While it’s certainly true to say that every story has an ending, saying it is only part of the story. There are endings and then there are endings. The latter implies intention, elegance, and artistry. The former is more common. It’s just when something stops, like a clock when the battery dies, a rainstorm when the clouds move away,1 or a mystery of Edwin Drood when Charles Dickens kicks the bucket.
For years this was how most television shows finished their runs: suddenly, forgettably, and, on occasion, paused forever in mid-sentence, while the credits rolled on a lame joke. Only very fancy or extremely successful programs were able to write their own exits and, when they did, they tended to feel more like wakes than like funerals.2 The MASH finale, now and forever the highest-rated non–Super Bowl in TV history, wasn’t necessarily about finishing a story because, by that point, there had been thousands of stories. It was more about tying a heartstring-tugging bow on the world’s most unwieldy present. Closure was for doors and resolution for U.N. delegates. Invented as a way to fill space between soap commercials, scripted television was only ever meant to run in one direction, and not toward any particular goal but rather for as long as it could until the track, or the actors’ contracts, ran out.
These days on TV, words like “binge” and “serial” are no longer limited to Jerry Seinfeld’s kitchen, and endings have taken on an entirely new significance. With new scripted series popping up in the strangest places, viewers are savvier about their choices. They’ve been burned and have the scars to prove it. And so a show’s quality is increasingly judged not merely on its content or its characters but on its overall direction. After all, since competition for eyeballs is at an all-time high, it’s very much a buyer’s market for audiences, making them less and less inclined to fall for a flashy newcomer and follow him into whatever ditches he might lead them into — at least not without some heavy assurances that, somewhere in Burbank, there’s a whiteboard with the rough outline of a road map drawn between taped-up takeout menus. More and more, choosing between critically lauded TV shows resembles the weather in San Francisco. Don’t like what’s on now? Wait a couple minutes and something new will arrive to take its place.
For many years, the biggest problem faced by showrunners was what to do next week. Now it’s expected that any writer worth his salt will have at least an inkling of an idea of what he’d like to do next season, or six seasons hence. A strong and memorable ending used to be a luxury; now it’s an expectation. And not an unreasonable one: Watching a TV series in 2013 means watching all of the series, and audiences aren’t wrong to feel entitled to some sort of return on that considerable investment of emotional currency and time.
But burdening a show’s ending with the weight of validating everything that came before is both unrewarding and unfair. This isn’t Olympic gymnastics, but the same rules ought to apply: You can be docked for botching the dismount, but you shouldn’t be disqualified. Despite a decade of ballsy and balletic serialized storytelling, the truth is that TV is still better at beginnings than endings, more skilled at asking questions than at answering them. That’s part of the medium’s needy DNA: It’s always easier when the job is about trying to attract as many new viewers as possible rather than potentially pissing them off in droves when the limitless promise of a pilot turns into the limited reality of a series. The presents always look better under the tree.
There’s no question that serialization has improved just about every aspect of our watching experience; it has added depth to something once maligned as weightless, and transformed TV’s role from light diversion into an essential part of the cultural conversation. This is true across the dial, from celebrated cable dramas to the once lowly network comedy. (Parks and Recreation, for example, marries a classic sitcom structure with a very contemporary — and very admirable — desire to never sit still and never stop changing.) But it has also placed undue importance on the destination at the expense of the journey, a journey that is increasingly undertaken atop a runaway train of fan anticipation that can flatten all who have dedicated themselves to working on the tracks. (Those squished puddles we just passed were once much-interviewed men named Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.) That’s the funny thing about popularity: It can put showrunners into Brentwood mansions, but it can also fatally tie them up in knots.
If you think all this reads like a pre-apology for Breaking Bad, which begins its final cook this Sunday on AMC at 9 p.m. ET, then think again. Despite his most famous principle, our Heisenberg doesn’t do uncertainty. The crossed wires that tripped up the finales of other Golden Age dramas aren’t relevant here. In retrospect, I think what confounded and disappointed loyal obsessives of The Wire and The Sopranos wasn’t the specific ways they chose to go out but that the endings had to be specific at all. Both shows transcended their settings to become wide-ranging, rewarding hobbyhorses for the men behind the curtain. Putting a fulfilling period on such magnificent, digressive sentences proved to be nearly impossible. How do you condense the life and death of a major American city into a montage? How to cram the banality and barbarity of modern life into a close-up and an order of onion rings? Even the most ardent Draperphile will be approaching the end of Mad Men with trepidation next spring because a show that has won attention and acclaim for being about everything — up to and including men, Manhattan, and Manhattans — will, inevitably, be reduced to being about something. The main character of Mad Men isn’t Don, it’s creator Matthew Weiner’s muse, and, come June, we’ll all be chasing it one way or another, whether it be up to the mountaintop or over a cliff.
Breaking Bad, to its enormous credit, isn’t about everything. It’s about one thing and always has been: Walter White’s calamitous path not from Mr. Chips to Scarface but from homeroom to the gates of hell. This framework has provided creator Vince Gilligan with a relentless, furious focus usually only possible after a few hits of the blue. Everything that we’ve seen these past five seasons, from airplane collisions to cartel killings, has spun out from Walter’s initial decision to edge up to the line separating legal from illegal, good from truly awful, and then run right over it behind the wheel of a hideous, taupe, SUV. And every step he has taken — from half-measures to full-on slaughter — we’ve taken right alongside him.3 We know exactly where we’re going because we’ve never lost sight of where we’ve been.
