Don’t get me wrong: I’m a Breaking Bad fan. Hell, I watched the first episode when it aired for the first time, and I loved it. I loved the second episode too, in large part because it actually bothered to show normal people trying to dispose of a body, something that’s routinely glossed over or handled with montages in most TV and movies. This was a show that, from the start, was interested in following through and exploring the implications of its own plot.
Breaking Bad debuted in early 2008, as part of a particularly brilliant 2007-2008 season. The first season of Mad Men and the first season of Damages both debuted in late 2007. Mad Men got all the acclaim, and Breaking Bad seemed lost in Mad Men‘s shadow for some time. Mad Men was the subtle show for the sophisticated, literary set; Breaking Bad was the working-class show, about a lot of down-and-out themes, and it struggled for highbrow attention. Mad Men started as a critical darling; Breaking Bad had to earn it slowly. In the tumult of praise accompanying Breaking Bad‘s conclusion, it can be hard to remember how long critics comparatively ignored it, relative to darlings like The Sopranos and Mad Men.
One of the greatest elements of Breaking Bad was how it got better, season after season. After the initial seven-episode first season, the second season was grouped together by a flash-forward framing sequence. True, that flash-forward wound up being a fake-out; the central characters were never in any real danger. But the painful string of coincidence in the season finale redeemed the format.
Damages had already employed — rather more aggressively, it must be said — the flash-forward as a way of uniting a season. And few TV seasons in history could compare to the first season of Damages (which was also lost in Mad Men‘s shadow). But that show’s second season fell off a cliff, in terms of quality. Breaking Bad only got better.
In Breaking Bad‘s third season, we got to meet Gus Fring, and the season concluded with another shocking climax, as both Walt and Jesse felt like murderers in a way they’d never felt like before. If it wasn’t already clear to viewers that the show was slowly escalating, turning its characters into Scarface-like monsters, the third season made this clear enough.
Then we got the show’s fourth season, with its 13-episode chess match between Walt and Gus. By the end of the season, episode after episode felt like a season finale, offering brilliantly crafted tales in which everything changed — but changed in ways that felt obvious and inevitable, as is usually the case with great fiction. The show didn’t chicken out either; as popular as Gus was, someone had to win. And Walt did, even if he had to sacrifice another piece of his soul to do so.
With only one season to go, Walt had moved up from local thugs and unstable cartel goons to Gus Fring, who he had beaten. Walt had gone from cooking meth in a mobile home to running a super-lab. In the plan to slowly turn this pathetic, down-and-out schoolteacher into Scarface, the final obstacle had been cleared.
The decision to split the extra-long final season into two halves, much like the extra-long final season of The Sopranos, is important here, because much of the season’s problems stem from this choice of format.
One of the show’s greatest strengths had always been that it followed through on its own implications; it avoided the convenient montage and instead did the hard work of not only depicting what other stories leave out but often making this material riveting. Half of the show’s success is owed to this tendency. To the show’s credit, it continued this tendency in the first half of season five. Instead of jumping to Walt the Kingpin, the show took all eight episodes to get him there.
What felt like a pat victory, in the season four finale, took the whole first episode of season five to resolve. After all, there were Gus’s videotapes to consider. Addressing this kind of thing doesn’t advance the plot significantly, but it’s just the kind of thing Breaking Bad did wonderfully. As Walt shifted into the position of meth Kingpin, an episode was devoted to problems like obtaining methylamine — a practical consideration that most writers would elide, rather than string into a train robbery story with a twist. The same could be said about the problem of finding a new place in which to cook meth. Meanwhile, Walt’s ambition isn’t always shared by his conspirators, Jesse and Mike, which comes to a head in the half-season’s brilliant penultimate episode, “Say My Name.”
It’s the half-season’s finale (“Gliding over All”) in which the show derails. The first half of the episode follows up on loose ends from “Say My Name,” continuing the show’s penchant for implications. Most shows wouldn’t even both to show how Mike’s body was disposed of, nor who was involved. Walt does a housecleaning, reminiscent of the ending of The Godfather. Even here, the show doesn’t rush, and Walt’s idle conversation with white supremacists, while arranging prison murders, is as memorable as the murders themselves. Just as memorable is Hank’s reaction to them. By the episode’s midpoint, Walt’s alone at the top, with Todd having effectively replaced Jesse. All the loose ends from Gus have been tied up, and Walt at last has no obstacles remaining between himself and the Kingpin-like status to which the show has been building.
