Why the end of Breaking Bad doesn’t (and does) matter 

Why the end of Breaking Bad doesn’t (and does) matter 

Walter White has eight episodes left. Right now, only a small group of people know what happens at the end of Breaking Bad’s final season, but Walt’s basic fate is obvious to anyone who watches the show. It was obvious in the flash-forward at the start of the fifth season, which jumped a year ahead to show us a Heisenberg without the swagger, a shell of a man going through the motions, taking comfort from the machine gun in the trunk of his car. It was obvious over the course of the episodes that followed, as Walt, having defeated his most dangerous foe, luxuriated in his power, opened his arms wide, and watched the blood flow. But really, it was obvious before that. It was obvious in the fourth season, as Walt, forced into impotence by an enemy who was always two steps ahead, railed against that impotence, and poisoned a child; obvious in the third season, as Walt saw the increasingly painful toll of his work and decided to keep digging anyway; obvious in the second season, as Walt’s greed led him to betrayal after betrayal; obvious in the first season, as Walt took a bad decision and somehow kept finding ways to make it worse. You could argue it was obvious in the very first scene of the show: Walter White in his underwear, offering goodbyes to a video camera but making sure to insist, “This is not an admission of guilt.”

Walter White is doomed. There was never any doubt. And in a sense, that certainty means the final eight episodes don’t really matter.

Breaking Bad has always been a terrifically suspenseful show on the micro level, able to wring agonizing tension out of forcing its characters into impossible situations and seeing if they squeeze through to fight another day. Surprisingly, they almost always do: For a series well noted (and well loved) for tension, Breaking Bad never killed off a member of its main ensemble. The biggest death in terms of screen time is Gus Fring at the end of season four, and that wasn’t a huge surprise—his exit was a shock, but he was a threat to Walt, a kind of Big(ger) Bad. More importantly, he was a check that held Walt’s boundless, desperate ambition in place, and the arc of this fictional universe is bent towards giving Walt exactly what he wants and then seeing when he chokes on it. So bye bye, Gus, and really, you had to see that coming. Even if you didn’t, the core group remains. Marie, Hank, Walt Jr., Skyler, and Jesse are all still drawing breath, and it’s something that only becomes impressive when you step back and compare that mortality rate to the amazing, agonizing experience of watching the series week to week. Hour by hour, the danger is greater, and with each successive escape or bit of fast thinking (or bomb in a nursing home), the threat is just so much worse. But it never quite comes into focus.

That, then, is a specific value of these final eight episodes: knowing the consequences for Walt, his family, and everyone his cancerous personality has corrupted. It’s possible that these consequences will fail to live up to expectations; hell, it’s probable. Yet the fact that everyone watching the show knew some reckoning was coming has been part of the deal from the start. Every choice Walt has made, every cause that has spun off into unimaginable effect, has been made with the knowledge that this is a tragedy. It’s like an additional bit of subtext to go along with the commentary on masculine identity and Randian business philosophy: Every time Walt wins, he’s just prolonging the inevitable. This is a plot structure that’s been around as long as there have been stories to tell. It’s Macbeth without the gender politics. Or, to get a bit more modern, it’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde:the tale of a man who uses chemistry to indulge his dark side, and finds the more he indulges, the more impossible it is to keep the two parts of his life separate. This is not a story that’s going to have a happy ending. The best we can hope for is that Walt’s destruction, however it comes, is self-contained; but a certain plane crash in season two put lie to that idea already.

But there’s freedom in that certainty, at least for Vince Gilligan and his writers. Breaking Bad has been remarkably effective at maintaining an ongoing storyline, and yet it arguably falls into the same pitfalls that bog down so many other serialized shows: Characters take a long time to make decisions (note the five-episode stall at the start of the third season before Walt goes back to cooking meth) and certain conflicts continually re-form themselves (Skyler is suspicious of Walt; Walt lies; Skyler tries to kick Walt out of her life; Walt comes back). Yet these sequences never drag down the show’s momentum. This is partly due to brilliant performances and the psychological depth of the writing. The show gains tremendous strength from forcing us into the claustrophobic hell of Walt’s head—the way he rationalizes his decisions, slowly murdering his conscience with each painful step. But the effectiveness of the serialization also relies on the unspoken acknowledgment of the series’ underlying structure. The reassurance that there is going to be a conclusion, that this is headed somewhere, gives every moment added clarity. We’re not watching writers stall for time, we’re watching the carefully crafted erosion of a man’s soul—and the damage that erosion does to the people around him before he finally crumbles.

