“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I felt alive.”
So said Walter H. White in ruthless self-explanation to his wife, Skyler, in Sunday’s series finale of “Breaking Bad.”
At the end of the episode, his cancer-riddled body was lying dead in a cookery for his signature blue meth with a bullet hole in his gut from which blood poured forth. The soundtrack blared Badfinger singing about “the special love I had for you, my Baby Blue.”
Now we know. One of the greatest series finales in the annals of television told us. Walter White did indeed do everything possible to provide $9.7 million for his family after his death and ensure their immunity to prosecution, but that wasn’t why he turned into Heisenberg, the monstrous meth tycoon of the Southwest.
He did it for him. He liked it. He was good at it. He felt alive.
And he died – perfectly – like a self-serving professional amid all the gleaming steel apparatus he’d put together to cook his “product” so well. As his last official act on earth, he patted a stainless steel tank. Amp up the melodrama, add music, and he might as well have been Sweeney Todd singing of his love for his serial killer’s knives as the tears poured down his cheeks.
“Breaking Bad’s” finale is how series finales should be done. It was mounted without a false moment. There was no final gutless lurch into equivocation. If there is any capacity for justice at all in the world of television, they will be teaching prospective TV writers for decades how Vince Gilligan brilliantly answered every pertinent question and tied up every significant loose end in the finale of “Breaking Bad” without sacrificing an ounce of dramatic grip.
If they want, by contrast, a series finale that showed how not do to it, they’ll need travel no further than the series finale of “Dexter” 10 days ago, which left our serial-killing vigilante avenger with a Ted Kaczynski beard (also favored by Walter White on the run) in some northern clime where his alienation from humanity was somehow symbolized by the logging business. His serial-killing girlfriend and his adorable son Harrison had started new lives in South America. Deb, the sister he destroyed, is at the bottom of the Caribbean. Meanwhile, Dexter is still alive and growing facial hair somewhere in the frozen north while awaiting a Hollywood callback, no doubt. Apparently the writers who believe cold weather to be alienation’s true home have never seen “Northern Exposure.”
The finale of “Dexter” was lousy with desperation and corrupt equivocation.
So exceptional was the finale of “Breaking Bad” that the only thing left was to start trying to figure out the series’ ultimate place in the grand cultural scheme of things in America.
A great TV show, of course. One of the best of its era, however uneven it could be. TV’s equivalent of “Citizen Kane,” as one of my Facebook friends reports reading? Hardly. A metaphor for 21st century America? That one’s interesting – that Walter White is the stricken symbol of an America suddenly under attack on its own soil and “breaking bad” in Middle Eastern military actions and rank, festering Wall Street calamities.
I think it may be a wee bit too much freight to ask a great TV show to haul for too long a period, but it’s an idea worth putting out there.
Especially when Showtime’s “Homeland,” one of the greatest shows in this new “Golden Age of American television” – which some of us have been trumpeting ever since “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing” could both be seen weekly – returned to Sunday nights on the same Sunday “Breaking Bad” ended.
Where “Breaking Bad” ended with a full return to a recognizable moral universe (even Jesse’s snap of the neck of his white supremacist tormentor had fictional justice, even though it was only revenge in the raw, a very different thing), “Homeland” went further into the CIA’s twilight world where no one knows which end is up.
The new “Homeland” season’s first episode began with one of the series’ two clearly identifiable “good guys” – Saul, played by Mandy Patinkin – pledging that he’d never “throw [bipolar] Carrie under the bus.” In its final moments, before a Senate Investigating Committee, he threw Carrie under the bus.
“Homeland” may suffer from the problem of all TV dramatic series – they’re prolonged well beyond the freshness dates of a good 70 percent of their continuing narratives – but “Homeland” remains a powerfully ingenious look at the horrors and suspicions of the new world order and their deleterious effects on “ordinary” lives.
What happened on Sunday, after all, was this new Golden Age of Television writ large. “CBS Sunday Morning’s” Lee Cowan was moved to do a cover story about this Golden Age.
Breaking Bad” ended for good. “Homeland” returned for a new season, and so did CBS’ exceptional “The Good Wife” and reliable “The Mentalist.” Showtime’s wholly unexpected “Masters of Sex” began its run.
Let’s not even talk about life over at HBO. Or the final episodes of AMC’s “Low Winter Sun.”
Let’s admit that the sitcoms in this era aren’t entirely on the same level as the dramas – as unusual as “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” and cable TV’s “Girls,” “Californication,” “Veep” and “House of Lies” can be.
Nothing in this new TV season – not even the return of Arsenio Hall – filled experienced TV watchers with more advance affection and hope than “The Michael J. Fox Show.”
To have one of the best-loved sitcom actors of all time returning to television after Parkinson’s disease forced his retirement, playing a character forced to retire because of Parkinson’s disease, is about as much advance audience fondness and sympathy as any new series could possibly be expected to muster.
The show is certainly watchable. Unfortunately, it’s up against one of the better new sitcoms I’ve seen in many years – an older and more disciplined Robin Williams co-starring in David E. Kelley’s “The Crazy Ones” with Sarah Michelle Gellar.
If it seems to you that when the next month is over, you are living through one of the greatest periods in popular entertainment you can remember, I’m not going to argue much.
After you go to the movies and see “Gravity” (opening this week) and “Captain Phillips” (opening next), you may well begin to wonder how all of us got lucky enough to be alive at such a moment in the world of movies and TV.
When, exactly, did things start to “break” so good? And why? I’m working on it. Let me get back to you.