Spoiler warning – do not read if you have yet to finish watching Breaking Bad
Two Sundays ago, one of the most critically lauded television shows in recent years wrapped up its more than five-year run to rapturous applause and probably more than a few stunned faces. For as the dust settled in the wake of its final eight rollercoaster episodes, it became apparent that Breaking Bad – a series described as everything from criminal drama to modern day western – had overcome that trickiest of hurdles (one confronting all great serialised works): the need for a satisfying ending.
Despite only blossoming from cult-hit status into full-fledged popcultural juggernaut somewhere in the latter half of its run, Breaking Bad had always stood out from the crowd. Indeed, from the very outset of its pilot – an hour boasting the same brazen plotting, heartstopping thrills, and remarkable character work that would come to define the work – it was clear that showrunner Vince Gillian had hit gold. In it, we are introduced to Walter White, the meek and downtrodden genius of a chemistry teacher who is jolted from his life of suburban dissatisfaction by a sudden diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. Making the fateful choice to cook methamphetamine in order to secure his family’s financial future, Walt embarks on a turbulent journey of transformation that, in the words of a much-touted (and certainly overly simplistic) analogy – sees him morph from ‘Mr. Chips to Scarface’.
As Walt, it’s fair to say that Bryan Cranston gives the performance of a lifetime. Over nearly sixty hours of runtime, he paints a shockingly intimate portrait of a man in flux, his craggy, magnetic face a battleground for just about every emotion imaginable. So raw and convincing is Cranston’s take on the man that even as he slides deeper into moral rot, his once somewhat justifiable decisions becoming increasingly callous and ego-driven, he manages to remain profoundly sympathetic. With Breaking Bad, at its core, being an unapologetic morality play about a man’s choices and their consequences, this stupendous talent has always been the show’s lynchpin; a lesser actor might have lost the audience with some of Walt’s more repellant acts, but Cranston has always been far too fascinating to look away from.
The genius of Breaking Bad’s casting didn’t end with Cranston, of course. As the show’s deuteragonist, Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman has always been just as captivating – a low-level meth cook whose alliance with Walt catapulted him on an arc just as dramatic and moving as his partner’s, albeit with a rather different trajectory. Throughout it all, Paul has been phenomenal, believably maturing from a vacuous ‘bitch!’-spewing punk to a talented, grief-stricken man with an increasingly troubled conscience, his dynamic relationship with Cranston’s Walt emerging as one of the show’s greatest strengths.
In fact, all the major players grow tremendously and organically throughout the series, with Walt’s wife Skyler (deftly portrayed by Anna Gunn) transitioning from oblivious homemaker to ever-more-culpable accomplice and his DEA brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris – superb) developing from a loud obnoxious jock-type into a surprisingly layered individual – full of self-doubt, anxiety, and dogged heroism – as seasons progressed. There’s always been plenty of talent in the vividly realised denizens of the show’s criminal underworld, too, be it the terrifically sleazy ‘criminal’ lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the supernaturally collected chicken man/ruthless drug lord Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), or perennially grumpy, no-nonsense enforcer Mike Ehrmentraut (Jonathan Banks).
With this grounding, Gilligan and co created a charged emotional landscape – one full of hoarse character moments, thematic substance, and more than a little humour (who can forget the roof-pizza!) – and shaped it into a taut, meticulous thriller whose daring twists and jaw-dropping MacGyverish pay-offs kept viewers on tenterhooks.
They even succeeded stylistically. Striking a balance between the artisanal and the visceral, Breaking Bad cultivated a lyrical visual language marked by evocative use of space and setting, frenetic timelapse, and disorienting POV shots and unnatural camera angles. Slickly edited montages, gorgeous sequences of the RV silhouetted against the boundless New Mexico sky, and the view from a tray of newly synthesised blue meth are classic Breaking Bad – as much a part of the show’s essence as the characters or dialogue.
Heading into its final eight episodes, then, it’s not disingenuous to say that the pressure to stick the landing was high. It is a testament to the writing of the show that its success in doing so felt not laboured but inevitable, the natural outcome of the way it’s always traced each fateful decision to its inexorable conclusion. Part of this stemmed from Gilligan’s refusal to draw things out or coast off of past triumphs, instead intensifying the stakes, accelerating the plot, and wholeheartedly embracing the madcap dash to the finish line. When ‘Blood Money’ picks up immediately after Hank’s earth-shattering toilet eureka moment, for instance, we haven’t even reached the end of the episode before Hank and Walt have their chill-inducing confrontation. From there, events spiral out of control even more viciously, with ensuing episodes (‘Buried’ to ‘To’hajiilee’) seeing the disintegration of White-Schrader relations, the looming threat of the Neo-Nazi meth operation, and Jesse’s realisation about the truth of Brock’s poisoning and consequent rage-fuelled alliance with Hank to bring Walt down. It’s an invigorating thrill-ride, and one that comes to a head in ‘Ozymandias’, a heart-stopping hour whose crushing devastation is perhaps best encapsulated by Walt’s collapse – face contorted into a Munch-esque mask of despair, mouth a gaping pit of blackness – as his world comes undone. In many ways, this sixth episode serves as the climax to Breaking Bad’s tale, the death of Hank and irreparable implosion of Walt’s family situation smashing any naïve hope that this could all end well.
The last two episodes, then, function almost as a denouement, with ‘Granite State’ surveying the wreckage and finding the survivors trapped to a man in an agonised purgatory. In Walt’s case, this manifests as exile in a remote New Hampshire cabin, utterly powerless as his cancer mauls his body and the loneliness and inability to connect with his family (destitute and hounded by law enforcement) destroys his spirit. For Jesse, the situation is even more dire; the victim of prolonged physical and psychological torture – the murder of his girlfriend Andrea may be the show’s single most heartbreaking moment –, he is enslaved and forced to cook for the Neo-Nazis.
With Walt utterly broken and his family in dire straits, Gilligan certainly could have ended the show here, the closing moments providing a sombre Aesop on the dangers of greed and self-destructive pride. Instead, playing one final trick and shifting the tone from flat-out depressing to cautiously bittersweet, he revitalises Walt with an affront to the very thing that launched this journey in the beginning – his ego – and in doing so gives him one last chance to make amends. Seeing Walt return home to Albuquerque as a man on borrowed time, the series finale (‘Felina’) is all about tying up loose ends, about the last rites of a man who finally accepts the consequences of his decisions and makes the choice to go out on his own terms. In its tearful goodbyes, reflective moments of candor, and last-ditch gambits (culminating in a particularly well-earned orgy of bloody revenge), it’s a poignant and bracingly cathartic send-off – a fitting swansong for this masterpiece of storytelling. And as Walt bleeds out on the methlab floor, a look of serenity taking hold of his moribund features, it seems clear that this was how it always had to end: not with him slowly succumbing to cancer, but going out in a blaze of (semi)righteous glory, his ambition to make a mark on the world ultimately, if tragically, fulfilled. As soppy as it sounds, much the same could be said of Breaking Bad.