Breaking Bad often finds itself in discussions about the greatest TV shows of all time, and it’s not a surprise. Its five seasons, released with near-perfect pacing (with the last season split into two parts), have received widespread acclaim. What’s truly fascinating is how the show evolved over time, especially in the context of its central character, Walter White, portrayed masterfully by Bryan Cranston.
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Walter’s journey begins as a high school chemistry teacher burdened by regret and bitterness. However, a devastating terminal cancer diagnosis sets him on a path to cooking meth, both to cover his medical bills and secure his family’s future. Yet, the allure of pride and greed gradually consumes him, leading to his estrangement from loved ones and a constant state of peril. Breaking Bad seamlessly blends dark humor, suspense, and profound tragedy, making it challenging to rank its seasons. Here, we attempt to rank these six captivating chapters (with season 5 divided into 5A and 5B), from great to the greatest.
6. Season 1 (2008)
While the first season of Breaking Bad might be considered the ‘weakest,’ it’s important to note that it laid the foundation for the series to evolve into something truly exceptional. This season faced the challenge of the 2007–08 Writers’ Guild of America strike, resulting in a shorter season with just seven episodes and alterations in storytelling plans. This led to a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion, given the original intention for more episodes.
However, despite these constraints, season 1 boasts a brilliant beginning. The pilot episode of Breaking Bad is undeniably gripping, deftly introducing the show’s intriguing premise, introducing key characters, and setting the breakneck pace that would become a hallmark of the series. Considering that the show was still finding its footing and navigating the effects of the Writers’ Strike, it’s truly remarkable that season 1 maintains its high quality.
5. Season 3 (2010)
Ranking the seasons of Breaking Bad beyond the first one becomes a real puzzle. Season 1’s brevity and slightly less intense stakes make it the show’s less standout season, but once we move past that, Breaking Bad seems to achieve near-perfection. With all five seasons maintaining such high quality, distinguishing one as better than the others becomes quite a challenge.
Season 3 of Breaking Bad, while still outstanding, might not quite reach the same heights as the other non-first seasons. However, it’s important to stress that it’s still a fantastic season, packed with compelling episodes and unforgettable moments. It’s in this season that the iconic rivalry between Walter and the formidable Gus Fring truly takes shape, a rivalry that continues to build in intensity throughout this season and reaches its zenith in the even more outstanding season 4. Ultimately, it’s all superb television, consistently pushing the protagonist further down the path of villainy by subjecting him to incredible physical, emotional, and mental challenges.
4. Season 2 (2009)
When Breaking Bad entered its second season, it made a clear statement: it wasn’t just a great show; it was on the verge of becoming a masterpiece. Season 2 marked the first time the series achieved near-perfection, and with a generous 13-episode run, it had the space to delve into substantial developments and cover much more ground than the first season. The season’s intriguing cold opens, hinting at accidents with shocking revelations in the finale, showcased the show’s narrative depth.
Season 2 took its characters to darker, more complex places, transitioning from moments of levity and dark humor to a more pronounced sense of tragedy. This season demonstrated the incredible heights Breaking Bad could reach, and it deserves applause for introducing several remarkable supporting characters, including Saul Goodman (who later got his own spin-off/prequel series), the enigmatic Gus Fring, the methodical Mike Ehrmantraut, and the tragic Jane Margolis.
3. Season 5A (2012)
Some viewers might have approached the final season of Breaking Bad with a touch of apprehension, given that it was split into two halves. This strategy can sometimes be used to extend a show’s lifespan for financial reasons, but in the case of Breaking Bad, it doesn’t feel like a cash grab. Both 5A and 5B consist of eight episodes each, and within each of those eight episodes, there’s enough substantial storytelling to rival entire seasons in many other shows.
If one were to search for any critique of 5A, it might be the desire for even more of its riveting content. The post-Gus era ushered in a period of compelling drama, pushing Walter further down the path of full-on villainy. By the first half of season 5, he’s a true tyrant, no longer an underdog, thanks to his triumph over his main rival in season 4. As the opening act of the final season, it fulfills the promise it had always held: the transformation of a once-flawed and somewhat pitiable man into a terrifying monster. Consequently, season 5A is frequently explosive and heart-pounding.
2. Season 4 (2011)
To borrow a phrase from Tuco Salamanca, season 4 of Breaking Bad is nothing short of “TIGHT, TIGHT, TIGHT.” It’s a brilliantly crafted season of television, taking the escalating conflict between Walter and Gus that had been simmering since season 3 and bringing it to a boil over the course of 13 tense, nerve-wracking, and utterly captivating episodes. The tension mounts until it culminates in the aptly titled finale, “Face Off,” a widely acclaimed episode that many consider among Breaking Bad’s finest (with the possible exception of the show’s third-to-last episode; more on that later).
This season is a masterclass in storytelling, with every episode contributing to the overall narrative without any filler. In many respects, it could have served as a fitting series finale, but fortunately, there were still more layers to unravel in the exceptional final season (both halves of it). Season 4 leaves just enough loose ends to make the aftermath in the following season equally compelling, and overall, it’s safe to say that season 4 represents Breaking Bad at its pinnacle.
1. Season 5B (2013)
Season 5B of Breaking Bad enjoys a distinct advantage compared to the other seasons, as a show constantly building toward a grand climax is naturally at its most thrilling during that climax. While the success of 5B wasn’t guaranteed, as it had to be crafted with meticulous care to meet the high expectations of devoted fans, it had the largest canvas to work with. The stakes were at their zenith, and the suspense reached its peak, with no character’s fate assured.
Season 5B had everything needed for a final set of episodes to excel and then some. Just the episode “Ozymandias” alone secures its status as one of the greatest seasons in television history. Yet, everything in this season is exceptional. Walter White’s journey reaches a fiery and emotionally charged conclusion, and one could argue that no final set of episodes in television history has been as unrelenting and close to perfection as the latter half of Breaking Bad’s final season.