“I liked it; I was good at it. And I was alive”: An Intricate Examination of the Breaking Bad Series Finale

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[an incredibly self-evident SPOILER WARNING]

“That was the most disappointing hour of my life,” I stated, after being asked my opinion of the Breaking Bad finale immediately after Vince Gilligan’s name appeared on screen. Over the past day I’ve been thinking over it, and although it’s settled a lit bit better in mind, I have to believe that their is a lot of validity in that statement. Though, that admittedly says a lot more about my expectations than it does about the overall quality of that hour of television.

I can’t help but consider the inevitability of that feeling: of course I was going to be disappointed, it was impossible for it to live up to the hype. I don’t believe that to be true. Yes, it was probably never going to leave me a 100 per cent satisfied, but that also wasn’t where my expectations were placed. The episode had to wrestle with some of the issues the season had set up for it, flaws with the series as a whole, and perhaps most inescapable, the narrative constraints of the medium of television itself. With that all taken into consideration, I still feel like the finale faltered in several fundamental ways.

Breaking Bad from my perspective has always been so damned engaging because it managed an incredible balance between a suspenseful and captivating plot, as well as great depth in terms of its characters and themes. My cynical side wants to believe that the former of the two was what allowed it to eventually break through with the mainstream, while the more thoughtful viewers admired the latter. As much as I want to be that defeatist asshole who claims the mainstream is incapable of appreciating *cough* “true art”, I’m not entirely sure that is the case here.

I think that what people loved about Breaking Bad so much, and they do love it (I can’t think of any other show that is as highly regarded, by so many people,) is the fact that it was able to be both highly exciting, while also forcing us to contemplate its overall meaning. People were enticed by the fantastic tension, but were really enthralled by its profound internal conflicts, and how unsubtle the show went about them. That’s why I find myself so confused by the immense level of praise the finale has received from the fans, and much of the critical mass, because in my mind the finale largely failed in both of those aspects.

Let’s first evaluate it from the perspective of a conclusion to the series’ narrative. In the broad scheme of the show’s plot, ending with a massacre of the white supremacist drug gang feels entirely disappointing. Are we expected to believe that a series that has so many thrilling moments was all meant to culminate in the lazy resolution of a conflict that had essentially been established three episodes prior? Because realistically that’s what this was. Walt’s primary motivations were to kill these men for the murder of his brother-in-law and the theft of his life savings, which occurred at the opening of “Ozymandias,” two weeks earlier.

That’s what we were left with, a quick satisfying shot to the face of Uncle Jack, who in the show’s run was a less interesting villain than even Tuco Salamanca. This episode was both predictable from a narrative perspective (in hindsight was there really anyone else Walt could have been acquiring that assault rifle for?), and a mechanical one, it seemed quite clear the particular way events would play out after showing us both the rotating mechanism, and those blatant close ups on the car keys after attentively positioning the El Camino.

I can’t possibly imagine anyone considering what played out in that last 20 minutes to be nearly as exciting as any of the finales leading back to season two’s plane crash. The position the writers had put themselves in made it simply impossible to achieve anything comparable to the spectacular ending of season four. Perhaps you could say I’m being unfair to the writing staff for expecting anything of that calibre. But are they not entirely responsible for building that anticipation, after teasing us with this climax since the very first sequence of season five last year?

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None of this really matters though, because they didn’t satisfy the basic needs of the series’ conclusion. They focused so much time showing us this unsatisfactory plot, that they were unable to provide full fledged closure to Marie, Walt Jr., or even Skyler. But I guess that’s okay because we all hated that lot anyways, right? The argument could be made that this is meant to be indicative of a larger meaning for the finale. It just felt like misplaced priorities from my perspective, especially considering the comparatively substantial presence of Badger and Skinny Pete (though my dad will take great satisfaction in the latter’s appearance when he eventually finishes the series in what I imagine will be years from now).

