Monday, September 30, 2013

My Thoughts on the Breaking Bad Finale -- with Comparisons to Dr. Horrible and Star Wars!

The Breaking Bad finale was a poetic ending, but not a wholly satisfying one. After all, it was neat, unsurprising, and almost devoid of true tension. When were you biting your lip aside from the 90 seconds Walt was separated from his machine-gun-activating keys?

In other words, it was everything the Ozymandias episode wasn’t. Looking back, Ozymandias was the true climax of the series -- the point where everything came to a head and was never the same after. The following two episodes were more resolution than anything else. We saw the dots connected from all of the cold openings featuring shaggy Walt. We saw everyone die who deserved to die. Everyone we wanted to live lived. It was what we all wanted to happen, which isn’t always the best way to go.

According to storymaster Robert McKee, the best endings are ironic ones, and I am inclined to agree. Ironic endings are the kind where you achieve your goal, but have to give up something important to get it. Where good and bad meet in the middle. A great example is Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog in which (spoilers!) Dr. Horrible finally gets into the Evil League of Evil by killing someone, but the person that died was his one true love. In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Luke finally redeems his father, but his father pays for his sins with his life. There were ironies to Walt’s end story, but they weren’t pronounced enough in the finale to ring true.

In fact, for a story about a man breaking bad, he wound up being more of a hero by the end. I think that had to do with Vince Gilligan and the other writers wanting to redeem Walt in the eyes of the audience, even if it went against what they had been writing towards for five whole seasons. I would have preferred to see him fully break bad by the end and for that to have dire consequences. Let him become the man his actions have built him up to be and nothing less.

Gilligan built the show on the premise of wanting to turn a protagonist into an antagonist, but we saw a protagonist turn into an antagonist and then become an anti-hero. Why focus an entire series on the concept of a man becoming a monster, only to end it in a way that will make you go, “Oh, well he wasn’t that bad of a guy in the end!”

I’m not saying this was the worst finale ever. Far from it. There were many awesome moments. Lydia dying via her obnoxious tea-drinking habit. Walt “buying” sympathy with the lottery ticket. And every single scene with Jesse. This finale was Walt’s show, but it was Jesse who made me feel the most. His wood-carving heaven was a thing of sad beauty. The way he took care of Todd with the very chains that made him his prisoner was sweet justice. And his tearful elation at being free from not only from the Nazis and the meth cooking but from Walt was, well, beyond perfect.

And for a moment I thought he was going to shoot Walt. He had me feeling for him and I was unsure of what he was going to do. Walt, on the other hand, seemed to be on autopilot. I believe this is mainly because of the cold openings showing so many elements of the final episode. When the pieces were put together, they didn’t create anything unexpected. The season two finale -- as ludicrous as it was -- was at least genuinely thought-provoking. The whole season would have been better served without the one-year jump. I would have been more invested in the end if the events of the final episode had occured soon after Ozymandias.

Perhaps my biggest reason for not absolutely adoring the finale was a lack of revelation. It’s unclear about what brought about Walt’s final change of heart. Why did he give up his life of seclusion to get back at Gray Matter? From what we saw, it was only to threaten Elliot and Gretchen into giving his money to Walter Jr., making his monstrous actions at least be good for something. Saving Jesse, ending Lydia’s blue meth business, and taking out the Nazis were all an afterthought that he decided on after Badger and Skinny Pete mentioned it in the car. What would Walt have done if those two dorks never mentioned it? Gone back to his cabin and wasted away to death from cancer?

Breaking Bad defined itself by keeping you guessing every step of the way. To get a finale with such a weak poker face is a bit of a disappointment, but on the other hand, to get such tight closure -- however telegraphed -- is a blessing in disguise. One need only think of the absolute mess that was LOST to be grateful for the tight ending of Breaking Bad.

LOST had a complicated tangle of unanswered questions that it swept to the side at the end. Yes, there were unanswered questions in Breaking Bad, but they were the good kind. Who was Gus back in Chile? What exactly went down with Gray Matter? Those answers are tantalizing teases that anyone watching the show would want to know, but they are all secondary story elements that don’t matter in the grand scheme of Walt’s character arc. Plus, they’re more fun to just wonder about than actually know -- like the Joker’s multiple choice origin.

I was expecting some crazy twist to come in the finale. Something juicy and polarizing and shocking that would be divisive among fans. But they played it straight and ended it on a safe but sound note. With such huge expectation for the show to stick to its unpredictable guns, perhaps giving us exactly what we wanted is the biggest twist that Breaking Bad ever pulled.