Man, that was an ending.
And so it ends, this 61 hour, meth-fueled Shakespearean morality play starring a Macbeth in tighty whiteys and his suffering spouse who can’t wash the Turtle Wax from her hands. When Breaking Bad first appeared in January 2008 I didn’t expect much from the show. After all, it featured Seinfeld’s dentist, Tim Whatley—or Malcolm’s dad Hal, if you prefer—as a high school chemistry teacher turned drug manufacturer. At the time I was a devoted viewer of Showtime’s Weeds, which was already doing the “middle class white person turns to a life of crime” bit very well. But I’m no anti-dentite, so I gave good Dr. Whatley’s new vehicle a shot.
From that first episode Breaking Bad was destination television for me, more so than any television show that came before it. Watching Walt’s downward (or was it upward?) spiral from cancer-ravaged schlub to Heisenberg, the mighty drug kingpin, was addicting, but it wasn’t just Walt. Jesse’s descent from crying on the inside party boy to a hollowed out shell left alive for a single function—“the cook”—was the perfect counterpoint to Bryan Cranston’s protagonist turned antagonist.
What compelled me to watch Breaking Bad was the ever-present possibility that could be me on screen. I’m one terminal illness or other tragedy away from scrambling to provide for my children. It’s easy to say “I would do anything for my kids,” but would I? Could I go to the dark places that Walt does to make sure that my kids were financially secure once I’m gone? But all along that was just the bait, the first in a string of lies Walt used to hustle me into rooting for him.
Or was it a lie? By series end there’s no doubt that Walt is a psychopath, but was he always? Watching all 61 hours again doesn’t really answer the question; it only seems to reinforce the inevitable conclusion. There’s no other way that Walt’s morality tale could end than what we saw tonight.
And that’s the brilliance of what Vince Gilligan created here. At least to this extent, no other episodic series has ever maintained the continuity of Breaking Bad. It’s less a series and more a 61 hour film. Working through the episodes, only season three’s “Fly,” wherein Walt chases a common housefly around the lab, might be expendable. This is the series’ 30th episode, and by that point we’re well aware of Walt’s obsessive perfectionism.
Inevitably Breaking Bad was a show about family, not unlike it’s alliterative cousin, The Brady Bunch, only good. When the latter premiered almost 40 years prior, it depicted what was at that time an unconventional family: a pair of horny, young divorcees raising a blended family. Breaking Bad redefined the unconventional television family, and they didn’t even have to go to Hawaii and swipe a tiki idol to do it. We had the lawman married to the kleptomaniac, the high school teacher partnered with the high school dropout, the fiercely loyal (and deadly) Salamanca family, the devoted parents with the situational ethics. None of the show’s characters existed in vacuums, not even Gustavo, and as such every action created a ripple of consequences throughout these unconventional families.
As much as I want to talk about the finale, I can’t bring myself to do it. With DVRs, box sets, on-demand, etc., we no longer have the collective experience of all watching the same thing at the same time. It took me five years to get to the payoff, and it was worth it. I’d hate to be the one to take that away from you because you weren’t glued to your television this evening
I will tell you this, though: Vince Gilligan is working on a prequel to Breaking Bad that brings back Bob Odenkirk’s slimy attorney Saul Goodman, so if you missed the Breaking Bad Winnebago the first time it came around you might get a second chance to climb aboard early.