SPOILERS ahead for the end of Breaking Bad, obviously.
When the final, spiraling shot of Walter White cut to black on Sunday night, the story of Breaking Bad was finally over. For the last eight weeks, a legion of fans watched with exhilaration and horror as the insular world that the series had built for six years completely ripped itself apart. The show throttled through plot even faster than it usually does, shifting alliances and the upper hand on a weekly basis. But after the masterful explosion of “Ozymandias”, Breaking Bad (somewhat out of necessity) slowed way down. Its ruminative penultimate episode stranded Walt across the country, wasting away in a cabin that many assumed would be his final resting place.
Until it wasn’t. Heisenberg makes one last stand in the series’ endgame, returning home to set as much right as he could. And man, he does a good job. In a single episode, Walt finds a way to (1) give his family the money that he’d earned, (2) give his wife a way out of trouble with the authorities, and (3) lay waste to an entire Nazi compound while rescuing his surrogate son, Jesse. Every important plot thread is tied into a bow, from Lydia’s ricin-infused tea to Hank and Gomie’s grave location.
So why did it mostly feel so lifeless?
Breaking Bad has always thrived on its accelerated pacing, ratcheting up the tension by refusing to stall its narrative momentum. This tendency to defy conventional storytelling cues has defined the series best moments, leading to unforeseeable (and unforgettable) events like The Cousins wielding an axe in Walt’s bedroom just an episode after the show introduced them or Skyler blurting out “you’re a drug dealer” instead of a more traditional confession scene. It subverts the audience’s expectations by never giving them a chance to form those expectations, the emotional equivalent of Hank lowering that garage door before Walt (and the viewer) could fully process what was going on.
But as time ran out for Walt and his show, it became harder and harder to maintain this breakneck speed, to catch viewers off-guard in their search for the show’s end. From the moment that set of car keys fell into Walt’s outstretched hand like manna from heaven, it suddenly felt like the show could end no other way. Despite bottoming out into the very picture of pitiable, cancerous frailty in ”Granite State”, he has never been more effective than he was in this final episode. All three of his plans go off without a hitch, a remarkable level of consistency compared to the staggering gut punches that came with, for example, robbing the methylamine train.
Emily Nussbaum wrote a staggeringly great rebuttal suggesting the possibility that nothing that happened in the finale was real; from the moment those keys drop, “we were watching…a dying fantasy on the part of Walter White.” If only it were so. Unfortunately for the show’s thematic strands (but fortunately for #TeamWalt), Heisenberg makes it back to Albuquerque not out of any plausible strength or cunning, but simply because the show’s ultimate deities—the writers—wanted him to go back.
And so, as we settled into the last moves of Walter White, there were fewer and fewer places for the show to go. Series creator Vince Gilligan has time and time again described the writing process for this show as akin to “plotting out a chess match”, staying two or three moves down the line from the audience. But in the endgame of chess, everyone already knows that the king will fall—it’s just a matter of finding out how.
That’s why the best moments of last night’s finale had nothing to do with the plot machinations: Walt saying goodbye to Holly, letting go of the last purely innocent connection to his former life. Jesse finding the strength to refuse his great and terrible teacher’s bidding, though every fiber of his fractured soul screamed to take revenge. And most of all, Walt finally admitting to his wife, for the first and only time, how this whole dark mess was the result of his own hubris. When I think of this finale, I’m not going to remember remote-controlled machine guns or red laser pointers—I’ll think of a man saying, “I did it for me. I liked it.”
I liked it too, and I’ll always defend Breaking Bad as one of the best television shows of all time, a modern Western and Greek tragedy all mashed into a crystalline masterpiece of storytelling. But for a show that once seemed more likely than any other to “stick the landing” in its final episode, I can’t help but feel like it stumbled just a little too much in its quest for complete closure. The king is dead. Long live the king.