A man stands in the middle of an empty house that we realize, as the camera pans slowly around from the Duraflame in the fireplace through the living room, is the White residence. It's a moment filled with foreboding -- what's happened to the family? Is this a look into the future, when they're gone? But then in come a younger, more hopeful Walt and Skyler, he still with his hair and she heavily pregnant with Walter Jr. "Breaking Bad" does not use its flashbacks lightly -- they're filled with dramatic irony, resting on our knowledge of the terrible things to come that await these characters -- but this one is poignant for the quietly crushed dreams it represents. Walt still has his lab job at this time, and the world seems open to them, and he tries to talk Skyler out of this "starter house" and into something bigger because "why be cautious? We have nowhere to go but up." Tempting fate, Walt, tempting fate. Sixteen odd years later, they'll still be there. Skyler won't be writing, they won't have three kids, that pool in the back will be littered with debris from a midair collision Walt indirectly caused and Walt will have abandoned the teacher career he settled for to make drugs. Man plans, God laughs. And in this show, it's rarely a nice laugh. [Watch the clip here.]
The saddest of the sad flashback cold opens, the start of "Abiquiu" finds Jesse and the already long-dead Jane (Krysten Ritter) at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, a trip we'd heard them talking about but never seen them take. Jesse's no fan of fine art, and he's bored and displeased with the lack of vaginas that was promised to him (did O'Keeffe have medical issues, he wonders, looking at what's actually a painting of a door). But the pair's conversation in the car afterward about the paintings and the reason we revisit things is painfully bittersweet, both because of its content and because we know that what we see here is already doomed. Jane was terrible for Jesse in some ways -- she introduced him to heroin, after all -- but in others they were great together, and in this scene it's clear just how much he adored her. "That door was her home and she loved it," Jane tells him about the paining. "To me, that's about making that feeling last." But that feeling's gone for Jesse, and the scene is all the more tragic for the fact that it comes after we see Jesse find the cigarette bearing lipstick traces from his dead girlfriend in the ashtray. [Watch the clip here.]
This Bryan Cranston-directed episode offers the most memorably strange and haunting out-of-context image in a series full of them -- the sight of a group of people crawling on the ground toward something, with others walking past or around them, paying them no mind. The scene is tinted yellow, and we're clearly somewhere in Mexico, and while the locals may find it standard practice to have a crowd dragging themselves through the dust toward something the Benz that pulls up clearly is worth a stare. Out comes one man, skull-tipped boot first, and then we see the other -- the Cousins, impassive, identical, and dressed in immaculate suits. Neither will say a word for several episodes, and here they merely exchange a look before joining the crawling procession in their beautiful clothes, making their way toward what turns out to be a Santa Muerte shrine at which they leave an image of their target -- the police sketch of Walter White. Not only is the scene beautiful and ominous, it is like the plane crash a reminder that Walt's actions have consequences that spill out far beyond his comprehension, reverberating past the people in his life and down miles away, to stranger who'll come calling. In the Cousins, these outsized, fabulous figures of death, we have a literal embodiment of the karma that's going to come calling for Walt one day. [Watch the clip here.]
Honorable mentions: The German executive's suicide in "Madrigal"; a young Walt and Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) breaking down the elements of the human body while in the present day Walt and Jesse do some messy clean-up of one in "...And the Bag's in the River"; Walt's police encounter in "Caballo sin Nombre"; the Los Pollos Hermanos commercial in "Kafkaesque."