For 2013’s best-of-TV list, The A.V. Club’s TV writers got together to discuss the shows that got us talking the most over the past 12 months. Our silver medalist is Breaking Bad.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly following Breaking Bad’s series finale, creator Vince Gilligan discussed the different paths available to “Felina.” Perhaps Walter White could’ve gotten away with it all, ending up as the show’s lone survivor. But in the end, the proper way of closing this tremendous tumble, this transformation from man to monster, was the one that was there all along. Walter White is dying. Breaking Bad means this in the present tense as well as the future tense: Walter White is dying when the show begins and Walter White is dying before the show is over.
“We didn’t feel an absolute need for Walt to expire at the end of the show,” Gilligan said. “Our gut told us it was right.” The creator and his staff listened to their guts—but they also listened to the 61 hours—as thrilling, daring, and compulsively watchable as any in TV history—of television they’d spent the past five years crafting. That conclusion is the first inescapable truth we learn about the reality in which Breaking Bad takes place. Subsequent seasons will portray the videotaped statement at the top of the pilot as a crock of shit, but the cancer diagnosis handed out some 15 minutes later is no lie. Walter White’s been lying on a floor with the life draining out of him for half a decade—the final frames of “Felina” just cut to the chase.
And yet, as Gilligan admitted, that wasn’t the only ending available to Breaking Bad. It’s not the most wholly satisfying one, either—nor is it Breaking Bad’s definitive ending. To truly appreciate the show’s home stretch is to see it as a series of endings. Walter White may have been the one who knocked, but for the last eight hours of his TV life, he was the one who closed doors.
Of course, it would’ve been foolish for Breaking Bad to duck that ultimate ending, because it made no bones about chasing it. The show plays out as if its creative staff is transcribing from a kamikaze run through a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. They’re thumbing through the pages trying to land on the most gruesome ending for their protagonist, coming up short until that final episode. “To save the family by manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine, turn to page two.” Walt lives. “To use chemistry to intimidate the small-time drug kingpin, turn to page six.” Walt lives. “To use chemistry to blow up the legitimate drug kingpin, turn to page 46.” Walt lives, Gus Fring dies. “To sustain your empire by staging a massive train robbery, turn to page 51.” And so on.
In the process, Breaking Bad turned into a show with no reason to fear death. The grim reaper haunted Walter White through every morally compromised decision, but it never visited the loved ones for whom he ostensibly made those compromises. As The A.V. Club’s Zack Handlen observed prior to the show’s August return, the core cast took on a remarkable resilience as the episode tally increased. Sure, Hank got roughed up by The Cousins during season two, but the deaths that meant anything to Breaking Bad prior to 2013 happened to characters on the periphery: Gus, Mike, Jane, or Combo.
But then Hank took an assault from which he couldn’t recover, and it felt like Breaking Bad was truly starting to end. Gallons of blood were spilled in the interest of propping up the Heisenberg enterprise, but when ASAC Schrader took that final bullet in the stellar “Ozymandias,” the veil of invulnerability was finally dropped. At last, the man who was Heisenberg could see that his empire was crumbling. In the New Mexico desert, Walter White looked upon his work and despaired.
And yet that wouldn’t be “Ozymandias”’ biggest gut punch. Nor would it be Breaking Bad’s most devastating ending. For a show that acted like death was no big thing for four and a half seasons, the endings that sunk in the deepest are rooted in relationships. The dissolution of a partnership, as Jesse Pinkman’s estrangement from his mentor-turned-nemesis was drawn out until their final meeting in “Felina.” The detonation of a family, as there isn’t enough tableside guacamole in the world to smooth over the rift between the Whites and the Schraders in “Confessions.” And, looping back to “Ozymandias,” the breaking of the marriage vows between Walt and Skyler.
As Breaking Bad climbed to greater heights of lunacy in its later years—a lunacy that made the show all the more entertaining, but a lunacy nonetheless—the elasticity of the White union was one of the show’s less plausible elements. And yet it remained the bedrock of the show’s reality, one of the last ties to its lower-key origins and that ever-present excuse for Walter’s ever-worsening behavior. When Skyler bought into the criminal enterprise, it was a crucial point of no return. They were in it together; they would go out together.
Until that fateful “Ozymandias” phone call. It’s some of the strongest work Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn ever did onscreen together—and they’re not even in the same room: Cranston, barking into a burner, the put-on vitriol in his voice illuminated with each puff of his vaporizing breath and Gunn, with one of the most expressive faces in the business, allowing the truth of the phone call to slowly wash over her. This isn’t an accusation; it’s an acquittal. As far as the cops listening in on the call know, Skyler told her husband to stop, but he wouldn’t listen. It’s the start of Walter’s troubles, but the end of the Whites’.
There’s a tremendous difficulty in finding a conclusion for a TV show. No series’ story ever truly ends—it lives on in perpetuity through reruns, home-video discoveries, and streaming binges. For decades, Walter White will dive into the noxious atmosphere of The Crystal Ship to grab that camcorder; for decades, he’ll bleed out next to the machinery that made him think emotional buttons and mental levers can control humans. To be honest, for a show as messy and massive as Breaking Bad, “Felina” is too tidy a conclusion. It leaves no thread hanging—even that involving the multi-billion-dollar empire that Walt co-founded and was subsequently pushed out of. But the thing about Breaking Bad is that it doesn’t have just one conclusion. The show was, and is, bigger than an antihero and his death. The person that he would become was bigger than Walter White. To bring that to a close, to truly put an end to his destructive touch, Breaking Bad had to shut down all of its various mechanisms. Seeing such machinery whir to a stop is rarely so thrilling.