The first words Walter White said during Sunday’s series finale of AMC’s Breaking Bad were to himself. “Just get me home,” he growl-whispered, while trying to steal a snow-covered Volvo. “Just get me home.” At the end of the episode, Walt was dead. He went out an inventor — of a crazily effective artillery sprayer — and lay down for the last time in a chemistry lab. I would say he got his wish.
There will be people who don’t like Breaking Bad’s finale. I can already see some carping start amid the general praise on my Twitter feed. There will certainly be those who feel like the show shouldn’t have redeemed Walt (Bryan Cranston) — I can understand that. And then there is the too resolved criticism. Walt got revenge on a number of monsters (Uncle Jack and his crew, Todd, and Lydia Rodarte-Quayle); he tried to make amends for the vile, life-altering harm he had done to Skyler (Anna Gunn), Walt Jr./Flynn (RJ Mitte), and most of all, Jesse (Aaron Paul); and he got to die contentedly — not of lung cancer, and not in custody. It was tied up neatly, and there will be people who hate that.
Not me, though. I loved it. Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan sewed together loose threads I hadn’t even realized were loose. Revisiting the Schwartzes, for instance, which Gilligan did because a terminally ill teen superfan had said to him, “I want to know more about Gretchen and Elliott.” That’s a pretty tight story and well-thought-out world you’ve got there if an out-of-nowhere comment from a kid can send the conclusion of a five-season-long show in a new, inventive direction. I particularly liked the finale’s surprise about the Schwartzes: that the murderous look Walt directed their way in the penultimate episode didn’t end up meaning that he was setting off to kill them. Instead, he used them to achieve his goal to get his remaining millions to his family — and got to terrify them at the same time.
Of the shows we all talk about these days as new classics, there are few truly great series finales. The Shield has one; Six Feet Under had another. When I feel like weeping — it happens! — I go to this link to say good-bye to that show again. There are plenty of very good finales: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, ER, and [insert your own here]. And we all know which ones caused people to freak out (Lost, The Sopranos, and, as of last week, Dexter).
Ending a television show is hard as hell to do. But if one new business model for television is binging, it’s actually imperative that the show end well. Or all of that Netflix/Amazon/iTunes action the show was seeing during its life will fall off a cliff. Who in their right mind would tell someone now to begin watching Dexter? Better never to start. With The Shield, on the other hand, you could easily and truthfully say, “It is terrific the entire time and the ending is perfect.”
I did see the word “perfect” quite a bit on Twitter describing Breaking Bad’s end. It’s too soon for me to say for myself. (But maybe soon.) I do feel, though, that as a set, these last eight episodes are the smartest, most thrilling sprint to a finish of any television show ever. This underdog of a crime drama got its just reward: tripling its viewership, an Emmy last Sunday, and a tonnage of hype, about both its high-quality content and its exploded growth.
It’s over now, and I’ll miss Breaking Bad’s ideas about American life almost as much as I’ll miss the actors and its stressful plot. Gilligan was able to use the show to touch on politics without employing a battering ram (something that can’t be said about The Wire). How the drug war converges in the Southwest and how ill-equipped the DEA is to handle it, was one of the show’s subtexts. Breaking Bad also represented a withering critique of health care and health insurance: Both Walt’s lung-cancer remission and Hank’s recovery from his gunshot wounds were paid for with cash, and wouldn’t even have existed to people like them if Walt weren’t making lumps of money. In its early episodes, the show indicted the public education system’s exhausted, embittered, underpaid teachers, exemplified by Walt, and its burnout students, such as Jesse, who left high school with one bit of knowledge: how to call authority figures “Mr.”
And then there are Breaking Bad’s thoughts on family. Walt’s touchstone excuse for every awful thing he ever did, which came to its apex in “Ozymandias,” the third-to-last episode, when he screamed, “We’re a family!” at his wife and son, who were recoiling from him in terror at the time. It was a decimation of the idea, which is actually pretty common, that doing immoral things can be justified if you are doing them for your family.
But Gilligan turned the “family” question on its head one last time in the finale. In Skyler and Walt’s final conversation, during which they were both quiet and reasonable, Walt seemed to be starting to say again that he had destroyed their lives because he wanted to help his family. Skyler couldn’t stand to hear it, and cut him off.
That’s not what Walt was going to say, though. Here’s what he wanted to say: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.”
Yes! Yes! On top of everything else, Breaking Bad was also about excellence and purity and the joy of being the best at something. As he headed toward death, Walt finally discovered something he was good at that had value; it made him feel alive. As Breaking Bad flew toward this ending, I never found myself worrying that it would do viewers wrong like so many shows have before.
Gilligan and Breaking Bad’s writers simply were good at it.
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