Breaking Bad finale: Some thoughts on ambiguity

Jaime Weinman on the end of Walter White

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Editor’s note: Spoiler alert! If you don’t want to know what happens in the final episode of Breaking Bad, stop reading now.

And that was the Breaking Bad finale, a heaping helping of revenge, recrimination, and something else starting with “r.” As many people have already pointed out, the approach Vince Gilligan took was almost the polar opposite of David Chase’s in ending The Sopranos. That show ended in an ambiguous, open-ended way, and frustrated many viewers by doing so: people will accept sad endings, but they tend to get upset when the ending doesn’t feel like an ending at all. (The essence of an ambiguous ending is that it implies life might go on after the story is finished, that there could be other stories to tell. That’s what real life is like, of course, but many viewers understandably want more closure than real life usually provides.) You can’t accuse Breaking Bad of not having an ending. Partly that’s because, unlike Mad Men or even The Sopranos, Breaking Bad has a built-in ending: like most stories about the rise and fall of a criminal, the obvious ending is the criminal’s death, and all the story really has to do to satisfy us is kill him off at the end.

But Gilligan went beyond just giving us the big death scene. (Side note: if you’re going to kill off your lead, it’s a good idea to have him get wounded and very, very slowly bleed to death. Some leads in old film noir movies managed to last even longer and do even more things than Walt did last night.) And this is where the finale may be somewhat controversial, though certainly not in a Sopranos kind of way. The finale of Breaking Bad didn’t have a whole lot of ambiguity, despite being the end to a series that was considered the pinnacle of the ambiguous anti-hero show. There weren’t a lot of twists either, even though the show was famous for its shocking twists.

Instead, the finale was more of “Walt White’s Bucket List”: knowing that it’s over for him, Walt starts crossing stuff off his list, taking care of everything he wants to do before his inevitable demise. He gets his revenge on those horrible Bill and Melinda Gates stand-ins who cheated him out of his part in their pharmaceutical company; he arranges to funnel some of his ill-gotten gains to the son who hates him; he gets his wife off the hook for her complicity in his crimes (continuing what he started in his deliberately angry phone call to her in a previous episode, where he made it sound like she was innocent); he kills a lot of bad guys—and come to think of it, Walt hasn’t killed many people in recent years who aren’t bad guys; in some ways, he ended up less morally ambiguous than he was in the first season—and above all, we finally get to hear him admit what we’ve known all along: that what he did wasn’t really about helping his family, but about feeling like a big shot. Of course there’s still some ambiguity in there: Walt has told so many lies, why should we take him at face value when he “admits” what his true motivations were? But still, it’s a very tidy, very ordered finale. The loose ends are tied up.

If you thought of Breaking Bad as a wild and crazy show, a show full of out-of-left-field moments, then the orderliness of the finale might seem a little bit of an anticlimax. It certainly does remind us that unlike Matt Weiner or David Chase, Vince Gilligan is a creator with crowd-pleasing instincts: he’s not afraid of giving out spoilers in interviews, he is willing to nudge us sometimes to make sure we don’t miss the point, and he’s willing to make use of clichés if they’re what’s best for the story. The bit with not-Bill and not-Melinda Gates coming home and talking infuriating Yuppie talk, unaware that a threat is looming in their house—that’s the kind of scene Gilligan could have written with a victim on The X-Files, and probably did. He’s never been ashamed to work in broad strokes, to give the public what it wants; he’s not unwilling to frustrate us or kill off a beloved character, but he doesn’t consider it a virtue not to give us what we want to see.

And part of that crowd-pleasing vibe was that he could never quite make his characters evil beyond all redemption. Even Walt, as I said, whose evil was the whole point of the show, was usually protected (after the first season anyway) from being too evil: the consequences of his drug empire were usually kept offscreen, he poisoned a baby but death was not the result; the bad guys, not he, killed the lovable Hank, and Walt’s biggest and gruesomest kill was the far more evil Gus Fring. Chase was enraged that people identified with Tony Soprano even though he’d done everything possible to show that Tony Soprano was a bad person. I’m sure Gilligan doesn’t want us to identify with Walt White, but he did give us a lot of “outs” if we want to identify with him; he rarely stood forcefully in the way of such an interpretation. And that is especially true in the finale: it pulls its punches on Walt and the audience, essentially telling us that if we want to like him in spite of everything, we’re free to do so. After all, he only hurt bad people in this episode, and he didn’t actually order a hit on Bill and Melinda Gates.

I’m not saying this as a criticism of the episode per se, just a description. Whether it’s a criticism or not depends on what you were expecting from the finale and from the show overall. As a wrap-up to the life of Walt White, it’s satisfying, tense and intense, with the expected brilliance from Cranston (who has done more than any TV actor to show how much you can accomplish without any lines; he sometimes “says” more when he’s not talking than when he does). It gives us Walt White in all his many facets: scary, manipulative, selfish bastard and family man, and, in the end, the one thing about him that’s always been consistent: lover of science.

But the orderliness and cleanness of the episode might work against it if you thought of Breaking Bad as a more chaotic show, where insane things happen and a nerdy teacher can become a fearsome criminal mastermind (the whole show is about how nerds are one step ahead of the jocks, all the time: Hank is the most likable jock imaginable, but he was brought face to face with the fact that his nerdy brother-in-law was smarter and stronger than he was), where there are moments of comedy and drama alike that come out of left field. The finale clearly belongs to a show where the natural order of things is restored, and where everything that happens is logically related to the linear progress of an easy-to-follow plot. This is not, as I said, a criticism. It’s just that whereas the series lent itself to two interpretations—as a crazy show about the lack of order in the world, and a more ordered show where the world is more or less as it should be—the finale leaned heavily in favour of the second interpretation. And it will probably have an effect on the way the entire series is read in retrospect; the whole series may seem less wild and bizarre when we know that in the end, everything will go back to more or less the way it was supposed to be, and that Walt White himself will help to restore order to the universe. It will still be one of the greatest TV series of all time. It’s just that the particular kind of great series it is will be less ambiguous.