And then the show gives us a montage. It’s a brilliant one, set to the song “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The montage’s visuals are stunning and beautiful. The song’s upbeat tone underlines Walt’s finally unmitigated success while also undercuts it, because we’re talking about people being happy dealing a terrible drug. What we’re watching is immoral, and it represents Walt’s ultimate moral collapse. Previously, you could justify everything based on his desperation, within a specific situation. But with all the situational restraints removed, this is what Walt chooses to do: to cook meth, with whomever he can, because he’s greedy and he wants an “empire.”
The song’s so perfect that you have to wonder why the show didn’t use it before. And then you realize that this is the moment. This is the apex. This is what Breaking Bad has been building to, over five years.
This is the pay-off.
Except there’s no pay-off. Or rather, the montage is it.
The next thing we know, Skyler is showing Walt how much money he’s given her. Undeniably, it’s memorably done. But months have passed, during which Walt’s accumulated a fortune literally too large to count. After succeeding by showing us so much intricacy, the show chooses to radically distance us from Walt precisely at the point of his final triumph — which we basically never get to see.
Just as quickly, Walt informs Skyler that he’s “out.” It’s so off-hand — and so quick — that at first I assumed he must be lying. After all, he’s probably lied to Skyler a thousand times. Getting “out” is a precondition of healing his family, of Skyler allowing their kids back into their house. Yet Walt, who’s shown no bottom to his greed but an almost bottomless willingness to lie to his loved ones in order to get what he wants, apparently really quits.
And just like that, in the space of about ten minutes, months pass, during which Walt finally becomes the drug Kingpin the show’s been building him into, and then he retires too.
While fascinating as a narrative device, there’s no way this doesn’t cause whiplash. Such a sudden move is wholly incompatible with everything the show’s done previously. This is a show that could spend an episode exploring what would happen if the mobile home ran out of gas while our characters were cooking in the middle of nowhere. And it’s not just previous seasons; the same half-season took entire episodes to deal with Gus’s videotapes, getting methylamine, and the implications of Gus Fring’s fall on his wider distribution network (including Madrigal). Then everything the show’s been building to happens in a montage, and Walt retires so quickly that it’s impossible not to think he’s lying.
Compounding this confusion, we don’t see Walt dismantling the empire he’s built. In the second half of the season, we’re told he left Lydia a viable operation. But it’s hard to imagine everyone content with Walt stepping away. Bothering to show those kinds of scenes is just the sort of thing that Breaking Bad did so well. Every character would have been considered: Lydia, Todd, Todd’s white supremacist family, and Declan (the competitor who Walt insists “say his name” and who presumably has some role in local distribution). Stepping away from such a large operation isn’t accomplished overnight, even if everyone else is willing to let Walt go. Yet all of this occurs off-screen, in a show that succeeds largely by putting on screen what’s normally elided.
Yes, the mid-season finale has a bit of housecleaning, which helps to make things feel more coherent than they actually are. So we see Walt visit Jesse, which is done brilliantly. And we see a little of the White family adjusting to being together again. But it’s rushed, and because of how absurdly quickly Walt’s become Kingpin and then retired, this material is less important on its own terms and more important for apparently confirming that yes, Walt has in fact retired.
And then, in the episode’s conclusion, Hank finally figures it out.
In short, “Gliding over All” is aptly named. The title comes from a Walt Whitman poem, but it could also reference how the episode suddenly glides over months of time.
Having built Walt so carefully into a Kingpin, his entire stage as a Kingpin occurs off-screen. It’s a plateau that we watch him painfully climb up over four and a half seasons. Once he’s there, we get a song, and then Walt’s descending the other side of the plateau.
The central problem here, one has to assume, is one of structure. Had the first half of the season been a full season of 13 episodes, its ending need not have been rushed. Most other shows would have taken entire seasons to enjoy Walt at his height, making terrible decisions as the unchallenged Kingpin of Meth. Breaking Bad didn’t need to do so. But a mere five more episodes would have done wonders.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this kind of compression, or narrative jumps, or dislocating viewers from the characters. And what’s there is remarkably well done. But it’s radically inconsistent with the rest of the show for Walt’s process of extracting himself from the operation he’s built not to take at least one full episode, in which we see how his departure affects everyone in logical, though not always obvious, ways.
