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Breaking Bad’s 10 Most Brilliant Schemes

From homemade batteries to ricin cigarettes, it's never a dull moment on Gilligan's Island

Breaking Bad's 10 Most Brilliant Schemes
Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (AMC)
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Breaking Bad Week

Whatever happened to Jesse Pinkman? Finally, after all these years, we find out with El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. To celebrate, Consequence of Sound is publishing several articles straight outta New Mexico. Today, Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, Alex Huntsberger, and Andrew Bloom celebrate the ingenuity of Vince Gilligan’s series by revisiting its greatest schemes.

Vince Gilligan loves a good idea. Like David Lynch, the guy tends to wait for a fresh fish to catch, and he’s found a whole school of them in New Mexico. For over 10 years now, the veteran television scribe has turned Albuquerque into an enviable writer’s workshop, one that caters to his Erector set-like storytelling. Be it Walter White’s seemingly infinite knowledge of chemistry or Saul Goodman’s Houdini-esque wizardry amidst the legal system, there’s always a sense of ingenuity at hand on Gilligan’s Island, and that’s partly why both of his AMC series are so goddamn re-watchable.

That’s not to discredit Gilligan’s strict constitution for narrative, either. Hardly. If anything, these ideas wouldn’t nearly be as effective if not for the razor-sharp storytelling that wires each and every blueprint. Because without our affection or interest in his rogue’s gallery of characters, both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul would likely boil down to intriguing half-hours of television on either The Discovery Channel or C-SPAN, respectively. No, we ooh and ahh not only because we want these characters to succeed, but because we believe these characters can succeed. That takes talent.

Looking back on Breaking Bad, specifically, especially as we head into El Camino, we’re once again fascinated by the quirky ingenuity of so many of these plans and schemes. That’s why we opted to collate 10 of our favorites. Not because we love a good list — c’mon, who doesn’t love a good list on the Internet? — but mostly as a way to showcase Gilligan’s craft. So, before you reunite with Jesse Pinkman on Friday, take some time to consider how we got there, not through actions, but through good ol’ fashioned planning. At the very least, you’ll remember how to jumpstart an RV.

Yeah, science.

–Michael Roffman
Editor-in-Chief

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10. The Fugue State

Season 2, Episode 3, “Bit by a Dead Bee”

The One Who Knocks: Walter White (Bryan Cranston)

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” (Context) After narrowly escaping death by the hands of their captor Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) — thanks to ASAC Schrader (Dean Norris) — Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) have to account where they’ve been all this time. For Jesse, that’s easy peasy, and he’s more or less tasked of going home and cleaning up. For Walt, however, he has a family to answer to, which is why he ingeniously drums up a fugue state narrative for himself. Rather curiously, he stumbles into a distant grocery store and strips off his clothes, to the horror of every New Mexico shopper.

“Yeah, Science!” (The Scheme) Okay, so it’s not Walt’s finest hour — at least, not for his own reputation — but it’s a stroke of genius. Upon being hospitalized, Walt claims he has no recollection of where he’s been for the last few days, laying blame to his medication and chemotherapy. Although the doctors find no reason for such a fugue state, they more or less buy the story, insisting he stay with them for fear of another episode.

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” (Consequences) Hospital bills, a panicked family, and mild doubts. But hey, no one suspects he’s involved with Salamanca, and Hank even walks away a hero, despite inheriting a crippling case of PTSD (and Tuco’s teeth).

Lab Analysis: Seeing how Walt has to come clean to Doctor Chavez — fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer might recognize actor Harry Groener as Mayor Richard Wilkins (spooky) — the plan isn’t 100% foolproof. But to his credit, Walt never truly confesses, copping to traditional father-husband woes, the likes of which any doctor probably might understand given his position. If anything, the only anxiety to stem from all of this is worn by Hank for his aforementioned PSTD, and Jesse, whose cleanup is only resolved due to Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) refusing to cooperate. Ding, ding, ding, indeed.

