Breaking Bad ended last night. Spoilers ahead, naturally.
With last night’s episode, Breaking Bad is basically neck and neck with The Sopranos in the easy list of Best Television of All Time. The only reason that I can’t give Breaking Bad the crown alone is that the two series were trying to accomplish very different things. Both of them are violent, rise and fall type shows, but where The Sopranos attempted to juxtapose Tony’s criminality with the very common issues and problems of American life, Breaking Bad was purely about pushing Walter White to the limit.
This was the genius of Breaking Bad. At every turn there was escalation, but it was also believable, and there were dire consequences for every one of Walt’s actions. We’ve seen a lot of the new wave of dramatic TV shows end poorly because the writers find themselves incapable of providing a believable progression and then wrapping things up. Lost is a canonical example of a show that promised the world and failed to deliver. Every season was wilder and more mysterious than the last, but the end was ultimately a complete cop out. Dexter, which just ended a week ago was, was such a show as well. The first few seasons were great TV but it ran off the rails and the finale was gutless in its failure generate suspense as well as its failure to make its protagonist come to his end. I could elaborate on quite a few others like Battlestar Galactica, Weeds, or Heroes. Even the laudable Sopranos had an ending that was, for all intents and purposes, a disappointment – although you can applaud David Chase’s artsy execution of blue balls by failing to explicitly show us Tony’s death.
But it was not so with Breaking Bad. The ending wrapped up the entire story. It gave us everything we wanted. It touched on every character still breathing. It provided the long awaited payoff and, in the end, Walter White wins. The show could have ended in any number of ways, and in some ways Breaking Bad chose the most predictable (i.e. Walt achieves his goal of providing for his kids after his death and dies on his own terms), but just the fact that there were options other than the foregone conclusion indicates how well the show was written. Speculation was rampant. Some thought he’d be brought to justice. Some thought there would be the anti-ending where he’d die of cancer before his work was complete. Some thought he’d finish his work and ride off into the sunset with a couple million in tow. Some even thought that he’d go on a rampage to kill everyone that had ever wronged him (I guess the ricin and the machine gun really worked them up). All were possible in the first minutes of last night’s finale.
Best of all, despite the fact that the “predictable” conclusion was reached, each scene still offered suspense. When he showed up in Gretchen and Elliot’s house the viewer has no idea whether he’s there to brutally murder them, get something off his chest, surreptitiously poison their food or what. Same thing when it’s revealed that he’s standing in the kitchen with Skyler. We don’t know why he’s there. If he’s there to threaten or cajole her into playing some part in his plans, if he’s there asking forgiveness, offering money, telling more lies, or if – as it turns out – he’s there to come clean, to admit that the whole thing was ego and avarice, and to catch one last glimpse of the kids. Even in the final scenes of confrontation Jesse and Walt’s relationship, frayed to the point of enmity, evoked the same level of intensity as being intimidated by the gang of neo-nazis just moments before.
There was not a single flagging scene in the Breaking Bad finale, just as there was never a flagging episode in the show overall. It showed the same brilliant writing and imaginative cinematography we’d come to expect from the show and, in the end, provided us with a great contrary example to the failures of modern TV drama. It ended when it needed to end, it ended how it needed to end, and it ended with such sweet resolution that it will go down in TV history as one of the most iconic shows of a generation.