The end of Season 2 had been so dark that I wondered if I could take much more of the meth drama's unsparing worldview. I'd bypassed most of the show's third season, but then gorged on it all in one weekend, just before the Season 3 finale aired in June of that year.
"Breaking Bad" was starkly different from the shows that I loved best around that time, but the merciless vision on display in Season 3 eventually won me over.
Two days out from "Breaking Bad's" series finale, I wonder where that clear-eyed perspective went.
Sure, all shows evolve, but "Breaking Bad" used to view Walt differently, I think. Its depiction of the moral choices he and Jesse made was occasionally amused but usually dispassionate and rational. Without sentiment, it brilliantly dissected the compromises that made viewers like me question the whole concept of rooting for anyone at all.
"Breaking Bad's" unblinking camera eye -- the endlessly observant lens that viewed the characters with such rigorous clarity -- made a believer of me. There was an adjustment period, of course.
"I realized that I'd never be as emotionally invested in the people of Albuquerque as I am in the people of Dillon, Texas," I wrote in 2010:
[But] maybe 'Breaking Bad' needs to keep the viewer at a distance. Without it, maybe Walt and Jesse and the probable bleakness of their futures might be too hard to take.
There's a coolness to this show; even as it depicts their suffering, the show keeps these people at arms' length. We're observing them; they are like ants in an ant farm. How much pressure can they take? ... What will break them and make them go bad? Perhaps it's appropriate that a show about a former chemistry teacher is like a giant experiment measuring pain and pressure. Perhaps because they are capable of such dark deeds, the show keeps a clinical eye on the characters. Perhaps it's better that we don't get too close to these people, whose tragedies will undoubtedly engulf them.
"Breaking Bad" did dig more deeply into its characters in the end, and that's to be expected and even celebrated. Viewers and writers can't spend five years with characters played by such fantastic actors without succumbing to their charms and caring about their fates.
But gradually, the clinical eye that the show cast on the characters, especially Walt, began to close. Not fully, not suddenly, but enough. That coolly appraising vision was supplanted, especially in the finale, by one perspective and one worldview: Walt's.
In "Felina," Walt basically took over. Other characters who had the standing to comment on his actions or who could get in his way were gone or their roles were greatly diminished. Everyone else was a bit player in the endgame orchestrated by Walt White.
These weren't ants in a maze, this was King Ant writing the history of his conquest. His version of tale, that is. Not a lot of other voices were heard.
No time was spent on Marie's grief, and there was only a brief scene of Skyler's utter resignation. The last episodes didn't linger on Flynn's adjustment to being the fatherless lynchpin of a broken household; he didn't even speak in the finale. Mike, gone. Saul, gone. Jesse appeared -- briefly -- to absolve Walt of his sins, which seems incredible, given what Jesse learned of Walt's role in Jane's death, not to mention everything else Walt had inflicted on him.
Gretchen and Elliot were there to do Walt's bidding and be terrified of him. Walt's bitter sneer -- that they needed to "make it right" with the White family -- went unchallenged, because this was Walt's story and the show had, at that point, lost interest in everybody else. The Nazis were mowed down like so many redshirts (there's your "Star Trek" episode, Badger).
Here's one small but telling example of how the show's perspective shifted, especially as the endgame grew near. Around the time that we first met Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, we saw her young daughter, and like Lydia, we were terrified that this little girl might discover the ugliness that had invaded her family. It mattered that she might find out that mommy was in danger -- or that she herself was in danger.
In the series finale, that girl was made an orphan. We didn't see her; no reference was made to Lydia's status as a single mom. Just about all we got were Walt's snide parting comments to Lydia. No more thought was given to her daughter than to the phone Walt threw in the dirt.
Yes, we can sit and ponder outcomes that the show didn't necessarily rub in our faces. And of course if the finale had given every minor character screen time, it would have been five hours long. Perhaps I'm stacking the rhetorical deck in my favor, but only to point out that "Breaking Bad" did the same.
Very little of the finale drew attention to the undeniable damage Walt left in his wake. The ramifications on which "Breaking Bad" used to dwell -- like the slaughter of Andrea -- were viewed from a distance, if they came up at all. (We saw Jesse's tortured reaction, but he remained a mute, powerless pawn for much of the season -- and in the end he silently forgave -- or let pass -- Walt's role in the deaths of Jane and Andrea.)
Ultimately, "Breaking Bad" went from a show with an unsparing eye to a show that, at the very end, didn't really want to look.
As many have noted, the "Breaking Bad" finale wrapped up many plot points rather tidily -- so neatly that it felt like the universe was lining up to do Walt's bidding. And that was ... weird. The cool, rational point of view -- the earlier vision of Walt as a creature under a microscope, a lab subject "sprawling on a pin" -- wasn't on display here. That distanced, even jaundiced view of Walt felt like a thing of the past. That unstoppable con artist Walter White had taken control, and it felt as though "Breaking Bad" -- a show that interrogated and subverted the anti-hero myth for so long -- had started to root for him.
