Breaking Bad Was Breaking Great But Not Breaking Perfect (AKA Endings Are Hard)

Breaking Bad is heralded as one of the greatest TV series of all time. I recently finished my first watch of the show on Netflix, and I have to admit, it was pretty fantastic. There are very few other shows that have such complex stories and deep characters, and are able to consistently deliver riveting television episode after episode. I’ll admit I was pretty obsessed with the show while I was watching it. I purposefully waited until the show was over to watch it, because I knew I would want to marathon it. Seeing every episode in such a short amount of time allowed me to view the character and story arcs as they naturally developed. Night after night, I couldn’t wait to see what kind of nefarious scheme Heisenberg had cooked up. And time after time, the show delivered things in fresh and satisfying ways. Watching the series, I knew why people were saying it was one of the best shows of all time. It had great acting, dark humor, complicated storylines, and it never pulled any punches. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a perfect series. Despite the writers’ best efforts, the show faltered in its final season and left a series finale that didn’t deliver what it should have.

When Breaking Bad starts, it’s about a schlubby high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who lives a boring life. He’s married to a bitch, his job sucks, and he just got diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say his life is terrible. So, wanting to provide for his family after his death, he does what any normal person would do, start cooking and selling meth. Walter, having such a shitty life, stops giving any fucks about anything, and lives a life that we, as viewers, only wish we could. He talks shit to people he hates, he blows up an asshole’s sports car, and he begins to grow a criminal empire. Living vicariously through Walter was one of the reasons the first season was so damn good.

As Breaking Bad continues, the meth empire evolves naturally. Walter and his partner Jesse Pinkman partner up with the cartel, which subsequently fails, so they then try to build a solo operation, which leads to a turf war, and they ultimately end up working for Gustavo Fring, the drug lord of the Southwest, and proprietor of the delicious Los Pollos Hermanos chicken restaurant. Each season brought new struggles for Walter and Jesse to face. All this was going on while Walter was simultaneously trying to hide his double life from his family, including his brother-in-law Hank who happened to be a DEA agent.

Why, yes, I’d love a refill.

Breaking Bad was also a success because we see Walter’s slow progression from series protagonist to series antagonist. In the beginning we root for him because he’s the underdog and he’s basically a good guy trapped in a shitty situation. But as the show goes on, he eventually becomes top dog, and he starts wreaking havoc on anyone and everyone who might pose a threat to him. His ruthlessness makes us question if we are still rooting for him and why. It’s different than rooting for, say, Boyd Crowder of Justified or Nucky Thompson of Boardwalk Empire, because those guys were always criminals, so we expect them to be bad. Walter used to be good, and once he “breaks bad” it gets harder to want to see him win. He manages to continually triumph over ever-increasing odds, but he leaves a huge wake of death and destruction behind him.
The series culminates in an incredible climax at the end of season four. Gus and Walter go head to head. Gus has his entire criminal empire at his disposal, and Walter only has his wits and Jesse. To watch Walter try to kill Gus was a thing of beauty. When his final plan was revealed, you can’t help but marvel at how brilliant it was, and you have to give the writers a lot of credit for playing the long game in setting everything up. The season four finale worked on every level because it was tense, dramatic, and managed to bring back characters from several seasons ago. It tied everything together in a satisfying way that no viewer could ever see coming. When Walter’s wife Skylar asks what happened and Walter simply replies, “I won” it made for a classic TV series ending.
Unfortunately, Breaking Bad didn’t end there. It went on for another whole season. Now, don’t get me wrong, the final season was just as well written and relentless as all the other seasons, however, it felt almost like an afterthought. In a sense it was kind of like the final season of Fringe. The first four seasons told a complete story, and the fifth season told a good but unnecessary epilogue. Breaking Bad’s fifth season is detached from the bulk of the story that came before. Seasons one through four continued to build situations and characters, and was constantly referencing previous events and often brought back things in unexpected ways. But once season five started, a lot of stuff had to built again from the ground up.
With Gus dead, there was a power vacuum left in the drug trade. Walter decided he was going to try and take over. He and Jesse strike out on their own as they did in the second season, but later they become cooks for some random bad guys, only to eventually tangle with a completely different set of bad guys. Important characters materialize out of thin air (e.g. Todd, Lydia) and end up as little more than one-dimensional villains who exist only as foils for Walter. They are a far cry from the fully developed Gus or even the lesser developed but completely entertaining Tuco. The plotting in the final season is sloppier and without a clear through-line as compared to the previous seasons.

With all this cash, I can finally pay off my student loans.

