Saturday, 5 October 2013

Breaking Bad: Predictability vs. Inevitability

So it's been just under a week since the "Breaking Bad" finale, "Felina" aired and I finally think I'm ready to put my thoughts down. This isn't going to be a review; there'll definitely be thoughts on the show and the season in general, but nothing that I would call a review

Obviously, there are going to be spoilers for all things "Breaking Bad", so if you have any intention of watching or are a few episodes behind, do not read this. Or if you do, don't complain to me that I've spoiled things.

Spoilers below

So was that the ending I wanted from "Breaking Bad"? On paper, yes. Walt died, Jesse lives and everything that needs to be wrapped up is wrapped up; the Nazis are dead and Lydia has been successfully ricin'd. As a finale to the plot of "Breaking Bad" it's practically perfect, hence why so many fans are coming out and hailing it as one of the greatest television finales of all time. Perhaps they're right, but at the end of the day getting everything right, isn't the same as transcending, which is something that up until the finale, "Breaking Bad" had been doing on a weekly basis.

Two weeks earlier in "Ozymandias", "Breaking Bad" crafted one of the greatest single hours of television that I have ever seen. That was the episode that was the culmination of "Breaking Bad". Everything that Walter White had been building over the course of the previous five seasons came crashing down around him. He'd lost almost all of his money and had managed to tear apart the family that for so long he had claimed had been his sole reason for becoming Heisenberg. For this reason, I find it very easy to subscribe to the idea that the penultimate episode "Granite State" and "Felina" are to be viewed more as an epilogue. "Ozymandias" is the series' climax, everything after that is just dotting the i's and crossing the t's.

It's this neatness that is ultimately what causes "Felina" to lack that transcendent nature that made the preceding seven episodes as good as they were. This isn't to denigrate what "Felina" succeeds in doing, ultimately it is a satisfying ending, but that it's. It does nothing more than what is expected of it, and in an era where shows like "The Sopranos" and "Lost" are viewed as sub-par endings and most shows get cancelled before they can have ending, or long after the chance of an ending that anyone will actually care about, "Breaking Bad's" finale being as good as it was a gift. However it's easy to look at shows like "The Shield" and "Six Feet Under" and see the way in which their finales elevate the entire shows around them. "The Shield" is probably a season or two too long and "Six Feet Under" suffers from Alan Ball being Alan Ball by the end but the finales of both these shows pushed their respective shows up the pantheon of great television dramas. In contrast, "Breaking Bad's" place is ultimately unchanged, in context it's still easily one of the five greatest television dramas of all time (I'll leave you to decide what you think the other four should be), but wouldn't it have been great if the finale had that punch that made those finales as great as they were? Even whilst surrounded by comparatively lacklustre shows?*

So no at last I come to why I titled this blog how I did. The reason that I feel that "Breaking Bad's" finale wasn't the home run it could have been is because it was obvious how everything was going to wrap up. Yes there were some surprises, such as the reappearance of Gretchen and Elliot and how they ultimately played into Walt's end game, but other than that everything could have been predicated episodes beforehand. The machine gun was for the Nazis, the ricin was for Lydia and ultimately there was no way for the show to end without Walt dying. Were all of these things inevitable?  Yes, any fan could immediately guess how these objects were going to play into the series, and maybe suggest that for as intriguing those flash forwards were, they ultimately took some of the surprise out of the shows final hour. Once we had the pieces of the puzzle that Vince Gilligan was laying out, it became obvious where they should fit in.

It's for this reason however that I will not call "Breaking Bad" predictable. Up until that point in the season, the show had been anything but predictable. Things were happening at such a rapid pace, allegiances were formed and unformed, houses were almost burned down and babies were kidnapped. This was a season of television where it was obvious that we'd have to take a left turn eventually, the show just decided it was going to do it three turns earlier than expected and the viewers were all the richer for it. Think back to "Blood Money" and how shocking it was that Walt and Hank laid all their cards on that table that quickly. But ultimately, the ending of "Breaking Bad" had been foreshadowed from the very first time Vince Gilligan described the show as '"Mr. Chips" meets "Scarface"', it was going to end in a hail of bullets and that machine gun shown in the trunk of the car in "Live Free or Die" just made that ending that little bit more inevitable.

The best way that I've seen the "Breaking Bad" finale described is as a period. It isn't a question mark like many people view "The Sopranos" or "Lost" finales (I'd quibble with both, but that's for a different blog post about ambiguity) but it also isn't an exclamation point like "Six Feet Under" and "The Shield". Sometimes a period is absolutely fine when ending something, but for a show that was as full as exclamation points of "Breaking Bad" it's hard not to wonder what would have happened if Vince Gilligan and his team of writers had been able to put together that truly transcendent finale.

I was happy with the "Breaking Bad" finale, it was the ending that the show had been building to since day one and there's no way that I would ever tell Vince Gilligan that the ending was wrong, because it wasn't. It was a good finale, a great one even, but when it comes to "Breaking Bad" great can feel like a step down, especially compared to the preceding season (and especially compared to the preceding three episodes). My little niggles are meaningless; would I have liked to have had more of Jesse in the finale? Of course I would, Jesse was the heart and soul of the entire show, but as long as he made it alright I'm perfectly fine with that as an ending**. Did Walt/Heisenberg get too much redemption in the shows final minutes? Perhaps, but that was weighted by his admitting to Skylar that every evil act that he had committed he had done for himself because it made him feel alive. The individual moments in "Felina" were as good as any episode of the show and this was the finale that show had been building towards but some part of me wishes the show had ended with Walt dying alone of lung cancer in a wooden cabin in New Hampshire, even if that leads to Jesse remaining a meth slave in a far darker ending

Ultimately, "Breaking Bad" ended as "Breaking Bad" should have ended; nothing more and nothing less. This doesn't change the fact that it is one of the greatest shows to ever grace the airwaves and it especially doesn't change the fact that Season 5b (or however you want to refer to it) is one of the greatest final seasons for any show ever. It'll be a small wonder if "Breaking Bad" isn't my number one show for 2013 when I get round to actually writing that list. It was a season which featured at least three individual episodes which could easily be considered some of the best work that the medium has to offer and that's without touching on just how good Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt were all season long. That's without talking about the work of Vince Gilligan, all the writers (special mention to Moira Walley-Beckett for "Ozymandias") and the work of directors like Michelle MacLaren and Rian Johnson. This final season of "Breaking Bad" is the gold standard of television drama and, even though I think I like it a little bit more, it sticks the landing of its final season far better "The Wire" did.

So yeah, I will say I unabashedly love "Breaking Bad". It's the only show since "Lost" ended that had me actively anticipating the next episode in such a visceral way. It's probably the most of I've ever cared about any set of fictional characters in my entire life. I remember waking up as early as possible just to find out what was going to happen next, finding various illicit means so that I could watch the next episode in school if I had to and spending five years of my life ranting like a loon to all my friends that they had to watch it (and a huge thanks to anyone who actually succumbed to that, you made the discussions so much more fun). But "Breaking Bad" is over and the television landscape of 2014 is that little bit bleaker because of it.

*In no way am I calling "The Shield" or "Six Feet Under" bad shows, but compared to "Breaking Bad" almost everything is lacklustre.
** He made it, alright? I need him to have made it out of that alright, even with the police inevitably being on the lookout for him and the fact that he has no money, he made it out.

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