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What Happens? Chemistry teacher Walt (Bryan Cranston) gets a cancer diagnosis and starts cooking meth with ex-student Jesse (Aaron Paul) to provide for his family after he's gone. He encounters dangerous characters like drug dealer Krazy 8 (Maximino Arciniega) and Mexican kingpin Tuco (Raymond Cruz) while laying the groundwork for a million-dollar empire. It's the American dream — except for the corpse in the bathtub.
Best Episode: ''...And the Bag's in the River'' (103) — Breaking Bad is a master class in Chekhov's gun principle: If you see a gun (or a pair of box cutters) in the first act, someone will be dead by the third. Here, as Walt and Jesse dispose of two drug dealers, even a simple sandwich plate becomes a chilling tool of suspense.
Buried Treasure: The name of the store where Walt first shows us his violent side — roughing up a jock who's making fun of Walt Jr.'s disability — mirrors his excuse for all questionable actions to follow: Family 1st Clothing.
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What Happens? Walt's DEA-agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), kills Tuco. Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) takes over as distributor. Jesse's girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), blackmails Walt. He repays her by letting her choke to death on her own vomit.
Best Episode: ''Phoenix'' (212) — Actions have consequences. And the less Walter White faces them, the more other people suffer — or die, like Jane — for his choices. No episode illustrates that better than this one, which sets up a plane crash that's later triggered by Jane's grief-stricken father.
Buried Treasure: Jane foreshadows her own death. She responds to Jesse's cheeseball jokes by quipping, ''I think I just threw up in my mouth.'' When she spies Jesse making her breakfast, he says, ''You weren't supposed to wake up,'' and she replies, ''Ever?'' And before Jane dies, Walt puts his baby, Holly, on her side ''just in case she decides to do a little spit-up.'' Too bad that advice doesn't work for Jane.
3 of 5
What Happens? Walt comes clean to his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). Hank gets shot by the Cousins, two Mexican dealers. Jesse kills Gus's intended replacement for Walt, the Walt Whitman-loving Gale (David Costabile).
Best Episode: ''Fly'' (310) — Yes, some people hate this episode. There are no shoot-outs. No explosions. Just Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in a room, in the best one-act play ever written about meth. Jesse and Walt spend the day in the lab, trying to kill a fly. In the process, they show how chemistry really works, making a real human connection while Walt wrestles with the show's biggest question: Why should he cook meth to save his life when it's made his life meaningless?
Buried Treasure: Walt fishes a plastic eyeball out of his pool filter. It belongs to a teddy bear from the plane crash, and it pops up everywhere, maybe as a nod to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: The act of observing changes what's observed. Gus is watching Walt, and it's only making Walt more evil.
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What Happens? The intellectual chess match between Walt and Gus escalates. Gus wants to kill Walt but can't murder his cook. ''Tio'' (Mark Margolis), the Cousins' uncle, just wants to sit there and ding! the bell on his wheelchair. But he helps Walt kill Gus anyway. And in one final jaw-dropping twist, we learn that Walt almost killed a kid. Ding-ding-ding!
Best Episode: ''Face Off'' (413) — There's the gross-out image of Gus's half-melted face after the bomb blast and the chilling reveal that Walt poisoned Jesse's girlfriend's son, Brock (Ian Posada). But the most shocking twist? Even with our last shred of sympathy destroyed, most of us would keep rooting for Walt.
Buried Treasure: When Gale's body is found, his clock reads 10:13 — a nod to the birthday of X-Files creator Chris Carter. Gilligan got his start on that show, which is referenced when Walt tells Jesse that he's got an ''Erlenmeyer flask.'' That's the name of an X-Files episode.
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What Happens? Walt kills foe/partner Mike (Jonathan Banks). Also, in a flash-forward, we learn that Walt has an M60 in his trunk. Who's his target? Meth distributor Lydia (Laura Fraser)? The ex-con family of new cook Todd (Jesse Plemons)? Hank? Cancer is Walt's biggest enemy, though. Whether or not it kills him before he fires that machine gun, his odds for survival don't look good.
Best Episode: ''Dead Freight'' (505) — This might be the best Western on TV, beginning with the high-desert image of a boy carrying a tarantula through the sand and ending with a breathtaking train heist that demands its own Ennio Morricone soundtrack.
Buried Treasure: There's a theory that color points to character motivations. People wear yellow before they make big decisions: Walt before he killed his first meth kingpin, and Marie (Betsy Brandt) before she figured out that Skyler has broken bad. And pink, like the teddy bear that fell into Walt's pool, seems to symbolize death. Is it curtains for baby Holly?