The Breaking Bad Seasons, From Bad to Ground-Breaking

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Pom Babbitt

Breaking Bad is one of the most iconic television shows both worldwide and in the United States. It’s attracted a dedicated fanbase that have an affinity for almost anything the series has to offer.

Pom Babbitt, Reporter

Breaking Bad. It’s a series so iconic that just saying its name can elicit some kind of emotional response. Since its debut in the late 2000s, producer Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece has garnered a gargantuan following and critical praise from viewers and critics alike. Now, I hope I don’t have to go over a summary for this series that everyone and their dog has seen, but in case your little cousin Timmy booted up your computer and stumbled his way onto this article, let’s summarize. Breaking Bad follows chemistry teacher and family man Walter White, who after being diagnosed with lung cancer, turns to a life of crime alongside his former bumbling student— if I had a nickel for how many people have described him that way— Jesse Pinkman. They endure— I mean enjoy— wacky hijinks alongside the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, the two-faced ruthless crime lord Gustavo Fring, and the old, hardened henchman Mike Ehrmantraut. Hilarity ensues. 

I can safely say that each and every season of Breaking Bad has its own unique tone and feel, as well as narrative arcs even if they aren’t all winners. You don’t need to be a world-class chemist to tell Season One from Season One, or Season Four from Season Five. I bet my comically large, Walter White-level mountain of cash that if you showed someone all of Breaking Bad in one sitting without any cuts, they would be able to tell where a season ends and a new season begins. Naturally, I’m going to take advantage of this and rank each and every one of them. For the sake of having a more complex ranking, I’ll be splitting Season Five into Season Five Part I (the first eight episodes) and Season Five Part II (the remaining eight episodes and I’m gonna throw in El Camino; it is a direct continuation after all. No Better Call Saul, though… for now. Jesse, we need to rank!

7. Season One (Pilot – A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal)

Not a surprise, but I won’t hold it against Breaking Bad. In typical first-season fashion, the writers are still trying to find their footing with the tone. Breaking Bad Season One is strangely comedic. This is unlike later seasons when there’s the occasional levity or insane scenario— there’s actual comedic writing. Now, I don’t wanna be that annoying friend who starts a show for the second time alongside someone and pretends that the beginning of your favorite show is really terrible so you don’t seem uncool for liking the worse parts of a show, so I went over the actual good stuff, the stuff that sets Season One apart from the others.

6. Season Five Part I (Live Free or Die – Gliding Over All)

Probably not what you were expecting, right? As a piece of television, Season Five Part I is ok. As a continuation of the cliffhanger from the end of Season Four, this is insulting! I can totally see why this put a bad taste in fans’ mouths for the entirety of Season Five, creating an age-old debate about whether Breaking Bad should’ve ended at Season Four. However, I would argue Season Five does bring Walter White’s arc to a close and tie up all the loose ends, although that aspect is almost nowhere to be found in Season 5 Part I. The whole plotline of Walter, Jesse, and Mike wanting to get back in business and the introduction of a slew of characters like Lydia, Jack, and Todd is overwhelming. I don’t care about Lydia and whatever she’s got going on; I just wanna see the conclusion to Walter’s arc. I do think Todd is a great inclusion and a marvelously hateable character, but Jack and Lydia need to go lay down. Jack is hateable, but as a character, he’s as barren as the deserts of Albuquerque. Lydia is infuriating— the kind of purposely hateable character that I have a distaste for only because of their inclusion. I get that Walter is supposed to be the villain, but that arc occurs in Season Five Part II, not in Season Five Part I. There are some standout episodes such as the train heist and Say My Name, but I still distinctly remember thinking: “This is Season Five of Breaking Bad? I am not impressed.” It’s probably better than Season One from a filmmaking standpoint, but it puts the “Bad” in Breaking Bad. Get it? 

5. Season Two (Seven Thirty Seven – ABQ)

This was the moment where Breaking Bad became Breaking Bad. So many iconic characters, so many compelling storylines, so much tension. This season does a great job of progressing Walter’s arc in a way that doesn’t feel forced or unnatural like Season Five Part I. We start off with a continuation of the Tuco arc from the end of Season One, then we focus on the growing tension between Walter and Skyler, catch up with Jesse, and end with Walter finding a new way to progress his practices. I think that this season ends with the best cliffhanger of the entire series, and it’s because it’s not even fully a cliffhanger. Jesse is shipped off to rehab, Walter’s cancer slowly begins to heal, and everything seems generally at-peace. Of course, there is setup for Season Three, such as the plane crash, Skyler moving out, and so on. It may not be as partially bombastic compared to other cliffhangers, but it does everything a cliffhanger should; it makes the viewer ask “what next?”. Overall, I think this season is really average. It doesn’t fall to the lower lows of some later seasons, but it certainly doesn’t meet their high highs.

4. El Camino

Oh no! It’s that movie that people think is really bad for some reason! Run! In all seriousness, this is both the perfect sendoff for a character like Jesse and a great epilogue to the series that doesn’t even need to bring back major characters, except for that one cameo. You know the one. I can understand this being a disappointment, especially given the real-world time that passed between the series finale and this film, but, man, I like this one. There are some aspects that are a little off. The climax of the film is cool in execution but strangely low-stakes, the flashback scenes are a little strange— Walter’s entrance is legendary but it’s obvious that Bryan Cranston wasn’t bald— and I swear they supersized Todd like a fast food meal, but I swear, this movie is good. It’s a wonderful little character study, and if you aren’t moved by that ending, you don’t have a soul.

