Breaking Bad finale may rank as the greatest achievement in our modern Golden Age of Television
That’s how you end a series.
No unexpected stops, hanging storylines or ambiguous resolutions; Sunday’s finale of AMC’s amazingly high-quality drama Breaking Bad resolved the tragic story of Walter White with an ending many expected, delivered in a most unexpected way.
Yes, Bryan Cranston’s high school chemistry teacher-turned methamphetamine drug lord Walter White died when the dust cleared at 10:15 p.m. last night. But what was more important was how he died – from a bullet fired by a gun he gimmicked up by remote control himself – and what happened before the fatal shot was fired.
In the show’s final episodes this year, creator Vince Gilligan stripped everything from Walt: his $80-million fortune, stolen by a white supremacist gang who once served as his partners; his family, stripped of their home and money by federal authorities when Walt went on the run; his bond with surrogate son and former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who ratted to drug enforcement agents in an attempt to bring him down.
The only thing left for Walt was the delusion that he became Heisenberg – his alias as the ruthless drug lord who made the best meth west of the Mississippi – to build a nest egg for his family when he was stricken with cancer. And in Sunday’s finale, facing his wife Skyler (Emmy-winner Anna Gunn) inside the ratty apartment she was reduced to living in, that fiction finally fell away, too.
“I did it for me,” he told Skyler, hours before embarking on what he knew would be a suicide mission. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.”
Sunday’s finale was about Walt settling accounts. One moment, he was scaring the yuppies who pushed him out of a successful tech company into channeling his remaining fortune to his son; the next, he was slipping the deadly poison ricin into sweetener used by the rigid, predictable former partner who tried engineering his death.
Fans got glimpses of tonight’s action many episodes earlier, courtesy of two “flash forward” scenes which showed Walt purchasing a high-powered rifle and retrieving the ricin from a hiding spot in his former home. By the end of last week’s episode, we knew Walt was likely going after the Nazis who had taken his money; but how?
Seeing Walt use a remote control device to set off the rifle from a distance, killing all the Nazis but one just as they were preparing to kill him, was a masterstroke. Having Jesse strangle the one gang member who survived – polite psychopath Todd, who had kept Jesse prisoner and killed his ex-girlfriend as punishment for an escape attempt – was a cathartic release for an audience on tenterhooks all night.
But to have Walt mortally injured by a bullet from that gun while shielding Jesse as the gunfire shredded the gang – that was the kind of poetic justice only Gilligan could have conjured up (Jesse, who had famously vowed to never obey Walt again, even refused to shoot his former mentor when he had the chance – after his former teacher admitted he wanted to be killed once the gang was dead.)
During a conversation in Los Angeles a few years ago, I asked Gilligan if Breaking Bad was about the slow curdling of a man’s soul. And he suggested I consider another option: That Walt was just becoming the man he always wanted to be, once he felt free from society’s rules and conventions.
Admitting that truth before his death brought Walt full circle in a journey which truly transformed him from “Mr. Chips into Scarface” – a line Gilligan often used to describe the series -- then forced him to face the consequences. (Extra points to Gilligan for playing strains of Badfinger’s Baby Blue over Walt’s final caress of a meth-making machine, with its opening lyrics “Guess I got what I deserve.”)
That Gilligan was able to take an entire TV-watching fanbase on that ride for five seasons, and end the show expertly, entertainingly, suspensefully and satisfyingly, ranks Breaking Bad’s finale as one of the greatest achievements in our new modern Golden Age of Television.
Yeah, AMC managed to gum up the works a bit by shoehorning as many commercials as possible into a finale which was already extended by 15 minutes. And you had to stay off Twitter if you weren’t watching the finale live because too many great lines were endlessly posted and retweeted.
(My fave: When Yuppie Boy pulls a butter knife as Walt enters his home, the ex-Heisenberg looks down and says “Elliott, if we’re gonna go that way, you’re gonna need a bigger knife.”)
Many fans on Twitter wrote of feeling sad that the show was ending or anxious about the finale. Not me. I felt the satisfaction which comes from turning the final page in a great book – the thrill of finishing a good tale well told. And a hope that the great minds who created this wonder will soon find the time to spin another.
Take that, Sopranos and Dexter. Gilligan and his crew just showed you how it’s really supposed to be done.