Spoiler Alert: This review is about what happened Sunday night on the series finale of “Breaking Bad.” You’ve been warned.
Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad,” in so many ways the ideal TV show, gave until the very end, until its lead character, Walter White, a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who turned himself into a drug kingpin of the gritty Southwest, died on the floor of (most fittingly) a meth lab.
There was never a dull episode in the five seasons that “Breaking Bad” ran on AMC, including Sunday night’s heart-poundingly satisfying finale. Walt (Bryan Cranston) had his revenge on nearly everyone, in one way or another — from confronting his former business partners in their mansion to poisoning the Stevia packet of the duplicitous Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser).
Up until Walt’s jury-rigged machine gun started firing from the trunk of a car into the compound of the neo-Nazi meth-makers who stole Walt’s money, it was a quiet and deliberate ballet of comeuppance, closure and very little in the way of moral recompense.
Since its first episode, the entire saga had been set for a slow burn but told in a manic, anxiety-filled style. It took forever to catch on, but once it did, if you were hooked, you had to have more.
Like all cultural triumphs nowadays, the show became something we tortured ourselves and one another over: Have you watched it? Are you watching it? Did you see it? (“Don’t you want to know what happened to my friend Walt?” asked Aaron Paul during an Obamacare sketch on the opening of “Saturday Night Live” the other night, playing his “Breaking Bad” character. “No, no!” a gathered crowd shouted, terrified by the idea that the secret of the show’s ending would somehow get out.)
Jesse Pinkman! He lives! Walt rescued Jesse, set him free. Jesse refused to kill Walt (“Do it yourself,” he said) and then drove off in a blaze of . . . well, not quite glory, but as close to it as “Breaking Bad” ever gets.
(A beatific, Christ-like hallucination of Jesse as a carpenter, building what looked to me like a nice container for ashes — that had us worried. Some of us wanted nothing more from Sunday night than a happy-ish end for Jesse, whose bad fortune became a much-forwarded video montage last week by Slate.com.)
This eight-episode “second half” of Season 5 brought about some of “Breaking Bad’s” finest moments: the full transformation of Skyler White (recent Emmy winner Anna Gunn) into a criminal accomplice who is willing to lie, blackmail and break family ties to get away with it all; Walter White’s stare-down with his federal agent brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), in Hank’s garage; the “tableside guacamole” dinner during which Hank and his wife, Marie, confront Walt and Skyler about turning themselves in; the horrifying shootout at the To’hajiilee Indian reservation; Walt’s phone call to Skyler after he took baby Holly (and later left the baby, unharmed, at a fire station) — in which, with police officer and feds listening in, he believed he was giving her a plausible chance at freedom.
Sunday night’s best scene — in terms of writing and acting — came between Walt and Skyler. He tried once more to explain. Gunn positively smoldered when her character said: “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family — ”
“I did it for me,” Walt said, and there you have it: the dark pit of the soul of “Breaking Bad.” Walt was never good. Walt chose evil. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — ” and here he paused. “I was alive.”
It’s remarkable to think back on all five seasons of “Breaking Bad” and see so many perfect notes like that, so much pit-stained anxiety, so much confidence in the story that it set out to tell, but also so much confidence on the part of Gilligan and his writers to let the story tell them where it wanted to go.
When you look back, what you don’t see are the missteps and tangents that can often plague an ambitious and critically praised drama over time — usually somewhere in the later part of Season 2 or first part of Season 3. There just isn’t a weak season of “Breaking Bad.” There’s just superior work, a sprint toward evil that turned into a marathon.
But like all big-talker shows that bring their heavy cargo in for a rough and breathlessly observed landing, “Breaking Bad” didn’t quite leave itself enough runway to satisfactorily end some of its better story lines, especially once the chronology gap closed up between the flash-forwards from last year’s episodes and Sunday night’s conclusion. One could easily argue that there was just too much left to do in this one episode.
We never got a full picture of what Skyler, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) and little Holly White’s lives were like during all that time Walt was hiding in New Hampshire.
We never got to see how the DEA picked up where Hank Schrader’s secret investigation left off and how they began sorting (with Marie Schrader’s help, no doubt) through the tangled mess of the Heisenberg meth operation. As we saw in the Sept. 22 episode, when Walt’s keeper arrives at the New Hampshire cabin with a month’s worth of the Albuquerque Journal newspaper, Walt voraciously dives into the news with a narcissist’s desperation, so he can read about the investigation and wallow in his failures; I daresay fans of “Breaking Bad” were just as eager as Walt to see how it went down — what the agents learned and still do not know — in those intervening months between the shootout and the finale.
And we certainly could have used (and Betsy Brandt was plenty up to the challenge of depicting) more of the depths of Marie’s grief after Hank died. We had so much invested in all these characters and not nearly enough time for a payout; it was a shame, in these last few episodes, to always feel as if we were heading for the door too soon. I’m a sucker for fastidiously clean endings and the beauty of epilogue.
It seems almost silly to carp about the things we didn’t see Sunday night — the aftermath of Walt’s crime and death, the wake of his destruction, whether or not the Schwartzes opened that trust fund for Walt’s kids — all of which “Breaking Bad’s” fans would have happily stuck around another half-season to see.
Even though I never gave a second thought to what really happened to Tony Soprano, I think in some way I now understand the compulsion in certain fans to write their own fan fiction, to fantasize about the characters on TV shows that aren’t on anymore. As a critic, I have to finally face the fact that my favorite series (possibly ever — I’d have to think long and hard about that) is now gone. And when trying to figure out why this show worked so well, so deeply for me, I keep coming back to one simple and not terribly profound idea: “Breaking Bad” was original.
In a hyper-media era in which so much is derivative of something else, we sometimes lose sight of the value of the completely original epic. “Breaking Bad” may have drawn from the greatest tools of dramatic tragedy, but it was not based on or adapted from anything that came before. This is a common thread among our finest TV shows: They are wholly new, sui generis (to get fancy about it).
“Breaking Bad” was born of Gilligan’s initial and almost reductive desire to tell a story about a good man who turns bad. It was not a remake of something that came before it. It was not a Shakespearean update. It was not an imported vehicle, not previously a hit series from Britain or Sweden or Denmark. It was not optioned from a string of crime novels or a fancy comic book.
“Breaking Bad” was not trying to evoke something that it admired from before. It wasn’t reaching for an era or a particular strain of nostalgia. Thanks to its sick sense of irony and the driest humor possible, it did not neatly fit into any one genre of modern drama. (Gilligan has said before that he considered it a “western.”) And by setting its story in Albuquerque — by filming it there and inhabiting the city’s character so fully — “Breaking Bad” deliberately chose uncharted territory, a “Land of Enchantment” in which the enchantment was entirely ours and not Walter’s. Literally and figuratively, “Breaking Bad’ went to a place hardly anyone ever goes.