Yes, it was great, but what did Breaking Bad actually mean? Niall Anderson has SPOILERS a-plenty.
A couple of weeks ago, this blog published a bit of minor snark about the sudden omnipresence of Breaking Bad across popular culture, using the various tat and t-shirts it’s spawned as a way to look at why the show became the phenomenon it has. What did it say about Breaking Bad that it could generate this minor industry of knock-off secondary merchandise where something like The Sopranos – a very similar programme – didn’t?
My argument, very roughly, was that there was something a bit neat and tidy about Breaking Bad, a kind of clockwork fastidiousness very like that of its central character, Walter White. It set up its premise and its particular aesthetic and then it delivered every week: badassery, heists, good baddies, bad goodies, sudden reversals of fortune and an almost unbroken tenseness. At its freewheeling best, it was like a high-toned MacGyver: a series of audacious stunts and set-pieces driven by a palpable brooding rage. This made for compelling TV and infinite quotability (which gave the show, first, its cult following and then its popular one), but it didn’t necessarily make any of it meaningful. The show also became crueller as it went along, more prone to linger on the damage the characters both inflicted and withstood, but this often seemed like a reflex response to complex plot machinations: it didn’t always feel like there was a real engagement with the idea of pain.
A good ending is one way to put carping ideas like this to rest, to answer the question of what all this mayhem was ultimately for. Breaking Bad had a good ending in one sense – a no-bullshit, no comeback finality that felt both earned and necessary – but in another sense it was just accountancy: a list of figures to be ticked off one by one so everything will add up. The ending wasn’t tidy, but it was certainly neat.
I don’t want to bang on about every plot development or moment of closure in the series finale, but I do want to focus one aspect of its neatness, because it stretches almost the whole length of the show’s five seasons: Walt’s little vial of ricin. This first cropped up in Walt and Jesse’s attempt to kill Tuco Salamanca at the start of season two. It cropped up again in season three, when Jesse tries to convince Walt to make more so he can kill some rival dealers. It turns up twice in season four: the first time when Walt wants Jesse to discreetly poision Gus Fring; the second time when Walt wants to convince Jesse that he may have accidentally poisoned his girlfriend’s son, Brock. It turns up again in season five, hidden behind an electricity socket in the White’s now abandoned house, though we don’t know what use it will be put to till the very last episode.
At some point in the show’s development, the ricin subplot seems to have assumed totemic status in the Breaking Bad writers’ room. Certainly, by the end of season four it seems like a symbol of the poisonous and destructive relationship that Walt has more and more forced on Jesse. But it’s never very clear why Walt hangs on to the vial of ricin: he is a fastidious man who may not want to duplicate hard work, but we’ve seen him dispose of ricin before. And if the ricin is indeed some sort of symbol of Jesse’s bondage to Walt, then the subplot has to play out with that in mind. But it doesn’t: instead it’s used as an almost desk-tidying bit of revenge against Walt’s overseas supplier Lydia, a woman who despite her many faults (ordering executions, taking milk in camomile tea, etc.) did after all manage to make Walt $80m in about six months.
The sense you get as a viewer is that the ricin had been hanging around for so long that the writers felt they absolutely had to use it: it had to pay off in some way. But it’s hardly as though it was the show’s Rosebud – its metaphorical significance was so minimal that it could have been ditched at any point and we’d never really have missed it. (It also doesn’t necessarily tie up the loose end of Lydia’s life: ricin poisoning is treatable if caught early enough, as it was here.)
But this sort of surface neatness and economy has always been one of Breaking Bad’s trademarks. For all the elaborateness of some of the set-pieces – the train heist, the prison hits, magnetising a room full of hard-drives – each bit of elaboration has been designed to simplify the overall plot. After a long season of suffering and complication, the finale was an attempt to return to these essentially simplifying principles, but perhaps at the expense of genuine closure.
Still, after half a season of scurrying, cringing and hiding, it felt right to see Walt apply his genius one last time – to attack his enemies using his presumed decrepitude rather than his legend, and to do it all under his own name rather than that of his alter ego, Heisenberg. The moment where the car keys fall into his hands and the ice falls smoothly from the car window as he starts his long trip back from New Hampshire to New Mexico was a quintessential Breaking Bad moment: a reminder that while you might question the show’s ultimate depth, you could never question its flair – even in its quietest moments.
More impressive even than that was the sense – over the entire course of season five – that the show still had fuel in the tank and revs in the engine. Breaking Bad has always had a knack for a good cameo, and a terrific way with its minor characters. I can’t have been the only person to be a little disappointed that Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) didn’t have a cockroach-like escape from danger. One of the great authentic creeps in TV history, Todd’s strange blend of viciousness and good ol’ boy sympathy never quite felt fully integrated into the show. He had more to give.
Todd’s slightly contingent presence – and his multiply doomed crush on Lydia – do, however, help to bring out one of the buried themes of the whole show: simple human loneliness. Walt is alone with his cancer and his scheme to provide for his family. Jesse is alone with his addictions and his conscience. Hank is alone with his obsession about Heisenberg. Skyler is alone with an obligation to provide for her children, but no real means to do it except through Walt. Even Gus Fring is alone after the murder of his brother. With the exception of Jesse’s extended self-excoriations, Breaking Bad never quite seemed to bed down into the pain it caused its characters – the nightmare of complete psychic isolation that all of its main characters suffered from at some point, no matter how many people they had around them. After sixty-odd hours of TV, so much of it so very good, it feels almost insultingly beside the point to say that Breaking Bad could have given us more. But just as bright lights can be mistaken for signs of habitation, moving shadows can be taken for depth. ‘I … was alive,’ says Walt wonderingly near the end, reflecting on his criminal career. Yes, but was Breaking Bad?