I want to talk to you about the end of “Breaking Bad,” but there’s a chance that you might not have seen it yet. It’s not your fault if you haven’t. Either you’ve fallen behind catching up, or you never started the show in the first place. Your time’s been better spent elsewhere. Other shows hold your spotlight. You don’t have an obligation to this series, no matter how high its praise and perceived merit. You have your own life. Your own schedule. You should live it.
But I still want to talk about “Breaking Bad.”
How? I can’t spoil too much, or those who’re still actively catching up will throw up their hands and yell, “Don’t speak! Not yet!” If I wanted, I could have put a neat little “SPOILER ALERT” sticker at the top and then only those who watched the whole series could continue reading, but I want to address you too, the non-viewer and the fallen behind. The best discussions aren’t insulated and exclusive. They can involve anyone who cares enough to hear what’s said and to answer back. And as I’ve waited this long (three years) to even broach the subject of television in writing, I need your help as much as anyone to make this work.
This past Sunday, the “Breaking Bad” series finale premiered. I sat with 20-plus Knox students packed into the Rog Lodge, both televisions tuned to AMC. The couches and booths were lined and high chairs had to be dragged over to make room for everyone. A few people sat right below the TV, like grade schoolers just woken up, waiting for Saturday morning cartoons to start. Before the episode began, we were asking each other for theories and speculation. Who’s going to die? Who’s going to kill whom? Will Walter get away with five seasons of drug peddling, plus how many acts of direct-or-indirect bloodshed? In those moments before the screen lit up with the episode’s first shot (frost stuck glaringly to a car window), all eyes honed in and all mouths quieted with attention hung in the air, in the preceding thrill and anticipation, people only seemed able to talk about the most visceral, gory aspects of how the show could end.
And for those who haven’t seen “Breaking Bad” yet, it’s much, much more than that. It’s a modern Western, set in the flyover country around Albuquerque, N.M, where the most extreme violence is interspersed with silent stand-offs and delayed confrontations. It’s a show about morality and family and the consequences of one’s actions independent of intention, how a chemistry teacher who starts cooking meth, no matter his home life and reasons for cooking, turns himself into Scarface. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves and what little grace we can find by admitting to our selfish natures.
What makes “Breaking Bad” such an effective drama is that creator Vince Gilligan and his team of writers knows their audience’s basest wants. They play with how much brutality we’ll endorse or be repulsed by, and use the promise of violence (specifically the noble violence of a back-and-forth evenhanded shootout) as a cliffhanger to bring us back next week, only to shortchange it for something scarier, or sadder, but always more satisfying. It is through this bait-and-switch, this stealthy manipulation, that the show has highlighted the themes that matter to it.
The series finale was no different, and after an ominous, dark and honestly quite hilarious lead-in to what we assumed would be a cold-blooded murder, the show veered off to some less lurid conclusions. Walter White, whom we have come to despise and root for and sympathize with at different points and often within the same episode, here received a treatment that was somewhere between all these sentiments, sympathetic and wary and fascinated. It gave him the chance to acknowledge his development across several years of TV, and to articulate the sort of person he’s been, culminating in a line of dialogue that could serve as “Breaking Bad’s” epitaph: “I did it for me.”
In the end, the show was even nice enough to throw in an awe-inspiring rush of action and bloodshed, a Scarface rat-a-tat-tat where the most unambiguous bad guys get offed and the hero saves a person we never thought he’d want to save. It earned the appropriate number of “Holy—!” and sharp gasps it aimed for. But “I did it for me” is where the series struck for the jugular and declared its moral through-line, marking itself as a finished, self-reflexive work of art.
People will debate the last few shots, which seem to valorize the meth trade in a way the series has always steered clear of. Many of the supporting cast has disappeared at this point and the future decisions they make and the crises they face after the end are left to speculation. The show leaves room for disappointment, for those who thought it let Walter White off too easily or didn’t probe deeply enough.
But after the fade to black, as Vince Gilligan’s executive producer credit appeared, the room clapped. No cheers or whistles or jeers. Just a respectful, satisfied clap that you will almost never hear anymore going to a movie theatre. A spontaneous show of appreciation for the artist who will never hear it.
That was my experience with “Breaking Bad,” which was also the first time I watched a TV show live and in large company. It’s perhaps fitting that a show in some sense about drugs and craving illegal thrills introduces me to an activity so exhilarating and larger than myself, even larger than the group I watched the series with. It includes you, too. And maybe you can tell me more about what it means next time I see you, because I’d hate this discussion to end here when it’s only beginning.