Breaking Bad Broke Good

It’s a universally accepted fact that TV series Breaking Bad (2008-2013) was a critical masterpiece, and it’s an extreme minority of critics/the general populace that found any sort of glaring flaw with the program. One of the most celebrated aspects, and one that cemented its legacy, was the fact that it stuck the landing. So many shows throughout history have a stellar run and stumble either sometime in their final season or, worse, during the final episode. There also comes the dual issue of satisfying both critics and fans; shows may end appropriately but lacking an emotional punch. Breaking Bad though, ended exactly how it was supposed to.

Breaking Bad, in fact, had the best series finale of all time.

Oh, what a flagrant, divisive, and entirely subjective statement to make! But here I am in my little corner of the internet making exactly that statement. My turf, my rules. Be glad I’m not saying it was a perfect television episode (which is also arguable).

To be fair, when compared to other programs that held audiences rapt with stellar quality right until the bitter end, it really only has two competitors: The Sopranos and The Wire. The Sopranos’ swansong can easily be shunted to third place thanks to the cliffhanger ending, which proved effective as a topic of discussion for the ages but left fans of conclusive stories cold. The Wire just a tad more difficult to plunk down in the silver medal spot, and any attempt to do so will be contentious and meriting its own article. If I must be reductive and dismiss it callously, I will say that while it worked fantastically as a resolution to its own universe, it did not function ideally if seen from a broader lens. The narrative did not finish in a way that would satisfy a traditional arc, even if it panned out in the exact bleak fashion the entire show adhered to.

Breaking Bad‘s last stand worked both as the perfect denouement of all the shows storylines, and as the capstone to a piece of popular culture. It ended on both its own terms and of those that would appeal to society’s base desires for works of fiction. In normalspeak: it’s good Breaking Bad and it’s just plain good too.

However “Felina”, as fantastic as it is, could not be what it is without its respective season (and to a further extent, the show itself). For the sake of focus, let’s stick to the preceding two episodes. To use a sports analogy, it’s like a star sports captain who wins the match thanks to the efforts of a well-rounded team, particularly those two teammates who set up the play for a game-winning goal. It benefits hugely from the devastating events of “Ozymandias”, and just as much from the slow-burn of penultimate episode “Granite State”.

The earth-shaking plot developments of the former and the painstakingly deliberate character growth of the latter ensured that the pacing of the finale would be absolutely perfect. “Granite State” is especially vital as it devotes most of its running time to establishing the final state of mind for each character. Saul Goodman and his humor have no place in the final proceedings, so he escapes having lost his law practice. Skyler lives in constant fear, blackmailed by the gang. Walter White is a husk of a man, almost entirely withered away. When he realizes his prized relationship with his son cannot be salvaged, he loses all motivation to “win” until a televised revelation turns him into a creature driven solely on pride. Jesse Pinkman is shown to be psychologically abused, his humanity stripped away by Uncle Jack and his goons. Every motivation is crystal clear once the finale begins.

In essence, “Felina” is all payoff. It’s a series of deliveries- some more literal than others. Viewers of the show got nothing but rewards as every plot was checked off both methodically and organically. The lack of set-up ensured that every minute could be used to tie up all loose ends. And they’re tied up, every last one, in a matter that is perfect for each of them. Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz get their just desserts without being physically harmed. Skyler and Walt Jr. are ensured security, without giving Walt the emotional closure he wants but doesn’t deserve. Jack and the boys meet appropriately gruesome ends, while mastermind Lydia is dispatched in a more subtle way. Each of the villains gets offed in the right way with the right amount of time devoted to them- psychopathic Todd bearing the worst of it. Jesse is vindicated both in Walter’s eyes and literally, although his state of mind is shown to be as frayed as one would think.

Not only is every beat used efficiently, but every bit of emotion and dark humour is doled out in wholly appropriate increments, as if it’s being rationed. There’s no tearful farewells, excess action, or unnecessary jokes. That’s perhaps the most important thing- every part of this episode is necessary. No fatty layer, no filler. It plays out without extraneous detail or wild, contrived twists. Not just in terms of narrative either. The cinematography is as always a work of art, and every shot serves a singular purpose. Whether it’s a callback to running themes, tone establishment, or even character/plot development, every frame is undeniably crucial to the whole.

It even ends in a manner that both wraps up Walter’s journey exactly how the character intended- with his greatest remaining source of pride. He is left alone with the only bit of joy left for him in the world, a payoff from the prior episode’s last few minutes. He has no family, no friends- but he has the work that made him king. The conclusion can be taken at face value, but leaves the tiniest of slivers for conspiracy-minded viewers. It’s a perfect final scene, satisfying fans of the show and fans of narrative in general.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) – Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 16 – Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

In essence, the beauty of this finale is that it respected the audience’s investment and paid out rewards in a full, precise manner. It was as if creator Vince Gilligan let go of the reins after the penultimate episode and let the story pan out exactly how it would based upon the show’s run. Not only did it reward the fans, it was a masterfully crafted work of televised art. Most importantly, it respected its own legacy and the laws of its universe. It understood what it was and fully delivered what it had promised over the past five seasons. A solid deal, and it’s hard to find a better one in the annals of TV history. Game of Thrones, you’re up.