Thursday, August 8, 2013

Breaking Bad Review: The Top Eleven Moments from the First Five Seasons

Please just watch this show.  It's so great.

For the past five years, Breaking Bad has been one of—if not the best—shows on television.  The series has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Drama in every season but its first, writers’ strike-truncated season.  Bryan Cranston has created a pantheon character in Walter White, for which he’s been rewarded with four Lead Actor nominations and two wins.  Aaron Paul has risen from comedic sidekick to truly deserving co-lead and he, also, has been justly rewarded with four Supporting Actor nominations and two wins.  The rest of the cast has garnered five Emmy nominations, the writers two, and the directors four as well.  Mad Men may have put AMC on the map and The Walking Dead may get all the viewers, but Breaking Bad has been constantly outperforming expectations and, above all, always changing and trying new things.  I would easily say that it was the best show on television during its third and fourth seasons and could easily say the same about the last season (or last half-season), were we not now ten months removed from those episodes with a brilliant run of Game of Thrones in between. 

However you want to shake it, a genre-defining, pantheon drama is leaving the airwaves in eight short weeks and, with the finale airing this coming Sunday, I wanted to look back at my favorite moments from the series.  I won’t be reviewing the show because I don’t have the time to watch each episode twice and I don’t want to spend my one airing taking copious notes.  This is a show I love being engrossed in, and that’s how I intend to enjoy these final eight episodes.  But in honor of the show’s final season, I wanted to walk through my ten eleven favorite scenes.  And since I couldn’t keep it to ten, there’s no way I’m going to rank them, so we’ll just go through in chronological order, starting with:

Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot” – The Opening Scene
A pair of pants flutters down onto a dirt road before being run over by a roaring RV.  At the wheel, a man wearing nothing but a gas mask and tighty-whities.  To his right, another man in a gas mask.  The driver stops, grabs a gun and a camcorder, records a tearful goodbye to his wife and son, and steps into the road, gun aimed steadily outward.  The in media res opening has been overused in recent years, but damn if this isn’t a perfect variation on the form.  It’s also a perfect encapsulation of what Breaking Bad was in its first two seasons (a black comedy) with what it would become later (a supremely tense drama). Sorry for no embed on this one, but YouTube didn't have the full scene.

Season 1, Episode 2: “Cat’s in the Bag” – Jesse fails to follow directions
Speaking of black comedy, Jesse’s decision to use the porcelain bathtub rather than a plastic tub (as Walt precisely instructed)  order to dispose of a dead body with hydrofluoric acid has disastrous, but hilarious results.  Breaking Bad occasionally employs a “Caper of the Week” structure and, while Walt’s capers are usually successful in later seasons, the early episodes saw an awful lot of brilliant failures, meaning the show could be incredibly funny even as it was incredibly dark.

Season 3, Episode 7: “One Minute” – One Minute
I really wish I could find this entire scene, because the action sequence that follows this video is just spectacular.  But the fact that one of the tensest scenes in five years can come from a man sitting alone in his car for two minutes is a pretty great testament to how fantastic everybody involved with this show is.  This scene isn’t as good as it is without spectacular acting, directing, music, or cinematography.  And while only director Michelle MacLaren has ever been recognized (she was nominated for an Emmy for both this episode and season five’s “Gliding Over All”), this scene perfectly shows how well everybody involved works together. 

Season 3, Episode 12: “Half Measures” = “Run!”
Bryan Cranston gave a great interview last year detailing how different his interpretations of Walter White can be from creator Vince Gilligan’s.  And nowhere is that better exemplified than in the closing scene of the penultimate episode of season three.  Cranston played the part as though Walter was still hesitant about getting his hands dirty in the drug game.  But the way the scene is edited, Walter is strong, loyal, and single-minded in protecting not just Jesse, but himself and his operation as well.  This is the moment when the character sheds the mask of Walter White he’s been wearing and reveals himself as Heisenberg, the drug lord.

