Breaking Bad finale: perfect end to a perfect show

October 1, 2013 in Best Of, Reviews, TV

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(Warning: it would be a dick move for me not to mention that there are potential MINOR SPOILERS ahead)

Last night I watched the series finale of Breaking Bad, episode 62, the aptly titled “Felina” — an anagram for finale and representing the three chemical elements Fe (Iron = “blood”), Li (Lithium = “meth”) and Na (Sodium = “tears”). See? Even the title is genius.

While Felina is probably not the best episode of the series (that title could go to “Ozymandius” or one of the other season 5 episodes), it is the best ending of any TV series I have ever seen — no hyperbole. It was a perfect conclusion to a show that’s as perfect as any that has ever been on television. Just about every loose end was tied up with the right amount of neatness and open-endedness. It flowed nicely, in pace and in tone, with the rest of the series, without trying too hard to be drastic or different so it could “go out with a bang”. There was nothing outrageous or jarring about it at all. A show like Lost overstayed its welcome and trapped itself with too many unanswerable loose ends, whereas every little thing that happened in Breaking Bad was planned well in advance and with an explanation or resolution in mind. The difference is startling. It’s a weighty affirmation of what can happen when a TV series has a finite life and brilliant writers who know precisely where they want the show to go and how things will turn out.

Having been through some horrible series finales in recent years (Lost, Gossip Girl, Dexter), my expectations for Felina were kept in check. I avoided all commentary and predictions and didn’t think much about it myself, wanting to go in with a clean slate and the mentality of just going along with the ride. The only things I expected to happen were that Jesse would live and Walt would die, though I wasn’t really sure about either.

The introductory scene with Walt in the snow-covered car set the pace for the rest of the episode. With so many loose ends to tie up, I had expected it to burst out of the gate and sprint all the way to the finish, but instead show creator Vince Gilligan let his audience know that the show was going to finish on its own terms. I had expected the show to start winding things up with about six episodes to go because it felt like there was so much that still had to happen, but it remained steadfast in its conviction and continued to progress at its finely tuned, intentional speed, picking up at times but cooling down at others while maintaining the tension all the way through. Then I thought it had to start winding up with five episodes left, then four, then three, then two. When we hit the final episode I decided there was going to be no way all the loose ends would be tied up and resigned myself to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

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But somehow, like magic, the loose ends were dealt with, one by one: his former business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (in a brilliant, clever scene), Lydia (that chamomile-plus-soy-milk-drinking bitch), Skyler (plus, in a way, Hank) and Flynn (the epic scene with Skyler was the whole crux of the episode, or even the entire show, IMO), the crazy Nazis (including Todd, hands down the creepiest character in the whole show), and finally, Jesse. The only question outstanding was whether Huell was still waiting in that motel room!

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The amazing thing about Felina was that there was really nothing hugely surprising, and yet you couldn’t say that anything in it was expected. All the flash forwards from earlier episodes — the ones that sparked a cascade of speculation online — were catered for, and none of the resolutions felt forced or contrived. There were of course some implausible things in the episode (and these will no doubt be discussed at length online), and some people might think the ending was too neat for a show like this, but it was the satisfying conclusion that the audience — and Walter White — deserved.

Vince Gilligan said the idea of the show was to turn Mr Chips in Scarface — and he essentially achieved that several episodes out from the finale. The last couple of episodes were really about Heisenberg’s redemption — despite all the horrible things he had done, he had to be the antihero we rooted for until the end. There was no turning back for Walter White, but he wasn’t simply going to limp off into the sunset with a whimper (like Dexter). He’s the one who knocks, and we better damn remember it.

I intend to watch it again soon, but right now there is nothing I would change about how Breaking Bad finished up.

If the first six episodes of season five were good enough to win it the Best Series Emmy (I was surprised this was the first time the show won it), then it should be a foregone conclusion that the last six episodes would win next year’s award too, as well acting gongs for Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and either Aaron Paul or Dean Norris. That said, it could be difficult given that the show would have lost a lot of momentum by this time next year. (I didn’t like it at the time, but I think it turned out to be a good idea to split the final season in two because, let’s face it, it was really like two separate seasons.)

How will Breaking Bad be remembered? As the greatest TV show ever? That’s what a lot of people are saying, which is astounding considering it just ended and these kinds of superlatives usually start in retrospect years down the track. Season five received 99/100 on Metacritic, the highest rating ever, and it makes you wonder which douchebag it was that prevented it from getting full marks. Has there ever been a show that is so cinematic, so beautifully shot, so dramatically epic, so wonderfully written, so amazingly performed and so perfectly ended? I can’t think of another.

I believe Breaking Bad is a show where all the stars aligned at the right time and everything just fell into place. AMC was brave enough (ans smart enough) to pick up a show about a chemistry teacher turned meth cooker. Bryan Cranston fell into the role of a lifetime. Aaron Paul, who was supposed to be killed off in the first couple of episodes, became arguably the second most important character on the show and established himself as one of the best young actors of this generation. The supporting roles were cast perfectly — especially Bob Odenkirk (Saul Goodman), Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring) and Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut). And from every interview I’ve seen or read, the cast and crew all loved each other and the chemistry (no pun intended) onscreen was undeniable.

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It’s a strange comparison to make, but I’m going to make it anyway. My favourite comedy of all-time, Seinfeld, is another one of those shows where things kind of just fell into place. Even when things go wrong they are somehow right. The cast always refer to season three’s “Parking Garage” episode when they realised they had something special going on. The premise was that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer couldn’t find their car in a parking garage and spend the entire episode looking for it. The episode concludes when they finally locate it, but when Kramer tries to start the car it stalls, ending things on a perfect note and providing possibly the biggest laugh of the entire episode. The thing is, the car stalling was never part of the script — it actually happened. (Oh, and let’s not forget, Cranston’s previous role of a lifetime was as dentist and infamous re-gifter Tim “schtickle of fluoride” Whatley on Seinfeld).

