Trash TV Guru : “Breaking Bad” Series Finale


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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.

20 responses to “Trash TV Guru : “Breaking Bad” Series Finale

  1. I’m all the way there with you on calling Breaking Bad as a TV masterpiece. Hell, I’d consider it as a masterpiece of storytelling no matter the medium.

    Still digesting and deconstructing the finale in my head after seeing it last night so not much to say about “Felina” other than it was a finale that made sense for this show. It wasn’t an oblique and open-ended finale the way The Sopranos went out. It wasn’t the horrible mess that Dexter ended up becoming right down to it’s final episode.

    The only other series finale of recent times (last decade or so) that matched Breaking Bad in it’s near-flawless execution would be the series finale for The Shield. It’s interesting to note that both shows were about antihero (villains more like) who the audience came to not just love but admire.

    Vic Mackey and Walt White had a lot in common.

    Breaking Bad’s finale just showed that for all its awards, accolades (fully earned) it is not Mad Men that’s the best show on TV these last 6-7 years but a little show about a well-mannered chemistry teacher who takes a journey towards becoming Scarface.

    Now, where’s that Huell spin-off series that everyone wants…

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    • I have to be honest, I’ve never seen “The Shield,” and I’ve only seen tiny snippets of “Mad Men” — basically enough for me to know that there’s waaaaaayyy more style to that show than there is substance. To be honest, this whole “the 1950s were nothing but phony bullshit” meme has been explored in recent times in films such as “Far From Heaven” and “Revolutionary Road,” and they got the job done in two hours — why it’s taking “Mad Men” six or eight or whatever they’re up to now seasons to get the same point across is beyond me.

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      • You should really check out The Shield. I’m actually conflicted on whether Breaking Bad is better than The Shield. The two shows are so similar in so many ways, but also different enough that watching both doesn’t seem like an exercise in repetition. I do believe that Shawn Ryan’s The Shield was the catalyst that changed how tv dramas are nowadays. I don’t think we would have a show like Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy or Justified if it wasn’t for The Shield.

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  2. I’ve started to see the hipsters come out calling the finale as being too tidy and perfect. How it lacked any sort of surprises a la The Sopranos finale.

    To these people I say: “Have you actually been watching the show from the beginning?”

    The finale wasn’t perfect, but then again I think that’s why in the end it was the perfect way to end the show. Vince Gilligan stuck to his guns and ended the show in a way that finally brought the character of Walt White full circle. That final scene with him in the meth lab he had designed and built was so exquisitely shot. From the way Walt lovingly passed his bloody hands across the gleaming steel like a lover.

    Yes, he loved his family and in a morbid way, he loved Jesse like the son he always wanted, but in the end it was him cooking meth to near perfection that he loved most.

    I think sometimes people like to harp on the popular piece of pop culture because they think anything that could be so popular not just to the elitists but the general mass audience must be overrated or not worthy of being called a masterpiece.

    These people would rather that we gaze in awe at their knowledge of the obscure and feel unworthy of what these individuals think is the best thing out there. But only the best thing if it remains obscure and avoid becoming popular.

    I’ll say this with not a bit of hyperbole, but Breaking Bad, now that I look back on it, will go down as one of the best shows on TV, period. This is a show that will stand the test of time and cross national borders. One doesn’t have to be an American to understand the themes and the Shakespearean tragedy that unfolded over 5 years and 62-episodes.

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    • I think the most telling moment in the whole episode was when Walt told Skyler that he didn’t do everything “to provide for his family,” as he’d always maintained, but because he liked it, and was good at it. It was all about him after all. I think that says it all.

      I haven’t seen too much criticism of the finale, but what little I’ve seen has been pretty limp. “Too tidy,” “too predictable,” etc. — as I said, if you look at the show in total, perhaps the fact that it was tidy and predictable was the biggest surprise of all, since we’ve come to expect one unexpected twist after another. And let’s be honest — if something had happened differently, if somehow Walt and everyone had lived “happily ever after,” these same folks would be crying foul and saying that Gilligan and company had chickened out. There’s only one way this story could have ended, and that’s how they ended it. And it’s ironic to see anyone saying they wished it was more like the ending to “The Sopranos,” seeing as how everyone hated that and felt cheated by it at the time.

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      • People wanting a Sopranos-like ending after these same people complained about how terrible that ending was is like the poster people for hipsterism.

        I like that scene where Walt finally admitted the truth to Skyler. You notice how she was ready to tear into Walt if he was going to use the family excuse, but when he told her the truth you can see how much she wished things would end up working out for them. I never understood why so many people hated Skyler (and to a disturbing degree Anna Gunn who portrayed her). She was one of the few people who saw through Walt’s bullshit right from the start. If she had a fault throughout the series it was that she condoned some of Walt’s criminal dealings because she wanted to protect her family. Outside of SKyler, I think the only ones who never fell for Walt’s manipulations was Gus and Mike.

        You wonder at the end of the episode if Huell was still sitting in that safehouse where Hank and Gomy left him. LOL

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  3. I watched the finale twice. The first time I said “I’m satisfied.” Then I watched it a second time and when Walt does his prayer at the start and says “Just get me home…I’ll do the rest”…I totally bought into that and said to myself that if anyone could pull off what is to follow, it’s Walt. The second viewing made the finale, for me, terrific.

    Glad to her you mention The Prisoner, which has been too forgotten when people bring up the masterpiece/greatest-of-all-time thing. Breaking Bad is the greatest from-start-to-finish series I’ve ever seen but…

    I too have to catch up on The Shield, so who knows.

    (I’ll guess your middle masterpiece is either The Wire or Sopranos.)

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  4. You said it all so perfectly. I will imbibe another hefty dose of series finale predictability again if I know it will leave me feeling as satisfied as this finale did.

    And I’m going to guess that the third spot on your masterpiece list belongs to… The Wire?

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  5. Pingback: 12 Random Things That I Am Thankful For In 2013 | Through the Shattered Lens

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