A few months ago, my brother asked me if Breaking Bad was the best show I’d ever seen. I said that it depends how it ends. At the time my main concern was Walter White’s lack of adversaries. Up until season 5, the show has shown Walter matching wits with people scarier and more powerful than he was. But I’m willing to set those concerns aside because thus far, the show has handled its final few episodes very well. Even if it limps to the end, it’s still one of best shows ever. and the online discussions about the show’s place in TV history have illustrated its importance.
But here’s what’s bugging me.
Even the best shows tend to end badly -or at least below our expectations. And a bad ending can sully a great show. The Soprano’s much-loathed fade to black is the most notorious example. How many people have refused to watch (or rewatch) the Sopranos knowing all of the bad press they heard about the ending? Same goes for Lost. Lost still is my favorite show, and I will defend it to the end. But its ending was very flawed (even if I liked it) and the mixed reviews it got mutes future interest. My brother was almost done with Season 3 when Lost ended, and bad press about the final episodes killed his desire to see it through.
More than any show since perhaps Seinfeld (another great show that ended on a bad note), Breaking Bad has been about ethics, and the consequences of our ethical choices. It revels in an ethical gray zone that has gone progressively darker with each season. But no matter how much you rooted for Walt and Jesse early on, you were rooting for two guys who manufacture premium grade poison for the masses. The greatness of the show is that it can take that premise and make it a show where we can debate the merits of these characters.
The problem is that endings to TV shows tend to have finality that the ending to books and even movies don’t share. You can spend a few hundred hours with a show, and like it or not, the ending becomes the lens through which you view your experience. Books allow for more ambiguity and complexity, and movies are shorter, so disappointing endings are easier to forgive. But the ending to a TV show have a way of saying “this is the message of our show.” In a show based on moral decisions and consequences, the ending is bound to become the lens through which we interpret it, so no matter how it turns out, lots of people are bound to be disappointed.
For example, let’s say that Breaking Bad ends with Walt’s death, and Jesse and Walt’s family survive. A lot of people will be happy with that ending, but could also be interpreted as too much of a “crime doesn’t pay” or “the bad guy gets his comeuppance” kind of ending. Too black and white for a morally gray show.
Now, what if Walt isn’t the only character who bites the dust? I think people are braced for a guns-blazing showdown to the death between Hank and Walt where neither one survives. But if Skyler, Walt Jr, or Jesse don’t survive to the end, a lot of people are going to be upset. If Jesse winds up betraying Walt, I suspect that even the most anti-Walt fans will lose respect for him.
But what if Walt is the last one standing, and he therefore “gets away with it?” Then you have the opposite problem: too bleak, and evil goes unpunished. There is one scene in “Blood Money” that makes me think this will be the case. Look closely at the 4:14 mark in the episode. In this flash forward, Walt’s face is distorted to monstrous proportions, and for a second or two he has no eyes. What made him an eyeless monster grabbing ricin out of his old graffiti-ridden house? I suspect he’s done something a lot worse than anything we’ve seen him do.
As I see it, the two X Factors are Lydia and Skyler. Lydia is the current reigning Queen of Meth, and she’s shown the willingness to knock off enemies even if she can’t bear to see the carnage. I could see an out-of-left-field surprise where Lydia kills Walt. I also like the “Skysenberg” theory floating around the web, wherein Skyler reaps the benefits of Walt’s deeds and ends up becoming as corrupted as her likely-deceased husband.
No matter what, I’m looking forward to seeing how the show ends. But I hope that it charges hard with whatever direction it chooses to go. The worst thing would be an indecisive ending that leaves too many questions on the table.