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

A young Heisenberg as Tim Whatley

This kind of good fortune can be found in Felina too. I was watching the post-episode chat show Talking Bad, and guests talked about the brilliance of a tiny reflection of Anna Gunn’s face (she has her back to the camera) in her epic scene with Bryan Cranston. When I watched it I thought it was intentional too, but as it turned out Vince Gilligan (who directed the final episode) had no idea until his editor pointed it out to him. Similarly, the scene when Walt took off his watch and placed it on top of the payphone has been dissected by fans, most of whom point out that the watch was a gift from Jesse and it represented Walt finally letting him go. But as Vince Gilligan explained in Talking Bad, that scene was added purely for continuity purposes because Walt was not wearing the watch in the flash forward scene from earlier in the season. The show is so good that even the unintentional things are being interpreted as intentional brilliance.

Now that the show is finally over a lot of cable subscriptions will be cancelled, TVs will be thrown out and illegal internet downloads will drop dramatically. TV without Breaking Bad is frightening because it’s likely everything we watch for a while will seem bland and lacking in awesomeness by comparison. Nonetheless, we should be grateful that we were able to experience something so close to perfection at all. Thank you Vince Gilligan. Thank you Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and the rest of the cast. Thank you Breaking Bad. Life (in front of the TV, anyway) will go on, but it won’t be the same without you.

PS: I’ll finish up with Grantland’s wicked in memoriam tribute to the show. It contains spoilers from the final episode — you’ve been warned.

Breaking Bad: Too Good

November 30, 2011 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Reviews, Shows

The unfortunate thing about American cable television is that certain shows, certain utterly brilliant shows, can get lost in the mix in foreign countries, relegated to expensive local cable channels (only 6.8% of Aussies have cable), late night slots nobody knows about, or obscure digital stations with little to no advertising and about two seasons too late.  You could always browse the DVD store, but with so many shows out there, just how do you separate them without some serious research?

I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (the fifth and final season is due next year), undoubtedly one of the best dramas I have seen in years, if not ever.  Shockingly, I had never even heard of the multiple award-winning show until a friend of mine and I were discussing how important it was to have a ‘good concept’ when trying to write a script (we used to think witty dialogue was enough — damn you Tarentino!).  And as soon as he mentioned the story of Breaking Bad – an underachieving chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth with a drop kick former student in order to provide for his family, with his DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) brother-in-law hot on his trail — I was hooked.

Bryan Cranston in season one

I’m not sure if Breaking Bad is the type of show I would have appreciated in my youth.  It is filled with tension and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but in a slow, insidious kind of way unlike the ‘pure adrenaline rush’ shows (such as say 24 and the first season of Prison Break).  It’s a drama but the unexpected black comedy keeps making me laugh out loud, while the grotesque violence and depravity keeps making me squirm.  It grabs you in with this compelling idea and pulls you deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing and the horrific impact it has on the lives of everyone around it.  Creator Vince Gilligan said he wanted to follow a character as he gradually descends from a morally upstanding person into a total badass.  And after four seasons, Breaking Bad‘s protagonist Walt is well on his way.

Walt may have gone into meth making because of the purest of intentions — but because of the constant lies and deceit, the dark (and darker) moral decisions and judgments he is forced to make, combined with a massively suppressed ego that is finally released — he finds himself regularly pushing the boundaries and crossing lines you could never have imagined him crossing at the beginning of the show (or even a season ago).  And yet, despite who he is and who he has become, deep down you still find yourself rooting for Walt, which is really at the heart of what makes Breaking Bad so freaking good.

I love this poster of the 'breaking bad' Walter

The show is brilliantly constructed from top to bottom, inside out.  The quality scripts produced by American writers on such shows never cease to amaze me.  Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, always riveting.  The direction and the pacing are measured, allowing the story to unfold in a deliberate fashion.  The use of cinematography is probably the best I’ve seen in any TV show.

But of course, the show would not be where it is without the characters and the actors portraying them.   Bryan Cranston (prior to Breaking Bad, best known as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, though I was stunned to discover that he was actually smug dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfled!) deservedly won three consecutive Emmys for his astonishing portrayal of protagonist Walter White (and it probably would have been four straight had the scheduling not precluded the show from this year’s Emmys).

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Cranston grabs the spotlight with his award-winning performance, which makes people forget how magnificent and equally irreplaceable Aaron Paul is as the insufferable yet lovable Jesse Pinkman.  I’m glad to see Paul, whose character was almost killed off in the first couple of episodes, be rewarded with an Emmy of his own in 2010.

This drug-making duo drives the show, but every key supporting character, from Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt), is multi-dimensionally crafted.  And what about sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)?  Everybody has their own motives, weaknesses and demons.  Special mention has to go out to Walt’s boss and intellectual equal Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who absolutely ignited the screen in season four.  It’s not often that all the core characters from a show are this interesting, dynamic and ever-evolving.

And now we wait for the final season, season five, which is reportedly going to be 16 episodes (season one had seven episodes, and seasons two through four each had 13).  I for one am eager to see where the show heads after the way season four ended.  Will Walt keep falling deeper and deeper or will he try to turn back around (if he can)?  What will happen to his explosive love-hate relationship with Pinkman?  Will Skyler become an official part of the family business?  And will Hank finally realise the man he’s after has been right beside him all along?

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about an idea for a TV show.  It’s about a meth cooker who, after discovering that his cancer has been cured, decides to quit to become a high school chemistry teacher.  I think it’ll be a winner.

 
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