To all things, an end….
For five seasons, Breaking Bad has been one of the most acclaimed shows on television, ranking up there (and in some key ways surpassing) such shows as The Sopranos, The Shield, Mad Men, and more. And while I agree that it deserves evert accolade it has gotten, there is one thing that many critics have not talked about with this show that is the secret to its success. And that key difference can be summed up with one word; economy.
Most serialized television dramas start with a relatively small world, and then as the seasons go on they keep adding more important locations and new important characters as their stories meander on. This is a trick that goes back to the 1980s where shows from soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty (which both started out as smaller family dramas and then expanded out to the enemies and associates of the Ewing and Carrington clans) to acclaimed dramas like Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, and L.A. Law (which kept adding more characters to their already massive ensembles) all pulled this trick. It can even be seen today in shows like Lost (all of the various people that kept showing up on the island) to The Sopranos (Tony’s operation expanding more and more as new people replace the ones lost to his wrath) to Mad Men (which managed to tie the addition of new characters to seismic shifts in the status quo of the agency).
By contrast Breaking Bad really is only about a handful of characters; those that are in the immediate crossfire of chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White and his raging ego. This allows the viewer to keep tabs on only what is essential to the story. It also helps that the core acting ensemble is fantastic, and while Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have earned every plaudit as Walter and his patsy/protégée Jesse, there has also been stellar work from Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, and Bob Odenkirk, all of whom are mere pawn in the building of Heisenberg’s empire. Because of this economy in cast, the supporting characters that have come into the show have been comprised of short, memorable turns; from the silent, menacing twins, to the unflappably methodical Gus Fring, to everyone’s favorite grandfather/assassin Mike, to the cheerfully sadistic Todd and the steely yet skittish Lydia, and a whole lot more.
This economy also applies to the actual storytelling, and it is here that Gilligan and his team have really raised the bar on serialized drama. While a lot of things have happened over the entire story of Breaking Bad, it pays to remember that the entire story takes place over two years. This fleetness of storytelling allows Gilligan to take some big liberties and create some mysterious imagery (handheld camera confessions to burnt teddy bears falling from the sky and more) and whiplash-inducing flashback and flash-forwards that always have a payoff as the story progresses. Gilligan has made numerous references to the notion of “Chekhov’s Gun” and he has been exemplary in only putting out what is needed for the storytelling (such as the bizarre closeups of the lily of the valley in Season 4).
All of this has been a necessary preamble to explaining why last night’s season finale was so important. Not only was it well acted (which is to be expected with this show), not only was it visually daring (Gilligan himself directed this episode), but it did something very rare for serialized television; it had a proper ending. And like the gold medal winning gymnast at the end of her balance beam dismount, Breaking Bad nailed the landing. There are too many great moments to talk about without getting into spoiler territory, but even throw away moments (like Walt’s envy of his former business partners that stole from him, or the retrieval of a vial of ricin) are shown to have deeper consequences. And then there was the moment that made me gasp (no, not the bloody denouement or the final Walt and Jesse scene); the moment when Walt admitted to Skyler that at the end of the day he did all of this not for his family (which he has claimed the entire time of the series) but for himself. It was an electric moment that made everyone on edge.
Breaking Bad is now no more, but like Walter White and his legacy, it will haunt the television landscape for a long time as show runners look to making the ending of their series matter in the same way.
Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote / AMC