Being human often means wanting what you can’t have, and if Breaking Bad succeeded for one reason beyond its creative excellence, it’s because the show emerged more or less fully formed at a point when that aspect of our nature was front and center in the cultural consciousness. Buried in an economic crisis sparked by our need to incur massive debt in order to buy things we don’t need and locked in a political civil war over whether or not health care is a basic human right, Breaking Bad was the recipient of impeccable cultural timing even as it was a pinnacle of serialized drama. And if the show’s finale left you feeling somewhat empty and unsure of whether you got what you wanted, then it ended exactly as it began, perfectly timed to capitalize on the mood of the country, where we’re getting basic versions of what we wanted a decade ago, but we’re feeling unsatisfied nonetheless.
Breaking Bad the show is over, but Breaking Bad the conversation is going to continue for quite some time. That’s mostly because the show’s ending has polarized its audience for a completely different reason than, say, Lost or Battlestar Galactica’s finales did. Rather than provide a ruthless, gritty ending, or a vaguely spiritual ending, or a WTF ending, Breaking Bad ended the way Vince Gilligan always promised it would: with Walter White, dead, semi-satisfied himself but spiritually empty, his world a devastated mess. Yet a significant portion of the audience is disappointed or unsure of their feeling about this ending, a classic case of getting what you thought you wanted and realizing it’s not what you expected or hoped it would be. Which is exactly the point.
The finale of Breaking Bad gave us a Gray Matter reunion that was horrifyingly tense but logical, as Walt forced his former friends and business partners to look after his family; Skinny Pete and Badger got a triumphant, comical return that fit the story perfectly; Walt apologized, in his way, to Skylar for all the misery he caused; and Walt once again concocted a genius scheme that took out the neo-Nazis and Lydia and saved Jesse at the same time. Every loose end was dealt with, every storyline basically resolved. We even got our vague open end with Jesse, shaken but free, riding off in victory, finally loose from Walt’s chains and for perhaps the first time since the show began his own man.
If that still rang hollow to you, don’t take it personally. This was the way the story was always meant to end, making us feel conflicted and vaguely disgusted with the way we sympathized with a former family man who became a defiant monster. This was a story where the villain basically won, even though he still died at the ending. This was a story about our need to take things we feel we deserve, no matter the cost.
Like our culture, Walt always believed he was special and deserved to be recognized as such. As he told Skylar in the most emotionally fulfilling moment of the episode, this was never about family but about his need to do something that he enjoyed, that he was good at, that left him fulfilled. It didn’t matter how many people he hurt in the process, and that selfishness wrapped itself around a good cause like a stubborn vine. It wouldn’t surprise me if in its wake, Breaking Bad is used as everything from a tool in the generational war being waged on Millenials in the media to an Obamacare metaphor (and certainly there are essays out there already doing both these things). Breaking Bad’s flexibility in this way isn’t that surprising given how it fits into the narrative of the past two decades of our culture, but the show’s incomparable consistency and the juggernaut of hype and awe that followed its every move also places it squarely in the new cultural tide, where it stands as the true end of the story of white, suburban male paranoia and horror that has been unfolding throughout television’s new renaissance.
Breaking Bad’s ending, purposefully anti-climactic and morose even as it was full of triumphant moments and victories, functions as the fitful climax of this particular cultural story, which in turn places Mad Men’s own impending finale as the epilogue. With Breaking Bad, it wasn’t just Walter White who got his bittersweet desires but us as an audience, forcing us to realize the impact of our desires to realize our ambitions and spoiling the “overcoming the odds” and “getting what you always wanted” power fantasy a significant portion of the cultural audience has had during the economic crisis we’ve been stuck in. Some critics are predicting a new wave of pleasure emerging from the ashes, based mainly on the promise of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, while others are looking towards Parks and Recreation as the patient zero of a new epidemic of hope and optimism. Both seem plausible, and it’s more or less guaranteed that Breaking Bad pretenders will run rampant for the next year or so, as is already the case with Low Winter Sun, but if we’re subscribing to the theory of The Unwritten, where fiction can change the world around it, then maybe Breaking Bad’s ending, and the conflicted response to it, also means that as a society we’re not quite as thrilled with grim escapist fantasy as we were five seasons ago.