Breaking Bad finale: Some thoughts on ambiguity

Jaime Weinman on the end of Walter White

AMC

Editor’s note: Spoiler alert! If you don’t want to know what happens in the final episode of Breaking Bad, stop reading now.

And that was the Breaking Bad finale, a heaping helping of revenge, recrimination, and something else starting with “r.” As many people have already pointed out, the approach Vince Gilligan took was almost the polar opposite of David Chase’s in ending The Sopranos. That show ended in an ambiguous, open-ended way, and frustrated many viewers by doing so: people will accept sad endings, but they tend to get upset when the ending doesn’t feel like an ending at all. (The essence of an ambiguous ending is that it implies life might go on after the story is finished, that there could be other stories to tell. That’s what real life is like, of course, but many viewers understandably want more closure than real life usually provides.) You can’t accuse Breaking Bad of not having an ending. Partly that’s because, unlike Mad Men or even The Sopranos, Breaking Bad has a built-in ending: like most stories about the rise and fall of a criminal, the obvious ending is the criminal’s death, and all the story really has to do to satisfy us is kill him off at the end.

But Gilligan went beyond just giving us the big death scene. (Side note: if you’re going to kill off your lead, it’s a good idea to have him get wounded and very, very slowly bleed to death. Some leads in old film noir movies managed to last even longer and do even more things than Walt did last night.) And this is where the finale may be somewhat controversial, though certainly not in a Sopranos kind of way. The finale of Breaking Bad didn’t have a whole lot of ambiguity, despite being the end to a series that was considered the pinnacle of the ambiguous anti-hero show. There weren’t a lot of twists either, even though the show was famous for its shocking twists.

Instead, the finale was more of “Walt White’s Bucket List”: knowing that it’s over for him, Walt starts crossing stuff off his list, taking care of everything he wants to do before his inevitable demise. He gets his revenge on those horrible Bill and Melinda Gates stand-ins who cheated him out of his part in their pharmaceutical company; he arranges to funnel some of his ill-gotten gains to the son who hates him; he gets his wife off the hook for her complicity in his crimes (continuing what he started in his deliberately angry phone call to her in a previous episode, where he made it sound like she was innocent); he kills a lot of bad guys—and come to think of it, Walt hasn’t killed many people in recent years who aren’t bad guys; in some ways, he ended up less morally ambiguous than he was in the first season—and above all, we finally get to hear him admit what we’ve known all along: that what he did wasn’t really about helping his family, but about feeling like a big shot. Of course there’s still some ambiguity in there: Walt has told so many lies, why should we take him at face value when he “admits” what his true motivations were? But still, it’s a very tidy, very ordered finale. The loose ends are tied up.

If you thought of Breaking Bad as a wild and crazy show, a show full of out-of-left-field moments, then the orderliness of the finale might seem a little bit of an anticlimax. It certainly does remind us that unlike Matt Weiner or David Chase, Vince Gilligan is a creator with crowd-pleasing instincts: he’s not afraid of giving out spoilers in interviews, he is willing to nudge us sometimes to make sure we don’t miss the point, and he’s willing to make use of clichés if they’re what’s best for the story. The bit with not-Bill and not-Melinda Gates coming home and talking infuriating Yuppie talk, unaware that a threat is looming in their house—that’s the kind of scene Gilligan could have written with a victim on The X-Files, and probably did. He’s never been ashamed to work in broad strokes, to give the public what it wants; he’s not unwilling to frustrate us or kill off a beloved character, but he doesn’t consider it a virtue not to give us what we want to see.

And part of that crowd-pleasing vibe was that he could never quite make his characters evil beyond all redemption. Even Walt, as I said, whose evil was the whole point of the show, was usually protected (after the first season anyway) from being too evil: the consequences of his drug empire were usually kept offscreen, he poisoned a baby but death was not the result; the bad guys, not he, killed the lovable Hank, and Walt’s biggest and gruesomest kill was the far more evil Gus Fring. Chase was enraged that people identified with Tony Soprano even though he’d done everything possible to show that Tony Soprano was a bad person. I’m sure Gilligan doesn’t want us to identify with Walt White, but he did give us a lot of “outs” if we want to identify with him; he rarely stood forcefully in the way of such an interpretation. And that is especially true in the finale: it pulls its punches on Walt and the audience, essentially telling us that if we want to like him in spite of everything, we’re free to do so. After all, he only hurt bad people in this episode, and he didn’t actually order a hit on Bill and Melinda Gates.

