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The logistics of the plot became more important than the show’s meditations on humanity; the who, what, when and where superseded the why.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 (TIME.com 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.

23 comments
AffinityFashion
AffinityFashion

WHY can't something just be a damn good story anymore?  Why must there be some overall message?  

Look at the Sopranos - once the orgasmic reviews started pilling up David Chase went a little too (as Vince Gillgan would say) artsy-fartsy.  I believe it was Season 4 that people liked the least and it's probably because everyone started taking it too seriously.  It was "art" now.

I LOVED the end and so did 99% of the "non-critics"

Walt beat every foe in one war or the other: Emilio/Crazy 8, Tuco, Gus, Hank - why is it so shocking he "beat" Gretchen and Elliot and the Neo-Nazis?  

Thanks but I like wish fulfillment in my finales - not Deb @ the bottom of the ocean because it was shocking and "artsy".


stonecutter0602
stonecutter0602

I've conditioned myself to only watch commercial-free TV (HBO, Showtime), or On-Demand stuff where I can FF thru the commercials or at the very least mute them (it's instructive that when NBC posted the season opener of SVU last week On-Demand, it killed the FF button so the viewer is forced to watch the commercials!)  Commercials without sound are fare less mind-numbing than the intact sound-blasting garbage audiences are force-fed on network shows; not watching them at all is the best antidote, but I assume for millions that is simply not possible, given the power of audience conditioning, like Pavlov's dogs.

I sat through the BB finale like so many others, enduring the purposely muted commercials that were copiously dumped into the mix like a swarm of bees at a picnic.  I look forward to the time when I can watch BB without commercials, if that opportunity ever presents itself, but I never took the time to DVR it in advance, and I have no plans to buy the boxed set, so perhaps I'll just move on to the NBT (Next Big Thing).  Isn't that what we do in this country anyway?  To give credit where it's due, BB was well-written and acted for a long time, even if it was merely filler for all those commercials.

BrainSmasher
BrainSmasher

Exactly. The first four seasons were some of the best tv ever until they killed off Gus and then Mike. And then they killed off Hank and Gomez. They killed of all of the best characters. Why couldn't they have killed Flynn and Slyler and Marie?

auster24
auster24

What a tawdry and misleading review. You say that the ending is "our fault" because online reviewers asked plot questions in their recaps. That's irrelevant. Your point would be much stronger if you based it on the reaction audiences have had to the string of controversial series finales we've experienced this decade, such as The Sopranos and Lost, and how our clamoring for closure necessitated a tidy, all-questions-answered finale. Instead, you focus on buzz phrases, like comparing the finale to Home Alone, a comment that begs to be picked up by other outlets to increase your own notoriety while adding no substance to the conversation about the finale's effectiveness.

The ambiguity of Breaking Bad has never been focused on its plot but on its MORALS. In this sense, a critique of the finale can be made because Walt dies on his own terms and perhaps that's a vindication of the character, a vindication he does not deserve. But this was a finale and as such, certain plot points had to be addressed and a sense of finality had to be felt. That was Gilligan and his team's approach and there is no fault in this. Regardless, some perspective is still given. Walt admits to doing this for himself - something he's never said before - but at the same time, he helps his family. Those two opposing points have always existed in his character and in the end, he died because of them.

IncaGene
IncaGene

Please Jack enlighten all of us who are to blame with a better television program that finishes in the deep end.... Yeah, I thought so...

JamesEllaby
JamesEllaby

This article both undersells the finale and overstates the depth of what had gone before it. Breaking Bad was a brilliantly-executed crime drama that had some deep moments but was ALWAYS plot-driven. Sure, we could have seen Walt drive across the country or more of him looking bored in a shack, but would that have added anything worth adding? Not really. Nor do we need to see what happened to Brock or Lydia's kid, or where the meth went. This wasn't The Wire, it was Walter White's story. It ended when he ended. I get what you mean about Talking Bad, but those shows exist because people watch them, not because they NEED to exist.

And if you're complaining the BB finale, clearly you didn't watch Dexter...

mark120953
mark120953

There is a better series on AMC nobody watches  because it is on Saturday nights called Hell on Wheels. In additon,FX has some powerful ones with Sons of Anarchy,the Bridge and in the past the Americans not to mention Justified. AMC did a brilliant job marketing Breaking Bad and the Time writer made good points we can disagree with. But,AMC is best known for Zombies vs. the last of us. So,hurry up Oct. 13th.

mykg
mykg

Jack has figure out how to troll the internet to drive traffic to his nonsense. Congrats. 

methodical365
methodical365

All I can say about the ending was it fit what the audience wanted. Tailored specifically to the audience that wanted Jesse to live, and Walt to die. I mean, the ending works, yet it lacks the essence that made the show great in the earlier seasons. Specifically when it came to Walt being a lucky genius that could think or lie his way out of any situation. In my opinion, a better ending would have been an ending in which Jesse was killed in the crossfire, Skyler is somehow killed leaving the kids orphaned, and Walt gets his money back. I would have loved to see Walt sitting on his pile of money the only thing he has left.

vrcplou
vrcplou

If you really want to watch a man's inner contemplation on a cross-country drive or the fate or the struggles of drug orphans you have been watching the show.  I'm sure there are plenty of foreign language indie films that can fulfill your inner masochist.  BB stayed true to its beginnings in my opinion; rich, complex, morally shady but ENTERTAINING.  I never bought the Scarface analogy; Walter White is no Tony Montana,  thankfully.  I think this was just a shorthand pitch that Vince Gilligan used to sell the show and it stuck.

