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The 10 best performances in the Breaking Bad universe

The universe of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul is filled with so much artistry behind the scenes that it can sometimes be easy to overlook the talents that are almost always on display. The roster of performers that these shows have assembled is truly stellar, and that’s a huge reason why both have been such critical successes. Whether these actors appeared on one of the shows or both, they are the performers that have made the Breaking Bad universe so excellent.

10. Michael McKean as Chuck McGill

Michael McKean as Chuck McGill.
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Chuck is a fairly divisive character within the Saul fandom in part because his storylines so infrequently tied him to the criminal underworld. Ultimately, though, McKean’s performance earns its spot on this list because he balances genuine compassion for his brother with a belief that he is fundamentally incapable of change.

Chuck is Jimmy’s ultimate judge, and he may be the man who ultimately sends him down the path to becoming Saul Goodman. Jimmy and Chuck were unbelievably cruel to one another, and even so, these were clearly two brothers who loved each other.

9. Michael Mando as Nacho Varga

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga.
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It’s undoubtedly a massive oversimplification to suggest that Nacho is just Saul‘s version of Jesse, but the two characters do play similar roles. Nacho is a tender-hearted criminal who just wants his father to be proud of him.

Michael Mando’s performance was so wonderful to behold because he played Nacho as a smart tactician who constantly finds himself stuck in impossible situations. Nacho is not a good guy, but he’s also not a monster, and that’s why the New Mexico drug game ultimately chews him up and spits him out.

8. Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca

Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca.
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Lalo may or may not wind up being consequential in the scope of Better Call Saul, but few actors have been able to do more with less than Tony Dalton. On the page, Lalo reads as the kind of calculating, cold villain that Gus Fring already embodies. In reality, though, Lalo is much softer and more charming than the chicken man.

In Lalo, we see Gus’s first great challenger within this universe since Walt himself, and Dalton is more than up to the task. He’s a criminal who leads with his soft edge but can be more ruthless than anyone else on the show.

7. Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman.
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Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman was not supposed to be Walt’s foil for the length of Breaking Bad, but Paul’s performance convinced the showrunners to keep him around, and it’s easy to see why. Without Paul, there would be nothing to keep Breaking Bad grounded in real stakes.

Walt quickly becomes almost entirely irredeemable, but Jesse still has a soul, and it’s that soul that keeps all of Breaking Bad grounded. Paul’s Jesse also proves himself a perfectly adept cook and the surprising partner that Walt never knew he needed.

6. Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmentraut

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmentraut.
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Mike was a fascinating character in Breaking Bad because he was the picture of efficiency, but also the kind of man who didn’t seem to come from anywhere other than the ether. That’s why the work that he does on Better Call Saul is so crucial in earning Banks his placement on this list.

When we learn that Mike was a dirty cop, and that he had a role in his son’s death, we see how he became the kind of man who was almost solely focused on providing for his family, no matter what kinds of jobs he had to do to keep them happy.

5. Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman.
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Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman first appears as the ultimate huckster, a small-time lawyer who has made it big because he has no compunctions about who he works with. That performance alone is worth plenty of praise, but his work on Better Call Saul has made the character much richer and more sympathetic.

We see that Saul was once Jimmy, a down-on-his-luck attorney trying to work within the system. We also see him slowly transform, not into the monster that Walter White would become, but into a man who has convinced himself that moral compromises are the only way to get ahead.

4. Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring

Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring.
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Esposito’s work as Fring on both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul puts his charcater in the pantheon of great TV performances, and that’s because he’s able to make Gus a person without hiding how monstrous he is. Gus makes every decision in a cold, calculated manner, and he finds ways to be in control at virtually every step along his path.

He’s ruthless, and until we saw his interactions with Lalo, he seemed virtually unshakeable. Gus is one of this universe’s great creations, and none of that would be possible without Esposito’s incredible work.

3. Jesse Plemons as Todd Alquist

Jesse Plemons as Todd Alquist.
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Plemons has been one of America’s great unsung actors for more than a decade, and Breaking Bad got to him early, asking him to take on the role of sociopathic neo-Nazi Todd Alquist. Todd was often a perfectly pleasant guy, but he had no hesitation about doing literally anything to get what he wanted.

Whereas Gus Fring was Breaking Bad‘s ultimate villain because he felt like Walt’s mirror image, Todd was pure chaos. He didn’t think through the moral or practical consequences of his actions. Plemons was brilliant in the role, making him seem both approachable and utterly terrifying.

2. Bryan Cranston as Walter White

Bryan Cranston in Walter White.
Netflix

It’s hard to deny Cranston’s excellence in Breaking Bad‘s central role. He handles the transition from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher to a meth kingpin so perfectly that it never feels bizarre, but he’s also capable of devastating displays of emotion.

Cranston’s performance is so carefully calibrated that it’s easy to forget that Walt is not a real guy. Few actors have so thoroughly embodied the character they were tasked with portraying and made the transition from antihero to out-and-out villain so seamlessly.

1. Rhea Seahorn as Kim Wexler

Rhea Seahorn as Kim Wexler.
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Bryan Cranston was showered with Emmys for his work as Walt, but Rhea Seahorn has never even been nominated. It’s one of the craziest things about Better Call Saul that Seahorn, who is never so much as mentioned in Breaking Bad, has delivered the show’s most brilliant performance.

Seahorn’s Kim is compassionate, brilliant, and capable of outthinking almost anyone. In spite of her many strengths, though, she finds herself drawn to the scheming that is Jimmy’s trade. The two of them are a wonderful couple, but they’re bad for each other, and thanks to Seahorn’s fierce, vivid performance, Kim is the character audiences worry most about and the one that lingers in the memory.

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Joe Allen
Joe Allen is a freelance writer based in upstate New York focused on movies and TV.
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