This review contains spoilers.
I know it’s been said before, but I’m going to say it again – damn, Breaking Bad is good! I came to this series a little late and spent a good chunk of 2012 staying up into the wee hours catching up on previous seasons. Watching the final eight episodes of season five as they came out was excruciating – each instalment was gripping and ended with a cliff-hanger. But now, finally, Breaking Bad is over, and although I loved this show I do have some misgivings about the way it ended.
Breaking Bad (created by Vince Gilligan, a former writer for The X-Files) first aired in 2008 on AMC. The show is set against the arid backdrop of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and begins when a mild-mannered chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer starts cooking methamphetamines to raise money for his family.
The show won ten primetime Emmys during its run, and has been called the best TV series of all time. So what makes Breaking Bad so good? It is certainly a combination of factors – great writing, fantastic performances (particularly from Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Anna Gunn as his wife Skyler). But I think what really sets Breaking Bad apart is the success of Gilligan’s original intention – to take a protagonist and turn him into an antagonist.
Across five seasons Walter White slowly but surely goes from ‘goodie’ to ‘baddie’. The show had a clear destination right from the beginning, and skilfully narrowed in on its conclusion over sixty-two episodes. Breaking Bad was never in danger of making too many seasons (like The X-Files did) and slowly petering off into nothingness. Rather, this series uses the medium of television in the best possible way – to explore an epic story with complicated characters on a large canvas. And Breaking Bad really is epic – it has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy: a Macbeth-like hero, a large cast of characters including multiple antagonists and a clown (Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk), so much guilt, betrayal, clever plans and plot twists, violence. Not to mention the universal question that rests at the heart of the series – what makes someone bad? Is it their actions? Is it a conscious decision? And at what point does Walt actually step over into darkness?
Personally by the end of Breaking Bad I had lost all sympathy for Walt, and yet I can’t pinpoint exactly when I stopped rooting for him. Somewhere between season one and season five I stopped connecting with Walt. It was as if (if Breaking Bad were a novel) I had gone from reading a character in first person to reading them in third person. I saw what Walt was doing but I no longer felt a link to his mind. I was no longer able to predict or understand his behaviour. However, I never lost interest in Walt as a character – if anything, his transformation made him more interesting.
So how should Breaking Bad have ended? After the final episode my boyfriend and I had a long discussion about the ending. At first we both loved it, but as we started talking we realised something felt a little lacking. My boyfriend pointed out that Walt shouldn’t have ‘won’ at the end. He got his money and he didn’t have to kill himself. He defeated the ‘badder’ guys and saved Jessie. Should the show have ended with him ‘getting what he deserved’? Showing that crime pays? I argued that this would have been too predictable, too ‘morality play’. But then I started thinking about the show as a story, and wondered if there was enough of a climax. Season five ended with another Walter White act of manipulative genius, but it was no more impressive than the finales of previous seasons. Maybe there should have been a bigger change. Like my boyfriend said, maybe his plan should – for once – have failed.
Overall, however, Breaking Bad is a fantastic story about choices. About the consequences of our actions, and also why we choose the actions we do. At first Walt was making meth to help his family, but at some point his motivation changed. In the end he was doing it because he liked it, because he felt alive, and because he was good at it. And perhaps this was Walt’s real transformation: the realisation and acceptance of his true nature. Finally letting go of his moral discomfort with what he was doing, making peace with his feelings and admitting the truth.
Psychologically thrilling, dramatic, and at times very darkly funny, Breaking Bad is certainly one of the best television dramas yet. I may have to go back for a second watch.