family” but also making it very clear that this means war. Incredible writing and actors on fire.
5. “Ten minutes ago” -- Ozymandias (Season 5, Episode 14)
Now known as the greatest Breaking Bad episode of all, “Ozymandias” is where Walt’s empire and everything else besides is completely obliterated. The first devastating moment in an episode full of them is the death of Hank. Just when it looked like he would get his happy ending, those Nazis stick their jackboots in it. After losing both the shootout and Gomez, Hank knows this is the end. Cranston is remarkable as, with family at stake, Heisenberg is nowhere to be seen – that is pure Walter White, begging for an outcome where Hank lives and willing to throw away all his pivotal money for it. Deeply-buried and thought-lost humanity comes welling out. He wants to fix this. He can make anything possible, right? Sadly, Uncle Jack is not that sentimental and Hank is not that naive. This is ending in death one way or another and Walt is the only who can’t accept that. It shows Hank to be more of a hero than our supposed one. Norris’s gaze towards Walt speaks so much – regret, reassurance, superiority, blame, maybe even a glimmer of forgiveness and love. But for the Nazis, he’s got nothing but contempt. Yes, they’re going to kill him but he won’t grovel and give them what they want. They get it over with as quickly as he asks and we’re left feeling as horrified as Walt as he collapses to the ground, frozen in grief. Just the first blow in the long beating this episode has in store. RIP Hank.
4. “We’re a family” -- Ozymandias (Season 5, Episode 14)
There’s one little problem with Walt’s, “Everything I do, I do it for family” mantra – that’s not why he’s being doing all this for a while now. For a long while now, it’s all been about number one. This is the moment where reality finally hits. The whole scene is an exercise in near-heart-attack-level tension, with all participants on their A-Game: Bryan Cranston nearly exploding with desperation as he cries how he tried to save Hank, then trying to slip into the calm, rational skin of the husband and father and failing as everything he’s done keeps rearing up in his face; Anna Gunn’s dawning horror as she realises her brother-in-law is dead and what she’s unwittingly helped to accomplish by siding with Walt, then her maternal fury as she picks up that knife and, of course, her chilling screams as she chases after Walt and Holly’s getaway ride before falling to her knees in inarticulate anguish; RJ Mitte with his kicked puppy look as his world collapses around him and his maturity-defining moment as he defends Skyler from Walt just as he overpowers her during the terrifying knife fight. Of course, the crux of this scene is Heisenberg’s entitled bellow of “We’re a family!” But then, as the camera POVs on a cowering Skyler and Walt Jr., with baby Holly wailing in the background, Cranston does that flawless transformation and he’s Walter White again, whispering “We’re a family”, this time with much-too-late sorrow. As Walt Jr. dials the police, he has to face up to the monster he’s become. We can’t help but share in Walt’s pain of no longer being the man they loved and how, even though his life felt like nothing before, he now has nothing. There’s nothing left for him to do but run while we at home shed the tears.
3. “I was alive” -- Felina (Season 5, Episode 16)
Walt’s had several months of isolation in New Hampshire to, as Ed the disappear-guy suggested, think things over, which you can be sure he did. Now he’s back in town and wants a proper goodbye. With both Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn, you feel a heavy sense of weariness – Walt is a man on the slow walk towards death, looking suitably ragged and Skyler has been robbed of just about everything. Obviously, the last thing she wants to hear from Walt is that he did it for the family, which he’s completely ripped to pieces. But, at long last, Walt is ready to be honest and go to his grave with a (somewhat) clean conscience. Of course he liked the addictive thrill of the criminal world, he liked being the best and he liked feeling, for once in his life, fulfilled. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition – death feels full of life. His tired sigh of “I was alive” feels very poignant and conclusive – the perfect way to bring Walt’s character full circle and bring one last moment of togetherness between husband and wife. The way Cranston shuts his eyes after this reveal makes him seem completely at peace, no more darkness eating away at him from the inside. His acts of revenge in the finale are just a matter of practicality and pride. But the destruction of his family is the wound that has ached the most and, with these simple words, it’s fixed. Gunn’s relieved little half-smile at the closure this admission provides is a lovely touch too. Like Walt, we didn’t want to see Walt and Skyler’s last interaction be one full of hate. We wanted this. This is not quite forgiveness, but there’s definitely the burn of marital love as they part ways forever. Just a little part of what made “Felina” epic.
