Now that Breaking Bad has ended and the dust has settled on the wave of articles, criticisms and adulation toward it, I feel compelled to write some thoughts. And it’s just in time for tomorrow’s final season and complete series blu-ray releases.
If you heard The Obsessive Viewer Podcast’s analysis of the finale, you would know that I had some slightly dissenting opinions about the end of Walter White and Heisenberg. Particularly, my opinion was rooted in his role as an anti-hero.
I wrote this while I was still comprehending the events of Breaking Bad’s final run of episodes. In the aftermath of Felina, I saw countless comparisons of the show to The Wire, which I firmly believe is in a class by itself in the television pantheon. What I saw surprisingly few of were comparison’s between Breaking Bad and The Shield. Below I recount how each series and each anti-hero’s final bow. Enjoy and don’t forget to follow me around the internet with the links below.
In the lead up to the Breaking Bad finale, I was confident in my belief that the show Vince Gilligan pitched as “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface” would end with Walter White embracing his Heisenberg persona, becoming the true incarnation of villainy that the series had been building toward, little by little, as it progressed. I felt as though Walt died with Hank and the show’s endgame was going to be the full realization of the monster that was Heisenberg.
That’s not the ending I got.
The ending was much more subdued than that. Walter spent his last day making things as right as possible. He secured his family’s future while also experiencing the catharsis of demonstrating his power over the people who denounced his contribution to their empire. He then admitted his hubris for the first and only time to Skyler after giving her the location of Hank and Gomez’s bodies and thus, the key to her freedom and providing some semblance of closure to the family’s grief.
Walt’s final act as Heisenberg is to murder those who’ve caused him and his loved ones so much trouble. He takes out Lydia discreetly while employing much louder methods to tie up the loose ends of the neo-Nazis.
In a quiet moment, he grants Jesse absolution for being a rat and the pair share a poignant moment where Jesse is finally granted his freedom from both the physical restraints of the Nazis and the mental shackles of Mr. White. Walt, bleeding and at peace, then dies on the floor of the meth lab that was his mistress, his precious.
It’s not at all the bleak ending I was expecting. It threw off my idea of what an anti-hero should endure at the end of his journey. The fact of the matter is, I was left indifferent to the conclusion for a while after I watched it. It was a unique experience for me, seeing as I was satisfied with the story but somehow unsure of how I felt about Walt’s swan song. The truth is, one question weighed on my mind at the end…
Did Walter White earn his redemption?
For years, I instinctively compared Breaking Bad to what is without question one of my top 3 favorite television series of all-time; Shawn Ryan’s 88-episode dirty cop saga, The Shield. The two series have many things in common seeing as both follow a protagonist you grow to dislike as they corrupt and inflict pain on an impressionable protégé. But their finales are vastly different from one another.
I must stop here and warn everyone reading that I am about to heavily spoil The Shield. In lieu of a traditional SPOILER WARNING, I want to spend a paragraph or two urging anyone who may be reading this who hasn’t seen The Shield yet, to please seek it out. If you are here because of a love of Breaking Bad, you will love The Shield as they are kindred spirits in the anti-hero television pantheon.
Please, do not do yourself the disservice of ruining an intense television experience that is nothing short of Shakespearean in its tragic storytelling. As of this writing, it’s available on HuluPlus and on Amazon Prime Instant Video if you want to see it. For now, scroll down to the conclusion (I’ll mark it for you) and remain unsullied on The Shield’s details.
The Shield and Breaking Bad share many broad similarities. But the two shows are fundamentally different. Breaking Bad is much more film-like in its production style and The Shield embodies its grit with shaky-cam, documentary-style filmmaking.
Both are anti-heroic tales that follow a protagonist who employs questionable (and even downright malicious) tactics to get what they want. However, the core difference between Walter White and Vic Mackey is that the former acts out of a desire for recognition, while the latter acts out of greed and self-preservation.
When The Shield reached its final season, Vic Mackey’s Strike Team was disbanded. He found that he had created a monster in his protégé Shane Vendrell that led to the brutal murder of a team member. The arc of the final season followed Vic and the one ally he had left (the loyal to the end Ronnie Gardocki) trying to secure federal jobs with full pardons for their past crimes while working to silence the growing threat of Shane Vendrell. All of this happens while the clock looms on Vic’s forced retirement from a department that wants him and his tactics out.
The final season is a work of art in its storytelling. 6 episodes in, Vic and Ronnie plan to have Shane killed. Shane escapes the hit and the episode ends with Shane revealing to his wife that his former partners tried to kill him. 2 episodes later, Shane’s own plan to murder Vic and Ronnie falls through and he’s exposed to the entire police force. The episode brings about a great change in The Shield’s tone as Vic turns in his badge and Shane goes on the run with his son and pregnant wife.
