In this so far nameless segment, regular contributor Andrew Findlay takes issue with another person’s opinions. Think of it as a “letter to the editor” except it’s always from the same defiant person and the “editor” in that example writes for the same site. This one has spoilers for The Wire, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and a previous post on Reading at Recess about TV.
Extremely popular, long-running television shows struggle with sticking the landing. It is known. It has been known ever since the ending of Lost caused about half of its die-hard fanbase to swear never to watch another episode. It has been known since people internet-complained at the less-than-ideal end to Battlestar Galactica. However, it is strange to pick as the most relevant representatives of this phenomenon two of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time, one of which was showered with accolades for achieving the impossible and having a nearly perfect final episode.
Terrible endings exist and are unfortunate. At the end of Battlestar Galactica, the survivors sent their entire fleet into the sun so they could join/create humanity and live through the Dark Ages alongside them instead of significantly lessening human misery by holding on to their tech, which seemed like a weird choice. The ending of Lost, a show built almost entirely on mystery and suspense, completely dismissed the big final mystery and betrayed a legion of fans that had spent a significant portion of their lives tuning in every week. When you promise answers for years and years, and then the answer is “Oh, just unplug the island, any IT person worth his salt will tell you the usefulness of power cycling,” it creates a vast and deep well of rage. Who created the plug? What is that glowing room? Why are you just giving your viewership more mysteries instead of actually answering anything? When you go from a level of dedication that creates the YouTube video below to undiluted hatred, you have written a terrible ending.
I teared up watching this, remembering how it felt to be a part of the viewership of this show. Not sure if I’ll ever watch an episode again.
The Wire and Breaking Bad ended really well. Season five of The Wire may have been a little weaker compared to the others, but there was no nosedive. The state of affairs at the end of the final episode were either good or emphasized the whole underlying theme of the show: The game is the game, and the game never ends. It is absolutely believable that McNulty’s arrogant ass would get himself killed, but the detective’s wake in the last episode is actually fake, and he is actually escaping from his self-destructive career path. Omar, probably the most universally liked character on the show, is murdered in a convenience store by a little kid. This happens because he is not a civilian – he is a player of the game, and the game never ends, and anything can happen. Almost no one escapes, and if they do, they are lucky.
I don’t have as much an issue with that as with the idea of Breaking Bad’s final episode being a failure. It is almost universally praised as a near-flawless ending. It is almost perfect because Walt gets exactly everything he deserves, but he also gets everything he wants. This paradox exists because Walt, after five seasons of being driven by anger and pride, finally realizes and repents all the mistakes he made. He realizes what he deserves and is only concerned with doing right by those he loves. Who does he love (who is still alive at this point)? Jesse, Skyler, and his son and daughter. What has his arrogance done to them throughout the series? His family has lost everything, been terrorized, and been forced to abandon their home. Jesse has lost the woman he loves, been completely broken psychologically, and been enslaved by an Aryan Brotherhood gang. This is some bad shit that Walt has done. The reason that Walt can get what he deserves and what he wants is that, for the first time, what he wants is not centered around himself. He finally, finally, realizes what he actually needs to do, not for his own ego, but for the people he loves.
This is one of the greatest scenes in television, period.
This growth and shift of character makes the final episode what it is. He is out for money, but only for his family after he is gone. He is out for vengeance, but mostly to rescue Jesse from the position he put him in and to punish them for what they did to Hank. After so much greed and vanity and selfishness, Walt finally realizes what he has done and what he needs to do to make it right, whether he survives or not. Walt, after years of denial and repression and blame-shifting and anger, accepts who he is and what he does, and formulates a plan. This plan is absolutely successful. He finds a way to provide for the family he destroyed by intimidating his old work colleague. He rescues Jesse by single-handedly wiping out a gang. Then, after having actually done right by the people he loves, after five seasons of only paying lip service to that sentiment, he dies. It seems to me he dies from blood loss, as he’s been leaking for quite a while at this point and is leaving blood on everything he touches, but regardless of the cause, the important thing is that he died after achieving all of his goals. Walter White achieving all of his goals and then escaping from justice yet again would be a repugnant ending, but he does not escape justice, and he is not the same Walter White. Sure, he doesn’t get arrested, but he spends most of the second half of season five dealing with the consequences of his actions. The complete ruination of his own life, the life of his family, and the life of someone who is like a son to him, is consequence enough. What the hell are the police going to be able to do that he hasn’t already done to himself? These consequences and the pain of dealing with them set a process, if not of redemption, then at least of remorse and planning. The Walt of the last 20 minutes of the show is not the Walt who is in the “empire-building business,” but a Walt willing to sacrifice himself to do right by everyone else. This profound character transformation makes it possible for us to root for Walt again, and this is the trick that makes the ending of Breaking Bad so appealing. As for Jesse, who is driving away into the night, it doesn’t really matter where he’s going. He is free from the physical enslavement of the Aryan gang and the psychological enslavement of Walt. Wherever he is headed, it cannot possibly be worse than where he was.
This cultural moment has been called, many times, the Golden Age of television. It is an edifice built on the foundations of The Sopranos and The Wire. It is the result of a shift in perception, where television writers are responsible for creating a quality product and not just creating ratings. It consists of many different shows of deep emotional impact, strong plotting, and important thematic development. The result is that we consume our acclaimed television more like we consume our acclaimed novels, voraciously and as important art. The reason people are analyzing TV shows now is not that there is some mystical relationship between TV and novels or that one is replacing the other, but that TV has gotten really, ridiculously good in the past decade, and that humans love spinning commentary on really, ridiculously good things. Sure, there are some grievous missteps here and there, but The Wire and Breaking Bad are not examples of them.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.