Half the season is spent showing how Walter and Jesse set up their new venture. They start cooking, rake in a few hundred thousand dollars in cash, and then a couple of episodes later, Walter has suddenly amassed 80 million dollars. It’s a bit jarring, especially considering how methodical the show had been at showing Walter’s slow rise to the top, and also quite strange since one of the running gags in the show is that Walter never seems to be able to hold onto his money once he’s earned it.
Walter’s ego gets in the way, and eventually things come toppling down like a house of cards. Hank figures out that Walter has been Heisenberg all along, and he put his full weight behind bringing Walter to justice. The final half of the season fares better than the first half. It’s far more focused as it’s primarily about Hank trying to bring down Walter. In fact, one of the series’ best episodes, Ozymandias, takes place in this part of the season. Unfortunately, the show peters out after this high point, and leads to a lackluster finale.
The final episode shows Walter tying up loose ends, and trying to get revenge against a group of Neo-Nazis. In the past, when Walter wanted to kill someone or get out of a situation, he always managed to outsmart his opponents. Several times he used chemistry to create solutions and once to build a bomb. In the finale, he uses neither. In fact, he doesn’t even outsmart his opponents. He manages to kill all the bad guys with a hidden machine gun. Yeah, it was cool to see it in action, but it didn’t feel like it belonged in Breaking Bad, not after everything that had come before. It just seemed out of place. Heisenberg wouldn’t kill his enemies with bullets, he’d trick them and use some crazy chemistry to blow them all to hell or something like that. A machine gun just wasn’t inventive enough.

A human head on a turtle would have been better.

Walter White had spent the entire series struggling to stay alive. Whether he was fighting cancer or drug dealers, he never gave up. He also never gave up on his family. Even as it was falling apart, he clung to the hope that he could patch it together again. In the final episode, Walter has become resigned to the fact that once he kills the Neo-Nazis he will either die in the process or be arrested by the police. He has, in essence, given up. This is absolutely not the same Walter White we had seen for the previous 51 episodes. He was not the same Walter White who squirreled his way out of unbeatable situations, always making me wonder, “How’s he going to get out of this one?” No, this was completely out of character for someone who refused to die. It seemed like the writers momentarily forgot who the main character of the series was.
In the first episode, Walter is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, so you know he is going to die at the end of the series. Walter doesn’t die from cancer, though, he’s killed by one of his own machine gun bullets. Ultimately, no one could kill Walter, but rather he was his own undoing. It was poetic in a sense. However, I felt like a better ending would have been his death from cancer, showing that no bad guys, no police officers, no one could take him down, and only his own body would have been the source of his inescapable demise. Now, I can’t fault to writers for ending the show the way they did, it was their vision, and it was fine. But it was kind of a let down, especially in light of the highs of the season four finale.
The final season of Breaking Bad was good but not perfect. It ultimately seemed disconnected from the series proper. You could certainly not watch it and still get everything you’d ever need from the other four seasons. It was also missing a lot of the series’ trademark dark humor. It just goes to show that writing good endings is hard.

Heisenberg rules.

Let’s take a look at some other shows that were incredibly popular, but had boneheaded finales. We have How I Met Your Mother (the mother was dead the whole time), Dexter (he became some sort of fucking lumberjack or something), Lost (they were dead the whole time), Seinfeld! (a glorified recap episode that didn’t even take place in New York City), Stargate SG-1 (the finale didn’t even feature the fucking Stargate), ALF (the cute muppet is captured by the bad guys), Quantum Leap (Sam never returned home), The Office (going on for two horrendous seasons despite the main character being gone), and The Sopranos (it just stops without an ending).
The problem with many of those shows is that they stayed on the air for far too long, and when it was time to end, the writers were weary and the idea well had completely run dry. Most of the time they just throw some kind of shit against the wall and hope it sticks. This is exactly the reason why shows should not go into production unless they have some kind of framework in place and a rough timetable in which to execute it. This is what Breaking Bad did, and managed to excel as a series overall. This is not what Dexter did, which is why it devolved into a horrible, shitty mess with an incomprehensible ending.
Further proving my point, many, many movies which could have been great were mired by shitty endings. The list would be far too long to name them all, but a few examples include A.I. Artificial Intelligence (some weirdo evolved robots end the film), The Matrix trilogy (Neo gets powers outside the Matrix and dies for some reason), No Country for Old Men (a taut thriller with a slow, stilted ending), Titanic (she couldn’t make room for him on that giant piece of driftwood?), Contact (we don’t get to see the goddamn aliens), and Saving Private Ryan (in turns out that Ryan is recollecting a bunch of shit he never witnessed).
Even if you only have two hours for a movie, crafting a satisfying conclusion is a very tricky prospect. It’s hard, considering the writers spend so much time building a new world, populating it with characters, having an intriguing conflict, and then trying to wrap up everything in a satisfying manner. A lot of times, the ending goes against the grain because it’s just a way to end things, but not necessarily a way that jibes with everything that came before it. These kinds of endings are always a let down, and something I’ve come to expect more often that not.