YezenAbusharkh
YezenAbusharkh

Yea this review clearly missed a lot of subtlety... 

I mean, after two episodes of doing nothing but watching the fallout of Walter White's actions destroy his family and shake him to his core, it kind of makes sense that the show's protagonist would have one last chance to act. The ending was actually very sad when you look at it in context of the last three episodes. Walt dies. He loses his family, Marie hates him, Hank is dead, he never sees his daughter grow up, his son hates him, and the last chance he ever get's to see him is from afar, hobbling into the house(this was very sad). His family will never know that the money they will receive is from him.
But beyond that, the show has already spent season after season delving into Walt's character and his morality(and frankly every other characters morality) and hearing his rationalizations while seeing the fallout of his actions. The finale was a moment for Walt to become what he was going to become. Walt had to accept himself. A criminal mastermind is what he is. That's why it makes sense that everything went according to plan(aside from getting shot). This is who Walter White is. This is what Walter White does. 

What more could Skyler say to him after he told her that he did it for him. To feel alive. What more could Jesse say to him after Walt gave him the choice of whether to kill him or not? Similarly, what could Walt really have said to Flynn? What could he have said to Gretchen and Elliot to change anything? I mean, this took me a couple viewings to fully grasp, but after a certain point, there is nothing left to say. "But it destroyed our family" "They killed Andrea" "I didn't intend for Hank to die," "It was my research." There is a moment where the characters accept that what happened happened, and they have to live with it. Walt knows he screwed up his life. The finale was about making peace.

campana_constance
campana_constance

I completely disagree.  The writing was as tight as any I've seen; the main character admits to his "reasons" for doing what he did; he leaves a trust fund with those jerks (and, I'm sorry, they are) and well, I don't want to replay the scenes, but if Jack was hoping for some global/moral recompense, this wasn't that show.  The main character was complex in ways that are sometimes hard to understand, but what a creation!  Next to The Wire, this show might have the best writing.

dolphineclipse
dolphineclipse

I do understand where the writer is coming from, but I think Breaking Bad was always a fairly plot-based show, so this was a good way to end it. I also don't think the final episode, or the later seasons in general, were without a deeper side, but the show tended to leave you to ponder this stuff for yourselves rather than hammering you over the head with it. For me, this made it a refreshing break from shows like The Sopranos and Lost that became increasingly pretentious and overblown.

jackdickeysucks
jackdickeysucks

Stick to writing about sports Jack. Hopefully you are more knowledgeable about that. The fact that idiots like you are paid to critique any professionals(sports or Hollywood) is a prime example that even a moron can land a job as a journalist. Was the last show perfect? No it was not, but the show itself was a masterpiece. And Walt got to go out with his "Baby Blue". Well, well done Vince and the rest of the gang.

mhsdolgow
mhsdolgow

Speaking as someone who thought the finale was great, let me just that I think you're right and wrong with this article.

Was the finale "deep"?  No.  But we had already been so deep with the preceding 61 episodes.  We didn't need philosophical contemplation at the end.  All of the characters on the show had already been put in moral dilemmas, and their actions through five seasons had revealed their true colors.  

The writers were clearly firm in their belief that the final episode would simply be about making a true conclusion for the story.  They could do this because the entire body of the show speaks for itself.  All they needed to do with the last episode was put a bow on it.

Personally I don't see how they could have done it better.  Sure, the machine gun mechanic was a bit of a stretch in practical terms, but at the same time I think we can give the writers some leeway with this one.  The way I see it, the machine gun represented judgment, and took down every single person in the room who deserved death.  Which is why only Jesse survived.  

No one in this fictional world came away better off.  For the few characters that actually survived, they have lost husbands, fathers - and in Jesse's case, the scars will surely never fade.  Saul Goodman may have gotten off the easiest, but he certainly didn't seem so thrilled with his prospects of managing a Nebraskan Cinnabon. 

After all the pain the people in this fictional world experienced from the beginning to the end, I for one like the fact that before the end, Walter White had a moment of peace with his baby blue, and died with the hint of a smile on his face.

vrcplou
vrcplou

watching the "wrong" show.  sorry.

vrcplou
vrcplou

@dolphineclipse Yes!  Vince Gilligan trusted his audience's intelligence to do the moral wrestling for themselves.

BigHuell
BigHuell

@jackdickeysucksYou're right. He should stick to writing for the mouth-breathers who don't care about good drama, couldn't write a coherent sentence, and take "pride" in some score of 12-7 in which they played no active role.

Isn't a requirement to be a "writer" the ability to actually write English?  What would happen if you slammed your hand in your car door and, when you went to the doctor's office, he said, "You know, I am a doctor, but I just can't remember what bones go where in the hand. Oh, well, that's not important, is it?"

Why is Time paying someone who, TWICE within this article, departed into something that is not English, by writing "most all of the bad guys" and "most everyone in my Twitter feed"?  Is it all or is it most?  Writing "almost all" would be English, but "most all" and "most everyone" is completely meaningless.  

This guy is all-fail.  

mark120953
mark120953

@campana_constance @mark120953 

   My point in the comment was that there are some very good written programs besides Zombies and meth labs on cable tv. Justified via the late,great Elmore Leonard takes a funny view of drug dealers in Kentucky and makes it a wonderful story on relationships good and bad. Take a look at Hell on Wheels on Saturday nights,too.