10 of Jesse's best Breaking Bad episodes to pair with El Camino
If you’ve already taken El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie for a spin on Netflix, you may find yourself jonesing for a Breaking Bad rewatch, or simply to revisit some of the series’ many high points. Given that El Camino centers on Aaron Paul‘s Jesse Pinkman, we here at EW are recommending a slate of episodes that show off Paul’s stellar, multiple-Emmy-winning performance.
What you’ll find in revisiting any smattering of Breaking Bad episodes is that Paul was reliably terrific week to week on the show, and was often tasked with playing a wide variety of notes across any given episode. These 10 are simply some of the best showcases for Jesse and for Paul, with some of the strongest acting moments and most significant story lines of the series. Read on below… and get ready to fall down a Netflix rabbit hole if you haven’t already.
“Peekaboo” (Season 2, Episode 6)
A harrowing, heartbreaking hour of television, “Peekaboo” is one of the first true showcases for Jesse. Tasked by Walt (Bryan Cranston) with recovering meth and money ripped off from their drug-dealing crew, Jesse ends up stuck in a squalid house with a meth-head couple and their adorable, neglected young son. It’s practically a one-episode Emmy reel for Paul, who plays moments of intensity and tenderness (and comedy and drama — watch how he rehearses his stick-up routine outside the house) with equal brilliance. And the episode deepens Jesse’s character in ways that would echo forward through the rest of the series: His soft spot for kids and uneasiness with violence, both illustrated here, would come to define his later role as Walt’s ever-unheard conscience.
“4 Days Out” (Season 2, Episode 9)
Paul and Cranston were a double act for the ages on Breaking Bad, and for all the show’s brilliant serialized-storytelling architecture, some of its best episodes were relatively self-contained two-handers between Walt and Jesse. Case in point: this season 2 entry, which sends the pair out to the middle of nowhere for a marathon meth-cooking session. Of course, things shortly go south, as Jesse accidentally drains their RV’s battery, leaving the two stranded in the New Mexico desert. The episode is the sort of material actors would kill for; Vince Gilligan & Co.’s skill for mixing tones is on full display as “4 Days Out” veers from hilarity to poignancy and back again on a dime. (“I deserve this,” Walt says of his impending death, moments before Jesse suggests stripping the RV to make “something completely different — like a dune buggy!”) Breaking Bad was always an incredibly cinematic show, but episodes like this proved it could also work as theater, carried along by Paul and Cranston’s powerhouse performances.
“Phoenix” & “ABQ” (Season 2, Episodes 12 & 13)
Even here, in these most shattering of Breaking Bad installments, the show gives Paul fantastic moments of comedy to play. Jesse, impulsively and ecstatically planning to escape to New Zealand with his girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter): “You can paint the local castles and s—t, and I can be a bush pilot!” But of course, this pair of episodes, which closes Bad‘s incredible second season, is primarily remembered for its central, heart-stopping moment: Walt lets Jane die to eliminate her influence over Jesse, a defining event for the pair’s twisted father-son relationship. Paul is devastating in season finale “ABQ”; look to the scene where Walt discovers him in a drug den, high out of his mind just to escape the pain. “I killed her,” Jesse sobs, as Walt cradles him in his arms. In the show’s overarching Tragic Saga of Jesse Pinkman, this entry wounded viewers, and Jesse, the deepest.
“One Minute” (Season 3, Episode 7)
Two top-tier Breaking Bad moments bookend “One Minute”: The “familia es todo” flashback with Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), and Hank’s (Dean Norris) showdown with the mute Salamanca twins (Daniel and Luis Moncada). But smack in the middle comes another standout scene for Paul, as a hospitalized Jesse (brutally beaten by Hank earlier in the episode) emphatically declines Walt’s offer to restart their meth-cooking partnership. Everything that’s happened to Jesse up to this point weighs heavily upon this monologue — “Ever since I met you, everything I’ve ever cared about is gone!” — and you can feel it in the force with which Paul delivers his lines. All these years later, it sometimes seems Breaking Bad is best remembered for stylish set pieces like this episode’s closing shootout. But that hospital scene proves that a simple, long close-up on Paul was one of the best weapons in the show’s arsenal.
“Fly” (Season 3, Episode 10)
Another incredible Paul-Cranston two-hander, “Fly” plumbs the depths of Walt’s mind and soul through a seemingly endless night in the meth lab, pursuing an elusive insect. Both actors get superb showcase moments here, including a long, single-take monologue by Jesse, recounting a story about his aunt’s cancer metastasizing to her brain. This episode polarized Bad viewers upon airing, and it’s easy to see why; it stops the plot cold for a slow, contemplative (not to mention artsy and experimental) theater piece. But rewatching the episode, it’s easier to appreciate “Fly” outside the context of plot, as an impeccably written bit of drama worthy of comparisons to Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter, and as a prime exhibition of the duo that made Breaking Bad such an enthralling experience to tune in to each week.
“Half Measures” & “Full Measure” (Season 3, Episodes 12 & 13)
Season 3’s closing act is perhaps the ultimate testament to Jesse as a character and Paul as a performer. In case you need a plot refresher: Jesse plans to kill the drug dealers who orchestrated the murders of his friend Combo and his new girlfriend’s kid brother, defying orders from Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). After Walt and his Pontiac Aztec come to the rescue, mowing down Jesse’s intended targets, the pair must then eliminate Gus’ lackey Gale (David Costabile) to stay alive, an act the reticent Jesse carries out through tearful eyes.
Here, again, Paul gets to show off his range, from his Kubrick-stare fury in “Half Measures” to his quietly desperate pleas to stop the killing of the innocent Gale in the season finale. But his best moments come at the end of each episode, with no dialogue required in either. In “Half Measures,” Paul’s face conveys a thousand emotions as he slowly walks toward the drug dealers he intends to kill: doubt, fear, certainty he’s walking toward his own demise. And in the last moments of “Full Measure,” you can feel Jesse’s hatred for what he’s become pouring out through the tears in Paul’s eyes.
“Problem Dog” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Those last moments of “Full Measure” would reverberate throughout Bad‘s fourth season, with Jesse sinking into guilt-riddled depression after killing Gale. “Problem Dog” culminates this thread with a fireworks display of acting from Paul, as Jesse pours out all of his guilt and self-loathing at a meeting of his 12-step group. It’s not every TV show that would make room for a scene like this one, and Paul isn’t one to waste his opportunity. His big, shouting moments here may seem show-offy, but there’s no false note in his slow burn from dead-eyed depression at the scene’s start to explosive anger and revulsion by its finish.
“End Times” (Season 4, Episode 12)
But Breaking Bad‘s most plot-heavy episodes could be vessels for phenomenal acting too. Even as it puts all the pieces in place for season 4’s endgame, “End Times” is yet another example of Paul playing many different notes with aplomb, from wild-eyed panic to righteous fury to steely resolve. And he practically plays all those emotions at once in one scene, as Jesse accuses Walt at gunpoint of poisoning a child. Again, everything is written on Paul’s face — you can see Jesse’s mind racing in real-time as Walt tries to convince him Gus was behind the poisoning. If “Peekaboo” was a one-episode Emmy reel for Paul, this is a one-scene Emmy reel, and it worked: This episode won Paul his second consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama. But an award like that is only a cherry on top; Paul’s portrayal of Jesse Pinkman will live forever, captured on film, with scenes like that one to attest to its power.
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.