Jesse and Walter, the ultimate TV bromance.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed Breaking Bad. People weren’t kidding when they said it was one of the best TV shows of all time. It was amazing. It had fantastic acting, hugely compelling stories, very funny dark humor, drama, and intense thrills. It was incredibly well written, and I am hard pressed to think of another show with such well developed characters and plot lines; perhaps The Wire and Justified are the only other shows that come close. Without a doubt, Breaking Bad is a show that everyone should watch.
Nevertheless, the final season was somewhat divorced from what came before it. It wasn’t necessary, it was more of an epilogue than part of the story proper. It dropped the ball in several key areas, which kept it from being legendary. I wouldn’t say it was bad, far from it, but just not in line with what came before. I will always be very impressed by what the show-makers accomplished with this series. Heisenberg’s tale is unforgettable, but his struggle just goes to show that writing good endings is hard to do.
Season 1 – Awesome
Season 2 – Awesome
Season 3 – Good
Season 4 – Awesome
Season 5 – Good
Series Overall – Awesome

8 Responses to “Breaking Bad Was Breaking Great But Not Breaking Perfect (AKA Endings Are Hard)”

  1. August 2, 2014 at 5:44 pm

    I agree completely. The last season seemed incredibly rushed. The great thing about the whole show was the relationship between Walter and Jesse but in season 5 they were hardly ever near each other. I wasn’t impressed with the last episode, the show deserved better

    • August 3, 2014 at 1:45 pm

      That’s a good point, Jesse and Walter were always the core of the show, and having them be separated for much of season five was definitely a mistake.

  2. 3 Dober
    August 2, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    Tbh I can’t really understand the cheer for this show. No I can. It’s about drugs and Bryan Cranston gives a killer performance. But people overlook bad writing. What’s with Marie’s cleptomania? Plot about this built up to let it go nowhere. I don’t remember the season but I think it was the third when I felt Jesse had no point in staying longer in the show as a lead character or even at all. Walter reached a point where he didn’t need him anymore and Jesse only had an uninteresting sidestory for a long range of episodes. All female leads are not likeable. They’re not as bad as Lori from TWD but Skylar comes pretty close. They got lucky Gus Fring was such an awesome antagonist over multiple seasons.

    I totally agree about the 5th season to be an uninspired epilogue, even though it had its moments. Jesse being a hostage for the whole time was so damn lame. When I finished season 4 I was genuinely surprised they made another one. The season 4 finale could have been very well an overall show finale.

    Now I don’t want to say BB is bad. I liked it a lot, but I’m with brik and think people overrate the show.

    • August 3, 2014 at 1:47 pm

      Pretty much everything you say is accurate. Marie’s character was pointless, and the kleptomania subplot was only there to give her something to do. Jesse definitely got relegated to the backseat after season three. Yeah, Breaking Bad was an awesome show, but certainly not perfect. I’m glad you agree it should have ended with season four.

  3. 5 g
    August 23, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    I thought it was alright. Everybody was a little TOO badass though.

    lol you basically just reviewed a bunch of movies here

  4. April 18, 2016 at 4:39 pm

    I mostly agree but I need to defend season 5 a bit. For me, the whole point of this show is that it goes through many stages. Well, not only for me, for the makers of the show as well, I recall reading somewhere that one of the basic concepts was to go against a common practice of “keeping characters in some stasis that allows the show to stay on the air for years or even decades” or something. So You’re right that Walter in season 5 is not the same Walter as he was in season 4 but I wouldn’t call it being out of character because Walter in season 4 wasn’t the same as Walter as he was in season 3 etc. He changed a lot and quite often. And he wasn’t always fighting to live as well. Remember that part (I don’t remember when exactly because I marathoned through entire as well) when he was sure he has only a few weeks left and totally accepted it and when it turned out he’s getting better and his death got postponed indefinitely he was actually pretty lost and confused? I felt that he developed that fighting to stay alive attitude at the same time he got so full of himself.

    And there were other changes in show’s general feel as well. My friend, for instance, claims first two seasons are a bit boring and it only gets better in season 3 when the actual crime action gains pace. I, on the other hand, had quite the opposite feelings because I loved the black humor of the initial seasons and felt a little regretful when the shift towards more serious drama occurred.

    Of course, You can easily counter what I’ve just written by saying that yeah, OK, but prior to season 5 all the changes and shifts were really smooth and seamless. And I said I MOSTLY agree. When I finished season 4 and started watching season 5 I felt exactly the same. I felt that seasons 1-4 are the actual show and season 5 is a relatively solid sequel. The only difference between that and Your calling it “good but unnecessary epilogue” is that after watching season 5 and knowing the whole story I could no longer accept season 4’s ending as The Ending. I agree that there were many flawed storylines but I feel that most major events must have been the part of the original concept. I don’t feel they were added to prolong the show. I agree something should be different about the very finale but ignoring season 5 completely would be depriving the story of a proper ending. Season 4’s finale was awesome and would work as a finale as well but the show would be even better with slightly improved season 5.

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August 2014


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