This tonal shift is carried through to the end of The Shield’s final 13-episode run. The Shield’s final 5 episodes are some of the best television I have ever watched.
The penultimate episode (Possible Kill Screen) ends with Vic throwing Ronnie under the bus as he takes a solo deal from ICE. As part of his deal, he gets full immunity and an anti-gang job with ICE. The episode ends with Vic recounting every little detail and illicit action the strike team took part in, on the record, to get his immunity. Michael Chiklis plays these scenes so insanely well as he laughs off some of the more disgusting things he’s done. It’s the first real look we get at the demented monster that is Vic Mackey.
The series concludes in a harsh, emotionally jarring finale in which Shane murders his family and then kills himself as the police close in. What follows is an intense moment where Vic is confronted by Claudette, the stern detective turned police captain who’s always held a grudge for Vic. Throughout the series, she’s stringent in her beliefs and strong willed. She’s incorruptible in a Barn filled with corruption of all degrees.
In the silence of an interrogation room, Vic is forced to hear the painful and heart-wrenching suicide note that Shane wrote in his final moments. As he leaves the room, his comeuppance begins. Claudette has Ronnie arrested in front of Vic and charged with everything the Strike Team did. Vic watches as the one person whose loyalty never waivered takes the fall for everything they did. Vic exits the building under the piercing eyes of an entire police force that detests him.
None of it matters because Vic got what he wanted. He has a lucrative job with ICE and that’s got to count for something. As a character whose sole mission was self-preservation and a need to come out on top, he didn’t do too badly for himself.
And that’s where the series wraps its bow.
Vic Mackey doesn’t get away with it. His deal with ICE results in a 3-year desk job where he’s forced to file ultimately meaningless reports. For a character like Vic Mackey, this is a highly satisfying end. His actions resulted in the deaths of 2 members of his team, a pregnant woman and a young boy; not to mention how obvious it is that Ronnie won’t last long in prison. Adding to the tragedy, his ex-wife and kids were relocated, their lives forever damaged by his actions.
All of this was for naught. Vic becomes a caged animal, alienated by everyone he knows and meets. It’s a fitting end to a particularly heinous antihero. And I love it dearly.
THE SHIELD SPOILERS END HERE! AGAIN, I URGE EVERYONE READING THIS TO PLEASE SEEK IT OUT AND WATCH IT!
As time passes on the end of Breaking Bad, I find myself becoming more comfortable with Felina as a conclusion. For all intents and purposes, Breaking Bad’s finale aired two weeks prior to Felina when AMC aired the episode Ozymandias. In Ozymandias, Walt watched his brother-in-law die as a result of his actions. The imagery in the scene is spectacular as you see Walt fall to the ground, completely broken.
As the episode unfolds, we witness similar “low points” for just about every character. Jesse, anticipating death and having just learned Walt was somewhat involved with Jane’s death, falls to his knees and looks to the sky before being given a reprieve and sent to hell by psychopath Todd. Skyler becomes broken when Walt kidnaps Holly. Flynn’s world comes crashing down as he learns the truth about his dad. And Marie crumbles upon learning of Hank’s death.
Ozymandias ends with Walt’s empire in shambles as he uses Saul’s guy and heads toward a new identity from which he can’t come back. This episode is the gloom-filled ending that Walter White’s drug kingpin alter ego Heisenberg deserved. I would not have had any qualms with it being the show’s finale.
At first I thought the show’s final two episodes existed solely to tie the loose ends and provide catharsis for the characters as well as the audience. There’s merit in a cathartic, satisfying ending. It’s just a question of whether or not the protagonist deserves it. That’s when I realized that, while Heisenberg’s end comes in Ozymandias, the true end of Walter White comes with Granite State and Felina.
This conclusion took a while to figure out. And in the process my opinion of the finale experienced changes befitting one of the series’ core themes. Walt doesn’t make the “good to evil” transformation I expected. The series, like the chemistry Walt knows and loves, was a study in the various degrees of change for the characters as well as the story being told.
In the end, I could argue the merits of The Shield’s finale and judge Breaking Bad against it. I can plead with people to find The Shield and watch it because I feel it’s under-appreciated. I can dissect Breaking Bad’s end some more and continue to analyze everything about it.
What’s important is that the conversation doesn’t end. These series are two of the best that television has to offer. Disagreements or uncertain opinions aside, they deserve to be discussed.