It’s one thing for a story to shift its focus or adjust its pacing. It’s quite another for a story that revels in the fine details, the subtle implications of apparently obvious things, to suddenly shift in the story’s climax into little more than a sketch of a narrative.
This is, after all, the climax. In the wavy ascending line of Walt’s increasing status, and the challenges that go along with it, Walt’s time as Kingpin is the highest point.
What remains is falling action. And it’s fascinating that it’s here in the story that Hank finally realizes the truth. One would think this storyline, promised since the first episode, would occur when Walt’s at his height. Instead, it occurs after Walt’s retired.
What’s lost in terms of drama is made up for in irony. Walt’s retired, a point he makes clear to Hank. Prosecuting Walt isn’t going to affect the meth trade at all. Hank doesn’t get a chance to go after Walt the Kingpin. His target is Walt the Retiree — the dying retiree, no less.
There’s no potential justice in this. There’s only Hank’s ego, his rage at being deceived. He says as much many times. There is no good guy here. There’s only a sad family drama of mutually assured destruction, playing out in the post-climax afterglow, once the Kingpin has already (off-screen) given up the empire he finally built (also off-screen).
And then we get the Walt vs. Hank showdown, which has been teased since episode one. A lot has been written about how unorthodox it is, especially in terms of its pacing. Mostly, that works. For example, in the mid-season premiere, Walt figures out that Hank knows, and the two have their first confrontation at the episode’s end. It’s rather well-done. But I’m not sure it wouldn’t be just as good, if it were the climax of the half-season’s second episode, instead of the first. Just as the show prevents us from ever seeing Walt’s time as Kingpin, or his retirement, it also prevents us from seeing Hank investigating Walt without Walt knowing. That period of the “Hank knows” story is compressed to less than a single episode.
And while it feels smart that Walt quickly pieces together that Hank knows, this isn’t exactly based on much detective work. Essentially, he finds that his Walt Whitman book is missing from the bathroom, can’t find it. That Hank, who’s been conveniently home sick since the party, has put a tracker on Walt’s car clinches things. It’s good that Walt figures out quickly, but there’s no reason it needs to happen so fast. Or that Hank seems to be doing nothing but going over files in his garage during this time.
This is especially confusing because, in this super-compressed storyline, there are also episodes that are focused on misdirection, or that don’t carry forward the story as much as they could. The entire business with Walt trying to meet Jesse, whom Hank wires for sound, winds up basically not happening, and it doesn’t add much to the plot, outside of making Walt realize that Jesse can’t be saved. But it’s a rather inefficient way of achieving this narrative end, especially given how rushed the show’s becoming by that point.
Of course, the “Hank knows” storyline climaxes early in “Ozymandias.” It’s the sixth episode of the half-season.
To be sure, there’s an irony in Hank dying so soon after he discovers the truth about Walt. When we’ve sympathized with Hank over the past five years, we’ve probably wanted him to find out. And yet, in doing so, he’s set events in motion which will lead within days to his death.
Still, it’s hard not to wish this storyline had more than five and a quarter episodes in which to play out. We saw Walt contend with Gus for most of two full seasons. Yet Hank, the opponent promised by the show’s very premise, gets just over five episodes.
It’s as if all those “will Hank find out or won’t he?” tensions, teased for years, really didn’t matter. Yes, Hank finds out, and it’s all well done. But it’s dispensed with so quickly that it feels almost like an afterthought, a little coda to the show’s actual story.
This isn’t to say that “Ozymandias,” the episode in which Hank dies, is anything less than a staggering and devastating episode. It’s everything we knew was coming. That had to come, if the show had the guts to follow through. And it does.
In one episode, Walter White loses everything.
The ending, with Walt waiting at the selected spot to catch the ride that will convey him away forever, mirrors how Jesse stood in the same spot, also near the end of an episode, just three episodes before.
It is probably one of the finest episodes ever produced for television. And it is so because it’s the inevitable conclusion of a 60-episode story.
The fast pace of “Ozymandias” works in its favor. Watching Walt’s life collapse at such speed enhances the pain of the blow.
But the season’s pacing problems infect “Ozymandias” too. We’ve spent years wondering how Walt’s son would react when he learns the truth. We’ve seen subtle shifts in Junior’s attitude towards his father occupy many minutes of screen time. All of this has been setting up the pay-off, in which Junior realizes the truth.
