Created by: Vince Gilligan. So this was what all the fuss was about. In the week leading up to the final episode, there was a pretty huge amount of buzz on the internet, which reminded me how much stock we like to put on final episodes. They can quite often define the entire rest of the series—M*A*S*H is arguably remembered fondly in pretty large part due to how monumental its finale was. The strange ambiguity and only quasi-resolution of The Sopranos lingered with me—and thus the whole show has lingered with me, even though I think that a good chunk of the middle part of that show wasn’t really all that good. Two huge, glaringly unsatisfying endings that stick out to me are Twin Peaks and Deadwood—both of which were endings that weren’t supposed to be endings, and both of which are so incredibly satisfying to me in how unsatisfying they are and how many questions they leave unanswered. So, for me, watching Breaking Bad all these years, I guess I realized that I wouldn’t actually be happy with the ending unless it was a deliberately obscure conclusion, leaving open some of the ambiguities I think that this show was playing with. To that extent, I was a bit disappointed with the conclusion. As much as it wrapped everything up neatly, I felt like it wrapped everything up too neatly. In the era when an edgy, subversive ending is the norm, maybe it’s supposed to be really novel to present a conclusion where the bad guy gets what’s coming to him (even if the bad guy is the main protagonist), and nothing is left unresolved. And that’s interesting too—how, even in death, it feels like Walt got exactly what he wanted, as he wanted it. And it’s interesting how fucking unsatisfying that is. In some ways, I felt like this was an ending set up to deliberately silence the fanbase, to definitively kill any speculation, any chatter from fans, any inane questions to the creators or cast about a sequel or reunion. It’s over—here it is, exactly like YOU wanted it, and exactly like Walter wanted it. Happy now?
A lot has already been written about this show and Walter White, and no doubt a lot more will be written, but one way to read this show was as a self-reflexive comment on the process of viewer identification and empathy with the protagonist. Creator Vince Gilligan has stated as much in interviews—that he started a sort of game with the audience to see how many people he could repel with Walter’s increasingly unforgivable behaviour. That single element alone is pretty damn fascinating, and a look at two of television’s other towering contemporary shows—Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire—show that the repulsive and morally ambiguous protagonist is definitely alive and well as a stock figure. I don’t know where those two other shows are going, how dark they’ll get, but right now it looks like Walter White is the single character in TV history who has pushed that whole game into heights of ambiguity and difficulty. He behaves worse than Don Draper but he’s arguably more likable than Nucky Thompson. Even just comparing him to those other guys, or even to Tony Soprano (who was a genuinely bizarre and tantalizingly unknowable character) seems a bit absurd and unfair. Walter White, from the first moment we see him in his work boots, his exposed skinny dad legs pale in the desert sun, his shirt half tucked into his tightie whities, it’s obvious in retrospect that this guy is not supposed to be appealing. And maybe that’s where this show gets really strange and unique in the way that it presents an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, a seemingly regular, plain, extraordinarily unremarkable, lame person doing really edgy, subversive, dangerous, and ultimately immoral things, and, most importantly, not looking particularly attractive while he does it. There’s basically nothing glamorous about anything he does. There’s no Tony Soprano mansion, strip club, gold chains, extramarital sex, or yacht parties with “the boys.” Walt’s family is like all of our families—small, lame, quaint, middle-class, homogenous, and predictable. The most decadent, sexy, attractive depiction of Walt’s accrued wealth is that giant pile of cash in the little storage facility flooded in cold fluorescent light, serving as a makeshift sofa for two humourously unglamorous security guards as they plop themselves down on it. This element of humour is what sets the show apart.
It’s been remarked upon elsewhere by more intelligent people than I how our culture is full of examples of that postmodern self-subversion, denigration at the same time as adulation. In those Heisenberg moments, when Walter is supposed to be at his most “badass”—you really do have to put it in quote marks—he looks absolutely absurd, even laughable, as he gets that stoney expression on his face, and you know he could cold bloodedly kill someone. And yet, for all the genuine fear and gravity that he commands, the moment he pulls on that ridiculous hat and those sunglasses, is it possible for any of us to take him seriously? I sort of felt compelled to do so, but the more I think about it, and look back on the series, the more I suspect that Gilligan and crew never actually wanted you to fully take Heisenberg seriously (much less Walter himself). Early in the show (first or second season), Walt and Walt Jr are having a great time watching Pacino in Scarface, and the absurd juxtaposition there is so obvious—could this regular dork dad ever be Tony Montana? There was always a pretty wide space open for you to see right through that whole thing, to see him not as a commanding, threatening gangster figure, but as a persona, a Halloween costume taken too far. And yet, Walt did own those characteristics—he was Heisenberg, and in the end, he was more Heisenberg than Walt, he enjoyed being Heisenberg more than Walter White.
I’m not sure where to end with this, since I could probably speculate all day about these fictional characters and what weight they lend to real life, to issues of self-representation and identity, and the process of fictional narratives in general, and the comment on American society, the American Dream, etc. What can I say? This was a good show.