‘Breaking Bad:’ Why the Ending Doesn’t Really Matter

Breaking Bad Season 5 Ratings

Media coverage is putting too much emphasis on how the AMC show wraps up

Reading some of the overheated coverage of “Breaking Bad” as the series builds toward its finale brings to mind an old Spanish teacher, who chided students for putting the emphAHsis on the wrong syllAHble.

Interest in the program was already at a fever pitch among loyalists, but the ratings surge for its recent return will only fuel additional attention in print, online and on AMC’s half-hour talk parasite, “Talking Bad.” And a lot of those discussing the show clearly don’t quite get it — particularly those behaving as if there will be huge disappointment if the story doesn’t conclude in a way that completely satisfies die-hard fans.

Take the Wall Street Journal, which used the AMC drama as the linchpin of an (another) article about those who recap TV shows.

“The biggest challenges facing most ‘Breaking Bad’ fans during the crime drama’s final weeks are coping with cliffhangers and nervously speculating about the show’s conclusion,” the paper suggested.

Are people engaged in how the show turns out? Certainly. Nervous? For heaven’s sake why?

This isn’t “Lost,” where a great mystery drove the narrative from beginning to end. It’s much closer to “The Sopranos,” where a family man must balance that facet of his life against his involvement in a criminal enterprise. In each case, the lead character’s moral failings would seem to suggest the possibility of a great reckoning or cosmic comeuppance.

Yet the fact that “The Sopranos” ended (for me, anyway) on such a disappointing note didn’t diminish what came before it. It was just the last line in what up to then had been a pretty great novel for television.

The finish didn’t rewrite all the events that preceded it, but simply indicated series creator David Chase, ultimately, didn’t have any profound closing thoughts or creative gas left in the tank, beyond the cop-out of an inconclusive, your-mileage-may-vary closing scene.

Did that diminish everything that had gone before it? Hardly.

Viewers who have followed Walter White’s journey (as brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston) from the beginning obviously want to see how the story plays out, even if they belatedly jumped on the bandwagon via Netflix and binge-viewed the whole thing. This is one of those instances where the mom-and-pop store has long lines around it because of well-deserved word of mouth.

Yes (some spoilers are ahead), key “Breaking Bad” relationships have been strained, sisters have been turned against each other, family ties questioned and someone is probably going to prison — or dying. Far from stumbling toward the finish line, series creator Vince Gilligan and his team appear determined to plunge ahead full throttle.

But “Breaking Bad’s” hallmark has always been unpredictability — writing itself into fantastic, nail-biting corners, then finding some ingenious way out. So if the producers maintain that standard all the way to the finish line, more power to them, and if they can’t, they would hardly be the first.

Following that logic, I think New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley wasn’t speaking for many when she recently contemplated “Breaking Bad’s” imminent demise, stating, “Ever since ‘The Sopranos’ ended on a slyly ambiguous note that kept viewers deconstructing it for weeks, shows with artistic ambition cannot come to a mere close. There has to be a finish so big it sets off a tsunami of second-guessing. Once upon a time fans didn’t want their favorite series to end; now audiences clamor for a denouement they can debate forever.”

The media might want that — it’ll boost web traffic for a day or two — but “a denouement they can debate forever?” Are we to assume nobody has anything else on their minds?

I guess what I’m saying, in a roundabout way, is that at this point, even a bad breakup won’t be enough to break viewers’ devotion to “Breaking Bad.” And like “The Road Warrior” — another taciturn hero in a desolate land — whatever his fate, Walter White will live only in our memories.

