Breaking Bad’s final season looms on the horizon; eight episodes before another television series gets to take the crown of “best show airing on TV.” Which show takes that title is very much up for debate, but the debate I’m more interested in looks at Breaking Bad itself: which season of the show is its strongest? Its weakest? I won’t argue that the show has ever had a bad season, but there are undeniably seasons that work better than others, from one reason or another. I’m not going to pretend the rankings that follow are based than anything other than personal opinion; so please, sound off if you disagree.
Breaking Bad spoilers after the break:
Breaking Bad’s seasons, from weakest to strongest:
5th: Season Four
I’ve long held that season four is Breaking Bad’s weakest, whether it was on my first viewing, where it lacked that urgency that had me eagerly anticipating the next episode in every previous episode; aside from the last few episodes, the season lacked the forward momentum that Breaking Bad usually has, the strong tide pulling you to the next episode.
There’s a lot to like about season four, of course. “Crawl Space” and “Face Off” are easily among the show’s greatest episodes, and “Box Cutter” is an engaging introduction to the season. It’s also a distinct tonal shift from most seasons, embracing a crepuscular, sombre tone rather than the more frenetic approach of its neighbouring seasons. Season four is carefully plotted: the whole thing is structured like an episode of an earlier season, where Walt is presented with a problem (how to get out from under Gus’s thumb) with no apparent way out, and eventually Walt succeeds thanks to an innovative, intelligent solution (with its fair share of complications). The problem is twofold: the season drags, hitting the same beat over and over again to diminishing results; and too many plotlines are predictable, telegraphing their outcome too early in the season to truly succeed.
The season’s length is not without its upsides; a shorter, tighter season would likely have excised the extended departure to consider Gus Fring’s history and follow him to Mexico. But while this excursion is both interesting and enjoyable, it also feels …superfluous. Tacked-on. A showcase for Giancarlo Esposito’s not inconsiderable talents, yes, but also in stark contrast to the show’s typical laser-tight focus on Walter White, his immediate family and Jesse Pinkman. The way the show shifts its spotlight from Walt is understandable, as for the majority of the season he’s thoroughly impotent, raging futilely against the shackles that hold him. Repeatedly we see Walt struggle to weasel his way out from his predicament, and while I’m impressed at creator Vince Gilligan’s chutzpah, his David Chase-esque commitment to anti-fan-service, denying Heisenberg at every turn…it’s a point that’s been made, comprehensively, long before Walt is reduced to pointscoring with petty bullshit like hiring laundry workers to clean the Superlab for him.
Walt’s pettiness is a recurring theme throughout the season, and it has direct consequences on his relationship with Jesse (who, parenthetically, is the best part of season four by far, Aaron Paul communicating his despair at his moral decay with astounding power, particularly in his speech at the centre of “Problem Dog”). The way season four depicts the rift between Jesse and Walt is demonstrative of the drawbacks of the show’s deterministic, “clockwork universe” (as Todd VanDerWerff discussed1 over at the AVClub recently). The show tips its hand to where their relationship is headed early on, and every beat – Gus’s increasing trust in Jesse, Walt’s comprehensive list of mistakes (surely a man who recognises that Gus is trying to win Jesse over would not treat Jesse with such contempt!) – arrives about when you’d expect. It should be heartbreaking, watching two men who’ve given everything for one another (and taken everything, from time to time) spiral into hatred of one another. Instead, it feels inevitable from early in the season.
These are not ruinous missteps, of course. But I think there is a large gap between the overall quality of season four and the other four seasons to date, and the season’s willingness to embrace the conventional season structure – a clear beginning, middle and end – is the primary driving force behind this disparity.
4th: Season One
It’s testament to the strength of Breaking Bad that its debut season, one of the most exciting seasons of any television drama, has been eclipsed by three of its subsequent seasons. This is a season of television that features the best pilot I’ve ever seen (though I could be convinced by an argument for Lost’s first episode) among many other highlights – Walt agonising over the fate of Crazy 8, or the family meeting about Walt’s cancer that emphasises how honest, how true-to-life the show was in the beginning. There are memorable, fantastic, larger-than-life moments too – “That’s not meth.” being the classic example.
