As the respect and stature given to TV drama has increased, so has the pressure to deliver a perfect ending. Series finales are not only expected to satisfyingly end the major storylines and round out the lives of the show’s characters, but to sum up and clarify the themes and overall mission of the series. The Sopranos, which basically gave a middle finger to all of that, was roundly criticized; Lost, devoured by its own smoke monster of spiritualist vagueness, seriously damaged its legacy. Other great series, like Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire, have had perfectly fine finales, just not up to their show’s highest standards. (Deadwood didn’t know it was ending when it did, and Six Feet Under was an oddity in that its final 10 minutes was better than the entire season that preceded it.) Only a very few–Friday Night Lights, The Shield–have fully accomplished their missions.
Tonight, BREAKING BAD came damn close. In fact, when a few days have passed from instant-reaction nit-pickery, it may well belong in that pantheon. Vince Gilligan, who not only created the series but wrote and directed the final episode himself, gave us an ending that fittingly concluded the saga of Walter White, tying up all important loose ends and finishing him off with a flourish. It’s been a sensational final season (special kudos to Robert Forster, who didn’t enter until 2 episodes before the end and knocked his role out of the park), and it ended with an amazing 75 minutes of television, brilliantly acted, written, designed and directed as the series has been from the start.
The advantage Gilligan had in ending Breaking Bad is that it’s always been a show that had a dead reckoning on what it was about and what its tone was going to be. Breaking Bad isn’t a show that discovered itself along the way, or reinvented itself halfway through its run; its first episode connects on a straight shot to its last. The moment in the finale when Walter (Bryan Cranston) finally, finally tells his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) that he didn’t cook meth to provide for his family, he did it because he liked it, he was good at it, and it made him feel alive–and her profound understanding that after all the lies he’s told, she’s finally hearing the truth–was a moment 6 years in the making, and Gunn could not have been better in conveying the anger, disgust and then the peace of finally knowing it. (Gilligan’s direction of this scene, with the slight camera move that revealed Walter’s presence after Skyler’s lengthy phone call with her sister and the long take holding on Anna Gunn’s face, was masterful.) The violent last few minutes of the episode beautifully encapsulated and ended the dysfunctional relationship between Walt and his surrogate son Jesse (Aaron Paul), who he intended to kill, then protected from the machine gun fire he’d engineered, then tried to exploit one last time by asking Jesse to shoot him, and then, as with Skyler, admitted that it was something he wanted for himself. Walt finally accepted Jesse’s declaration of independence when he left Walt to live or die on his own. And yay Jesse! For making it through the series alive, and even getting to kill sociopath Todd (Jesse Plemons) before he left.
Along with a social commentary and character study, Breaking Bad has above all been a spectacularly entertaining thriller, and Gilligan didn’t disappoint. One could barely breathe when Walter showed up at the home of Gretchen and Eliot (Jessica Hecht and Adam Godley), not as it turned out to kill them, but as the solution to Walt’s problem of how to deliver his (almost) $10M in ill-gotten gains to his family–and the punchline of the “hit men” he’d hired being Badger and Skinny Pete was just about perfect. The build-up to the final massacre, as Walt tried to reach the garage door opener that would set off the machine gun, was shot and edited with a precision few big-screen movies could match.
The only criticism one could make of the finale was that as God of this particular universe, in the end Gilligan may have been a bit too merciful to Walter White. He gave Walt a big stroke of luck by having the meeting with the Nazis occur in a perfect configuration (once Walter had parked in the wrong place) for the machine gun to hit its targets–if Uncle Jack had pretended to take Walt up on his offer of methylene-free meth and had the meeting in the cook room, all Walt’s preparations putting together that snazzy door-opener/machine gun slaughter machine would have gone to waste. And at the very end, Gilligan gave Walt a last moment of happiness, alone with his true family, his meth cook machines, to face his death. Walt may not have deserved to die with that smile on his lips.
But those, as noted, are quibbles. Breaking Bad was thrilling and satisfying to the end, and Bryan Cranston’s implacable, uncompromising, completely unexpected performance as Walter White was one of the best in TV history. This was a finale that lived up to its hype.
And soon enough we’ll get to do it all again: although AMC has (again) bifurcated its final season to push the ending out a year, Mad Men will drink its final martini in 2015. Ready, set…