I’m not saying this as a criticism of the episode per se, just a description. Whether it’s a criticism or not depends on what you were expecting from the finale and from the show overall. As a wrap-up to the life of Walt White, it’s satisfying, tense and intense, with the expected brilliance from Cranston (who has done more than any TV actor to show how much you can accomplish without any lines; he sometimes “says” more when he’s not talking than when he does). It gives us Walt White in all his many facets: scary, manipulative, selfish bastard and family man, and, in the end, the one thing about him that’s always been consistent: lover of science.

But the orderliness and cleanness of the episode might work against it if you thought of Breaking Bad as a more chaotic show, where insane things happen and a nerdy teacher can become a fearsome criminal mastermind (the whole show is about how nerds are one step ahead of the jocks, all the time: Hank is the most likable jock imaginable, but he was brought face to face with the fact that his nerdy brother-in-law was smarter and stronger than he was), where there are moments of comedy and drama alike that come out of left field. The finale clearly belongs to a show where the natural order of things is restored, and where everything that happens is logically related to the linear progress of an easy-to-follow plot. This is not, as I said, a criticism. It’s just that whereas the series lent itself to two interpretations—as a crazy show about the lack of order in the world, and a more ordered show where the world is more or less as it should be—the finale leaned heavily in favour of the second interpretation. And it will probably have an effect on the way the entire series is read in retrospect; the whole series may seem less wild and bizarre when we know that in the end, everything will go back to more or less the way it was supposed to be, and that Walt White himself will help to restore order to the universe. It will still be one of the greatest TV series of all time. It’s just that the particular kind of great series it is will be less ambiguous.




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Breaking Bad finale: Some thoughts on ambiguity

  1. The geek squad just doesn’t get it…

  2. The series was fabulous, and the ending truly appropriate.

    About the only thing that could have been done differently was having Walt brew up a bunch of explosives to demonstrate his fake methylamine-free methamphetamine (fulminate of mercury anyone?), which would have required a lab scene etc…

    As for Sopranos, forget that piece of cop-out crap. The show tanked in its final seasons and writer/producer Chase lost his nerve.

    If he really wanted to end the show well — and show how evil Tony was — he could have done so instead of cutting to black

    • ‘tanked in its final seasons’? Do you mean season 5 with the stellar performances of imperioli, de matteo, buscemi and pretty much the whole cast? Do you mean the first half of season 6 with Junior shooting Tony? Or the second half with Christopher and Baccala’s death? Of course the sopranos and breaking bad are going to be compared, but they are only compared based on what they have achieved for the television industry. Otherwise there is virtually nothing similar between the shows. The way Chase ended the sopranos fit well with the series; Tony was with his family and whatever came after that didn’t really matter…do we need to see Tony get arrested? We saw that with the gun charge. Do we need to see him dead and observe how everybody handles it? We saw that when Junior shot him. And of course through every other episode we saw Tony get away with it. I’ll acknowledge that Breaking Bad is a better show overall because of its sublime editing and daring cinematography, but as far as writing and acting goes, both shows are probably equal.

      • Season 5, starting 15 months after season 4 ended, was very slow.

        Season 6 started two years after that with an incredibly weak episode. It was 55 minutes of boredom followed by Tony getting shot.
        (Don’t tell me it wasn’t dull. I was watching that opening with a group. People asked ‘who is this guy with the inheritance?’ ‘Oh he’s a nobody they will focus on for this episode because he’s going to die at the end.’)
        It might be better watching the Sopranos now, but don’t forget it took 5 years for those final three seasons to arrive.

      • The Sopranos got too reliant on dream sequences. I think Chase really liked the dream sequences (Weiner too from what I can tell). I respect the Sopranos ending, and season 5 and the second half of season 6 were both pretty good, but not as good as the glory days. The Tony-in-a-coma extended dream sequence was the worst.

      • A cut to black scene with no closure was not an ending, and sopranos was plagues with some bad episodes the last 2 season. BB, simply was way more consistent then sopranos.

  3. So yes! I (contrary to almost everyone else apparently) hated Walt’s unsubtle confessional mea culpa. I almost expected him to start spelling it out repeatedly on a convenient kitchen chalkboard. The death scene left me with an unsettling ‘Is that all there is?’ feeling. The best thing about Breaking Bad was its black humor, and I would have loved the edginess of having Walt go out with a smug smile after finally sampling some of his blue creation. Oh yeah, and at least one final Jesse “bitch!”.

