What a surprise. Vince Gilligan had an infinitely better ending than anyone imagined. (Do we need to say “spoiler alert” if you haven’t seen the final episode? OK, “spoiler alert.")
The final episode of “Breaking Bad” was, unlike that of so many series that went before it, an excellent coda. Walt got his share of redemption by throwing his body over Jesse and the Nazis all died. When Gilligan said he and the writers were watching “Casablanca” it was, of course, a clue.
For all the moral ambiguity in Mr. White’s neighborhood there was the resolution that series like “The Sopranos” lacked (though I liked that finale more than most). A little Hollywood, sure, with the God-like, Old Testament machine gun, but Walt was a 21st century Bogart, looking out for himself — even ahead of family, he admitted — until realizing there were more important things to consider.
What made the episode so memorable, aside from AMC sticking every commercial dollar it could find into its pants, wasn’t the ending but how Gilligan got there. It begins with the end of the prior episode in which Walt decides not to turn himself into the police after seeing his ex-boss and girlfriend discuss him, in the most vapid of terms, to Charlie (“I’m everywhere”) Rose. (As if a reminder were needed how wrong or simple-minded media accounts of people in the news can be.)
Then we think he’s off to avenge himself on the self-righteous one-percenters who screwed him in the first place. No, he’s only finding a way to get money to his family. And he does it with the trademark dark humor that we haven’t seen in a while during the most recent, ultra-grim episodes as he convinces them that Jesse’s slacker cohorts are the most notorious hit men in the country who will come after them if they don’t deliver.
“Moral ambiguity” and “noir” are the bywords of almost every good, or at least critically acclaimed television show, today. But "Breaking Bad" made everyone else in the post-“Sopranos” world look like bleak chic in comparison.
“Dexter” was intriguing for two seasons, maybe three. Others have a laughably limited visual palette, like “The Killing” and “Low Winter Sun.” Even well-produced, seemingly daring shows like “Luther” are really only practicing the new normal. They’re like Swedish mysteries. Ground-breaking for a while, then meh. "Breaking Bad" was never meh.
In many ways, “Breaking Bad” was an incredibly old-fashioned show, at least in terms of its morality. When you take a look at the loving family dynamics in the early episodes — before Walt breaks bad or in the flashbacks — the moral of the show could be the Biblical admonition:
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
“Breaking Bad,” obviously, is not a conventional morality play. As Steve Almond wrote for Cognoscenti, we root for Walter White, at least in a corner of the brain. That’s partly because of Bryan Cranston’s creative acting — he could be listed as one of the writers for all he brought to Walter’s character. To judge from a New Yorker profile, he insisted that viewers had to believe in the possibility of Walter’s redemption right up to the end. I'm not sure that was always in the script.
Still, Gilligan is the auteur of “Breaking Bad” and not just for his writing. Gilligan’s visual sense and his music playlist are the equal of Michael Mann’s in “Miami Vice” or David Chase’s in “The Sopranos,” and his writing is better than Mann’s.
I’ve had the “BB” marathon on without sound while I’ve been working this past week and the painterliness of the series is even more obvious. The John Ford desert shots. The Kubrickian closeups of dawning terror, Zen creepiness (Gus) or new-found empowerment (Walt). The pizza on the garage roof, symbol of suburban pleasures turned to nothing, not to mention the bacon strips on eggs spelling out Walt’s final years. The grim interiors and stylized, almost surreal exteriors that offer only a small hope of liberation.
The music is even more personal. The “Miami Vice” playlist was purely of its time. Chase’s was a baby boomer’s delight. He once said that he could have completely programmed “The Sopranos” with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello. He didn’t, of course, but he also didn’t stray all that far.
What’s on Gilligan’s playlist? Crapa Pelada. Los Cuates De Sinaloa. The Be Good Tanyas. Ticklah. Molotov. Jim White. Hardly the usual suspects you hear on all the other shows. When he does dip into the tried and true — Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” — it’s to make a point. Ditto last night with Marty Robbins' "El Paso" (which many astute fans predicted would be cited) and Badfinger's "Baby Blue."
Walt was not only blinded by science, he was blinded by logic. The choices he made were almost always logical. How do I make money for my family? How do I stay out of jail? How do I stay alive? As the ultimate family values man, he ended up being responsible for tearing his family apart.
But he was never Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde or as Gilligan famously put it, Mr. Chips turning into Scarface. He tapped into Mr. Hyde and Scarface with a vengeance, but he never did lose his love of family, even pleading for Hank's life despite the fact that it would have been his undoing to leave Hank alive. Chemistry is transformation, as the ad for the finale has said all week. It’s also unintended consequences.
While Gilligan describes himself as “more conservative than most people in the business” he goes on to say that he’s not anti-government.
In fact, “Breaking Bad” seems like a back-at-ya to the Rand-ian, libertarian right. Ayn Rand could have been describing Walter White in “The Virtue of Selfishness”:
“Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil. Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.”
Howard Roark, meet Walter White. As he tells Skyler toward the end, he didn't do it for family:
"I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive."
Walt once admonished Jesse that his actions had consequences for others. He then proceeded to kill the two creeps who were threatening Jesse, which began his final descent into killing anyone who got in his way. His logic, his self-preservation, and his love of family, blinded him to the consequences of the world and people beyond his inner circle.
He was a truly tragic, Shakespearean figure for our times, a combination of Iago and Hamlet. We damn Iago's deceit and sympathize with Hamlet's conflicts and are always asking: What should he have done? What would I have done?
Those are the same questions we've been asking every week for five seasons.
More on "Breaking Bad" and Bryan Cranston:
This program aired on September 29, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.