“Why are you still alive? Why don’t you just die already? Just die!” —Walter Jr. to his father
We are finally witnessing the destruction of Walter White’s dream. From the first season of Breaking Bad, Walt has claimed that his criminal dabblings were morally justified by his need to take care of his family. But on Sunday night’s penultimate episode of the series, not only do Skyler and the kids look destined to suffer an awful fate at the hands of the Feds (as predicted by Saul), not only are Skyler and baby Holly threatened by a black-ski-mask-clad Todd, but months later, Walt’s effort to send his family $100,000 in a box is foiled by his own son. “I wanted to give you so much more. But this is all I can do, do you understand?” Walt tells Junior, who answers, “I don’t want anything from you! I don’t give a shit.”
Junior’s words might have caused Walt to call the DEA and turn himself in, but only minutes later we see that his true dream has more to do with vengeance than generosity. As Walt is taking one last drink at the bar, his former partners Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz are being interviewed by Charlie Rose on the TV behind the bar. As Walt watches in disbelief, the pair disavow the notion that Walt deserves any credit for their enormously successful business. Even though Elliott and Gretchen offered to give Walt a job and pay for his cancer treatment way back when (which was obviously the easiest way for Walt to take care of his family), Walt still wants revenge. Yep, that’s right: His ego has been driving this crazy train from the very start.
Has there ever been a more suspenseful end to a TV series? The ultimate fate of Walter White may remain uncertain for another week, but the home stretch of Breaking Bad is likely to be remembered as the most riveting, suspenseful, heart-wrenching final season of television ever created.
There’s really no overstating Vince Gilligan’s accomplishment. The modern serial drama is not only in its adolescence as a genre, but it’s one of the hardest narratives to wrap up in a gratifying way. Unlike movies or books, which are built with a beginning, middle, and end in mind, serial dramas are designed merely to last past the first season (if they’re lucky). The writers are looking for essential conflicts and character arcs that might refresh themselves over the course of several years without losing our interest. But unlike sitcoms or episodic dramas like Grey’s Anatomy or The Good Wife, where series-long narrative arcs are upstaged by season-specific and episode-specific plot lines, serial drama creators are asked to entertain us, build suspense, and keep us hooked over the course of several years. Rarely does a TV writer have a clear destination in mind when he or she sits down to write a pilot episode.
Gilligan, on the other hand, has said that he knew where the doomed ballad of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman was headed from the start — and it shows. Gilligan set out to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. True to his word, the last two half-seasons of Breaking Bad have combined the suspense of the greatest crime thrillers with the insanely high stakes that come from knowing (and loving, or love-hating) the main characters oh so well from years of exposure. There’s no laziness here, no reverting to old formulas, no unnecessary scenes where characters say things they’ve already said a million times before.
In fact, one of the most impressive dimensions of Breaking Bad has to be the extreme economy of its dialogue. Somehow Skyler and Walt said what they needed to say to each other over the course of five seasons, but they never repeated themselves, which is a pretty incredible feat for a show that’s been on the air for five years. And for all of the scenes Jesse and Walt have shared, their interactions always took on the strained mood of a bad father-son relationship. Jesse always secretly wanted to make Walt proud, to remain loyal to him, to do right by him, but like a shitty (or purely self-interested) dad, Walt was always disappointed, withholding, punitive, or dismissive. All of these emotions were communicated with very few words, most of them buried in conversations about meth cooking or strategic maneuvers. And entire relationships, like the one between Skyler and Ted, were formed and died with very few words between the two parties. At times, the drama felt more like a strange silent art film about criminals, featuring gorgeous shots of a New Mexico sky, a pair of murderous brothers who rarely spoke, and a frightening old cartel boss who rang a silly little bell that eventually sounded downright ominous. The silence has continued into Sunday night’s episode, from Marie quietly staring out a car window looking heartbroken on her drive home, to Skyler smoking and drinking by herself, then mostly gasping and nodding in response to Todd’s questions about Lydia.
Gilligan and the other writers have shown an incredible amount of restraint over the years, given the criminal landscape of the show. Give another set of writers the same characters and the same terrain to work with, and the whole show devolves into one cartoonish shooting spree after another (flip over to Sons of Anarchy for concrete proof of this). Darkness, in Gilligan’s hands, didn’t have to add up to one stand-off after another. There were lots of different ways to skin this cat, and somehow they involved whisper-arguing over a sleeping baby, fishing a tattered stuffed animal out of a swimming pool, blowing up a brand new car for no reason, and hunting down a stray fly. Like Hitchcock before him, Gilligan proved that sometimes the best way to build dramatic tension is by focusing on the smallest little detail.