All TV shows have premises, and all serialized shows require a premise that can create the need for sustained storytelling, an engine that continually generates the potential for new material. The Sopranos had “mobster visits a psychiatrist,” but underneath that was the complicated, loaded interplay between Tony Soprano’s work and his family life. Mad Men is “sexy ad man with a complicated past,” but it’s really about the shift of the mainstream perspective of the ’60s away from a white-male-centered culture. Both shows used a starting point as a way into richer worlds, and both imply what the end game will be about: the specific fates of their leading characters, and how those fates reflect on the major themes of their narratives. You need both halves of that piece to make a serialized story really work—an entrance into the narrative, and an implied exit strategy that will allow viewers to feel like their time isn’t being wasted. Non-serialized shows don’t really need this; the assumption is that they’ll just keep running until they are no longer profitable. (Which can still be just as artful as any other approach, but that’s an argument for another essay.) If a creative team wants the charge and addictiveness of weekly cliffhangers and rising action, though, they need to provide a sense of destination. One of the reasons The Walking Dead has struggled to maintain momentum (even while scoring ever-rising ratings numbers) is that the setup—zombies, apocalypse, basic misery—doesn’t really offer much in the way of a conclusion. Yes, there’s the basic “who will die?”—but given the show’s relentless need to underline just how much it sucks to keep surviving, there’s nothing to root for. So long as the heroes have to face off against a clear and immediate threat, the show works. When that threat loses its immediacy, the show becomes a grind—weirdly addictive, but ultimately hollow.

Breaking Bad is more deeply invested in serialization than most of its contemporaries, but it also follows a much more specific through-line. While Vince Gilligan’s famous “Mr. Chips into Scarface” comment has been over-quoted and overanalyzed (and also makes the writing seem a lot simpler than it actually is), the idea does speak to the very concrete character arc at the show’s heart. It would’ve made a decent movie script: Meek nice guy gets terminal cancer diagnosis, decides to indulge his dark side, wackiness ensues. As the show went on, this description became less immediately accurate. By now, it seems less about the slow fall of a good man and more about a monster who pretended at decency for years, only to finally succumb to his darker self. But regardless of how the audience (and the writers’) perspective on the protagonist has changed, that spine remains intact. It’s like a classic noir: A bad choice, no matter what the intentions behind it, can only lead one way. 

The end, then. It matters because the details matter, the pieces (to steal a phrase) always matter. Yet in terms of ensuring Breaking Bad’s legacy—as one of the greatest examples of serialized storytelling in the history of the medium—it doesn’t really matter at all. The legacy is secure. Oh, it’s possible that Vince Gilligan and his team could fumble. If the devastation that is Walt’s fate fails to satisfy all the foreshadowing, viewers will be disappointed; if the chaos stretches plausibility too far (as some critics argued already happened in the first half of season five), there will be complaints. And if the whole thing turns out to be a dream/novel written by Skyler/aliens, all bets are off. Given the show’s history, though, the odds are low that any mistakes will be truly cataclysmic, and time has a way of eliding over the rough edges of a successful television series. More importantly, the security is inherent in that structure. Outside of making sure Walt’s fate is appropriate, and that Jesse and the others are accounted for, there are no mysteries to resolve here. Shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica fumbled when they tried to mix complex mythologies with the seat-of-the-pants storytelling that television requires. Those mythologies demanded conclusions that would explain as much as they resolved. Breaking Bad’s mythology is elusive, symbolic, and largely unimportant. What we know about Gray Matter, the company Walt left behind (he claims they screwed him over; the implication is that his temper drove him out), is important only inasmuch as it tells us about him. There are no major questions left unanswered, apart from “What happens next?”

There are plenty of lessons to learn from Breaking Bad. Appreciate the small dignities of life. Take your cancer diagnosis in stride. Do not under any circumstances cook crystal meth, even if you’re really, really good at it. But the most important lesson it offers for those inspired by the show’s creative success is in its approach to television storytelling. By relying on a tried-and-true character arc, Vince Gilligan and the others were given a ground to build castles on; horrible castles, with mushy corpses and rotting lives inside, but beautiful, too, and haunting. Walter White was his own story engine, a failed and desperate man determined to keep reaching as far and as wide as he could, and with him in place, the show was able to more deeply explore the lives he touched, to demonstrate the depth of humanity that surrounded him, and underline the terrible difficulty of doing good—and the corrupting, agonizing cost of failure. 

So make your predictions. Maybe Walt will go down in a blaze of glory; maybe he’ll die in anonymity; maybe he’ll still be breathing when the screen fades to black, with the certainty that everything he’s built is ashes. But all of his options end up in the same place. The fates of Jesse, Skyler, Hank, and the rest are still in the air, but one thing’s for sure: Walter White has only eight episodes left. He’s doomed, and Breaking Bad is all the better for it.