The finale of Breaking Bad demonstrated clearly this was a show with writers who care deeply about the craft of storytelling as well as the audience who savored every moment as they watched it unfold over the past five years.
Vince Gilligan, on a couch in Hollywood last night during Talking Bad (a show AMC had been doing for fans this season) described how the writers had sat down and tried many different permutations for the final episode. They realized that the show needed closure, and the finale could not be one that left a lot up in the air. They knew they had to dot their i’s and cross their t’s. They knew it required several revisions to reach its perfection and that was evident.
I have not written a single post about this series and publicly shared it, however, I watched it all along the way. In fact, during the final season, I saved Sunday’s episode for Monday in the early afternoon and watched it after I had finished writing my first post for the day.
The joy from watching this show methodically plod along was always a good break from covering the latest perversion of freedom and justice in society. It would give me energy to return to my computer and write another post for the day.
Which is not to say the show was ever an escape from the reality I write about each day. Breaking Bad very much exists in that world. Its characters are in a world where a futile but ruinous and discriminatory War on Drugs is waged by a government that also does not provide universal free health care to its citizens.
This rather cinematic television drama is set in a country, where power and wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the richest 1% and the bottom 99% are struggling more and more to get by in an ailing economy not rigged to support them. Although it exists offscreen, this is the social context for the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who, after being diagnosed with cancer, fights to maintain his pride by relying on his knowledge and skills as a chemistry teacher to cook methamphetamine and sell it to make money to pay his medical bills.
[OBLIGATORY SPOILERS ALERT]
Walter’s pride is front and center in the finale. He cannot remain in New Hampshire in exile from his family. He frightens a former business partner, (Elliot Schwarz), who essentially turned his back on him, into promising he will turn over millions of dollars in drug money from his work to his son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), so he can go to college. He returns to Skyler (Anna Gunn) to say goodbye and give her the lottery ticket with the coordinates for where Hank (Dean Norris) was buried so she can bargain her way out of going to jail. He follows through with eliminating all of the Nazis, who tortured and enslaved Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), because they killed Hank and they have Jesse cooking blue meth when he was supposed to be killed.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it,” Walter tells Skyler. He says he was alive. (He also tells her he spent all the money trying to outrun law enforcement.)
What made Walter “alive”? Was it believing he could do this and all the problems his family faced would be solved? Was it the confidence he was able to achieve, that he was not going to have to endure hardship to provide for his family?
The transformation Walter undergoes is not necessarily one where he becomes a clearly evil character that deserves to be loathed. The bulk of what he accomplishes, although criminal, is not conceived and executed with malicious intent. He believes at various steps in his story that this is what he must do to survive cancer. He also later realizes that what he is doing offers an opportunity he can never hope to have, one where he could have enough money to send his children to college and ensure a comfortable future for his family that could be free of struggle.
That final scene, after Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is free from the Nazi drug gang that had tortured and enslaved him for months, it is clear Walter has come to terms with the choices he made. He dies right in the meth lab after one final recollection of the power meth production had seemingly given him over his destiny.
What gives the show its strength is characters and a plot by writers that are willing to accept the ambiguity of the world in its storytelling. In that respect, the story may be comparable to film noir. It is morally ambivalent. It has criminal violence. It has complex situations and motives that give the audience feelings of anguish and insecurity. It puts viewers in a state of tension by creating a sense of uneasiness (all identifying characteristics of the genre which Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton detailed in A Panorama of American Film Noir).
Those characteristics do not entirely repulse viewers because the writers carefully explore the moral choices each character faces. But, also, some viewers instinctively understand the disparity in America’s current social order, how there is wealth for a few, justice for some and how those doing hard work are often paid barely a fraction of the amount some at the top earn through their brand of gangsterism and gaming of the system.
We know the crimes committed by Walter are crimes that will always be condemned without the slightest hesitation. We also recognize there is often zero acknowledgment of what we might do to ensure that steps are taken so no one will feel compelled to make a choice to act criminally for the sake of their family ever again.
We privately contemplate the morality of the decisions under the immoral circumstances, which confront the White family as well as Jesse.
The fantasy of being able to confront hardship in this manner and be an agent over our own personal tragedy is a thrill, which tempts our imagination. This is part of why the show was and will remain so captivating.