The AMC series “Breaking Bad” ended its five-year run on Sunday night, September 29, and it went out with a finale that was both riveting and perfectly suited for the show. From the beginning, “Breaking Bad” never pulled its punches, starting with its title. It was a morality play about a cancer-stricken science teacher who brokered a bargain with the devil when he chose to cook Meth to leave a nest egg for his family. But the evil was always in Walter White to begin with and as he became more and more successful in the drug trade, his true colors were exposed. His pure, superior Meth concoction was known by its baby blue hue and it became Walt’s true legacy. And with it, Walt’s soul was revealed too and it was quite black.
If only “Dexter” had a finale as true to its lead character. Over the years, the writers of the Showtime series turned their sociopath into too nice a guy. And in doing so, they struggled mightily to find a fitting end to the serial killer’s saga (http://exm.nr/18ksMxR). But no such thing happened on “Breaking Bad”. Show runner and creator Vince Gilligan kept a sure hand on his creation throughout its run. He and his staff never lost their focus on Walter White (played by the utterly incredible Bryan Cranston). Very little got in the way of their clearheaded storytelling. No B stories, no secondary narratives; instead they kept a laser focus on this man who needed to matter in his life, no matter how much death he’d cause in ensuring a legacy.
In the final episode, White proved to every doubter in his world that he was a criminal mastermind worth being feared and revered. He tied up all the loose ends in his dangerous life. And he even did some good, though setting things right for his family and Jesse meant leaving an awful lot of bodies in the wake. The final episode was very smart, exceedingly focused and utterly appropriate. Hopefully, others in Hollywood will study it and learn how to tell better stories. Here are some of the key lessons to be taken from the sublime show that was “Breaking Bad”:
Don’t stay too long at the dance
Gilligan pitched “Breaking Bad” as “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface” to AMC television (http://n.pr/pZjCad) and he promised he’d only take five seasons to do it. And despite the growing popularity of the show with each subsequent season, Gilligan remained true to his word. Staying too long at the dance has plagued too many series and film franchises. “Dexter” and “Lost” should’ve stopped at least a season or two before they did. And “Paranormal Activity” is now cranking out inferior sequels every year. There have been far too many entertainments that have lost their way and kept milking the cash cow anyway. But “Breaking Bad” wasn't one of them. It didn't lose its way and knew just when to quit. And the show went out on top.
Characters, not special effects laden set pieces, drive narrative
UTA president Jeremy Zimmer says that the disappointing summer of CGI spectacles will teach Hollywood to invest in better stories and not expensive special effects (http://bit.ly/19JTH5v). Let’s hope so. When the destruction of city streets is driving too many entertainments from “Transformers” to the new “Man of Steel”, it’s not only skyscrapers that are being toppled, story is too. In the best entertainments, character remains front and center. “Breaking Bad” was riveting television by keeping its focus on its complex characters. Just watching the contention between Walt and his wife Skyler (the quietly formidable Anna Gunn) was as exhilarating as any alien invasion on a 50 ft. screen. High concepts, comic book heroes, and over-the-top CGI can only take you so far. Human interaction is still the most special effect of all on any screen.
The best monsters are always the human kind
Walter White was a monster and one that would be especially wise for any horror movie filmmaker to study and understand. Sure, ghouls and goblins are scary, but man is almost always the truest beast (http://exm.nr/LIlegL). White was truly as chilling as any vampire, ghost or zombie. And the fact that he was a recognizable and even relatable human being made his reign of terror all the more horrifying.
You don’t need an R rating to be edgy
One of the extraordinary things about the run of “Breaking Bad” was that it happened on basic cable. It couldn’t show nudity, nor could it use profane language with abandon. It also had to use violence sparingly to make it past the censors. It didn’t have nearly the advantages or freedom that theatrical movie releases have, or shows like those on HBO or Showtime. Yet it was just as shocking and compelling as any R-rated fare.
Why? Because “Breaking Bad” used its limitations to its advantage. It made the most out of the show’s verbiage, letting words hurt as much as violent actions. The show made the word ‘bitch’ funny and even scary, as uttered by the rash, troubled Jesse Pinkman (the intense Aaron Paul). And it made what was unseen as scary as what was viewed. This show felt like a hard R rating, yet it would probably have only yielded a PG-13 on the big screen. It would behoove other shows and movies to be so resourceful and so powerful.
Characters don’t always have to be redeemed at the end
Redemption can be a compelling theme in any story, but circling down the drain can be just as incredible. In “Breaking Bad”, the main character’s great flaw was his ego. White’s insecurity drove his choices to take out anyone who got in his way, often ruthlessly, whether they were competitors or innocent bystanders or his own DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). Even in the penultimate episode, Walt just couldn’t leave well enough alone. He was going to turn himself in as his cancer returned and his options became fewer and fewer. But when he saw former colleagues painting him as less than smart, his ego took hold of him one last time. He’d show them. He’d show them all. And indeed he did.
Ultimately, White achieved exactly what he set out to do. He provided that nest egg for his family after his death. But he wasn’t redeemed as a hero. He was a bad guy who took out some other bad guys. He was just better at being bad than they were. And he knew it. And reveled in it. As White told Skyler towards the end, "I did it for me." Not for family, as he always protested. That was a lie. And he was very good at lying, as good as he was at being a gangster. And as he died on the floor of that Meth lab he was so proud of, he left this earth a man whose soul had perished a long time ago.
It remains to be seen how “Breaking Bad” stands the test of time, but I have a feeling it will be remembered and revered as one of TV’s best. And that will be in large part due to the fact that it left the air the same way it started - being true to its story, its audience and the dark journey of its protagonist, a man ironically named White.