Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄
I watched the Breaking Bad finale yesterday, and enjoyed it. Mostly, I enjoyed closure on the series, whatever form it took. Once, when asking my mother what made Latin Soap Operas much better than their US counterparts, her first answer was "they end," referencing the fact that they just have a story and tell it, rather than milk a set of characters for 30 years.
The problem with television's business model is that a show will just go on until it becomes absurd and outdated, and only then will the writers (ha! kidding! executives) decide to wrap it up.
Until they do, you get absurdities like Monk, a star detective, only in the last episode checking out a gift his wife left him and he just never opened. Surprisingly, it solves the whole case! Huddy and the entire season it spawned was just an unmitigated disaster. And Dexter went really south after Deb decided to call her feelings big-L Love.
[Breaking Bad spoilers for the whole series follow.]
I really feared this would happen at the end of Breaking Bad. Season 4 was probably my favorite season of any television ever, since it had Walt in the vice against Gus, who was just so much smarter, more professional, more experienced, and with less to lose. The fact that Walt was able to scheme his way out (and the way he did it) was exceptional.
Season 5, to contrast, began with gimmicks: I know they were pushing the narrative that Walt suddenly feels invincible ("Just because you shot Jesse James doesn't make you Jesse James"), they illustrated this by taking the show dangerously close to a cheesy gangster heist act. Every episode featured a giant, improbable operation that just happened to succeed. The magnet. The train robbery. The prison murders. While Seasons 3 and 4 had plots that were slow-cooking, high-stakes, and developed on-the-fly by desperate parties, Season 5 was feeling aCtIoN-PACKED OMG WALT SUCH A BADASS in a way that just seemed contrived, and that it should've been in another show.
So luckily the second half of Season 5 brought us a bit closer to what made the show great in the first place. Ozymandias was the episode the whole series was built for. Walt finally feels the shit hitting the fan. Ultimately, the show found a way back to its center.
Watching people watch the show was as much fun as watching the show. Anna Gunn wrote about the vitriol a huge segment of fans direct at her character (which they referenced pretty humorously in the "Bullet Points"), and Emily Nussbaum writes excellently about the "bad fans" of the series.
Many online populations I observe have a contingent of usually straight white dudes between the ages of 15-35 who seem bothered or threatened by things they never argue or articulate particularly well. For Skyler, a lot of these dudes seem to think Walt is some kind of badass, and that Skyler "is such a bitch" and "holds him down" and "is really hypocritical" because she ends up working with him later.
But, well, she's kind of had her world upended by a lifestyle of illegal activities and murder that she never consented to, got sexually assaulted, repeatedly threatened, and emotionally abused. Maybe she can be a bit harsh on Walt, I think? And as for being "hypocritical," who on that show isn't? And aren't these people usually fans of Walt, the king of trying to have his cake and eat it too? Isn't that what the show is kind of about? To me it just seemed like Skyler is a sharp woman who's trying to do the best she can given what she's got. Most antifans don't point out better things she could have done AND account for the leeway they give every other character on the show.
Besides, it's pretty obvious to anyone with a brain that the show's creators engineer the show for you to root for Walt. Take it from them, not me.
On the finale
Emily Nussbaum (again) has my favorite take. I had a similar set of reactions, and really prefer her proposed interpretation. I also agree with Willa Paskin on wishing "Team Walt" didn't come out so far ahead. The Onion AV Club does a series recap where they propose that Breaking Bad is special because it introduces "good" and "evil" as proper elements in the standard antihero story, and I feel like the finale, by working to redeem Walt, really goes against this.
My favorite part of Goodfellas was Ray Liotta's shitty existence after ratting out his former mobsters -- he's a coked-up mess living a suburban life, which really drives home the point that the consequences of the Badass Life are often unremarkable, and it's a lifestyle that's way too glamorized.
In a world where someone from a Respected Publication was telling the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting to just "count shots and jump him reloading", I don't think we need another narrative of A Man Getting His for chickenhawks and manchildren to masturbate over before doing something extremely, extremely stupid. Walt was irresponsible, selfish, power-hungry, and abusive, and he had tons of chances to get himself out of the game, and he didn't. Dozens are dead because he was a greedy, selfish asshole. Because it's fiction, I have no qualms in wishing he died cold, lonely, and without any chance of a decent legacy. Walter White should die of gonorrhea and rot in hell.
Why I liked it
My biggest takeaway from the series wasn't the standard "power corrupts" or "crime doesn't pay" that seems to get most people. It's that many, ordinary people will often do the "easy" thing even if it's the evil or wrong one. Moreover, it's often not an atomic "decision moment," it's indecision compounding over time. I'm stealing a bit of terminology from the Onion AV article linked above, but the most interesting choices, I found, were when people went against their morals or actively harmed others to minimize disruption.
This is probably most obviously observed when Walt is watching Jane die. He turned her over to a position where she is able to choke, but I very much doubt that her choking risk was on his mind when he did it. He also had no intention of killing her after-the-fact. But when she began choking, he watched. He had a choice to make, with a clearly "right" answer, but some part of his brain realized how much easier everything would be if he let her die. But I don't think he ever made a firm decision to let her die, either. I think it was a decision he was fretting over for the course of a minute, always deferring taking action, always going "JUST JUST OMG JUST LIKE DO IT BUT OMG IT'D BE FINE IF SHE DIED BUT JUST OMG" until the opportunity was lost, and he just happens to come out ahead, albeit a little horrified with himself.
It's the same when he kills Krazy 8: a part of him really wanted to let him go, to believe Krazy 8 wouldn't stab him, or kill him and his family as soon as he had the chance. A part of him wanted to be wrong about the plate shard. But as soon as he is unlocking the chain and 8 attacks, he pulls defensively, and I feel like his brain was going "SHIT SHIT OMG PULL JUST A SECOND OMG HE'S STABBING JUST PULL PULL OMG SHIT I'M KILLING HIM NO I'M NOT JUST A FEW SECONDS IT'S DEFENSE I SWEAR OMG" until it was all over.
This is one way people become murderers, or otherwise do "bad" things even though they are "good" people. Convenience, indecision, and self-deception. And watching excellent actors/writers take it on is just fun.
There are other examples: Skyler going from reluctant, disapproving voice to reluctant, disapproving accomplice; Hank not notifying the DEA of his brother-in-law and doing it solo. And by the end, I understand Walt was fully the monster the show's creators wanted him to be. But it was most interesting to me when it was mostly choices of convenience and inaction that drove the plot.
[EDIT] Some links I found later today, if you want to read more people bloviating about it:
- NPR's critic also was disappointed it redeems Walt, ends cleanly.
- Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz likens it to A Christmas Carol
- Entertainment Weekly has an inteview with the creator, Vince Gilligan, on the finale. I feel kind of weird about the fact that Gilligan found Todd more likeable than Lydia. Also, according to this tweet, Gilligan wanted Skyler to kill herself before the writers talked him out of it.
- Gerry Canavan offers a few more thoughts, in particular on the idea of Bad Fans.
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