There’s not a dud episode in the short, freshman season, which only reached seven episodes before the writer’s strike cut it short. The writer’s strike may have saved the season, depending on who you talk to – it’s been widely discussed that Vince Gilligan originally intended to kill off Jesse at the end of the first season, though I’m inclined to believe that Paul’s impressive performance was as much to thank there as any industrial action – but the strike also explains why this season ranks relatively low on my list.
To explain, think of your favourite records – more often than not, there’s more to them than a mere collection of excellent songs. After all, how many people list a greatest hits album as their favourite of all time? Great albums are about coherency as well as quality, and a coherent thread is missing from season one; it just ends, brought to an abrupt close by the strike; “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal” doesn’t feel like any kind of season finale because it isn’t supposed to be one. This isn’t the only flaw of the first season, which also features some silly contrivances (see: actually having everyone at Elliot and Gretchen’s party wear beige) and some rough, almost-stereotypical characterisation. Tuco is the prime example of the latter: his live-wire, amphetamine-fuelled intensity wouldn’t feel out of place in the grander, less realistic later seasons, but he stands out like a sore thumb in the more naturalistic world of season one. Even Jesse – superlative acting or no – comes across as a bit of a cliché in early episodes before the show has time to flesh out his persona.
Nonetheless, everything that made the show what it is can be found in the first season: tight plotting, interesting characters, incredible acting and an effective mix of dark comedy and compelling drama.
3rd: Season Five (Part One)
It was a tough call separating my third and second favourite seasons of this show, as the two are very, very close in my estimation – to the point where all it would take is a couple payoffs in the final season to potentially change the order. Season five was a welcome return to form after the slightly disappointing fourth season, and it did so from a more difficult position than any season but the first, thanks to “Face Off” bringing to an end most dangling plot threads. Season five has only a few unresolved plotlines to work with, and it makes the most of it, building the bulk of the season around bank accounts and video tapes without it coming across as contrived.
Season five is arguably the tightest season of the series thus far; unsurprising given its shorter run (eight episodes as opposed to the typical thirteen). It alleviates any of the problems of bloat evident in season four, crisply cutting from plot point to plot point while still allowing time for quieter character moments. It’s not without its sacrifices, however; Jesse and Skyler each have fantastic moments, but for the most part the focus is primarily on Walter White, who’s more accurately described as Heisenberg at this stage (his mask only really slips once, with Walt’s humanity shining through briefly in the moments after he’s shot Mike – who’s arguably the second-most significant figure of the season). Season five is also the show at its most ambitious, whether it’s staging a train robbery, destroying an evidence room with a super-magnet, or simply providing some of the most beautiful cinematography of the series, without ever coming across as gimmicky as the show’s “clever” shots sometimes can.
Aside from wanting to spend some more time with Skyler and especially Jesse, my only real complaint with this half-season is its conclusion – a concern that the final season could resolve in a matter of days! I’m not referring to Hank’s “oh shit” moment that closes the mid-season finale, but Walt’s decision in the final minutes to quit the meth business. The implication seems to be that he’s quit because, with all obstacles hurdled, cooking no longer holds any appeal; Walt no longer needs the money. It’s just another job now, and a job he can apparently simply resign from. My perception here could be false: perhaps he’s lying to Skyler about being “out,” or perhaps there’s another reason we don’t know, but Walter – Heisenberg – wants power, he wants recognition. I can’t accept him simply stepping away and, as such, season two gets the nod.
