Breaking Bad Great Debate: How Did Our Predictions Hold Up?

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Breaking Bad Great Debate: How Did Our Predictions Hold Up? image
Breaking Bad is over. Walter White's fate is sealed. But that doesn't mean Katey and Sean can't argue over the show one last time.

KATEY: Allow me to start this conversation with complete maturity and elevated discourse. I WAS RIGHT AND YOU WERE WRONG. NYAH NYAH NYAH.

Now, you may argue it's more complicated than that, but it's still true-- Walt died. Jesse lived. And Walt actually saved Jesse. It's essentially the ending I imagined, give or take a battery-operated rotating machine gun arm. That said, you've said this ending is perfect. So how do you square it with your own expectations?

SEAN: My expectations, Miss Katey, mean jack shit in this conversation. Always have, and always should be. The danger of a show like Breaking Bad lies in the viewer applying his or her own will on what "should" happen ... when all along, the genius Vince Gilligan knew what he wanted for his main character, Walter White. Redemption. Purpose. Regret. Closure. And I believe "Felina" delivered all of that. Was it the ending we wanted? Hard to tell, because BB did such an unprecedentedly masterful job of setting its table, the "meal" could have played out in any one of a hundred fashions. I can't talk expectations anymore. I can only process what Gilligan spelled out, and for me, now that it's finished, I can say it was a perfect ending for Walter White's journey. Maybe not "The" perfect ending. But "A" perfect ending. Does that make sense? Because there's definitely a difference.  

KATEY: It totally makes sense-- and this is also a danger of a show like Breaking Bad becoming so popular, where fans can spend an entire week mapping out all the potential conclusions for a storyline, to the point that surprises are basically impossible. And the finale played along essentially the same beats most people expected-- the ricin was for Lydia, the machine gun was for the Nazis, Walt helped free Jesse (though in a more deliberate way than I expected), and the White family lives on to survive. The table-setting metaphor is apt, and Gilligan was smart not to try and shake things up at the last minute just for the sake of keeping us on our toes. He mapped out this story so clearly that, yes, we definitely knew where it was going.

I think there was one key twist in the beginning, though, that made the direction of this whole thing surprising to me. After the scene at Gretchen & Elliott's house we realize we've been fooled about what happened at the end of "Granite State." Walt didn't leave the bar because of a resurgence of his own pride-- he left because he saw in them a way to get his money back to his family after all. Did you see that coming? 

SEAN: No, I didn't. And the whole time that scene played out, as Walt creepily slinked around their gorgeous home, I feared for their lives. Because like many, I was convinced that this episode was all Heisenberg, and that Walter White -- the "sweet" man everyone knew -- was gone. But thinking back on "Felina," I'm amazed at how fully Walter was finally able to balance Heisenberg and Walt, conjuring whichever personality he needed to complete a task. Usually, in schemes past, one side would overwhelm the other, creating more headaches for everyone involved. And if a sixth season were on the horizon, there easily could have been ways for Heisenberg to dispense of the Nazis and reclaim his empire, setting up the progression of the story. But it was time for closure, or as much closure as we're going to get, and so Gilligan is able to cross as many "T's" as possible.

To me, the most beautiful moment in last night's episode was Walter admitting to Skyler that he did all of this for himself. That was 99% pure, to use his own terms. So amazing.

KATEY: I'm thrilled that Skyler got that moment of him acknowledging his own central flaw, and to see Walt say out loud what we've all known. But the thing that keeps nagging me about this episode, which I really liked overall, is I don't know where that revelation came in for Walt. Everything we had seen in him up to that point, including terrorizing Gretchen & Elliott, suggested he was still clinging to the same delusions and sense that he can always work his way out of anything, Then suddenly, with Skyler, he's reached this huge revelation, and later on he refuses to let Uncle Jack tell him where the rest of the money is-- as if the drive for that millions is suddenly gone. How did Walt reach this point? We have no idea. That bugs me. 

SEAN: But what's he going to do with Uncle Jack's revelation? Walter knows he's already been shot. He isn't going to retrieve the money, then find a way to escape the cops, who are on their way. I don't believe Walter thought he was going to get out of this confrontation with Jack and the Nazis. He said a couple of time last night that he believed he was going to die that night, and that it would all be over. When Jack tried to goad him into one last dance, with an empty, "Don't you want to know where your money is?" I took Walter shooting him to finally say, with emphasis, "Enough of these games. Enough. This is the end. I've reached the end. I'm dying, anyway, either from cancer, or from this gun shot. My family has money. Skyler will be cleared. It's over." Are all of the threads tied up? No, but they weren't going to be. Walter went out on his own terms. I found that to be more than sufficient.

