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Bad Man Rising: Walter White’s Lowest Lows on ‘Breaking Bad’

Chronicling his journey from warm-hearted family man to cold-blooded killer

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Walter White doesn’t have a character arc. He has a character slope.

Most of the great TV dramas – The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, Twin Peaks – have star characters who formed their moral codes long before the cameras started rolling, and the drama comes from watching how they use those codes to react to new challenges. Breaking Bad, which airs its final episode of the year this Sunday on AMC, is different: When mild-mannered chemistry teacher Walter White decides to secretly fund his cancer treatment by making crystal meth, he’s tossing his old moral code out the window, and tossing himself off a cliff. The only question is how far he’ll fall.

This list is the answer. Presented below, in chronological order from the pilot to the shocking seventh episode of Seson Five (WARNING: spoiler alerts ahead), is an updated list of Walt’s lowest lows – the shots and scenes where his journey from warm-hearted family man to cold-blooded killer took its greatest leaps forward, or downward. They’re the moments that made you jump off your couch or shrink back into the cushions, cover your mouth or let it hang open in shock and disbelief. They’re the moments that make Walt bad, and Breaking Bad great.

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Gale force (Season Three, Episode Thirteen: “Full Measure”)

Remember those happy golden bygone days when Walt committed murder so Jesse wouldn't have to? You know, like last episode? Heady times, man, heady times. Walt's hit on the corner boys alienated his boss Gus Fring enough for the guy to begin grooming his replacement; but rather than retire the hard way, Walt's willing to guilt and scare Jesse into becoming an honest-to-god hitman. Reasoning that if Gus has his former assistant Gale to run the cook he'll no longer need Walt alive – and if he no longer needs Walt aliven he'll also no longer need Jesse alive, either –Walt convinces Jesse that it's him or them, and he sticks to the plan even when he himself is seconds away from being killed by Gus's top henchmen, Mike and Victor. It's a move Jesse himself barely recovers from, but never forget who really pulled the trigger.

breaking bad

Lewis Jacobs/AMC


The fistfight (Season Four, Episode Nine: “Bug”)

One-on-one fights in which seasons' worth of shit explodes to the surface are a grand tradition in long-game TV drama – think Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock on Deadwood, Tony Soprano and Ralph Cifaretto on The Sopranos, Jack Shepherd and every other male character on Lost – but the trick here is that this one provides virtually no catharsis. Jesse's no closer to ridding his life of Walt than he was after all their previous screw-you shoutfests, and Walt's simply that much closer to being totally alone. Even when a wounded, underwear-clad Walt has a devastating heart-to-heart about his situation with Walter Jr. the next day, he still has to lie about who he really is and what really happened to him. In provoking this slugfest, Walter alienates the one person he can really trust, and he'll end up sacrificing anything, and anyone, to get it back.

Crawl Space

Rock bottom (Season Four, Episode Eleven: “Crawl Space”)

How low can he go? Subterranean. Frantic and on the run after blowing his last, best chance to escape Gus's operation with his life by throwing Gus's offer of clemency back in his face – even with a gun to his head and the life of his infant daughter threatened, Walter White is in capable of not being a dick – Walt dives into his crawlspace for the stashed cash he needs to go into hiding, only to discover that Skyler gave it to her genially sleazy ex-lover/ex-boss, Ted Beneke, to cover up their mickey-mouse book-cooking. Walt's ensuing break with sanity is one of the show's most terrifying moments: As Skyler looks down in horror, Walt lies there cackling, finally driven around the bend by the absurd, awful, no-exit hell his life has become. Breaking Bad has often been scary, but here it's a straight-up horror movie climax, with both composer Dave Porter's industrial score and Walt's mad laughter tipping the hat to, of all things, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The shot itself defies spatial logic as it floats up and away from our broken antihero, as though even the camera wants to get away as fast as it can.

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Gregory Peters/AMC


“I won” (Season Four, Episode Thirteen: “Face Off”)

We've seen how low Walt can go. But how far? Poisoning-innocent-children far, as we learn in a season-ending revelation that turned Breaking Bad's "hero" into its villain in just six words: "Lilly of the Valley" and "I won." Presented throughout the course of the season with a variety of ways to get out of his one-man war with Gus, Walt chose the one that would prove to them both that he, not the Chicken Man, is the smartest guy in the room. If that means nearly killing Jesse's girlfriend's kid in a last-ditch, so-crazy-it-just-might-work attempt to convince Pinkman it's all a master plan by Gus to drive a wedge between them, so be it. Until now, everyone in Walt's crosshairs had threatened him in some way; Brock was an innocent bystander, but Walt didn't care. It's his clearest contrast yet with Jesse, who, ever since his encounter with the poor neglected redheaded kid in the meth-heads' flophouse back in Season Two, has demonstrated his concern for children time and time again. Even if you believe, as I do, that chemistry-expert Walt calculated a dosage of the poison he knew to be non-lethal, it's not like anyone told that to Brock or his family. Their physical and emotional anguish is real, to them at least. To Walt, they're just pawns in the meth game of thrones. The king is dead. All hail the king.