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  1. Andrew says:

    Are you serious that David Chase didn’t have anything profound to say at the end of the Sopranos? I’m sorry, but that was probably the most carefully planned out and profound endings in television history. From carefully planned POV shots to the imagery in the restraunt – nothing was unintentional and it all had profound meaning. And it was clearly plotted out over all of Season 6. In fact, the ending itself relates to the very first shot in the pilot episode. Spend about 15 minutes or 3 hours reading some of this and you’ll understand how wrong you are: http://masterofsopranos.wordpress.com/the-sopranos-definitive-explanation-of-the-end/

  2. K.D. says:

    I did like the article, but disagree on one thing. I too was enraged at the end of the Sopranos finale, but mainly (aside from the initial thought my cable went dead) because it didn’t finish as I PERSONALLY would have expected it to end. But in hindsight (days, weeks, years) I think it’s one of the most brilliant moves in TV history, because, evidenced here, people are STILL FRICKING DISCUSSING IT, precisely because it wasn’t what WE had wanted. Which is what David Chase lived by…defying audience expectations. i.e. Tony COULD get popped or convicted at any given time; just not within those 70+ episodes we were so very fortunate to witness.

  3. Waylon says:

    The ending of Sopranos is an artistic masterpiece. Tony was killed.

  4. Gwen Cooper says:

    I couldn’t disagree more. “The Sopranos” was clearly never intended to be a morality play, but rather an observational story. Had the series ended with Tony getting killed or indicted, it would have made it appear as if the “message” of the story was that Crime Doesn’t Pay, and we as viewers would have reassessed everything that came before the finale with our knowledge that even when Tony seemed to be at his most triumphant, the Sword of Damocles was hanging over his head, simply waiting for the right moment to drop. Or, if the series had ended with Tony apparently on track to “get away with it,” it would have seemed as if the “message” of the story was that Crime Does Pay–at least for those murderous, corrupt, and ballsy enough to go all the way with it. I think David Chase left the ending ambiguous to drive home the point that ultimately there was no point–at least not in the traditional sense of having told the story to reinforce certain societal norms of right and wrong. In other words, whether or not Tony “got away with it” was never the point of the exercise, and if you were watching just to see that, then you were watching for the wrong reasons and got an ending that subverted those expectations.

    Whereas, on the other hand, “Breaking Bad” is *entirely* a morality play. It has conspicuously and relentlessly spent the better part of five seasons driving home the point that it is no more possible to be “a little bit evil” than it is to be “a little bit pregnant.” (And, to that extent, I think that Sklyer’s pregnancy was not only a shrewd raise-the-stakes plot point, but also a brilliant metaphor.) “Breaking Bad” operates in an highly morally-weighted universe, in which evil actions–and even “evil” character traits, such as hubris–always bring terrible consequences and suffering. Frequently on this show it’s the good who suffer for the actions of the evil, but–drip by drip and one by one–all of the bad guys on this show have lost or are on track to lose everything that was important to them, right down to Mike’s cash cache, intended for his granddaughter (and the ostensible motivation behind all his actions), and now in the hands of the government.

    Jesse and Walt still have their lives, freedom, and money (at least for now), but what else do they have left? Haven’t they systematically lost or handed away everything else that mattered to them at the beginning of the show? And haven’t they destroyed, or at least critically endangered and alienated, everyone they ever loved in the process? We already know from the flash-forwards that something catastrophic happens to Walt and his family, so any fantasies we may have nurtured of a clean break for Walt and/or his kids are clearly out the window. The only question is exactly how much suffering and collateral damage there’s going to be. But there’s a moral to this story–and the writers have been pretty forthright in saying so all along–and the ending to a story with a moral matters very, very much.

  5. Jonathan says:

    What was so ambiguous about the ending of “The Sopranos”? Tony gets shot in the head. Even David Chase said it. If you need everything spoon fed to you it still doesn’t mean it’s ambiguous.

  6. Jacob F Keller says:

    Like hell it doesn’t! Time and time again you will here from producers and writers and executives just how crucial the ending is to your story. The ending is the most important part of any film or screenplay and takes the most time and effort to get right. Let’s hope ‘Breaking Bad’ gets an ending more in line with ‘The Wire’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica’ instead of the confusing and elusive endings of ‘Lost’ or ‘The Sopranos’ that left fans angry and disenfranchised.

  7. ryan green says:

    one thing that i didn’t like was this article.

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