And then we don’t get to see it.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s pretty brilliant that Marie goes to Skyler and insists that Walt Jr. be told the truth. The plot unfolds as it should. The narrative choices aren’t only excellent; they’re pretty impeccable. But making the revelation to Junior occur off-screen is a far worse offense than shunting Walt’s time as Kingpin or his retirement off-stage. After all, this had always been a family drama.
What’s most shocking to me about this decision is that this is the kind of material a writer ought to want to write. It’s the long tease, of Junior not catching on, that’s the hard work. Who wants to write whole narrative arcs about Skyler being upset that Junior loves his father more than her, despite her knowledge that Walt’s actually a drug manufacturer? All of this work, this long arc stretching over years, is building to the scene in which Junior learns the truth. Will he freak out? Will he not believe it? What will he say or do? These are questions any writer would have pondered over the course of the entire show. And then here, at the moment of pay-off, there simply is no pay-off.
Yes, Junior shouts and storms out. And his dialogue is exceptional. He points out that his mother is confessing to lying, so it’s hard to believe her. And he says that if she’s telling the truth, she’s as bad as his father is. But this is all after the fact. We’re never shown him hearing the news at all.
Think about how well Breaking Bad‘s writers could have handled that. This is a show that excelled at awkward moments, at conversations that were difficult to imagine, much less produce on-screen with nuance. Yet this conversation it’s been building towards never happens, as far as viewers are concerned.
And it’s not as if there’s no fat in “Ozymandias.” There’s that odd sequence in which Walt’s car breaks down and he rolls his last remaining barrel of money across the desert until he finds a Native American, from whom he buys a car. It’s a long sequence, over which music is played. It’s just the kind of odd sequence, unexpected Breaking Bad has done very well over the years. And it’s nice to see a Native American, in a show starring a man named White and another named Pinkman — a show which has also reduced the large Hispanic population of Albuquerque to rare supporting cast members. The random bullet damage to Walt’s car, leading to his trip across the desert, also foreshadows Walt’s death two episodes later. But all things being equal, I’d rather see Walter’s son react to the news the show has teased for years that he’ll someday learn than this odd musical sequence in which Walt rolls a barrel.
Seriously, this is the show that gave us “Fly” — an entire third-season episode in which Walt and Jesse are chasing down a fly in Gus Fring’s lab. But Walter Junior learning his dad was a meth mastermind, that we don’t have time for.
Why, it’s as if Junior never mattered. As if all that set-up was just fake-out.
And that’s not wrong. Because the show’s final two episodes confirm that no one mattered, except for Walt.
Perhaps that was implicit all along. Walter White was always the central character. Fans certainly responded the most to him. But we’ve had entire storylines focused on Marie’s kleptomania, Skyler’s romantic affair, and Junior’s feelings towards his father. Now, the final two episodes tell us unequivocally that these stories were just filler — and these characters don’t matter, except as extensions of Walt.
Skyler and Junior have had to move, we’re told in dialogue. Think about how much was invested in that house, as a symbol of Walt’s determination to keep a grip on his family, even while manufacturing drugs. We’ve seen the pool area so many times. We’ve seen beneath the house an equal amount. These rooms and locales have been invested with meaning. Now, they’re abandoned off-screen. We don’t see Skyler and Junior leaving.
We know Skyler’s struggling financially. But we’re not shown it.
We know Walter’s story is everywhere. But we don’t see how Junior’s treated in school as a result.
We’ve seen Skyler go back to work, before she knew the truth about Walt, and how this prompted her affair with Ted Beneke. But we’re not shown her trying to get a job, once she’s known as the wife of the infamous Heisenberg.
We don’t see Beneke ever again. Does he decide to reveal that Skyler intimidated him? He might be the only one who can sink Skyler. Do the two ever talk again? Why aren’t we shown this? And if we aren’t, what was the point of these characters and their stories?
For that matter, we only have the vaguest idea of what everyone knows. We presume the entire story is available to the public, because we see that “Heisenberg” has been spray-painted in the old White house. But this would be fascinating to see. How does the story get out, following “Ozymandias?” How big a story is it, exactly? What kind of spin does the media put on it? Are there news stories about Skyler possibly being more involved than she claims? Do pundits debate this? Does the media accost Junior?
What was the point of Todd’s crush on Lydia? Where did that go? How did that develop, in the months Walt was away, in which Todd was working a bit more closely with Lydia?