–Michael Roffman

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09. The Thermite Break-In

Season 1, Episode 7, “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”

The One Who Knocks: Walter White … and André Cassagnes

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” Can’t cook meth without that crucial ingredient: methylamine. Unfortunately, as we learn multiple times throughout Breaking Bad, methylamine isn’t easy to come by; it winds up being the plutonium for this drug-dealing Doc and Marty. Their first realization of this surfaces late into Season 1, when Jesse manages to get every item on Walt’s cooking list, save for the big M. Walt’s furious, but Jesse has a solution — a chemical warehouse on the outskirts of town. The problem? It’s heavily guarded and secured by “one big ass lock.”

“Yeah, Science!” By remembering his World War II history, Walt is able to concoct a proper bomb with routine household items. But please, let’s not lay all the credit on Walt’s lap. Thanks to the work of André Cassagnes, who conceived of the Etch A Sketch in the 1950s, our high school chemist-turned-historian-turned-Tyler Durden has all the material he needs to make thermite without ever leaving Jesse’s garage.

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” Not even cameras, nor a pesky realtor, can stop them from their work. The only real loser in this is the unlucky security guard who spends the night in a Port a Potty. The barrel, however, turns our duo into overnight winners.

Lab Analysis: If you didn’t gather, Walt knows his chemicals, and he especially knows how to make things pop. Gilligan proved as much in the previous episode, “Crazy Handful of Nothin”, when he armed his anti-hero with a fulminated mercury bomb. But the addition of a household object as rote as the Etch A Sketch really made Breaking Bad feel downright palpable — on the other hand, it also probably motivated half a dozen anarchists out there (win some, lose some). All joking aside, this kind of off-the-cuff engineering set a precedent for the series, giving it that Bill Nye edge that would give your own high school teacher a heart attack. Narratively speaking, the thermite brings Walt and Jesse closer together.

–Michael Roffman

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08. The Magnets

Season 5, Episode 1, “Live Free or Die”

The One Who Knocks: Walter White, Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks), and Jesse Pinkman, with magnets provided courtesy of Old Joe (Larry Hankin). Though, for once, it’s Jesse who has the scientific breakthrough.

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” After offing Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) via Hector Salamanca’s wheelchair bomb and blowing up the Superlab, Walt and Jesse have one more loose end to tie up: The footage from the lab’s security cameras is is stored in Gus’s laptop … which just so happens to be in police custody. After convincing a very angry Mike not to murder Walt in cold (if well-deserved) blood and help them destroy the laptop, Jesse comes up with an idea: magnets.

“Yeah, Science!” Gus’ laptop is being stored in the Albuquerque PD’s evidence room. Since the trio can’t get into the room itself, they need a magnet big enough to wipe the computer’s hard drive from the other side of a brick wall. Enter: Old Joe’s giant junkyard electromagnet. After a successful test run, the team breaks into the APD parking lot and pulls up alongside the evidence room in their truck. With 42 car batteries providing the juice, they flip the switch and…

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” Three things happen immediately: 01.) The laptop is wiped, 02.) The evidence room is wrecked, and 03.) The truck tips over. Whoops. The three crooks manage to escape, but they have to leave the truck behind, causing tensions between Walt and Mike to grow even tauter. Oh, and the evidence room chaos accidentally reveals Gus’ secret offshore accounts — including the one for Mike’s granddaughter.

Lab Analysis: Coming off the heels of Season 4, this scheme was a back-to-basics move by Gilligan. Science + crime = Great TV. And in classic Breaking Bad fashion, the scheme’s short-term success sows the seeds for its characters’ long-term downfall. Poor Mike. He really should have killed Walter White when he had the chance.