The little things thrilled me last night. Walt walking around G&E's house, touching the walls and thinking, "This life. This is the life I should have had." Walt having to watch his son come home from a distance, unable to talk to him one last time. People calling this a happy ending missed the fact that everyone's life, thanks to Walt, remains seriously fucked up. Especially Jesse, who is riding off to what, exactly? A lifetime of misery?

KATEY: Oh, it's definitely not a happy ending by any stretch of the conventional definition-- and I'm very curious to hear what anyone thinks happens to Jesse from this point, since it's hard to imagine anything good. But Walt gets to end in control. He ends with his plan going completely correctly, even including the stray bullet, which only quickens what he knows is already a process of dying. It's a happy ending for Walt in that he gets to set the terms of his ending, and for me that felt a little wrong. Why does Walt get to be the master planner in his final moments? Yes, he dies, but it still feels like a victory-- and that isn't where I thought his story would end. That doesn't mean it's a bad ending, but it means the show was ultimately more in Walt's corner than I was. 

SEAN: Yes, I believe it was in Walt's corner. And you are right, I didn't ultimately realize that until last night. And it's hard to convince an audience to stay in this man's corner after all of the horrible, horrible things that he did. But deep down, I think I was always in Walt's corner, as well. I wanted him to triumph. I wanted to see a shred of that clumsy, awkward, put-upon science teacher emerge. The scene in the desert in "Felina," of Walter tinkering with the device that would become the amazing Robo-Machine-Gun turret, was a sentimental callback to "4 Days Out," where science led Walter to a solution to Walt's current problem.

And this finale doesn't absolve Walter of his sins. But it gives him (and us) a definitive end. I can't say how I would have reacted if Gilligan chose a Grand Theft Auto, high-body-count conclusion, with Walt truly going out like Scarface, screaming about "my little friend" and claiming Jesse's life as collateral damage. Maybe once that ending played out, it would have felt sufficient, as well. All I know is that this conclusion, coupled with the reflections of "Granite State," concluded what I believe we all came to know about Walter. He was a family man, an egomaniac, a brilliant scientist and an expert gangster. And if he saw an end game, he strategized toward it. But this was the first time in our span with Walt that he didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel, a goal to steer towards. He saw the end, and he got to it.

It was, to me, such a beautiful ending. It put a period on one of television's greatest stories. I'd argue that it elevates Breaking Bad to the top of any list of Greatest American Television Programs. Am I overstating the brilliance of what Gilligan and his crew were able to accomplish? 

KATEY: I'm not sure the finale itself does any of the elevating-- it was an apt and very satisfying conclusion, but it didn't really add anything new to what's been there before. I'm with many people who have said that "Ozymandias" was the show's climax, and the final two episode were more like epilogues, ways to reflect on what happened and tie up loose ends. My heart was pounding during the confrontation in the Nazi compound, for sure, but there weren't any emotional wallops in this that weren't just entirely based on what had come to a head in "Ozymandias."

And I am totally fine with all of that! The Wire always ended its seasons with the penultimate episode, and used the final one for mopping up. Breaking Bad never had such a strict format-- the tense buildup to "Face Off" lasted until like the last 10 minutes of the episode-- but I like that they took two episodes to wind things down and give Walt and everyone else a fitting conclusion. The fact that the finale didn't blow my mind seems completely part of the way this entire series has been carefully plotted.

And even if the show has more affection for Walt than I do in the end, that's OK. Long-running stories famously have a hard time letting go-- think of the multiple endings of Return of the King or the sentiment at the end of Lost-- and if the show reveals a soft spot for Walt by letting him end things in charge, that's understandable. I may have been rooting for him to get more punishment-- but, like you, there's a part of me that can't help reverting to his side too.  After Walt freed Jesse, and Jesse really did escape, anything else that happened was OK with me. 

SEAN: Agreed. Here's what I hope Breaking Bad teaches the industry. (Besides, you know, hire brilliant writers and a genius cast.) Giving a show a finish line isn't a bad thing. True, Lost gets credit for blazing that trail. But just because the Lost finale was a huge letdown doesn't mean they had the wrong idea. Giving a show that's trying to tell a complete story a concrete end game is the right way to approach things. Could Breaking Bad have continued? Sure, but ending it now means there were less loose ends and stretched plots than we would have encountered with another two seasons to string characters along. Network television is changing, anyway, thanks to Netflix and likeminded streaming methods. I hope that Breaking Bad helps illustrate the point that a stellar story told properly, over a distinct -- and limited -- amount of time has a far greater chance at succeeding than the old-fashioned, serialized dramas that petered out before reaching proper conclusions. While we likely won't see anything quite as astonishing as Breaking Bad any time soon, we might see more shows aspire to its greatness if writers and showrunners see that they can tell a contained story, and tell it the right way.  
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