Season 4, Episode 1: “Box Cutter” – Gus strips down
Another scene killed by the vagaries of YouTube, this isn’t even the best part of the closing minutes of the fourth season premiere.  The scene in total is four minutes long and details the meticulous undressing of Gus Fring (in all his fastidiousness), the death of Victor, and then (AND THEN!) silently shows Gus dress again, as smart and perfect as ever.  Season three was written a bit on the fly, with Gus replacing the Salamanca cousins as the Big Bad halfway through.  But it wasn’t until this scene that we saw how ruthless and vicious the Chicken Man could be.  And the fourth season gave Giancarlo Esposito the material to create one of television’s classic villains.

Season 4, Episode 6: “Cornered” - I am the one who knocks!
This scene, you guys.  This scene.  I mean what do I even say?  If ever there was a mission statement for this show, it is “I am the one who knocks!”  It could have been said in the first couple of seasons and it would have been taken as Walt’s blustering and trying to make more of his position than he’s truly earned.  But uttered here, after multiple attempts on his life have kind of made his point, it is as much a threat as anything else.  This one statement sets the stage for the rest of season four and the first half of season five, with Walter showing, for the first time to another person, what he truly thinks of himself and his place in his world. 

Season 4, Episode 11: “Crawl Space” - Walt breaks down
Walt has finally reached the end.  He’s forever ruined his partnership with Gus.  Jesse has turned on him as well.  It’s only a matter of time before a target is placed firmly on his back.  Out of options he decides to run, but needs to raid his stash in order to buy new lives for his family.  Unfortunately, Skyler’s already given the money to Ted to help him pay off the IRS and keep the Feds from investigating her and their money laundering operation.  What follows is a piece of pure brilliance as Walt completely loses his mind in the crawl space beneath their house.  Bryan Cranston submitted this episode as his Emmy episode last year, for obvious reasons, and probably would have won had the voters not gotten Homeland fever (though Damian Lewis was deserving in his own right).

Season 4, Episode 13: “Face Off” – Ding! Ding! Ding!
Mark Margolis was nominated for an Emmy for his role as Tio Salamanca and submitted this episode.  Let me clarify.  Mark Margolis was nominated for an Emmy for his role as the mute Tio Salamanca and submitted an episode in which he doesn’t utter a single word.  He did have a speaking role in some flashbacks earlier in the year, but it was the intensity of his facial expressions that received the most attention, especially in his final scene of the series.  It was just a masterful performance by Margolis and a fitting end for a pair of great characters.

Season 5, Episode 1: “Live Free or Die” – Yeah, bitch!  Magnets!

This may seem like kind of a random selection, but I like it because it shows the humor Breaking Bad is still capable of.  The excitement Jesse shows for electromagnets is infectious, and makes the show more than just another somber drama.

Season 5, Episode 4: “Fifty-One” – Skyler’s shining moments

Breaking Bad is often at its best when showing us the consequences of Walt’s actions (see also: “Crawl Space) and here we finally see the toll his lifestyle has taken on Skyler – First as she finds peace in the deep end of their pool and second as she admits to Walt that she has no plan, she’s simply waiting for him to die.  It’s such an obvious statement but still just devastating.  Skyler’s gotten a lot of crap over the years  by people who mistakenly believe Walter White is the hero, but here we see just what he’s done to her and how she’s decided to cope. 

Season 5, Episodes 8: “Gliding Over All” – It all unravels
Walter’s out.  He’s done.  He’s won.  He’s bested his enemies, beaten cancer, and amassed a fortune.  All is well.  But just as it’s always been, Walter’s pride does him in.  He just can’t let go of Gale’s gift, which acknowledges his greatness.  As the saying goes, “Pride goeth before the fall.”  And if ever there was a textbook example, it is Walter White.

There are many more great moments, but these ten eleven stand out as my favorites.  No matter how it ends, Breaking Bad will go down as one of the all-time great dramas.  Every episode is available on Netflix and AMC is marathoning the fourth and fifth seasons starting at 1:00 on Friday afternoon.  If you have a chance to catch the first eight episodes of the fifth season (the coming episodes are considered the second half of the fifth season even airing ten months later), I can’t recommend enough that you do so and watch the final eight episodes as they air.  This is one of the best shows on television, and I’d hate for you to miss out.

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