3. Season Three (No Mas – Full Measure)

Now we’re talking. Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut, Gale, the Solamanca family. Sure, these characters and plotlines weren’t introduced in Season Three, but their stage presence was increased to (almost) the maximum. So much to love in Season Three. The tension and growing rivalry between Walter and Skyler, the hit placed on Hank by the Solamancas, the entirety of the season finale, and of course, this season gave us Fly, one of the most memorable episodes in the show. There are some aspects I would consider “lower lows”; for instance, the middle of the season is kind of a drag, especially when compared to the consistent stream of excitement from Season Two, but I can take it or leave it. Points to Season Three for giving us Full Measure, one of the best episodes in the series, maybe a bit carried by its inclusion of Crapa Pelada.

2. Season Four (Box Cutter – Face Off)

If I didn’t split Season Five into two parts, I would have no trouble ranking Season Four at the top. This is the season that perfects elements introduced in Season Two and Season Three. This is the season that offers the most consistent and constant stream of exciting elements. This is the season that some would consider the peak of the show. Season Four features the climax to some of the most important plotlines of Breaking Bad,but don’t be fooled; Season Four would not be a good ending for the series. The latter half of Season Five is just too good to not include, and it arguably wraps up more plotlines than Season Four. Ending at Season Four would just not be possible. While Face Off is one of the episodes, it offers a seriously lame note to end the series on, which is fine considering Season Five Part I picks up right after. I am opposed to Season Four being the end of the series, but considering the lack of compelling content in Season Five Part I, I could honestly see Season Four being the end if it included the remaining loose ends from Season Five Part II. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I love the focus on Walter and Skyler’s scheme, Jesse coping with his actions from the end of Season Three, and anything with Gus Fring, who is the perfect villain. It’s the fact that he interacts with Walter so little in Season Four, almost as if he’s an invisible hand that guides and manipulates all of Walter’s decisions. A villain who, despite not appearing, has such a large stage presence is extremely compelling. The character-driven battle of wits between Walt and Gus in Face Off and the story of how Gus’ cautious personality defeated himself is so interesting. You can argue that the entirety of Season Five is better, you can argue that Season Four should’ve been the end, but you can’t argue that certain aspects of Breaking Bad didn’t peak in Season Four.

1. Season Five Part II (Blood Money – Felina)

This is peak television.! Season Five Part II is a mad dash from Episode Nine all the way to the season finale, and it’s where everything starts to snowball. I remember finally coming around to Season Five when I got to Blood Money, and it’s no surprise that this is where Season Five Part II begins. Everything from here on out takes a turn for the worse in the best way. Hank discovers that Walt might be the kingpin he’s been chasing, Jesse turns on Walter after being manipulated for so long, and just when it seems to be all over, Walt escapes by the skin of his teeth, leading to one of the most engaging works of fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. Ozymandias, Granite State, and Felina is my favorite trilogy of episodes in any television series. Granite State somehow manages to be uneventful yet so tense at the same time, drawing a straight line out from any outcome we’d expect from the events of the previous episode. The finale is Felina, which I just realized is the perfect title. It’s an anagram for “Finale”, the name of a song that mirrors Walter’s journey, as well as the periodic table symbols for the elements iron, lithium, and sodium (Blood, meth, and tears). This episode has some of the most cathartic moments in fiction, brings some iconic character interactions and dynamics to clarity, and is one of the most satisfying conclusions to, well, anything,  And then there’s Ozymandias, and I don’t know if I have any words. It’s not the finale; it’s not even the penultimate episode. It is, however, the best episode in Breaking Bad’s run. I had always heard about how good it was and I mused the idea that “I would be able to tell it was a different kind of episode from the start”. , and I was right. From the cold opening, I thought tell, “so this is Ozymandias.” Walter’s torn allegiance as he pleads for Hank’s life is the perfect description of his character. The scene where Skyler must concede and reveal the monster her husband is to her son is heartbreaking. The confrontation between Walter and Skyler at the White family house is some of the most haunting imagery from the series. The shots of their clumsy but tenacious fighting or the shot of Walter’s cowering family while he ironically shouts about family are memorably uncomfortable. The scene where Walter runs away with Holly while Skyler’s screaming and begging drowns every other noise out, followed by the deluded Walter White trying to cling on to his family man persona while interacting with and cooing for Holly, left me speechless. It’s the kind of episode that you can only let out a guttural laugh at, not because it’s particularly funny, but because your brain can’t process any other reaction, and this trend remains for the rest of Season Five Part II, albeit not as good as Ozymandias. 

We will never get another show like Breaking Bad. It’s one of those rare cases where even if aspects go wrong, the show as a whole gets better. It’s not in an “even the worst parts are enjoyably bad” way, but just in a way that strengthens the pathos of the series. Season One may be tonally inconsistent with the rest of the show, but life itself has a tonality problem. Season Five Part I may seem uneventful and even pointless compared to Season Five Part II, but life can sometimes feel unimportant right before the most powerful moments impact our life. There exists a threshold where genuine issues can become some of the most credible parts of a work of fiction. With the end of Better Call Saul, it seems Vince Gilligan is done with the Breaking Bad universe, but fans are definitely not.