And maybe it was Gilligan’s knowledge of where he was headed in the end that caused the tone of the show to feel a little wobbly at the outset, or maybe we were more accustomed to the (less giddy) ways that David Chase and Shield creator Shawn Ryan and Wire creator David Simon subtly telegraphed their notions of morality. The nihilism, the absurdity, the unrelenting bleakness of the first few seasons of Breaking Bad sometimes led us to believe that a dopey kid and his asshole teacher would go on busting skulls and ruining lives without ever paying a price for it. By season three, the show started to feel like a heartbreakingly well-crafted torture chamber.
But somewhere among Jane’s OD death and the plane crash at the end of the show’s second (and weakest) season and Jesse’s murder of Gale at the end of the third season, the show revealed itself as an exquisitely rendered morality play. That’s when we knew, at last, that Jesse and Hank and everyone close to them were going to suffer for Walt’s sins, and Walt would suffer more than anyone else combined. Even with this terrible knowledge, each episode started to take on a suspenseful life of its own in a way it hadn’t before. Thanks to Gilligan’s insistence on carefully considered storytelling, stunningly efficient character revelations, and a series of twists and turns and unexpected trump cards, Breaking Bad went from a beautifully shot, very dark cable dramedy to something far more sublime. This wasn’t just another well-written, prettily-shot drama about criminals. This was a gorgeously crafted, slow-motion tragedy of epic proportions.
But even this realization couldn’t have prepared viewers for how devastating the final seven of eight episodes would turn out to be. Once again, we saw Gilligan and the show’s other writers execute a graceful dance of high stakes, breathtaking twists, narrative restraint, and believability. When the truth came out and Hank and Walt stared each other down in Hank’s garage, when Marie and Hank seethed through lunch with Skyler and Walt, then watched Walt’s videotaped lies about Hank’s corruption and manipulation of him, when Jesse begged Walt to come clean and tell the truth about who he was and what he’d done, and Walt continued to bullshit him, we saw the culmination of several seasons of restraint, coming to fruition. Those scenes were only possible because nothing even close to them had happened before on the show. How many confessions and angry recriminations and threats and enraged stand-offs could’ve been stuffed into each season, considering that we’re dealing with drugs and affairs and main characters lying to each other over and over again?
Breaking Bad will be heralded by many critics and viewers as the best final season of television ever precisely because Vince Gilligan has so steadfastly refused to kill his golden goose along the way. He played it slow and subtle, played it for laughs, squeezed out every bit of absurdity and melancholy and dread, and he did it all with unflinching brutality. He made us feel just how cruel and wrong the world can be. He showed us, in terrifying detail, just how the average man with the average kinds of failures and the average poor prognosis and the average appetite for ego gratification, might slowly turn to the dark side. He made every single step of Walt’s corruption look believable.
It’s a testament to the enormous talents of Gilligan and the other writers that even the plot lines that didn’t happen looked believable to us as an audience. After all, part of the brilliance of this final season lies in what could’ve happened at every step of the way, as much as what did happen. That’s the nature of bad creating more bad. More than anything else, Gilligan has been fascinated by the ways that one unethical choice could lead to a chain of events that triggered greater and greater tragedies. When Walt lunges for the knife Skyler is holding, Skyler could end up dead. Likewise, Walt’s escape with the baby in his lap set our minds reeling: Would the baby die in a fiery car crash? Would Skyler kill herself? Would Junior come after his own father? Anything seemed possible. And when Walt saw Jesse hiding under the car, it was even possible to hope that he might see Jesse as an ally once again, that he might find a way to murder these murdering thugs or at least escape into the desert with his former partner.
And there were so many ways they could’ve all escaped a horrible fate. If Todd’s uncle, Jack, listened to Walt when he said “Don’t come,” Hank could’ve been spared. Even as Jack, that soulless wild-card of a character, pointed a gun at Hank’s head, Walt still believed, in his arrogance, in his self-deluded sense of omnipotence, that he could save Hank’s life. But Hank knew better.
On Sunday night’s episode, Walt once again had several chances to save his family. Saul clearly laid out how screwed Skyler was going to be, and then tried to convince Walt to turn himself in. Walt, whose fatal flaw is that he’s a control freak, flatly refused, and tried to force Saul to help him seek revenge instead. But Saul is a pragmatist. “If I’m lucky, a month from now, best case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha,” he told Walt.
Walt for one is not going to be managing a Cinnabon when all of this is over. The ricin might be meant for Elliott and Gretchen, or maybe it’s meant for Walt himself. Maybe Jesse will finally get his revenge. Regardless of what next Sunday night holds, it will happen because Walt couldn’t give up or accept his fate. Or as Todd puts it to his uncle Jack, “No matter how much you got, how do you turn your back on more?” Walt could never turn his back on more—and he’s about to pay for it.
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