Breaking Bad Finishes in the Shallow End

By obsessing over the plot, the obsessed-over drama missed the point of good television. And you’re all to blame

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Ursula Coyote / AMC

Breaking Bad, seemingly every damn piece written about the show told us, was the story of how Mr. Chips turns into Scarface. (If you have managed not to encounter this turn of phrase, congratulations: you have not read the Internet for the better part of the past 14 months.) I hated this phrase with more passion each time I read it. That’s not because its crisp description has turned limp in overuse (although it has), and not because the reference to Mr. Chips flies over the heads of the TV-thinky audience — although it does (I have heard but one person who was not directly referencing that Breaking Bad–specific phrase mention Mr. Chips, and it was my 81-year-old grandmother).

No, what vexes most about the interminable repetition of that bit was that it took this work — this aspirational, ambiguity-rich art — and reduced it, in the discourse, to a puzzle. A word search. A map. Well, Mr. Chips has to become Scarface, so in accordance with that, here’s how things might go. Much of the coverage of the final season, especially the weekly recaps, took this angle. What will happen to the gang? The logistics of the plot became more important than the show’s meditations on humanity; the who, what, when and where superseded the why.

One still had good reason to hope, though. Sure, the show had seemed a little bit plot-obsessed (and, correspondingly, ignorant of higher things) since the on-the-nose reveal at the end of Season 4. But the show had once devoted itself to deep contemplation, the careful examination of manners and morals. Perhaps the last episode would bring out its best.

Yet on Sunday night, with every chance to write its own legacy, the show came to endorse the simple view of itself. The last episode was a gripping revenge-minded thriller, Home Alone with better cinematography and less Buzz. Each character got to meet his own tidy end. There was a poisoning and a break-in. And in the climactic scene of a show that had once meditated slowly and endlessly on the drama ongoing in one man’s mind, an unmanned car-mounted machine gun murdered most all of the bad guys. The show’s humanity had been stripped away. In its place we had a robot and solutions to the puzzle. And for what?

The show’s protagonist spent more than a month alone in a cabin in New Hampshire and drives across the country by himself — fertile opportunities for moral exploration, if not the most scintillating onscreen action — and they merited next to no final-episodes screen time. Same held for the children left orphaned by the bloodbath, or the countless Americans and Eastern Europeans ruined by the blue meth. But, fine, give us all kinds of machine-gun theatrics. The finale’s problem wasn’t implausibility, as some have said. It was that the implausibility had been injected merely to resolve the plot. Give us something deep!

The apparatus nonetheless carried on as though we had seen something deep. Most everyone in my Twitter feed adored the finale. The “Talking Bad” after-show featured an interview cum coronation with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan. The very existence of both the show and Gilligan’s interview suggested we had watched something subtle in need of explanation. Something that told a story. Something that did more than solve a puzzle.

But AMC was just following the Internet’s lead. This is what click-based economics has wrought. Many spaces on the Web ( included!) have come to resemble Breaking Bad zines, or zines for whichever show is thriving at the moment. There are recaps and interviews, appreciations and roundups, points and counterpoints. Marooned in that sea, it’s hard for anyone to steady himself and assess what those 62 hours stood for. The show itself didn’t even do that.

Mr. Chips turned into Scarface, and then it was time for Low Winter Sun.