2nd: Season Two
It’s almost unheard of to write about Breaking Bad for more than a couple hundred words than referring to Vince Gilligan’s “Mr Chips becomes Scarface” quote so, uh, here it is. Naturally, at one end of the Mr Chips to Scarface continuum is Walter White – chemistry teacher and meek, family man – while at the other is Heisenberg – murderous meth kingpin. As mentioned, season five is almost completely absent of Walter White, while season one only has Heisenberg appearing in brief flashes (though he’s present from the first episode, when Walt wreaks revenge on his son’s bullies). But the series was, for me, at its greatest when portraying the transformation from Peter O’Toole to Al Pacino, as was the case in its second and third seasons.
The first half of the second season is an extended farewell to Walt’s humanity, as he drives Skyler away from him with an unending stream of bullshit and faces up to his own mortality – most memorably in the season’s highlight, “4 Days Out,” which finds Walt and Jesse stranded in the desert and features the show firing on all cylinders, pairing its most moving moments with its funniest (“A robot?”). Season two served as the platform from which the show’s greatness grew, introducing many characters that would go on to greatness, with Hector “Tio” Salamanca, Gustavo Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut all making their first appearances this season.
The season is not flawless. The opening episodes are a little awkward, due to the aforementioned non-ending of season one, but at least dispatch with Tuco swiftly (apparently due to the actor’s commitments elsewhere, but whatever the reason, I’m happy with the result). In retrospect, I have no problem with the plane crash framing device, though I’ve never been convinced by the central storyline of “Peekaboo” or, at least the maudlin, Dickensian child that provides a plot device to emphasise Jesse’s fundamental goodness. At there is some goodness there, to contrast Walt’s irrevocable decision to abandon his. For much of the season, Walt’s behaviour can be explained through sheer necessity, as he struggles to maintain a moral approach in an immoral world. However, those final moments, as he stands over Jane … his internal struggle is unmistakable, and equally unmistakable is the fact that Heisenberg wins.
1st: Season Three
It’s impossible to argue that my favourite season of Breaking Bad – the season where Heisenberg establishes his superiority over Walter White – is a stretch of episodes without flaws. After all, almost half the season is merely spent convincing Walt to cook meth again: we know this a show about making meth, we know that Rambo’s going to go and save those villagers, whatever he says. Season three also features what Matt Zoller Seitz describes as “the only big misstep in the entire run of the show”2 – the Cousins, whose action-movie-esque mute posturing is certainly a stylistic departure from the show that surrounds them.
I don’t really have a full-fledged defence for either of these elements; the Cousins are undeniably out of place in the Breaking Bad universe, at least at this stage (they’d feel more at home in the world of super-magnet and train robberies of season five), but Vince Gilligan cleverly self-corrects, ending their arc midway through the season rather than at its conclusion. The astounding climax of “One Minute” is television at its finest, as tense as any horror movie, as exciting as any action film, and an inevitable culmination of numerous plot threads converging.
This is a very plotty season, in large part because of this “first finale.” The season has three distinct goals to achieve: believably get both Jesse and Walt into the Superlab, end the Cousins’ arc, then introduce an entirely new plot (revolving around Andrea’s brother) and resolve it over the course of a mere thirteen episodes. The fact that it manages to achieve such lofty goals without sacrificing character is truly astounding. There’s just so many great moments across the course of season three; I’ve already mentioned the finale of “One Minute,” but there are smaller moments – like Jesse’s conversations in rehab or Walt’s self-justifying speech in “No Mas” or the opportunity to dwell on Jesse and Walt’s relationship in the inimitable “Fly” – mixed in amongst the big ones – essentially everything that happens in “Half Measures” and “Full Measures,” from Mike’s unforgettable speech about his time as a beat cop to Walt’s “Run.” to those horrible moments that bring the season to an end.
Season three hangs together better than any other season despite its messiness, though I do admit that I have a soft spot for messy drama, mixing careful plotting with idiosyncratic smaller moments. It also features many of the show’s most memorable events, and successfully springboards the show from realism to something more exaggerated, a difficult task.
How about you? How do you rank Breaking Bad’s seasons? And do you think that the final season, debuting shortly, could eclipse them all? I’m certainly hoping so.