–Alex Huntsberger

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07. The Great Escape

Season 3, Episode 6, “Sunset”

The One Who Knocks: Walter White, with a notable assist from junkyard legal adviser Old Joe and Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) secretary

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” Hank has been staking out Jesse. When Walt learns of the surveillance, he decides to have the RV, and all the incriminating evidence inside, destroyed and turned into Chinese patio furniture. But after he alerts Jesse, the young man rolls to the junkyard and bursts into the RV to give Walt a piece of his mind, not even realizing that he’s drawn Hank right to them. With the two trapped inside their former makeshift workspace, and cornered by his brother-in-law, Walt has to figure out a way to get rid of Hank, not to mention the RV, without exposing himself or their criminal enterprise.

“Yeah, Science!” There are three big elements of Walt’s plan. First, stall Hank by convincing him that the RV is a domicile, not a vehicle, and thus he needs to get a warrant before he’s allowed to just bust it open and investigate. Second, play Cyrano de Bergerac with Jesse, letting him and Old Joe delay Hank with their legal arguments (and well-placed profanity) to keep Walt himself anonymous. Third, have Saul’s secretary call Hank while posing as an A.P.D. officer, telling him that Marie’s (Betsy Brandt) been in a terrible accident, so that he’ll bail on the stand-off to check on his wife.

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” Hank runs off, and the RV, along with every little incriminating detail inside, is crushed into little tiny pieces, never to be seen again. But Jesse catches one hell of a beating for the ruse.

Lab Analysis: You can’t argue with results. This is one of Walt’s closer calls, but by crossing yet another line (this time, a familial one), he manages to buy the time he needs to dispose of the RV and walk away without revealing his identity or his crimes. Still, the collateral damage to Jesse has to count as a mark against this scheme, even if it might be preferable to jail time or worse had they been caught.

–Andrew Bloom

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06. The Pest Control Lab

Season 5, Episode 3, “Hazard Pay”

The One Who Knocks:  Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Mike Ehrmentraut, Saul Goodman, and introducing the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons).

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” With no Superlab anymore, the fellas need a new place to cook — one that will keep them off the grid. Saul takes them on a tour of possible sites, none of which are acceptable. It’s only at the last place, a fumigation company called Vamanos Pest, that Walt has a sudden realization.

“Yeah, Science!”  Every Vamanos Pest tents a new house, Walt and Jesse set up a mobile meth lab inside it. This allows them to cook without worrying about weird smells or activity setting off the neighbors — the giant yellow and green tent covering the house provides the perfect cover. Plus, there’s an industrious member of the Vamanos crew, Todd, who seems very eager to please…

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” The cooks themselves go great! The crew is making money hand over fist. Hell, once Walter kills Mike — and has Todd’s Neo-Nazi family kill Mike’s guys on the inside — the profits skyrocket. Jesse leaves? No problem. Todd is there to replace him. All in all, this scheme works about as well any scheme on the whole show.

Lab Analysis: An assessment of the whole thing: Most of the joy in Breaking Bad lay in Walt and Jesse trapping themselves in tighter and tighter corners — each one necessitating an increasingly elaborate scheme to break their way out. But the please of this scheme lies in its utter simplicity. Sure as hell beats a crappy RV in the middle of the desert.

–Alex Huntsberger

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05. The Toast

Season 4, Episode 10, “Salud”

The One Who Knocks: Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” Everyone answers to someone, even a kingpin such as Gus Fring. That someone winds up being Don Eladio (Scarface‘s Steven Bauer), whose ties to Fring’s past begin with a treacherous and emotional turn, as we see in a flashback involving the death of his past partner/potential lover Maximino Arciniega (James Martinez). When tensions between Fring and Eladio’s operations reach a boiling point, Gus, Mike, and Jesse take a trip down to Ciudad Juárez. On the surface, it appears that Jesse has a one-way ticket to Mexico to cook meth for Eladio’s men, though as Mike cryptically warns his surrogate son, they’re either all returning back to America, or no one is.

