With the exception of HBO’s The Wire, Breaking Bad may very well boast the greatest ensemble cast in the history of television. A great deal of the credit can be attributed to a dozen or more supporting players who’ve cropped up along the way – Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut, Saul Goodman, Hector Salamanca. Collectively, these characters have elevated the original storyline, steadily transforming Breaking Bad from a semi-decent drama into a sprawling, formidable epic. And yet, for all their brilliant casting choices, Vince Gilligan and Sharon Bialy/Sherry Thomas have proven absolutely abysmal when it comes to choosing women. Case in point: Skyler White. Anna Gunn is so utterly miscast in that role that it’s become a huge distraction. The very same can be said of Betsy Brandt, who portrays Skyler White’s younger sister, Marie. I mean, who among us didn’t roll our eyes when Marie was revealed to be a klepto? Who among us didn’t cringe when Skyler White sang “Happy Birthday” to Ted Beneke? The reality is, any number of middle-aged actresses could’ve upgraded those roles considerably, which is ironic, given how difficult it is to imagine any other actors filling the shoes of most Breaking Bad characters. And so, with that in mind, here are IFearBrooklyn’s picks for the top 20 recurring characters from all five seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad:
(20-16: The Low-Level Buyers)
20. Victor (Gus Fring’s henchman) – What does it say that the most intriguing scene Victor ever appeared in was the one in which he died? Well, it says a lot of things, actually. It says that Vince Gilligan really knows how to write a great death scene. It says that Jeremiah Bitsui really knows how to bleed out. But it also says that lonesome Victor simply had to go. Victor had himself a decent run there for a while, and he was certainly more entertaining than that Oran-Juice-Jones-lookin’ fucker that followed. But, alas, in the end lonesome Victor’d been rendered expendable, oddly reminiscent of (Sopranos creator) David Chase’s assertion that if a showrunner has grown tired of writing plot points for a specific character, the audience has just as certainly grown tired, as well.
19. Gale Boetticher – There’s only one good reason why Gale Boetticher needs to be on this list, and that reason is this video. All of Gale’s other earthy fan-boy nonsense could’ve been pulled off just as easily by any number of SAG-accredited actors. But it is this, this karaoke recording discovered shortly after Gale Boetticher’s murder, that really thrusts David Costabile into the limelight. Costabile was good on The Wire. He was good on Breaking Bad. And he is currently even better on AMC’s Low Winter Sun. Not bad for a 20-year veteran who only recently caught on.
18. Skinny Pete – Realistically speaking, had Combo lived beyond the 11th episode of Season Two, he more than likely would’ve replaced Skinny Pete on this list. Skinny Pete looks like a junkie and Skinny Pete acts like a junkie. There really isn’t all that much more to relate. And yet, his character has somehow managed to eke it out through five full seasons. This despite the fact his primary role ever since the end of Season Four has been to play off of the considerably more lovable Badger (AKA Brandon Mayhew).
17. Patrick Kuby – Kuby is usually partnered with Huell (Saul Goodman refers to the duo as his “A-Team”), but even when Kuby is out there on his own, he demonstrates a cocksure surliness that makes him entertaining to watch. Played by Los Angeles Comedian Bill Burr (both Huell and Saul are also played by comedians), Kuby fits in seamlessly with the rest of Goodman’s legal practice.
16. Jane Margolis – Three full years before Krysten Ritter became The B in Apartment 23 she was playing Jesse Pinkman’s girlfriend on Season Two of Breaking Bad. Jane Margolis is included on this list because her character is alluring, and layered, and tragic, and loving. All of which render Ritter’s Margolis the exact opposite of several other female characters on Breaking Bad. Jane deserved much better than to choke out on her own vomit. And she deserved much better than to serve as a subsequent jab from Walter White to Jesse.
(15-11: The Street-Level Dealers)
15. Lydia Rodarte-Quayle: “Oh, Lydia, Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?” The beauty of Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (pretty remarkable name there, by the way) is that she’s absolutely brilliant at selling her ideas. Despite the fact she seems perennially frazzled, when it comes down to settling business, Lydia knows how to turn on the savvy. She’s successfully bargained with Walter for her life on not one, but two occasions. And she continues to further her own interests in the clutch. “She has the eyes the men adore so, and a torso even more so. Oh, Lydia, Lydia, say, have you met Lydia … Lydia, the Queen of Blue Meth?”
14. Krazy-8 Molina – Krazy-8 has only appeared in three episodes, all of them concurrent, all of them occurring during the show’s original season. Krazy-8 owned those three episodes, specifically because he represented a pivotal shift in Walter White’s trajectory. Played by a Latino stage actor named Maximino Arciniega, Krazy-8’s range throughout those episodes is astounding – fear, anger, intimidation, compassion, rage, confidence, humility … they’re all present and accounted for. More importantly, Krazy-8 represents the first of many unforgivable acts that Walter White – beloved father, husband and high school chemistry teacher – cannot possibly take back.