    • I was kind of hoping that when he was strolling nostalgically through the meth lab at the end, he’d decide to start cooking again, and that would be the “end”.

    • I too was really, really, really (for emphasis) hoping that he was going to light up some meth in the very last scene.

      Badger & Skinny Pete’s cameo was pretty sweet too…

  4. You know what I realized? Walt never killed any ‘good’ guys. Think about it. He let Jane die, but she was a bad druggie. its a story about a good guy who ends up bad by making wrong decisions to do and feel good

    • Except indirectly he killed many, many good guys. An airplane full, in fact. As well as anyone who died using his product. They simply didn’t dwell on the number of deaths he caused indirectly… probably hundreds of people.

  5. The ending was excellent. It wasn’t the orderliness of the ending it was Walt White showing once again that he was the guy who knocks and as Jesse said, to paraphrase, just when you think things are going your way he has a way of showing you they aren’t. The ending had the same brilliance of the previous shows in that we had no clue what was going to happen until they revealed it to us. There were easily 10 scenes in this episode where we had no clue that was coming. That Walt won in the end is what I think people were not expecting but it was exactly what was needed to wrap up a brilliant show. I am glad I watched it.

  6. Best show ever….tightest writing ever….casting and acting were sublime…finale or “Felina” was close to perfect. It’s ruined so many shows for me now….

  7. I thought the closing song was perfect. Walt loved his blue meth more than his family and friends. Did Walt decide to set Pinkman free ahead of time, or did he just have pangs of guilt at the end? Because when he was told the blue meth was still being cooked, he didn’t say “Pinkman?” as in, my old friend is alive? No, he said “Pinkman!” like he wanted to go kill him. He killed all those people, not for Hank, but to protect the blue meth. It would die with him, because he is Heisenberg, the one who knocks.

    I was watching the old episodes before the finale and ended at Mas. I don’t know if it was the perfect lead in, but that’s the episode where he is pissed at Jesse for using “his” formula. (Remember he was “out” at that time, he had enough money.) The blue meth was him reliving the Gray Matter part of his life, his work being stolen and used by others. Also in that episode, Gus tells him a man provides for his family even if they hate him. The themes in the finale are all in that episode.

    The show makes you identify with Walt, but I think if you consider the way he is so happy in that lab at the end, he is really a narcissist/sociopath who went out with a bang. I’m pretty sure Flynn would trade the $9 million if it meant spending time with Walter White at the end, instead of Heisenberg.

    • He did not kill “all those people to protect his blue meth” He killed them because Skyler told him that masked men came into her bedroom, while cops were outside, and threaten her and her family. He got rid of them to protect his family after he dies.

      • He already bought the gun and had everything planned out. It was news that Skyler was visited. It was news that Pinkman was alive, and news again that Pinkman was being held captive. If Pinkman had been helping the Nazis, he would be dead too.

  8. I feel like the ending was over simplified for its large fan base. Like the directors goal was to make sure everyone gets it with simple one line empty closures. For example when walt says “I liked it”. The end of walt was good but the editing made it boring for me. Especially the constant give away teasers they did with lydia. The simple ending to a complex story has good meaning, in the end there are simple reasons people do things. The Soprano’s ending I hated at the time but i grew to understand it. Tony and Walt were opposites. Tony had a psychiatrist and had anxiety building up in him, destroying him. Until his frittering end that faded to black. Making you wonder if his tragic flaw of anxiety meant he was never really set out to be boss. Walt was title/power seeker that pushed his anxiety onto Skyler and and Jesse, bossed around his skummy-sweet lawyer, with out a care or apology, and ended things just how he wanted it.

    In that contrast both end a telling story of tragic flaws.

  9. They are going to bring both of them back in a couple of years time. Jesse got away so no issues there. As for Walt you’ll get to know that EMS took him to hospital and he got fixed, after all he only received a bullet to his right side… such a cliche.

    • I was thinking the same but it’s not likely unles it’s a movie. Not cliche though, at all. I

  10. What a perfect review. It actually says exactly what I couldn’t put into words for myself regarding my enjoyment but slight ambiguity about my feelings towards the finale. I enjoyed it, but along with the ending, a level of mystique the show has always had suddenly vanished. I personally think Walt should have somehow survived. It would have made it more interesting if they’d written that.

    • No way. There was nothing more to him, he rode it out. He single handily ending took down all the big drug players, he ruined Jessie’s life, ruined his families life as they knew it… There was nothing left. He had a serious battle with cancer he couldn’t survive.
      He did more than everything he set out to do i from the beginning.

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