The promotional blurbs on A&E’s cover packaging for the various box set and stand-alone DVD releases of Patrick McGoohan’s classic series The Prisoner refer to it as “television’s first masterpiece,” but let’s be brutally honest here — for a good long time there it probably stood as television’s only “masterpiece.”
Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been some good shows over the years, but start-to-finish, wire-to-wire masterpieces have been pretty tough to come by. I won’t speculate here as to why that’s been with any kind of probing analysis, apart from making the obvious observation that American TV, in particular, has been geared to appeal to the so-called “lowest common denominator” for so long now that frankly most people don’t even expect for there to be anything good on the tube when they turn it on, even with 200-300 channels to choose from. We all just sorta watch it anyway.
I’ll be the first to admit that my two favorite shows of all time — Doctor Who and Twin Peaks — hardly fit the definition of “masterpiece” even though I love ’em dearly. Hell, one of the best things about Who — and I’m referring to old-school Who here, not the current abomination running around cloaked in its title, which hasn’t held much of any appeal to me since the end of its first return season with Christopher Eccleston in the lead role — is that it’s so damn imaginative and clever and stupid in a fun way and addictively, insanely watchable and re-watchable in spite of its glaring production value weaknesses, often hammy acting, and atrocious dialogue that those so-called “deficiencies” actually become part of its charm. And I’m willing to be that “charm” is one of the things that has engendered such a strong following for various other “fan-driven” series, such as Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, both of which have rabid cult followings, to be sure, but neither of which, I think, even the most zealous Whedon fan (and there’s plenty of competition for that title) would admit, at least in their more honest moments, was anything like a “masterpiece.”
Charm is not something that Breaking Bad ever had much of, though, is it? From the outset, we knew we were being asked to become involved in the life story of a guy who was dying, and furthermore was broke and dying. It’s been a pretty “heavy” show from day one, hasn’t it?
Which isn’t to say that it didn’t have lighter moments interspersed here and there throughout, because of course it did, and in early days it even looked like Dean Norris’ Hank character was never going to amount to much more than bog-standard, albeit well-written, comic relief. But as things progressed, even he became a more multi-dimensional character, and as Bryan Cranston’s Walter White sold out more and more of his soul to purportedly “provide for” his family, a show that started out heavy only became heavier.
And yet — lack of charm and a general “bummer” tone don’t preclude a show from being great, do they? And I would contend that Breaking Bad will be remembered as being more than just great, it will be remembered as — here’s that term again — a masterpiece (the third by my count anyway, in TV history — anyone care to guess what I think the second was? The only hint I’ll give is that it was a relatively recent show).
It was difficult, at times, to be sure. Watching the lives of all these people go to hell in a handbasket even became something of a chore during this final season, particularly the season’s second half following its over-12-month hiatus. Walt was a real bastard, wasn’t he? And that could be downright excruciating to witness. But here’s the thing:
You just never knew what the hell was going to happen next. Series creator Vince Gilligan and his coterie of writers always had another rabbit in their hat, another brightly- colored handkerchief tied to that long string of them coming out of their sleeve. The show never once lost its power to surprise.
Until tonight’s series finale, “Felina,” written and directed by Gilligan himself, which pretty much saw all loose ends tied up more or less exactly as you thought they would be.
I’m sure there might be some hand-wringing among fans that long-suffering characters like Anna Gunn’s Skyler and Aaron Paul’s Jesse weren’t given necessarily “that much to do” in this wrap-up episode — hell, RJ Mitte’s hapless Walter Jr./Flynn didn’t even have a single line of dialogue! Meanwhile, a couple characters we hadn’t seen much of since the second season, Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz, played a pivotal part in Gilligan’s last script.
And yet — everything ended on just the right note for all these people, whether they were given too much to do, too little, or just enough. Events played out more or less in exactly the fashion we expected them, maybe even needed them, to.
And that, finally, may prove to be Breaking Bad’s greatest trick of all : a series that thrived on the element of surprise gave us an entirely predictable conclusion that nonetheless felt exactly right.
Walter White is dead and gone now, and Heisenberg with him. His hat’s off. And so is mine. This series hit it out of the park from the word “go” to the word “stop.” As a slow-burn tale of human tragedy — hell ,of loss of humanity altogether — it stands unequaled. A “happy ending” or “loose, interpretive ending” would have been a huge cop-out. There’s only one way things could have gone here — only one way they were ever going to go.
That’s how they went. And that’s just perfect.