“Yeah, Science!” Revenge is a dish best served cold … or through a rare bottle of tequila. Upon reuniting with Eladio, Gus offers a toast to his associate, albeit a deadly one. Standing exactly where Maximino perished years prior, Eladio succumbs to his death via poisonous tequila, only he’s not alone. His boisterous henchmen, who are fully prepared for a sunny pool party, also collapse to the ground. The twist? Gus also drank the ill swill, only he manages to make it to the bathroom to purge any potential death. What ensues is a masterpiece of chaos: There are bodies. There’s screaming. There are even bullets. In the middle of it all is Mike and Jesse, escaping with their boss out of Mexico.

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” An entire Mexican cartel is relinquished and an unlikely bond is forged between Jesse and Gus. Sadly, the latter doesn’t last very long as Fring will soon learn he has another person to answer to — ahem, Mr. White.

Lab Analysis: None of this should be surprising. Gilligan spends two whole seasons — not counting Better Call Saul — portraying Gus as a mastermind with all the right answers. He’s the standard by which White appreciates, and then stubbornly ignores. So, not only is this whole tequila tasting fitting of Gus’ routine, but an extension of his master plan. And depending on whose perspective you align with, it’s also the rare comeuppance in a show that thrives from sending its protagonists through the ringer. In hindsight, Gus is one of the more affecting tragedies in Breaking Bad, a man who painstakingly thought everything through, only to be undone by his own misgivings. Because really, he had every reason to cut ties with White — literally, if you know what we mean — but he didn’t. Despite his best intentions, he kept the noose a little too loose, and it got the best of him in the end. But here? This is Gus at his finest, and it’s still a sight to behold.

–Michael Roffman

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04. The Battery

Season 2, Episode 9, “4 Days Out”

The One Who Knocks: Walter White … and Jesse Pinkman, to an extent

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” Fun fact: Did you know methylamine goes bad? Well, it does, which is why Walt is so adamant on cooking the rest of their stolen barrel (see: “The Thermite Break-In” above) before it goes bad. Everything starts out beautifully: Jesse picks Walt up from the airport, they abscond to the desert for familiarity, and they cook around $1.2 million dollars worth of meth. All goes bad — really, really bad — when Jesse fucks up royally: Not only did he leave the key in the ignition, draining the battery, but when they attempt to siphon gas from the nearby generator, a spillage causes a fire, prompting Jesse to foolishly dump their only supply of drinking water. Walt’s furious, Jesse’s beside himself, and the sun keeps smiling above. That smile, though, leads to heat exhaustion, irritable behavior, and multiple existential confessions.

“Yeah, Science!” After attempts to call Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) go awry and a crank proves useless, the duo find themselves truly up against the wall. It’s an ugly sight, complete with multiple breakdowns and self-defeating digressions. But, Jesse doesn’t give up, and urges Walt to come up with something. The solution, Walt discovers, lies in various materials left around the RV, ranging from coins to brake pads to bolts to copper wire. Soon enough, a reenergized Walt assembles a homemade battery, much to Jesse’s surprise, and saves both of their asses. Science at its finest.

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” That phone call to Skinny Pete will have to be explained, but the trip proves more holistic than any of their prior endeavors. Jesse comes to appreciate Walt’s situation, promising to deliver his money should anything arise, while Walt later discovers the blood he coughed up (oh yeah, he was coughing up blood) was from inflamed tissue in his lung. In fact, his cancer is in remission.

Lab Analysis: Everyone loves a good survival story, and “4 Days Out” checks all the right boxes. There’s nothing worse than a fate ordained by stupidity, and Jesse’s tomfoolery fulfills all the preconceived notions Walt has always reserved for his unlikely colleague. But, that begins to change here, as evidenced in the way Jesse keeps pushing Walt to be the best version of himself. Sure, Walt still thinks Jesse’s a liability, but there’s an appreciation by the end of this episode, one that informs so much of the narrative to come. By proxy, that makes the concoction of the battery all that more powerful. It’s a spark of ingenuity that leads not only to salvation, but kinship. It’s also Breaking Bad at its sparest, a bottle episode that loses none of the show’s flavor while also earning Gilligan and his team a chance to pause and reflect. They’d do it again with “The Fly” two seasons later.