Creator Vince Gilligan and his writers used to observe this man with detachment, but after Walter White left that bar in "Granite State," he ran the table and the show. The finale was 96 percent pure Walter Hartwell White -- whatever he wanted, he got. So much for just deserts; by dictating the terms of his exit, Walt just got dessert.
Walt is certainly a seductive personality, and it must be hard to be merciless toward your story's lead character when you're about to leave him forever. But aren't those who tell the tale supposed to be at a certain remove from the characters? Knowing them so well, shouldn't they be less easily seduced?
Yet, right at the end, "Breaking Bad" ignored the cardinal rule of all drug-related enterprises: Don't get high on your own supply.
Contrast "Breaking Bad's" ending with that of "The Shield." I won't give that ending away, except to say that Vic Mackey, who had told himself he was simply trying to do good but had let his ego run amok, was denied everything he wanted most. The world, or fate, or whatever you want to call it, finally put obstacles in his path that he couldn't get over. The universe said, "No."
Not so for Walt. "Breaking Bad" blinked; it hesitated. Its desire to burnish and redeem Walt made the finale anti-climactic -- or rather, post-climactic. Why couldn't the events of "To'hajiilee" and "Ozymandias" -- a more powerful concluding arc, in my view -- be left as they were? Because that arc was too unsparing. It was too bleak.
Wait a minute, wasn't "unsparing and bleak" "Breaking Bad's" thing? Wasn't that what I was drawn to, almost in spite of myself?
I'm not saying that the show totally lacked compassion for everyone on screen, even Walt -- that was never the case. And I'm not saying the finale was a bad episode of television. It was just far less powerful than it could have been. And before you call for my head on a platter, I'll say that "Breaking Bad" still belongs in the pantheon of great TV shows.
But the finale's impact was blunted by its tendency to view Walt's actions not just as the right ones but as the necessary ones. This isn't about wishing retribution on Walt per se, it's about wanting him to live in a universe that's capable of biting back. It's the universe that he'd lived in for the five previous seasons (and, until "Felina," wasn't all that different from the reality we live in, too).
Walt got a sentimental ending. He got to go out on a win. Don't ask how he got his millions from the cabin, how he lucked into a car with the keys inside, how he traveled cross-country and flitted all over ABQ without being spotted, how he hooked up with Badger and Skinny Pete without being seen, how it was so easy for him to get into the Schwartz house (and get them to haul his money around), or how a man near death rigged up a machine gun with a device that surely figures in an alternate cut of a Patrick Swayze direct-to-video action movie. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, he's experiencing a redemptive arc!
Real talk: "Breaking Bad" simply could not bring itself to lower the boom on Walt. The story got wrapped up and the plot was tidily concluded, but "Breaking Bad" lobbed the moral reckoning back in our laps. "You decide," it seemed to say. The show always allowed us the space to make our own assessment of Walt, and that is to be commended, but there was something evasive about the finale. Evasiveness from the most tough-minded show in recent memory? That didn't seem possible not so long ago.
In the end, the show whose uncompromising vision won me over -- me, a total sap who likes to cry and feel all the feelings -- backed away from the consequences and final judgment seemingly foretold in those early seasons. As I wrote in my review, for Walt, balancing the cosmic scales of karma would have involved going through an endgame that deprived him of control and power -- the two things he valued most. That didn't happen.
We can endlessly debate whether or not Walt got his comeuppance, and how much of a comeuppance he deserved. We will forever argue, I suspect, about whether that truthful admission to Skyler was more valuable than Fate serving Walt a plate of humble pie. The point is, to allow so much control -- and for the universe to acquiesce so meekly -- well, that doesn't feel like the show of "Full Measure" or "Box Cutter" or even "Ozymandias." Right at the end, "Breaking Bad" went with resolutions that were more cynical or more forgiving than I would have expected.
The show ended with a smiling Walt surrounded by the machinery and chemicals he loved. Jesse and Skyler let him exit their lives with few, if any, penalties, and almost everyone else was dead. The Greek chorus that commented on Walt's actions was silent or gone. The unsparing eye that had regarded his actions with unstinting clarity was replaced, in the end, by a camera that rose up into the heavens, regarding a peaceful Walt -- kindly, I think -- from on high.
The desire to pull punches is understandable; Lord knows, I have wrestled with how much disappointment to lob at a show I have loved with all the jittery fervor of a meth addict.
Just as the writers couldn't quite lower the boom on Walt, I find it difficult to lower the boom on "Breaking Bad." I still love the show and respect it, truly.
Maybe Walt got to me, too. Goddamn that guy.