What about Marie? Maybe we don’t need to see where Saul goes, but you’d think we’d see whether Marie blames herself for encouraging Hank to go after Walt. That’s kind of an extension of what we’ve seen, during Hank’s investigation. Depicting this is exactly the kind of implication and conflicted emotion the show has often done so well. There’s something crew about widowing one of your story’s main characters and then dropping her. But by the end, the terribly compressed final season doesn’t have time for anyone but Walt.
Because ultimately, it’s his show. No one else mattered.
To be sure, the final two episodes are still pretty masterful. Walt’s final discussion with Skyler is particularly brilliant. Yes, the final episode seems to reaffirm his singular genius, as if the show’s been on his side all along. In a single episode, Walt returns and fixes everything. Sure, he catches a stray bullet, but that’s a victory because he wanted to go out dramatically, instead of dying from cancer in a cold cabin far from his family — which would have been a lot more realistic. And of course, the final episode can’t compare with “Ozymandias.” But what’s there is brilliantly done, and the central problem of the episode is (again) its pacing.
The sense of Walt “fixing” everything in a single episode would be considerably lessened if it took, for example, two. How does Walt contact Jesse’s old friends, for whom Walt’s only previously had contempt? How does Walt get the ricin into Lydia’s packet of stevia? Wouldn’t others have been contaminated by the ricin, or does Walt not care about that? If Walt’s looked up Jesse’s old friends, once he learns that Jesse’s supposedly cooking meth, why doesn’t he look up Jesse’s ex-girlfriend, who’s since been killed? A little extra space could solve a lot of these problems, and it could also give Jesse more than a few lines of dialogue.
If the final episode of the season’s first half requires expansion to really work, and the conflict with Hank feels rushed, the show’s final two episodes feel like they could have been a short season in themselves — which would have had the room to follow characters other than Walt.
Taken on its own, both halves of the fifth season are masterful. The dialogue is excellent. The acting’s deservedly praised. The visuals are often stunning. The music is memorable. Yes, they having pacing problems, even taken on their own, outside of the context of the larger show. They’re great TV. Moreover, their compression is part of what viewers liked so much. The episodes work on their own, and their failings are far fewer and far less troubling than their successes are impressive. I’d even go as far as saying that the fifth season continues the trend of each season improving upon the previous one.
But everything exists within a context. Episodes are part of seasons. Seasons are part of shows. And the final season of Breaking Bad is incompatible with what’s come before.
Taken together, the final season of Breaking Bad feels as if the show were failing and had been instructed to wrap everything else in as few episodes as humanly possible.
Pacing matters. It has implications. And one of the implications of the final season of Breaking Bad is that you wasted your time, watching all those subplots or caring about any character other than Walt. Or even waiting for Walt to become the Kingpin he was obviously building towards, or anticipating Hank’s own extended chess game with Walt or Junior finally hearing the truth. Because in the end, none of these things really mattered much. They were all misdirection.
Many have compared the extended stories on television in recent years to novels. No novel would have these kind of pacing problems, or drop characters in the way the final season of Breaking Bad does. It’s more accurate to say that each season is comparable to a novel, but that the final installment of this series of novels feels insanely rushed. Yes, it’s masterfully done, but it feels as if the proverbial author has edited and edited, paring everything down until there’s nothing’s left but the bare essentials, and all the characters the previous books made you care about are increasingly dropped as the story goes on, until nothing’s left but Walter’s arrogance.
Wrapping up beloved TV series has become a bit of an art form unto itself. At the time, the conclusion of The Sopranos faced a lot of backlash. People said it was ambiguous. Hell, the TV went black, and people thought they’d lost the cable signal. But it wasn’t really ambiguous. It’s perfectly clear what happens. It’s perfectly clear why you’re not shown it. And the show goes to great pains to illustrate precisely what will happen, after the show ends, by drawing trajectories for each character, from which you as viewer can easily extrapolate. I personally find The Sopranos a bit uneven, but the ending’s held up shockingly well.
The final season of Breaking Bad gives us all the things it had to do: Walter the Kingpin, Hank finding out, Junior learning the truth, and Walt’s unambiguous death. In the process, Breaking Bad gave us some of the best hours in television history. The result, minute by minute, is a work of real beauty.
But those same minutes and hours do remarkable violence to the rest of the show, even going so far as to invalidate whole plotlines and characters.
In the end, Breaking Bad was Walter White’s story. When it came down to it, everything else was a distraction that could be pared away.
Unfortunately, part of what the final season recasts as a disposable distraction is most of Breaking Bad.