Critic: Why the Breaking Bad Finale Was Imperfect (But Exhilarating)

'Breaking Bad' Finale: PEOPLE's TV Critic Weighs In
Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad
Ursula Coyote/AMC

updated 09/30/2013 at 07:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/30/2013 07:20AM

As we headed into Breaking Bad's finale Sunday night on AMC, the question wasn't whether it would end badly, but how badly.

SPOILER ALERT: Several plot developments revealed here.

Walter White was a ball of fire rolling downhill—it was all a matter of where he would stop below and what or whom he would ignite in his final flare-out.

And yet the key moment in the 75-minute episode, which was imperfect but still very satisfying, was the quiet confession that Walt (Bryan Cranston) made to his estranged wife Skyler (Anna Gunn): His transformation from humble chemistry teacher to drug-cooking crime lord was not, he admitted, about raising money to protect his family if and when his lung cancer killed him. It made him feel good.



"I did it for me," he said of his deadly career as "Heisenberg." "I liked it. I was alive."

Which is perhaps the only moral lesson to be drawn from this extraordinary existential thriller: Knowing that death can come any second, we can tend to our souls, do good works, shore up our memory with future generations – or we can just say, “The hell with it.”

Walter White said the hell with it.

It was not a good decision, judging from the body count, but for the audience it was an exhilarating one: Breaking Bad was a string of breathless hairpin turns and violent reprisals told with the lean, muscular pace of a Roadrunner cartoon – really, it was always just a beat or two away from black comedy. My guess is that, on repeat viewings, it will seem even crueler and funnier.

Let me sketch the barest outline of the episode:

After an unproductive period hiding out in snowy New England, Walter has grown back his hair and, with his black glasses and nondescript clothing, looks like the hero of a depressing Swedish movie. His whirring mind filled with ideas of revenge and last things – his cancer is back – he heads home to Albuquerque under the impression that Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), his protegee/former student/co-cooker, is now producing Walt’s own superior, special formula of meth.

This is true, except that Jesse is, in fact, working as a prisoner of a smarter-than-he-looks towhead named Todd and Todd's loathsome Uncle Jack. Walt, by now a fatigued but angry veteran of drug wars, is not on good terms with these gentlemen. He decimates the gang with an ingenious and, frankly, outlandish burst of gunfire – and he saves Jesse, keeping him to the ground and sparing him the hail of bullets.

Jesse, whose gratitude to Walt on this occasion wouldn't have been expected to make up for the times Walt betrayed him, tricked him, undermined him and (oh) attempted to have him assassinated, has the chance to shoot his frenemy – or, more accurately, frenemesis. But he refuses to. Walt, wounded during the melee, collapses and dies as Jesse drives off to freedom.

(There was also a deliciously mean bit of comeuppance involving ricin poisoning.)

Moving or Monstrous?

Some fans may have found Walt's heroic last moments moving. I suppose series creator Vince Gilligan couldn't help loving Walt, after all that, and allowing a small amount of dignity to seep back into his dying body in the finale.

But I think it's a bit of a cheat, after we've been encouraged to enjoy the company of such an amoral monster, to now encourage tears and pity. His humanity was beside the point. And, although Cranston's performance was brilliant, its effect was (again) comic, however perversely, constructed from effects close to the surface – the bald head, the deadly pallor, the teeth set in a grimace, the voice almost choking on anger.

I suddenly see him as a Team America puppet.

It was Jesse, tormented and tortured by his part in so much wickedness, and played by Aaron Paul with such miserable, rock-bottom conviction, who was the actual moral center of the show. Seeing him break free from Walt and his world, that was what touched me about the finale.

But these are quibbles: This is a show that never had a bad season, that year by year grew bolder and more confident in pace and tone. In that regard, Breaking Bad is virtually unprecedented. It's a classic.

Walt probably could have sprouted little white wings and floated up into the clouds and I'd be down with it.

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