Breaking Bad, A Final Look

This article is chock-full of spoilers.

in 2008, Vince Gilligan finally persuaded a network to produce his now dust-covered idea of a series about a high-school chemistry teacher with cancer who decides to cook meth in order to provide a future for his family once he’s gone.  It had been 7 years since his last job, as executive producer of the X-Files and the short-lived spin-off, The Lone gunmen.  He even worked on one X-Files Episode which featured a pre-Malcolm in the Middle Bryan Cranston.

Nothing to that point in Gilligan’s resume would have hinted at the tour d’force that his idea, Breaking Bad would become.  Simply put, Breaking Bad is the vanguard of a new generation of television.  It adheres neither to the traditional genre, nor to the genre of cinematic television.  It is “Post Television”.  It is getting the most out of the medium and it sets so high a bar, it is doubtful that it can ever be copied, as one would expect of a show that has attained such critical and public acclaim.  It’s end is a moment to reflect on how far it has pushed the medium and gives us the moment to look back at some other recent final episodes and ask where it stands amongst them.

Until 2008 the finest television was to be found in one place: HBO.  The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under were all examples of the three types of TV that have evolved from the old, traditional one-hour drama so familiar to Network viewers in the last half of the twentieth century.

The WIre was the culmination of thirty years of police procedurals.  Its genesis began with the 1980’s pioneer HIll Street Blues.  It continued in the nineties with the grittier NYPD Blue, The Shield and Homicide (on which producer David Simon worked) and the ultimate one-hour network drama: Law & Order: et al.  These programs demonstrated that there was a public appetite for stories that explored the less clearly moralistic world of the men and women who enforce the law and the often murky waters in which they find themselves.

David Chase created the modern genre of Cinematic Television with The Sopranos.  Each episode was crafted like a 60-minute movie.  He brought the craft, cast and scope of movies to Sunday night.

Breaking Bad, however, is not Cinematic Television.  It follows a different course, one that it shares with another HBO program, Six Feet Under, and another program that pushed the boundaries of the now-not-so-small screen, Lost.

The closing of each of these programs were a mixed bag.

The Wire ended with an hommage to itself, a classic traditional TV move.  Like M.A.S.H. or St. Elsewhere, the final episode features a central component--the city of Baltimore--being beheld by the series’ protagonist, McNulty.  It was a satisfying, if not breathtaking close to a program that represents the apex of that era of Television.

The Sopranos was the “existential” drama.  Its ending was pitch perfect for a show that strove to engulf viewers with the world of its characters.  David Chase knew no program could ever tell their stories completely to everyone’s satisfaction.  He didn’t try.  He told the stories he wanted to tell and went out on on a note that was right on target.

Six Feet Under produced a memorable end piece.  The series about the family that lived with death in their every work day.  The two deaths that hung over the entire series were that of Nate, the oldest Fisher child, whose brain condition was the Sword of Damocles from the first season onward, and that of his Father, who “haunted” his family throughout.   In the final episode, Claire has decided to move to New York and as she’s speeding away from the family home, time itself speeds up and we are shown the demise of each of them, years in the future.

Ending a series can be a dicey affair.  Just ask Lost’s Damon Lindelof.  Statements about the show’s nature were made and then forgotten.  Ideas were shoe-horned.  Taut storylines became messes that were unsalvageable.  What started out as a fascinating exploration into something mysterious and scary, but seemingly grounded in reality, ended up taking the easy way out when explanations that would have made sense were no longer available.  It turns out they were all dead. ahem…

So where does that leave Breaking Bad?

The final season was split into two, 8 episodes airing in 2012 and 8 in 2013.  It seemed so long ago that Walt and Jesse were taking down Gus, and it was.  The first part of the final season had Walt inexplicably turning down an offer of millions of dollars for his precursor chemical.  Inexplicable, at least, until the series finale when Walter admits to Skyler that he had done it all because he “enjoyed it.”  Not just for his family.  This was one of the most refreshing moments in the show, where Walt admits to all of us, that he loved being Heisenberg, and allowed us,  to admit that we loved it, too.

The last 8 episodes were dark, dark, dark.  Hank’s death, Jesse’s enslavement, Andrea’s murder in front of his eyes, Walt paying $10,000 for an hours worth of company as he sits in a tiny cabin receiving Chemo.  It was a vision of the show through the most painful lenses imaginable.  Perhaps Gilligan simply decided he had to end on some kind of an up after all the horror he had unleashed on us.

Was this an up ending?  In the end, Heisenberg turns to science to outsmart his criminal nemesis/partners, just as he did with Tuco and Gus.  Once Jesse takes his revenge on Todd, he is free both from the White Supremacists and from the world of meth that he and Heisenberg had built.  Gilligan gives Jesse three opportunities to kill him.  One when he’s pointing a gun at him, one when he’s in his rear view mirror and Jesse is behind the wheel, and another, when Jesse puts the car in drive.  He declines each one in a beautiful expression of his true freedom.  

All of the shows final complications happen because Heisenberg was trying to go back to living as Walt.  He tries to be the upstanding boss of the car wash.  He tries to stop Hank without killing him.  He tries to placate Jesse without killing him.  But he had already gone too far down the road.  As Gretchen so correctly points out to us, Walt was dead already.  Heisenberg’s efforts to play good citizen were in vain.  The moment when Walt died can be pinpointed.  It was episode 12 of the second season: Phoenix, when wall allows Jane to choke to death on her own vomit, after rolling her over in her sleep, rather than saving her.  It would turn out to be one of the greatest moments in television history.

Vince Gilligan--the notoriously laid back and easygoing Vince Gilligan--has shown the famously a-type control freaks who were at the Helm of the other programs mentioned herein how to brilliantly start, carry and finish a show.

On a personal note, my father died in January 2012.  The end began when he suffered complications due to a chronic medical condition from which he had suffered for the last decade of his life.  That said, none of us saw it coming.  After emergency surgery the previous October, he had not been the same mentally and never recovered his old self until he died in his home surrounded by family.  The last coherent conversation we had was about Breaking Bad.  It was one of many.  How apt, that a program about fathers and sons and life and death will forever be a part of our story, of my and my father’s story.

Comments to Joe Hubris.