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updated: 9/27/2013 6:16 AM

Five essential episodes of 'Breaking Bad'

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  • The "Breaking Bad" saga of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) comes to an end Sunday on AMC.

    The "Breaking Bad" saga of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) comes to an end Sunday on AMC.

  • Video: "Breaking Bad" finale promo

  • Video: "Breaking Bad" recap


You're either excited or tired of hearing how excited your friends are. Either way, television history will be made this weekend.

AMC's "Breaking Bad" finishes its five-season run at 8 p.m. Sunday with a 75-minute episode named "Felina." Writer/producer Vince Gilligan's crime epic about a chemistry teacher whose cancer diagnosis leads to a second career cooking meth has steadily built buzz -- and a sizable audience -- since its debut in January 2008.

It took me almost all of those five years to get on board. Having watched the pilot episode when it first aired, I found the premise and its characters, especially Walter White (Bryan Cranston), downright abhorrent.

But as the years went on, it became clear that "Breaking Bad" was not something you could discount. I began seeing the name Heisenberg -- Walter's nom de meth, if you will -- on T-shirts. Cranston was winning Emmys, as was his younger counterpart, Aaron Paul, who plays arguably the show's most tragic figure, Jesse Pinkman. The most influential names in entertainment were singing the show's praises every weekend on Twitter.

So last month, as the second half of the fifth season was about to begin, I did what seemingly every TV viewer in the country did this year and started watching every episode of "Breaking Bad" on Netflix. (It took me 34 days, which isn't that impressive compared to the time I watched all 24 episodes of "Lost" Season 3 in about 28 hours, but I digress.) Yes, "Breaking Bad" really is as good as everyone says it is. I'll risk hyperbole and call the eight-episode run that culminates Sunday night the best, most exciting stretch of television I've ever seen.

When it's over, we will have seen a portrait of American crime that has few precedents on television: We saw Walter White become a criminal, we saw how that affected his family, we saw the breathtaking highs and the depressing lows, and we'll see how it all ends. That didn't even happen on "The Sopranos," thought by many to be the best TV show in history, as we came into the middle of Tony's story. (Depending on how you interpret that show's finale, we may have left in the middle, too.)

Before "Breaking Bad" ends, consider re-watching these five essential episodes from the first four and a half seasons, five hours that prove this show's power and impact:

"Phoenix," Season 2, Episode 12: This episode ends with one of Walt's most heinous acts as he allows Jesse's girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), to die. Ritter and John de Lancie give heartbreaking performances as drug-relapsing Jane and her haunted father, and Gilligan sets the stage for an equally devastating finale.

"One Minute," 3x07: A showcase for Dean Norris, who plays Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader. It begins with Hank's brutal beating of Jesse in the wake of a failed RV bust, and ends with his shocking, bullet-riddled confrontation with the silent duo known as The Cousins.

"Salud," 4x10: Giancarlo Esposito's finest hour as Gus Fring, the seemingly mild-mannered chicken magnate who happens to control the meth trade across the Southwest, has him exacting revenge on Don Eladio and the cartel.

"Live Free or Die," 5x01: One of the few "Breaking Bad" episodes that can actually be described as "fun" involves a U-Haul truck and a giant magnet.

"Dead Freight," 5x05: This feels like the spiritual payback for the previous episode. A thrilling train hijacking turns into a nightmare in the episode's closing seconds.

You can catch up with "Breaking Bad" easily if you have a streaming Netflix subscription, or buy episodes and seasons via vudu, iTunes, Xbox Marketplace and other leading digital retailers.

• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald copy editor and a tireless consumer of pop culture. He is definitely not on #TeamWalt. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.

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