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Ursula Coyote/AMC


“I forgive you” (Season Five, Episode One: “Live Free or Die”)

Political theorists argue that a dictator's absolute power can also be his downfall. When you have the ability to shape the world to your whims and punish anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, you lose access to any information that doesn't fit your preexisting idea of how the World According to You works – and in the rapidly changing real world, that's a fatal flaw. By "forgiving" his mortified wife Skyler for crimes far less horrifying than his own, the increasingly arrogant and odious King Walt reveals that he and that rapidly changing world are barely on speaking terms anymore. That fantasy's gonna crash and burn real soon.

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Ursula Coyote/AMC


The battle of the bedroom (Season Five, Episode Four: “Fifty-One”)

When humiliating yourself in front of your sister and brother-in-law by faking a suicide attempt in your backyard swimming pool becomes preferable to listening to your monstrous husband talk about how good the two of you are together for one second longer, it's safe to say your relationship is on the rocks. Enter Walter White, World's Worst Marriage Counselor, physically and verbally menacing a desperate Skyler into acknowledging that she has no choice but to stay with him, and let the kids stay as well. Her hateful last line of defense – she can wait until his cancer comes back and kills him – is the first time Walter's taken the kind of emotional abuse he's been dishing out for months. A few days later Walt will tell Jesse his meth business is all he has left; this is where he found that out for sure.

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Ursula Coyote/AMC


Whistle while you work (Season Five, Episode Six: “Buyout”)

The most ominous case of TV whistling this side of The Wire's Omar and "The Farmer in the Dell." Just days after the crew's daring train robbery led to the murder of an innocent child, Walt assures Jesse – for whom the suffering of children has always been an uncrossable line – that he too is torn up about it. But then, as Jesse takes up Walt's offer of an early quitting time, Walt glibly puckers up his lips and blows – blowing away Jesse's remaining faith that Hesienberg still has a heart in the process. That jaunty little tune was nothing less than the fatal blow to the partnership at the heart of Walt's world.

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Ursula Coyote/AMC


Killing Mike (Season Five, Episode Seven: “Say My Name”)

The big tell here is what didn't happen. Even now, at a point when not even Jesse believes Walt cares about protecting human lives anymore, he still doesn't have the gun he stole from Mike on him when he first approaches the fleeing fixer. It's only after Mike snarls that Walt should have known his place and behaved like the working stiff he's cut out to be that Walt snaps, returning to his car, grabbing the piece and ending Mike's criminal career the hard way. Some part of him knew it would be wrong to simply execute Mike – then the other, angry, bitter, egomaniacal part did it anyway. After the fact, a horrified Walt reacts as though he simply made a terrible mistake, since he could have gotten the information he wanted from Mike elsewhere – but this was worse than a mistake. It was a crime, against both Mike and himself. And Walt knows it.

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Frank Ockenfels/AMC


Flash forward to fifty-two (Season Five, Episode One: “Live Free or Die”)

This is the way the Walt ends: not with a bang (at least not yet), but a whimper. A little over a year after proclaiming victory in his battle against Gus and becoming king of all he surveys, the season-opening flash-forward reveals that Walt is an emaciated, haggard fugitive, celebrating his 52nd birthday alone at a Denny's while using an assumed name. In between coughing fits and popping pills, he's buying an M60 from an underground gun dealer. We may not know exactly how he got here yet, and we can only guess where he and that machine gun are headed, but it's clear that all his sociopathic arrogance came to nothing. Look on his works, ye meth-heads, and despair.

Dean Norris as Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad

Ursula Coyote/AMC


The Book (Season Five, Episode Eight: “Gliding Over All”)

The final scene of the Season 5A may very well be the lowest of all lows for Walt. At the White homestead, Hank, looking for something to read, finds a copy of Leaves of Grass. This is, of course, the book Gale gave to Walt, inscribed, "To my other favorite W.W. It's an honor working with you. Fondly, G.B." A flashback brings us to the scene where Hank asks Walt to assist with Gale's murder case: Hank shows Walt a notebook inscribed "To W.W," joking how those are his initials, too. Walt, laughing, replys, "You got me!" Hank, now out of the flashback, realizes that Walt is Heisenberg, and his reaction is one of awe, outrage and sorrow. This is the piece that could complete the puzzle that is Breaking Bad – such a careless, foolish mistake shows just how low Walt has sunk. There's also some irony in the fact that Walt's downfall is brought on by a book in his home, as it was his desire to protect that space – and everything inside of it – that made him first "break bad."

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