I did not love the finale of Breaking Bad. Right after “Felina”, the last ever episode of the show aired on Sunday night, twitter was immediately filled with thousands of comments of people who thought it was the perfect finale to a perfect show. It would have been hopeless to have tried to start a conversation about what did and didn’t work in the finale then and there (Twitter is seldom the right place for that), but after five overall great seasons, this last episode has left a weirdly sour taste in my mouth. This is not to say that it has retroactively ruined the show for me. Most of the run of the show is fantastic. Not many series (if any) can build suspense and deliver emotional payoffs as well as Breaking Bad did at its best (which was in seasons 2 and 3, in my opinion). There have been so many amazing episodes of the show. Even if the show always felt to me a little too plot-driven instead of character-driven, the character development was mostly very good and the amazing performances delivered by the cast certainly helped.
In the context of all the anti-hero shows that rose to prominence with the success of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad felt like the perfect thematic culmination to this trend. By this point in time, anti-heroes are as original as cop shows. Recent shows that wanted to piggy-back on the formula, like Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun were disastrous (and with good reason, both are terrible shows). Amongst this wave of lingering anti-heroes, Walter White seemed like the perfect response for finally putting a cap on this genre. Unlike with Tony Soprano, Vic Mackie or Dexter Morgan; creator Vince Gilligan was willing to show us how truly horrifying Walter White’s descent into criminal life really was. He was not a glamorous hero. He started out as a sympathetic character, but as his darker side started to show, he became more and more repulsive. By the time we got to season five, there was little sympathy left for Walter. There was none of the charismatic edge and sexiness that we were supposed to find in other shows’ lead characters.
This second half of season five seemed to back that theory up. Especially the last few episodes leading up to the finale, which seemed to paint a very ominous and inglorious end for Walt. First, “Ozymandias”, one of the show’s most harrowing (and outright best) episodes, stripped Walt of everything he cared for (his money, his family) and then reminded us of his most horrible sides when he sent Jesse to his death and kidnapped his own daughter. In “Granite State”, the next-to-last episode of the show, we saw an even more beaten-down Walt. A shadow of his former self, a forgotten old man waiting to die in a New Hampshire cabin. In the last moments of that episode, it seemed like it was once again going to be Walter’s pride that would take the best of him. As he watched his Gray Matters ex-partners destroy his legacy -the one thing he had- it seemed a pride-driven return to Albuquerque would be the final nail in Walter White’s coffin.
The last episode of the show, though, went in a completely different direction. This wasn’t Walt’s fall. This was his triumphant return. He engineered a plan to get money to his family and get revenge on Uncle Jack and Lydia that went way too smoothly. Many a critic has pointed out how the show ended with the ultimate Deux Ex Machina: a machine gun acting out the fury of an avenging God. I didn’t like this. Not because the plan worked way too perfectly (usually, it takes Walt two or three tries until his plans work), but because I felt this was a cop-out on the show’s part. Walt’s last adventure seems to be his redemption and he is a character that shouldn’t have been redeemed. As the most disgusting of the anti-heroes, the end of the show should have reflected his soul.
This finale makes me think Vince Gilligan understood the show differently than I, even though it seemed pretty obvious to me that my understanding was what the show was going for. It’s not that I’m mad that the show might have ended up being a different thing that what I thought it was. It’s that I thought of Breaking Bad as the one show that would bring this fascination with the anti-hero to an end. It thought this show was putting a mirror in front of us and making us see the terrible things we wanted to see the leads of our shows do. I though Walt’s fall would be the perfect beginning for a new era of even more adventurous and creative television. I guess that just wasn’t quite true.
Breaking Bad was still a terrific show. I still think it’s possible to get the reading I had out of it. It’s just a little different now and I’m still trying to figure out if there was a particularly interesting statement I’m missing in the finale, or if it was just a case of Gilligan pandering to his fans.