Even in these prestige-conscious times, most shows are built to run forever — or at least until the windfall of syndication makes everyone rich enough to skip the lines in Tahoe. Not even the great masters Chase and Weiner were above treading a little water to keep the Chianti and whiskey flowing. Breaking Bad, by contrast, came stamped with a malignant expiration date, just like the milk Flynn pours into his bottomless morning bowl of Kix. And because Gilligan never wavered, Walt’s initial diagnosis of terminal cancer charged everything that followed, producing a show as alive and reckless in the face of its own mortality as its protagonist. With the storytelling fuse thus lit, Gilligan, like a good scientist, stepped back and let his vicious experiment play itself out.
This means that though a nation of addicts may be hooked on Breaking Bad‘s brand of meth, not one of them is approaching Sunday with anywhere near the strung-out shakiness of Lost fans before Season 6, those sorry souls praying for heaven but bound for mushy purgatory. Breaking Bad is the rare show that was designed for this moment; it’s a doomsday device, built to end. There isn’t a single person watching Breaking Bad who thinks Walter White is going to survive these final episodes and, even more noteworthy, everybody is entirely fine with it.4 I’ll say it again: Walter White is going to die and we’ve known it from the first miserable moment we made his acquaintance. What makes Breaking Bad‘s final season unprecedented in TV history is that for the first time, an entire audience has willingly bought tickets to the same grim destination.
With that fatal “what” secured, Gilligan and his team were free to concern themselves this offseason with far more prickly questions like when, how, and why. He even pre-spoiled things further by introducing 52-year-old Mr. Lambert from New Hampshire, a gaunt beardo with Walter’s face who has Chekhov’s elephant gun lurking in the trunk of his car. No matter; what makes a jack-in-the-box effective isn’t the explosive reveal, it’s the agonizing anticipation. It’s a fool’s game for a critic to play soothsayer,5 but I have every confidence that these last eight hours will be electrifying and satisfying in equal proportion. Vince Gilligan has but one thing in common with his horrific creation, and it’s an unwavering commitment to pure process and high quality. All that’s left for us to do is sit back and enjoy — or, in the darker moments, endure — the ride.
But just how bumpy is that ride likely to be? When last we left Albuquerque, Walt had both cleared the board of enemies and potential snitches and cleared his conscience by giving up the drug business entirely. Jesse sat splayed, gun in hand, red-eyed and shaking on the floor of his perpetually empty home. And, in the season’s final moment, Hank finally found the smoking gun hiding in the Leaves of Grass: The guy he’d been hunting for years was outside, benignly refilling his wife’s glass of Chardonnay. In recapping that last episode before the midseason hiatus (AMC insists on calling these new episodes the second half of Season 5), I took small issue with the rushed nature of all the revelations. Director Michelle MacLaren — the ricin cigarette isn’t Breaking Bad‘s secret weapon; she is — crafted two immaculate and horrifying montages in “Gliding Over All,” the first a wholesale prison massacre, the second a crash course in the global drug economy set to a 40-year-old song by Tommy James and the Shondells. But as artful as these montages were, I couldn’t shake the feeling that MacLaren had basically enabled Gilligan to yadda-yadda some of the best remaining parts of his story. AMC had famously nickled and dimed Gilligan over the length of the final season; had he, like Walt, simply run out of time for his end game? If transforming Walt into Scarface was the point from the start, why was his reign on the top shorter than leprechauns?
Earlier this week I watched “Gliding Over All” and this Sunday’s “Blood Money” back to back, and I’d like to recant my earlier testimony. Gilligan didn’t yadda-yadda the best parts. He yadda-yadda’d the worst parts. Instead of rubbernecking at a crash site, he hit fast-forward both to deny Walt the pleasure — because, really, in the end there was no pleasure; as Skyler put it in front of the great stack of silverfish-free money, “How much is enough?” — and to highlight the horrifying banality of remote control evil. In his stage 5 villainy, Walt had ascended the power structure to the point where anything but his own triumph was an abstraction: He placed an order to have men burned alive via cell phone and shipped his chemical poison halfway around the world to the Czech Republic. The meth business had finally become as clinical and hypothetical as a lab experiment. Part of me wonders if Walt gave up the crown not because he had enough cash but because his new life was now as repetitive and circumscribed as his old one. In the end it wasn’t Walt’s destination that ultimately mattered to him. It was the journey.
If that is indeed the case, then Sunday’s episode, of which I’ll spoil not a whit other than to say it is absolutely terrific, feels less like merging onto an exit ramp and more like the later stages of a rocket launch. The direction, by Bryan Cranston himself, is stirring and precise. The tone alternates between hilarious and bleak, and the tension is excruciating. The way an impatient Gilligan leaps fearlessly to tackle story points that other Emmy winners would let linger for half a season makes me think he’s the sort of hedonist who would never deign to sit through a salad course when there’s steak on the menu. He just can’t help himself, and goddamn does it taste good!
It is also made abundantly clear why Walt the monster had to be curtailed. What awaits us in these final hours is a chance to take the measure of Walt the man, the once (and future?) cancer case who introduced himself to us in the pilot by blubbering an apology into a video camera. Do you remember the moment? Walt, weeping in his pathetic underwear, telling his family that they were always in his heart despite all subsequent evidence that that particular organ had become as corroded as his tumor-laden lungs. As Breaking Bad comes to a close, there are no more supervillains and no more superlab. The cast has been culled to the bone. Family is all that’s left to deal with the mess Walt has made of his life and, eventually, his death. We don’t yet know which of them will play the part of executioner: Hank, the humiliated brother-in-law? Skyler, the weary, complicit wife? Or Jesse, the forsaken adopted son? Regardless, we do know this: It will be up to us, the audience, to serve as mute, watchful jury. Because Judge Gilligan passed the sentence before Walt’s trials even began. There will be no reprieve. There will only be the end.