Much of Breaking Bad Season 1 was slow and methodical, more a means of laying a foundation for what was to come than a compelling drama in its own right. The pilot, however, set the stage for the journey of Walter White with what is still one of Breaking Bad's finest installments, and not just because it got the show picked up by AMC. From that insane opening scene in the RV to his cancer diagnosis, ride-along with Hank, half-naked cook-a-thon with Pinkman and the confrontation with the dealers that almost got him killed before he even began his rise to power, the transformation of Mr. Chipps into Scarface had begun.
The belief that his death was imminent inspired a marathon cook session for Walt, and fans were treated to an episode spent almost entirely in or around the infamous, hideous, vintage '80s RV. Jesse continued to cause trouble for the unlikely partners, and the hour - like so many others on Breaking Bad - played out like Greek tragedy, with the audience knowing he'd left keys in the ignition and drained the RV's battery long before the characters. Stranded, cold and starving until Walt's knowledge of chemistry saved the day, "4 Days Out" had us on pins and needles amidst the backdrop of magnificent desert vistas that became the show's calling card.
The dominoes begin to fall in this terrific episode near the end of Season 2, when Walt delivers the inventory in time to Gus' drop spot, but misses his daughter's birth in the process. Jesse then confronts Walt about his share, but Walt refuses to disburse it. Jesse and Jane's addiction is discovered by her father, Donald, who meets Walt in a bar by chance. Later, after being blackmailed by Jane, Walkt returns to Jesse's to make amends and to help him, only to find Jesse and Jane passed out after a drug binge. He tries to shake Jesse conscious and as he does, Jane flops over onto her back, vomits and suffocates. In one of the first moments that signaled the monster he would become, Walt does nothing but watch her die.
In a gripping installment that set the stage for the Season 3 finale, Jesse unravels and became a ticking time bomb. The only question was who would be taken out when he went off, and how. After he realized that the dealers who killed Combo were selling their meth and using kids as soldiers, Jesse raged. Walt had Gus mediate, but this did nothing to assuage his despondent partner in crime when the kid died. In the climactic scene, Pinkman confronts the dealers, only to have Walt race to his rescue and run them over, jump out of his car, pick up a gun and shoot them dead, ordering Jesse to "run" as the screen fades to black and the audience gasped for breath.
Gus meets with cartel. Gus kills the cartel. Gus nearly kills himself with poison but survives, with an assist from resilient Mike and surprisingly resourceful Jesse. To see Gustavo Fring - the show's antagonist - execute a cutthroat plan so quietly, methodically and patiently against the people who killed his "Hermanos" partner made us cheer, which is not a small feat for a villain of such gravitas.
Gus walking out of Hector's room and fixing his tie - leaving fans thinking, if only for a second, that maybe he survived the blast engineered by Walt - made for the most vivid, awkwardly incredible TV character death of all time. But "Face Off" was an extraordinary episode from the start, and more fast paced than usual for Breaking Bad. Even though we knew it was coming, Gus' demise was epic and unforgettable, punctuated by Walt and Jesse setting the lab ablaze - and the revelation that Walt poisoned Brock all along to manipulate his former pupil.
Until this episode, Heisenberg had always been lingering beneath the surface, an alter ego tapped by Walter White but only with some prodding. Not the uber-confident, all-powerful kingpin we saw in the opening scene, which culminated in the meth lord instructing his soon-to-be employees to do as the episode's title says. Walter's rise had become complete, and Mike became his latest victim. Knowing Heisenberg's downfall was still to come in the remainder of Season 5 made it even more gripping to watch him in his shot-calling glory.
And so the empire begins to crumble. After Hank found out, you knew he and Walt would confront one another sooner or later. What you didn't know was that it would happen in the very next episode, or that the exchange would be so tense, so heated and so compelling that it left your jaw on the floor for minutes afterward in an absolutely masterful end to a top-notch instamment.
The death of Hank. The demise of Walt. The pain felt by everyone in the wake of the fallen king and all that his empire consumed. The most uncomfortable, unpredictable and awful fight in TV history between Walt, Skyler and Walt, Jr. "Ozymandias" was was the third to last episode, but it was the final act in a sense for Heisenberg. This mesmerizing, devastating installment served as the prelude to the end and was the best hour this show (or probably any show) ever produced.