(Warning to those who are not yet caught up with all the episodes of AMC's Breaking Bad: This story contains spoilers. Lots of them. The series finale airs at 9 p.m. Sunday.)
Growth. Decay. And then, transformation, Walter White told us back in the pilot, promising many lows to come before we truly would be convinced he's all Heisenberg. I started the show in naivete, and with each episode I tried my hardest to explain away every crime, my rationalizations nearly akin to Walter's own, because he still had to be good deep down, or else how was I still rooting for him?
Moral ambiguity has defined the show. When exactly did Walter go over the edge? What specific act marked the transformation of TV's most complex character? Actor Bryan Cranston theorizes it was the very first cook in the Winnebago, out in To'Hajiilee. For many, Heisenberg made his first full appearance when he stood idly by as Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, overdosed, choking on her own vomit. (On Sept. 15, in "Ozymandias," Walt used this information to inflict even more torture upon Jesse, who's back to getting beaten up, one half of his face at a time.)
Vince Gilligan and his phenomenally talented team of writers deserve all the praise aimed at them, specifically because this question is so difficult to answer. In short, Breaking Bad is not an easy show — I don't only mean to say it's not easy to watch, because that's obvious. Breaking Bad is not the oversimplified crime thriller. It's not all plot twists and turns, and the show is not crafted simply by checking catastrophes off a list.
In the latest, penultimate episode, "Granite State," we see Walt less like Heisenberg, that is, more akin to the way he was before becoming Heisenberg. He's broken, defeated, getting those dangerous buttons pushed that Cranston says could cause anyone to break bad. But that's not how he does things anymore.
I can count on one hand the number of times I thought I knew what the characters on the show were thinking. And even after everything, I still have so much invested in Walter White that I cannot definitively announce where my allegiance lies. This kind of complexity is rare in a television series; Gilligan and crew have introduced an elevated manner of storytelling that isn't just black and white.
They meticulously overanalyze color; they craft episodes with poetry in mind. Look at "Ozymandias." It was Breaking Bad's most watched episode to date, and with a 10/10 rating on IMDB. Gilligan didn't suggest we install seat belts on our couches for nothing. Consider the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem that catalogs the weathered and broken monument of a once-great king, the low and level sands that stretch far away. But now I associate it with perhaps the single greatest episode of television I've seen, parallel phone calls and arguably one of the most powerful bits of acting Bryan Cranston has delivered yet.
Consider the pink teddy bear, and the color that seems to surface right as things look destined to turn south. Consider Walter literally digging Hank's grave. Consider the fly, the oranges, the flash-forwards — Breaking Bad may stop at five seasons at Gilligan's command, but these writers and directors will have us unpacking for generations.
Cranston has presented viewers with a new caliber of acting (watch "Ozymandias" and an episode of Malcolm in the Middle, then tell me I'm wrong). Aaron Paul has made eyes swim more than once, and through much undeserved hate, Anna Gunn now has an Emmy to show for her talent. I don't mean to undersell, however, but intrepid acting is not a new phenomenon. We saw it with the late James Gandolfini, whose Emmy record Cranston is destined to shatter. So I want to level more praise at those behind the camera. Gilligan will forever have me second-guessing myself with television. I daresay anyone who doesn't think the industry has changed for the better between 2008 and 2013 is being dishonest with themselves.
Tailoring the context a bit, Jesse Pinkman says it all: "This is art!" But what's next? I'm not talking in terms of a Better Call Saul spinoff. I'm talking about "Felina," the series finale that airs Sunday night. I've learned long ago not to expect anything expected, because curve balls are their specialty. I didn't think Walt poisoned Brock, I didn't expect Walt's consequences in the form of a crashed Boeing 737, despite clever foreshadowing in both cases.
But I know Vince Gilligan knows what I do and don't expect. I know he gets his audience. I'm writing this on a 737 and I have the feeling he knows it. If it crashed, he'd have something to do with it. If there were an eyeball — man-made, perhaps from a disintegrated teddy bear — that found me wherever I was, ending up in a suitcase, a swimming pool or a drawer, it would belong to Gilligan. And we should thank him for that.