There was never any doubt that Breaking Bad cared about its viewers. The show’s most impressive feat to me was its devotion to clarity, no matter how complicated its character dynamics or intricate its plot developments. Breaking Bad explained everything and then re-explained it. Jumps in logic were extremely rare and when they were employed—Jesse’s a-ha ricin moment from earlier this season, in which he deduced way too much given way too little information, and wielded his hunch like a weapon—they sent the plot forward with too much velocity to upset anyone but nitpickers.
The show was so satisfying, at least to me, because it played like a system of rewards. It would introduce a character or concept, allow you to engage and wonder, and then, just as you were getting to the point of Wait, what?: It delivered. Take Walt’s initially mystifying pay-phone conversation from last night’s Breaking Bad series finale, in which he impersonates a New York Times reporter in order to track down Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, his former partners at Gray Matter. Walt’s ensuing break-in, while Gretchen and Elliott putter around their mansion oblivious to the invasion, is so calm and casual—the resulting suspense fucked with us the audience and only us. (And how about the eventual reveal that Walt’s intentions are not to murder Gretchen and Elliott, but to rope them into distributing his remaining fortune to his children? That show could play with me all night long if it wanted to.)
Another example: Walt’s final meeting with Skyler, preceded by a phone call from her sister Marie, who informs her Walter is in town, that he could be coming for her at any moment. Skyler hangs up, the camera deliberately pulls forward and reveals Walt, who’d been standing in the kitchen the whole time, previously obscured from our vision by a support column.
Breaking Bad made disclosure into a game in which viewers always felt like we were winning. The hang time between introduction and revelation is what we reveled in, and it was complicated further by characters’ participation in the game too, their worlds circumscribed by their own knowledge, ignorance, and willful suspension of disbelief in any given situation. This was not simply in a scene-to-scene way, but in the structure of the entire series. From Walt’s introduction to the meth trade in the pilot episode, his frequently repeated motivation—his risky behavior was all for his family—was dubious. The show allowed us to draw our own conclusions, to fill the small open space in Walt’s motivation and transformation from hero to anti-hero, from mild-mannered high school teacher to Heisenberg. And then, considerately and perfectly, Walt fills out his own understanding of himself: “I did it for me,” he tells Skyler, in a moment of ultimate revelation. “I liked it. I was good at it, and I was really… I was alive.”
No one gets to write his own obituary, but in taking control and revising his life—an existence eaten by cancer, already down and out after a near miss at entrepreneurial glory—Walter White came as close as a man can get to doing so. The tagline on posters advertising this final batch of Season 5 episodes was: “Remember my name.” That kind of egocentrism is fuel for success and ruin. The two existed simultaneously for Walter White. As much as Breaking Bad was the story about a man’s death—and thank god it turned out to be that story via its definitive, satisfying ending (not that I’d expect less)—it was also one of rebirth. Nothing exists in a vacuum: Walter’s selfishness affected everyone close to him, and his generosity was ultimately self-serving. He was a bad man who was attracted to innocence, which is why the only moments of pure joy we saw him experience were spent with his baby Holly (and also, I’d argue, why he saved his basically incompetent and certainly dependent beta counterpart, Jesse).
In the finale, Walt employs Jesse’s cohorts Badger and Skinny Pete to help scare Gretchen and Elliott into delivering Walter’s money to his son. The pair then shares an exchange that’s the most overt shout out to fans in Breaking Bad history:
Badger: I don’t know how to feel about all this.
Skinny Pete: For real, yo; the whole thing felt shady morality-wise.
They feel us. This chamber has an echo.
The finale was tidy, maybe overly so for a show about a man who made a mess of his life. Few questions were left unanswered—the Times points out that we never really got to the bottom of Walt’s departure from Gray Matter, and there was the curious removal of his watch after the aforementioned pay-phone call. (Later, on the post-show Talking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan explained that this was a matter of keeping continuity with the flash-forward that we saw at the beginning of the season, but also provided a more interpretive explanation about Walter’s time being up.) But really, except for henchman Huell (who trended on Twitter last night as a result of being absent from the finale), all T’s were crossed, all I’s dotted as they always were.
Walter’s ending was a happy one, or as happy as one could be engineered from the ruins of his life: He put a plan in place to ensure his kids would get his fortune (thus his meth-making was not in vain), he effectively destroyed the arm of the meth industry he built up, he got to be a hero to Jesse, and he died without suffering, beating his cancer once and for all. Walter got off easily, yes, but in receiving a definitive ending that is both thoughtful and morally straightforward, so did we. Walter’s destruction was not for nothing. We won’t have to argue and debate this to death a la The Sopranos. Breaking Bad did most of the work for us, as usual.