Warning: Contains spoilers
“Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
In the weeks before Breaking Bad returned with the final eight episodes of its split season five, AMC ran a commercial which had the show’s star, Bryan Cranston, reading “Ozymandias,” a 19th Century sonnet by Percy Bysshe Shelley, set against time-lapsed images of New Mexican desert.
The trailer, or more specifically the sonnet, perfectly and hauntingly foreshadowed the impending doom the final episodes of Vince Gilligan’s brilliant series would bring. The sonnet, which features the above line, tells the tale of Egyptian pharaoh Ramessess II and his decline, which left behind only the massive statue built in his honor that now sits alone in a barren desert.
Walt too would inevitably see the fall of the legacy he thought he would leave behind, even collapsing in the middle of the desert, similar to the statue Ramessess II had attempted to leave behind. And within moments of Walt’s collapse, he also watched as everything he had attempted to leave behind was dragged away.
“Breaking Bad,” for all its popularity and acclaim, was never interested in a victory lap. The final eight episodes of the show contain almost none of the dark humor from the earlier seasons, even emerging once somewhat comical and loveable characters such as Saul and Jesse deep into desperate and bleak scenarios.
The final episodes, considering how many characters were dispassionately killed off and how many other lives were irrevocably damaged by the narcissism of Walter White, should have been completely unwatchable. Instead, the show actually managed to grow in popularity, grabbing 10.3 million viewers for its finale—by far the largest in the show’s history. This surge, while owing some credit to the availability of the show on Netflix and DVD, was mostly a product of the brilliant, surgically-precise manner of storytelling the show employed over its 62 episodes.
Gilligan’s original pitch for the show, to “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface,” has since become a part of the show’s lore. Gilligan managed to push the boundaries of an audience’s natural inclination to identify with a protagonist to the furthest possible boundary. This cultural experiment was done so effectively that how quickly a viewer turned on Walt in many ways acted as a barometer for that person’s sense of morality.
Some turned on Walt the moment he donned the black hat and became Heisenberg, while most likely gave up after he watched Jane choke to death in season two. If that was not enough, surely most viewers wanted to see Walt melt away in one of his own acidic barrels after the final pan away of season four revealed he had been the one to poison the six-year-old Brock to turn Jesse against Gus.
Still, many fans proudly stand by Walt to this day, justifying his actions as being done for family, and thus morally justifiable, even after a beaten-down Walt in the finale said to Skylar that he had done it all for himself and the feeling it gave him, something the majority of the audience, and Skyler herself, had realized long before. The fact that anyone could cheer for Walt at all, who, as laid bare in a confrontation with Hank, was willing to blow up a nursing home and have ten people behind bars (plus many, many more) killed to save his own skin, shows just how brilliant Cranston was throughout the entire performance. Cranston managed to seamlessly shift between family-man chemistry teacher to sociopathic drug lord, all while keeping an even-keeled relatable front. Toward the end of the show, Walt broke off into moments of rage where he would reveal just how dark of a man he was deep down, but Cranston always knew just when to dial it back to keep a semblance of moral ambiguity to the character. It was a virtuoso performance, through and through, and one that launched Cranston from being known as the goofy dad on “Malcolm in the Middle” to consideration as one the finer actors of his generation.
The same can surely be said about “Breaking Bad” as a whole. Any critic would be outside of his or her mind to leave it off of a list ranking the top shows in this recent “golden era” of television.
After Walt and Jesse have their first meth cook in the now-iconic, decrepit RV, Jesse marvels at Walt’s first product, calling him an artist, to which Walt responded blankly that it’s just “basic chemistry.” This single line would come to define the manner in which the series unfolded Walt’s story. Even through the gorgeous, creative work of the slew of talented directors “Breaking Bad” employed, Gilligan was always more scientific than artistic in his approach to storytelling. The show was always obsessively focused on telling the tragic story of a man letting out decades of repressed anger. The plot was wound tightly enough to give off the appearance it could snap at any moment. For every action, a reaction. To the point that, by the time a dying Walt was surrounded by the police and the show faded to black, there was nary a single plot point left unsolved.
Many have commented on the finale’s tidiness, from Jesse being saved to Walt Jr. getting the money, being out of sync with the carnage and despair of the episodes before it. Walt, it could be argued, does end up with the closest thing to a happy ending imaginable. But, in actuality, is there anyone who is actually better off as a result of knowing Walter White? Jesse may be cheering at first while driving off, but he is still incredibly damaged, with no family and friends and little employment prospects. What is left of the White family has been irrevocably damaged by Walt’s despicable actions in ways that would take several more comments to flesh out. “Breaking Bad” was a tragedy from opening to close and no amount of automated machine gun bullets into neo Nazis was ever going to change that.
Gilligan touched on the subject of the show’s conclusive ending on “Talking Bad” after the show, explaining that the series has always focused on being precise and plot-driven, so an ambiguous end, similar to those employed by “The Sopranos” or “Lost,” just would not have fit. Walter Hartwell White had been too evil, too lucky and too selfish for far too long. His time of reckoning had come and, much like the late great Mike Ehrmantraut, “Breaking Bad” does not do half-measures.