13. Huell Babineaux – How is it a minor character like Huell appears this high up on the list? Well, the simple fact is – one way or another – Lavell Crawford contributes something significant to every minor scene Huell’s in. Stealing Jesse’s cigarettes, jiggling around in the background because he desperately needs to go to the bathroom, falling back onto a bed of money – these are all priceless moments, and – quite frankly – they probably wouldn’t be so priceless had it not been for the fact that Huell is being played by a 300+-lb. black stand-up comedian. Lavell Crawford looks and behaves just like the consummate strip-mall security guard, and he renders Huell all the more humorous because he’s 100% in on the joke.
12. Badger (AKA Brandon Mayhew) – There really isn’t much to Brandon Mayhew. He’s a meth-head stoner dropout with very little aptitude for slinging. But he grows on you because – much like the majority of meth-head stoner dropouts – Badger’s got a decent heart. I mean, Badger, right? Just like a big ole’ comfy teddy bear. He somehow manages to counterbalance Jesse’s schizo streak throughout the first two seasons, and, meanwhile, he’s the only member of Jesse Pinkman’s inner-circle that you’d really rather not see die.
11. Todd Alquist – Most people had such high – or low – aspirations for Todd’s character, a pest removal professional who helps Walter rob a train, just before opening fire on an innocent child. Todd Alquist is a ticking time-bomb, to be sure. And the beauty of the character is how calmly, almost innocently, manipulative he is, especially when it comes to getting over on his uncle.
(10-6: The High-Ranking Lieutenants)
10. Jack and Kenny (The Neo-Nazis) – Breaking Bad is brimming with subtextual references to 1940s Germany. Madrigal Electromotive is a German conglomerate, the original “Heisenberg” was a Nazi physicist (enlisted to help Hitler build a nuclear reactor, no less), and – at this point – Breaking Bad even features an underground bunker. It seems only fitting, then, that Vince Gilligan would eventually introduce a pair of Neo-Nazis into the fold. Originally enlisted to make a series of highly-coordinated hits, Jack and Kenny have since gone on to notch more kills than any other member(s) of the cast. Not an easy feat when you assess their competition. (As an aside, the real-life Werner Heisenberg immigrated to America shortly after World War II. He died of cancer several years later at the age of 74.)
9. Tuco Salamanca – At first glance, Tuco is really nothing more than an ultra-violent gangster. But beneath the surface, Tuco also represents the central gateway to half a dozen worthwhile characters … Hector Salamanca, The Salamanca Brothers, Don Eladio, The Cartel, and, ultimately, Gus Fring. As a lasting presence, Tuco really didn’t bring much to the table. But his death set off an unpredictable chain of events, the sum of which would not resolve themselves until the end of Season Four.
8. Hector “Tio” Salamanca – Perhaps the best way to put Hector Salamanca into perspective is by recognizing that he made it through three seasons, during which time he told both Walt and Jesse to fuck off, took a shit in front of the DEA, told Hank Schrader to go screw himself, and, ultimately, blew Gustavo Fucking Fring straight off the planet. Pretty impressive, no? Even more so when you consider Hector accomplished all of this while living out his twilight years as an invalid … mute and quasi-motionless, conveying fierce emotions with his eyes. Mark Margolis, a 40-year veteran of both stage and screen, saw the potential in this character and made the most of it. Well done.
7. Marco & Leonel Salamanca (AKA The Brothers) – You know what’s infinitely more frightening than saying something? Saying nothing. And “The Brothers”, as Marco and Leonel became known, were absolutely fantastic at saying next to nothing. Silence became such a hallmark of their characters, in fact, that once the older of the two brothers did finally speak, you kind of knew that they were done for. To speak is to become mortal, after all … a known quantity, if you will. As such, by opening his mouth, Marco immediately surrendered what little advantage they had.
6. Hank Schrader – Hank’s inscrutable naivete is the primary reason Breaking Bad has managed to linger on for as long as it has. I mean, think about it: If Hank Schrader was anything but the most inept Drug Enforcement Agent to ever walk the planet, wouldn’t he have outed Walt’s entire masquerade in a matter of months? I know. I know. Eventually, Hank did. But not until a point when the reality became so overwhelmingly obvious that it was quite literally staring Hank in the face. For a moment there you kind of thought, “Oh, wow. Jeez. I guess Hank’s finally going to unleash all holy hell on that fucker.” Only Hank’s intensity fizzled like a sparkler. There was that one kick-ass scene just inside Hank’s garage, and then, “Poof!” Agent Schrader went right back to chasing his own tail around the cul-de-sac. The only saving grace is that Hank Schrader’s good-time, chummy Drug Enforcement Agent has been portrayed in such a manner that you kind of find yourself believing it. For what is the most popular law enforcement cliche if not that of some brooding ex-jock hard-on, preferably one who cannot tell his asshole from an armpit?
