Depending on who you ask, Breaking Bad is either the greatest TV show of all time, or right up there among the greatest TV shows of all time. It’s difficult to find many negative takes about it at all, since it ran for a near perfectly paced five seasons (the last of which was released in two parts), with the show generally getting better as it went along. The way it changed over time was also thrilling, especially since the moral deterioration of its central character, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), was the main hook of the show
Walter begins the show as a high school chemistry teacher filled with regret and bitterness, though a terminal cancer diagnosis motivates him to start cooking meth, both to pay for his medical treatment and to leave for his family, should he pass away. Pride and greed eventually take over, however, leading to Walter alienating those in his life and putting himself and others in near-constant danger. It’s darkly funny, exciting, and effectively tragic, but the fact no season is even close to bad makes ranking them difficult. What follows is a ranking of six compelling batches of episodes (seasons 5A and 5B counted separately), shown below from great to greatest.
6Season 1 (2008)
The first season of Breaking Bad is only the “worst” because the show simply got even better once it got the room to continue growing and developing in interesting ways. It was also impacted by the 2007–08 Writers’ Guild of America strike, making season 1 the shortest season (at just seven episodes), and leading to key changes in some of the storytelling decisions. It also, unfortunately, made the season end a bit anticlimactically, given the original plan was to have more episodes in the season.
But even if the season doesn’t end fantastically (and it takes until early season 2 to conclude the whole Tuco storyline left hanging at the end of season 1), it gets off to a brilliant start. The pilot episode of Breaking Bad is particularly gripping, expertly introducing the show’s intriguing premise, showing viewers many of the show’s key characters for the first time, and also establishing the breakneck pace Breaking Bad became beloved for. Considering the show was still finding its voice, and it had to contend with circumstances brought about by a Writers’ Strike, it’s amazing that season 1 is still as good as it is.
5Season 3 (2010)
Once you get past season 1, ranking the seasons of Breaking Bad becomes significantly more challenging. The reduced length of the original season and its inability to have stakes quite as dramatic as later seasons make it a clear candidate for the show’s least great season, but post-season 1, there’s an argument to be made that Breaking Bad becomes a near-perfect show. And with five batches of episodes that are all such high quality, saying some are better than others gets to be a daunting task.
So, there’s some trepidation when it comes to saying that season 3 of Breaking Bad isn’t quite as good as the other seasons that aren’t the first. It’s still fantastic. It’s still home to some incredibly compelling episodes and unforgettable sequences. It also properly begins the conflict between Walter and the iconic villain Gus Fring, which seems to continue building in intensity throughout the season, and then into the even better season 4. It’s all fantastic television, at the end of the day, with the show furthering the protagonist’s descent into villainy by continually challenging him physically, emotionally, and mentally in remarkably engaging ways.
4Season 2 (2009)
Season 1 of Breaking Bad established the show as a largely great one, but then when season 2 came along, it was made apparent that the show was an all-time borderline masterful one. It’s the first near-perfect batch of episodes the show put out, and thanks to having 13 instead of seven episodes, it gets the time to develop things significantly, and cover far more ground than the first season. This is apparent with many of the cold opens, which all show vague details of some kind of accident, the cause of which is then devastatingly revealed in the season’s finale.
It takes the characters to darker places, and though there are still moments of levity and black comedy, season 2 does feel like the point at which Breaking Bad begins leaning more toward tragedy. Season 2 showed the heights Breaking Bad was capable of in the best way possible, and is also worthy of acclaim for how many great supporting characters it introduced, including Saul Goodman (who later got a spin-off/prequel series), the aforementioned Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut, and Jane Margolis.
3Season 5A (2012)
Some may have approached the final season of Breaking Bad with some trepidation, owing to the fact that it was split into two halves. It’s a strategy that could sometimes be misused to keep a show on air for longer, and therefore earn more money, but in Breaking Bad’s case, it really doesn’t feel like this. 5A and 5B are eight episodes each, and within each of those eight episodes, there are enough big events for entire, “normal-sized” Breaking Bad seasons of 13 episodes.
The closest thing one might have to a complaint regarding season 5A is that it might’ve been nice to see even more of what it had to offer, with incredibly compelling drama coming about in the show’s post-Gus world, which is largely what pushed Walter over the edge into full-on villainy. By the first half of season 5, he’s a true tyrant, and can’t even be seen as an underdog, thanks to the elimination of his main rival in season 4. As the first half of the final season, it delivers on what it had always promised: a once-flawed and somewhat pitiable/mild-mannered man would become a terrifying monster. As a result, season 5A is frequently explosive and nail-biting.
2Season 4 (2011)
To quote Tuco Salamanca, season 4 of Breaking Bad is “TIGHT, TIGHT, TIGHT.” It’s a ferociously well-plotted season of television, taking the rivalry between Walter and Gus that had begun in season 3, and pitting them against each other for 13 tense, continually nerve-wracking, and engrossing episodes of television. It all builds to the appropriately titled finale, “Face Off,” which is frequently held up as one of Breaking Bad‘s very best episodes (arguably second only to the show’s third last episode overall; more on that in a bit).
It’s a season of television that’s all killer, and no filler. In many ways, it feels as though it could work as a final season, but thankfully, there were still a few more things for the show to explore in its excellent final season (both halves of it). Just enough threads are left hanging for the aftermath of season 4 to be just as compelling as this season happens to be, with season 4 overall being just about as good as Breaking Bad gets.
1Season 5B (2013)
Season 5B of Breaking Bad has an advantage compared to the other seasons, because a show that’s always building to a grand climax is naturally going to be most thrilling during said climax. Season 5B wasn’t a guaranteed success, because it still had to be written and made with great care to ensure it didn’t disappoint any loyal viewers, but it always had the biggest sandbox to play in, so to speak. The stakes were at their highest, and things were at their most suspenseful, given no character was guaranteed to make it out of the show alive.
Everything needed for a final batch of episodes to work was present in season 5B, and then some. For having the episode “Ozymandias” alone, it’s an all-time great season of television, but everything else contained within is fantastic. Walter White’s story comes to a suitably fiery and emotional end here, and there’s a case to be made that no final batch of episodes in television history has been quite so relentless and essentially perfect as the second half of Breaking Bad’s final season was.