Of course, it’s impossible to have your cake and eat it too (or your meth and smoke it too, as it were), but Vince Gilligan, the visionary creator of Breaking Bad, has come pretty darn close.
With Walter White, played so persuasively and passionately by Bryan Cranston, he’s managed to create two things: A character that is a fascinating and morally flawed anti-hero, a man driven by desperation and ego to tap into the darkest depths of his nature, and a kind of pop culture folk hero: the high school chemistry teacher who discovers his secret inner badass. To deny one or the other is to deprive yourself some of the pleasures of Breaking Bad, which ended its extraordinary run last night.
I confess that for the longest portion of my Breaking Bad viewing experience, I only saw the first side of Walter White—the morally bankrupt anti-hero. In fact, I secretly wished the series had ended with Season 4, where Walt not only vanquished his greatest enemy but essentially, chillingly turned into him. Once Walt potentially sacrificed the life of a child to advance his own selfish agenda, there was no turning back for him in my eyes. He had effectively made the transformation from everyman to villain (or from Mr. Chips to Scarface, as Gilligan was fond of saying.) The ending of that season positively gutted me—and it felt complete, like a great American tragedy. Where do you go from there? Why, for that matter, would you want to go anywhere from there?
My suspicions, at first, felt justified. I complained here that the first half of S5 felt obsessed with underscoring what they had established so carefully in S4—that Walter had finally and irredeemably “broken bad.” Why lay it on so thick?
But as the first half of Season 5 ended—AMC annoyingly split the season into two halves (enjoy, Mad Men fans!)—I realized that I had been short-sighted. Walt turning evil was only part of the equation. Next, there had to be the fallout, a kind of true personal reckoning for his actions, and, yes, a chance for some sort of redemption.
What’s more, I came to realize that my personal view of the show didn’t line up with Gilligan’s. For me, the Heisenberg persona—the pork pie hat, the black sunglasses, the goatee—was a bit of a joke: A weak man trying to affect the persona of a tough one, trying to turn himself into an outlaw legend from the outside in.
Having watched all of Season 5, I now realize that’s not entirely true. In Gilligan’s view, Heisenberg is both a sad joke and a true mythic outlaw—and that paradox is built into the DNA of the show.
By last night’s finale, Walter White got both endings. He got the sad, pitiful ending of the self-aggrandized would-be criminal mastermind (he was dying, his brother in law was dead, his wife and children hated him, and his myth of self as a heroic man doing it all for “his family” had finally crumbled) and the more romanticized ending of an Old West gunslinger (killing and/or bullying his enemies; saying one last goodbye to his family; and saving his spiritual son—Jesse Pinkman—from captivity, before dying on his own terms).
That Breaking Bad could have a finale that appealed to both the Team Walt fanboys (or the “bad fans” as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum wonderfully described them) and those who had a more measured and complicated relationship with the show, may have been its greatest trick of all.
photo courtesy of AMC