2. Laughing mad -- Crawl Space (Season 4, Episode 11)
Is it any wonder that most fans point to this scene as being the most terrifying moment Breaking Bad has ever graced us with? One word – psychological. We’re completely wrapped up in Walt’s suffocating terror in this moment and, even with the knowledge of hindsight, we still panic when we see there’s not enough money. We can feel Skyler’s shock as she struggles to even speak and peers down into the abyss of the crawl space. The fear is positively infectious. What makes it so intense, of course, is Walt’s reaction to finding the Beneke-shaped hole in his savings. At first, as he clasps at his head in that frustrated-teacher manner we’re used to seeing, we think he’s just going to chew out Skyler like he always does. Instead he lets forth this scream. We’ve never seen Walt like this before. Even in the face of death, he’s never let himself be driven to a reaction like this. This isn’t Walt, it’s something else. Then the scream gives way to inappropriate, completely-out-of-nowhere, seemingly never-ending insane laughter and the psychological fear comes into play. Bryan Cranston takes a sound that is usually joyous and tension-cutting and makes it feel just wrong. What kind of acting genius is this? Cranston genius, that’s what. The soundtrack comes reverberating in, filling us with dread until we feel sick and Anna Gunn probably perfectly encapsulates every viewer’s reaction by just wordlessly backing away from this unrecognisable sight. No plea can bring him back. When Walt finally stops laughing and just lies there in stunned silence, the camera pulls up away and the feelings of no escape and imminent death are invasive. What a frightening moment to leave on. I’ve never watched Homeland so I don’t know how good Damien Lewis was but voters should’ve watched this scene again. It’s as transformative for Cranston as it is for Walt. It’s a Heisenberg phoenix rising from the ashes and that can spell only one thing…
1. One last phone call -- Ozymandias (Season 5, Episode 14)
Here’s what makes this scene different: it’s Walt needing to be Heisenberg more than he’s ever had to before – and he could not be more miserable about it. There’s no more secret thrills, no more arrogance, no more fiendish delight. Its two beings coming together in a climactic battle, trying to fight for possession of Walter White’s soul while at the same time having to work together – and it’s up to Cranston to juggle those two and is there much point in saying how good he is in this scene? We’ve come to expect nothing less from him. In the hands of a less capable actor this scene would come off as what it is – fakery. He’s inflicting untold pain on his family and you see how much this is killing him, yet there’s also another side to this. The prideful side that’s spitting in the face of the family that’s held him back for so long and which he takes advantage of here. He might not have intended for that side to come out, but as we know, Heisenberg can be relentless. He may be trying to play himself up to be the monster, but there’s still a touch of legitimacy to his admonishments, name-calling and mockery of Skyler – she eventually senses what he’s up to and plays along with Gunn’s “I’m sorry” sounding so for more than one reason. Walt admits to everything he’s been trying to fight against for the whole episode – he implicates himself in Hank’s death and maintains that he alone was responsible for the drug empire. He sounds vicious to all that’s listening, but we viewers can see him shaking and suppressing his tears. I have no idea how Cranston managed to force himself to sound so brutal while crying, but he did it. In the end, Heisenberg flees in the face of Walter White’s grief. The family is off the hook, his (seemingly) last gift to them. As far as Walt knows, this is his last goodbye and, much as some of us despise him at this point, we don’t want this for him. But Vince Gilligan’s universe rides on consequence and here’s Walt finally receiving his. Being brought so low eventually encourages him to fight again but at this time, it’s an amalgamation of writing, directing and one-of-a-kind acting that brings this brilliant, draining episode to a close.
And there you have it -- 25 moments that will remind us of how good this show and these actors could be, as well as 25 reasons why we’ll all miss it so much. But it will always be there for us and, maybe in years to come, it’ll be regarded as one of those untouchable classics, like The Wizard of Oz or Citizen Kane. As for me, I’m introducing it to everyone I can think of. The quality of its writing and its stars will go a long way to ensuring that Breaking Bad will live in the public conscious for a long, long time but we, the fans, can show our love one last time by making sure that the word-of-mouth never dies and it’ll still be watched for generations. I’ll leave you with some honourable mentions:
-- Jesse’s “problem dog” speech (Problem Dog, Season 4, Episode 7)
-- Blackmailing the Schwartzes (Felina, Season 5, Episode 16)
-- The talking pillow ensemble (Gray Matter, Season 1, Episode 5)
-- Skyler discovers Walt’s lies (ABQ, Season 2, Episode 13)
-- Gus and Hector’s last stand (Face Off, Season 4, Episode 13)
-- Ed the disappearing guy does his work (Granite State, Season 5, Episode 15)
What do you think? Leave a comment.