–Michael Roffman

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03. The Final Job

Season 5, Episode 16, “Felina”

The One Who Knocks: Walter White, with special credit to teenage superfan Kevin Cordasco

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” As Walt nears the end of the line, he has a big problem for both his real son and his surrogate son. For the former, Walt has no way to pass down the millions of dollars in cash he’s amassed from his meth empire without law enforcement intercepting and confiscating it. For the latter, the Neo-Nazis have captured and enslaved Jesse to cook for them. Dying from cancer and exposed for the criminal he is, Walt is hard-pressed to provide for Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) and his family, or save the poor kid who might not be in this mess but for Walt’s own machinations.

“Yeah, Science!” Walt has a two-part solution to this problem. The first part involves enlisting his old foes, Elliott (Adam Godley) and Gretchen Schwartz (Jessica Hecht), to be intermediaries for the cash transfer, telling them to pretend it’s charity and kindness after what Walt put his son through. Walt tries to assert the moral case, arguing that it would make things right between them. Just in case, he says he has an insurance policy in the form of the “two best hitmen in Mississippi” — actually, Skinny Pete and Badger (Matt Jones) with a pair of two-dollar laser pointers — to make sure they live up to their end of the bargain. The second involves plying Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), Todd Alquist, and Jack Welker (Michael Bowen) with the lie that he’s derived a method to cook meth without methylamine in order to meet with them, goading Jack into bringing Jesse out, and then tackling him while a remote controlled M60 wastes most of the Neo-Nazi crew and gives Jesse the chance to escape.

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” We’ll never know for sure (depending on El Camino) how Walt’s plan with Gretchen and Elliott works out in the end, but the pair seem scared enough to follow through. And by the end, the Nazis are dead, Lydia’s imbibed Chekhov’s ricin, and Jesse’s able to get the hell out of dodge.

Lab Analysis: There are flaws in both halves of Walt’s plot here. The Gretchen/Elliott part of the plan leaves Walt with no recourse but to hope that an abstract fear he can’t actually back up will be enough to persuade the pair to stay true to their word. And the Todd/Jack part requires a number of things to go just right for him. But both parts are dripping with the sort of grand ambition and bold strokes that made Walt’s elaborate schemes so exciting.

–Andrew Bloom

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02. The Great Train Robbery

Season 5, Episode 5, “Dead Freight”

The One Who Knocks: – Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Mike Ehrmantraut, Todd Alquist, and Patrick Kuby (Bill Burr)

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” After discovering that the DEA had placed a GPS tracker on all of the barrels of methylamine at Madrigal, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle is in trouble. If she can’t get Walt and co. methylamine, then she’s no longer of use. In fact, she’s more use to them dead. To save her hide, Lydia provides Walt, Jesse, and Mike with info on a train carrying a whole tanker full of methylamine across the desert. The only problem is, they can’t figure out how to rob it without killing the train crew and/or bringing down the heat. That is, until Jesse has himself a bright idea.

“Yeah, Science!” The Vamanos Pest crew buries two 300-gallon containers — one empty, one filled with water — in the desert near a small bridge and pile the displaced dirt onto a truck. At the appointed time, Kuby drives said truck onto the train tracks and “gets stuck.” When the train stops, Jesse climbs under the train via the bridge with a very long hose and starts siphoning the methylamine. At the same time, Todd climbs on top of the train — carrying an equally long hose — opens the tank and sticks the hose in. When the empty tank is full, Walt turns on the compressor and pumps in 300 gallons of water to replace the stolen methylamine. Everything’s going smoothly until a surprise Good Samaritan helps push Kuby’s truck off the tracks. Refusing to cut the job short, Walt nearly turns Jesse into roadkill. Still, the scheme works. Until …

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” When they’re through celebrating their epic heist, the crew notices a little boy on a bike watching them. Cool as can be, Todd takes out his gun and shoots the kid dead. For Jesse, this is the final straw. He and Walt are done.