(5-1: The Major Kingpins)
5. Jesse Pinkman – There is a moment during Episode 403 (i.e., “Open House”) when Jesse asks Mr. White if he’d like to come ride the go-karts way down by the Coliseum. Walter White is completely dumbfounded by this, as he’s just then finished pointing out the lab security cameras Gus Fring has had installed. “You always thought this place could be bugged,” Jesse explains, dismissively. “Now you know.” It’s a subtle exchange, but it speaks volumes. On the one hand, you’ve got Walter, whose paranoia very justifiably gets the better of him, time and time and time again. On the other, you’ve got this poor, caught-up case of extreme arrested development, a kid so deep in over his head that he cannot even bring himself to care. There’s a part of Jesse Pinkman that wants nothing more than to just go back … go back to being that young, screwed-up stoner, the kind of bro who loved to party with his homeys. And yet, Jesse knows that aspect of his being’s all but gone now. By the beginning of Season Four, simple pleasures are the only thing Jesse can muster in an attempt to keep the pain at bay. It’s no coincidence Jesse’s spent the better part of five seasons completely drugged-out or depressed. The good old days are gone now. He might as well just fade away.
4. Mike Ehrmantraut – At the beginning of Breaking Bad‘s third season, three major characters came into their own. The first of these characters was Mike Ehrmantraut (The other two are listed below). There are two primary traits that make Mike such a fascinating study. The first is that goddamn grizzled mug of his. Movie aficionados might recognize Jonathan Banks, the 66-year old actor who plays Ehrmantraut, from several typecast roles he played throughout the 80s (most notably, as the hired gun of Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop). The second trait is Ehrmantraut’s ability to make even the smallest chunk of dialogue take on additional weight (Chalk it up to that heavy line of bass in Banks’s voice). Ehrmantraut is savvy and smart and slow to anger. He’s a retired police officer and a loving grandfather. He becomes a father figure to Jesse Pinkman (or perhaps more of a wise, old, caring uncle), and Vince Gilligan’s ability to make the character so multi-dimensional is exactly what separates him from most of Banks’s cliched hit-man roles throughout the 1980s.
3. Saul Goodman – OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front: Bob Odenkirk is brilliant. Fucking Brilliant! Mr. Show, Tim & Eric, SNL, The Larry Sanders Show … his list of TV credits alone reads like a comedian’s wet dream. Unlike Jonathan Banks, Odenkirk is both big and boisterous, turning the average exchange into a three-ring stick of dynamite. Lord knows how much of that dialogue Odenkirk has either edited or improvised. What’s clear is that he’s brought something unique – if not wholly indispensable – to the character. The earpiece, the neckties, the back massager, the office, the license plate, the comb-over, the commercials. THE COMMERCIALS! “Better Call Saul.” Who on earth could imagine Breaking Bad being so watchable without him?
2. Walter White – There are three iconic characters whose names are almost synonymous with the anti-hero era of television. Walter White’s name is the third. The essential element that separates Walter’s character from Donald Draper or even Tony Soprano is that you’re never really rooting for Walter White to succeed. You’re more so tuning in to see what gruesome depths he’ll sink to. In certain respects, Walter White may be the ultimate anti-hero. At this late date in the series there’s very little about the character (above and beyond his high level of intelligence) that is still even the slightest bit worth admiring. And yet, the modern TV audience is constantly riveted by Walt’s actions. It’s sort of like some Freudian dance, to take this semi-likable guy, make him 1,000x more detestable, then have the American public gravitate toward him even more? The credit for Walter White’s unprecedented transformation goes to Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan. The shame for what he’s done more than likely points to us.
1. Gustavo Fring – Breaking Bad became 100x more fascinating the moment that Gus Fring appeared on the scene. And the rising tension dropped off accordingly the moment Gus Fring disappeared. There was an ongoing, perhaps even reciprocal, relationship between Walter White and Gus Fring that made the show’s third and fourth seasons unforgettable, specifically throughout September of 2011, as the suspense just kept on rising. Gus Fring was more intriguing than Walter White, specifically due to the fact that we knew so little about him. Well, that and the fact Gus was almost always level-headed, whereas Walter White was always given to fits of rage. Both of them were egotistical, fastidious, often times even intolerable. Yet, the crucial difference between the two, at least in terms of staying power, resides in the fact that Walter White had only been at it for a little over six months when he was originally introduced to Gus Fring. Fring, on the other hand, had silently been building his meth empire for well over two decades. He’s the low-key type of mastermind Walter White could never hope to be, and his final months on Breaking Bad made for some of the most spellbinding television ever created.