I would’ve been fine with the idea of the finale placing a smaller emphasis on the plot in order to focus on the deeper implications of the characters and themes. Instead it just seemed like they went the other direction but were unsuccessful. Looking at this last hour we really didn’t get much in terms of the thematic elements that had existed from the very beginning of the series.

There was no moral uncertainty: we’ve all pretty much concluded that Walt is just an evil person. Which I suppose is enough to satisfy Vince Gilligan (I still admire him quite fondly) who had, from the show’s inception, been chasing this notion of reducing Walt from: “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” I guess I was hoping that would be a sort of bait and switch, and ultimately the show would continue to consider what that decline actually meant, because at the end of the day Scarface is not all that fascinating.

The small traces of actual development come in Walt realizing that his ‘legacy’ was at stake after realizing Jesse was cooking for the nazis via Skinny Pete and Badger, in what was one of the few moments of humour in an otherwise bleak episode. All that did was force me to realize how truly petty a man Walt is, as he remained the only person concerned with that legacy, even after it had destroyed the lives of everyone around him. I do realize that this motivating factor of pride and the struggle to undo past regrets, are some of the central themes of the series, but I didn’t feel like this episode really did all that much to progress them.

Then there is the biggest sin of all that this finale committed: its handling of Jesse. Jesse has long been my favourite character in the entire series, and I imagine this is a common sentiment. He was an enjoyable presence on the screen, while also having as much complexity as Walt. As the show progressed he became its moral centre, deeply unsettled by the actions of the characters surrounding him, and through his development he was immensely relatable.

The relationship between the two characters was always central to the series’ narrative, and they certainly failed to execute on that. Walt had always been a destructive force in Jesse’s life; his actions compromising any goodness Jesse was able to find. The consequences of Walt’s actions on Jesse were the most important representation of his failed morality. The finale did very little to examine this at all, leaving us simply with Jesse escaping while laughing ecstatically. This was a reaction that made sense in terms of resolving the last three episodes, but excruciatingly dissatisfying for the series as a whole.

In my mind the final confrontation between Jesse and Walt, and I don’t even necessarily mean that in a physical sense, was the most logical way to conclude the series. It was the one element of the series that remained prominent throughout its entire run, and would satisfy both the needs of the narrative and its themes. Instead we were left with no indication of the lasting effects Walt’s actions had on Jesse, simply left to make assumptions. This element of the finale forces me to question the writing staff’s perspective on Jesse’s significance to the series, even though every prior indication made that significance seem obvious. And that was the most disheartening thing of all.

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The overwhelmingly positive reception to the finale has made me feel alienated from the show’s fan base. I feel like my opinions are more in line with that of its prior detractors (the small group that it is). I find this an incredibly frustrating experience because I genuinely love the series. My best guess is that people allowed their fellow admiration to carry them into a conclusion that didn’t actively do anything to take away from the show’s previous achievements. Perhaps upon consideration they will also see some of its shortcomings, though I doubt most people will ever be as critical as I have been. My dad has always complained about my constant disapproval of how most stories end.

The overall contentment with the ending is clearly the result of Vince Gilligan’s choice to go the safe route. And based on the reaction, maybe he made the right decision. I just wish he had done a better job at attending to the elements of the series that made it work so well, while also taking a few risks. Breaking Bad was one of the most daring shows on television, and its a real shame that Gilligan didn’t come into the final stretch attempting to live up to that. Perhaps he would’ve alienated a portion of his audience, but isn’t that sacrifice worth it in the pursuit of a great conclusion?

Instead we’re left with an ending that is worse than disappointing, its almost entirely forgettable. I can’t imagine too many people will be debating this ending in the years to come, the way The Sopranos is still being discussed. I suppose I could let one hour television tarnish my impression of the entire series, but I have no interest in that. Begrudgingly I will overlook this lacklustre episode, instead remembering the absolutely phenomenal sixty one that preceded it.

Goodbye Walt and Jesse, you will be missed.

Sincerely,

Duncan

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