Lab Analysis: The reason that science experiments have to happen in a clean, sterile lab is because any outside contaminants — even something very small — could completely ruin the results. While Walter White may take a scientific approach to crime, he doesn’t have the benefit of a clean lab. And Vince Gilligan was masterful and introducing contaminant after contaminant to alter — or even outright wreck — Walter’s most carefully laid plans. There’s no better example of this than poor little Drew Sharp (Samuel Webb), whose unwitting presence changed everything.

–Alex Huntsberger

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01. The Poisoning

Season 4, Episode 11/12,“Crawl Space” and “Face Off”

The One Who Knocks: – Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Saul Goodman, and Hector Salamanca

“How Did Everything Get So Screwed Up?” By the end of Season 4, Walter is scrambling to kill Gus before Gus can kill him. The only problem is that he’s totally isolated. With his family packed off to protective custody, Walt sits alone in his house, stewing. He needs help. He needs allies. He needs Jesse.

“Yeah, Science!” When his girlfriend Andrea’s (Emily Rios) son Brock (Ian Posada) ends up in the hospital with a mysterious poisoning, Jesse storms over to Walt’s house, convinced that Walt poisoned the kid using Jesse’s ricin cigarette. Walt convinces him otherwise: That it was Gus who poisoned Brock in order to frame Walt and make Jesse pull the trigger on his ex-partner. The two then join forces. Following an aborted attempt to blow up Gus’ car at the hospital, Jesse tips Walt off to Gus’ Achilles Heel: his frequent visits to his longtime enemy, the mute and wheelchair-bound Hector Salamanca. After roping in Hector and framing him as a DEA snitch, Gus visits his old foe to finally finish him. Unfortunately for Gus, Walt’s hidden his bomb in Hector’s chair and hooked up the trigger to the old man’s bell. Gus learns too late that Hector’s bell now rings for him. With Gus finally dispatched, Jesse learns that Brock’s poisoning was actually due to berries from a “Lily of the Valley” plant. The same plant that sits in a pot in Walt’s backyard. Unbeknownst to Jesse, Walt had been playing him the entire time.

“We’re Done When I Say We’re Done!” It’s hard to say that this plot kicked off the show’s endgame — the whole show was kind of an endgame — but it set up a post-Gus world, one in which Heisenberg could well and truly get into the empire business. The secret of Brock’s poisoning would also linger over the show’s final season. When Jesse finally pieces it all together in Season 5’s “Confessions”, it’s the one thing that finally pushes him to work with Hank Schrader and sets all three men on a course for that fateful meeting in the desert.

Lab Analysis: Over the course of five seasons Gillian and co. painstakingly sketched out every single step that Walter took on the road from “Mister Chips” to “Scarface.” But despite all the horrible crimes he committed, the biggest leaps he took on the garden path to hell always involved Jesse: letting Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter) choke to death, forcing Jesse to kill Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), poisoning Brock, and making Jesse think it was Gus. In order to secure his greatest victory, Walt had to do something truly unimaginable. Leaving aside the death itself and the iconic sound of Salamanca’s bell going “Ding Ding Ding” as Gus’s eyes widen in horror, the final shot of this episode might be the show’s single greatest stroke. As the camera pushes in on the innocuous plant sitting in Walter’s backyard, it’s a twist en par with any trick that Keyzer Soze ever pulled. Walter White could scheme with the best of them. But Breaking Bad’s number one schemer? No competition. It’s Vince Gilligan, bitch.

–Alex Huntsberger

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