Strong “Breaking Bad” Finale Ends Weakly, Channels “Dexter” in Final Scene

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McKayla Maroney’s now-infamous expression says all one needs to know about what happens when one fails to stick the landing.

There could not be a more appropriate use of the #notimpressed hashtag than in response to the final scene of Sunday’s “Breaking Bad” finale.

After an episode that featured the usual collection of brilliant acting performances and inspired soundtrack selections (a montage set to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” was likely the best-executed television sequence of the year, barely beating out the prison murder montage from this same episode), AMC’s critically-acclaimed wonder stumbled ahead of its most important moment: the ending.

As the last episode of 2012 and the mid-season finale set to launch fans into a whirlwind of uncontrollable anticipation for next year’s final eight episodes, the ending needed to deliver something powerful. Something that would stab viewers in the gut harder than the prison contacts did to the members of Mike’s legacy crew. Something that would focus on the emotional, dramatic element of “Breaking Bad” rather than the caper, cat-and-mouse element that has always been the show’s weaker component.

All the pieces for that all-important puzzle were present. Walter patched things up with Jesse. He, sitting upon a mountain of cash he and Skyler could not begin to count, vowed he was leaving the empire business and thus finally able to bring his family back together. He, Skyler, his children and his in-laws sat peacefully in his backyard, with an ominous forecast of tragedy lingering. Was something going to happen to Skyler or the baby? Was someone going to murder Hank? Was a drug boss or criminal going to come knocking on the front door to send Walter on the run? Was something truly unimaginable going to happen to transform the entire Earth on which these characters walk?


Instead, AMC’s sensation channeled the final scene of last year’s “Dexter” finale by giving Hank proof that his innocent, passive brother-in-law is actually the Heisenberg for whom he has long been searching. Flashing back to the scene in which he joked about “WW” referring to Walter White, Hank finds a book in Walt’s bathroom with a note inscribed by Gale Boetticher. The look on his face says it all: he has finally identified the mysterious mastermind behind Blue Sky.

From the standpoint of the storyline, of course this reveal needed to happen. Of course Hank, whose leads on Heisenberg had all gone cold or dead, needed something big to reinvigorate his search. And the inevitable conflict between in-laws, one which would explain away the pretense of gambling addictions and marital problems, is one that absolutely needed to climax in the build to the very last “Breaking Bad” episode.

But it did not need to happen in the final moment of Sunday’s episode. Well-acted and dramatically-directed, the revelation nonetheless served to reduce the “Breaking Bad” narrative by portraying the “chase” element of the show as the focal point. Walt’s eventual run-in with the authorities was never in question, nor should it have been in question, but it was also never the driving force behind the show.

Character, not “action,” is what makes “Breaking Bad” so special, and the acceptance of that reality is what took seasons three and four to the elite heights they reached.

Every drug boss is in a constant conflict with authorities; the unique appeal of the “Breaking Bad” saga was how the introduction of the criminal activity, money and the ego associated with it all sent shockwaves through a man’s universe. It was about how family and friends suffered. It was about how the notion of “death” became devoid of all consequence. It was about the loss of every notion of right, wrong and loyalty one could ever conceive.

Here, instead of delivering the kind of family tragedy that would uniquely impact Walter White, “Breaking Bad” decided to motivate viewers with the same criminal vs. police conflict that exists in countless other shows and movies.

This “action” perspective to “Breaking Bad” plagued the fifth season from the get-go; drawing tension from the goofy magnet storyline, no matter how cool the visual of the truck getting magnetically-pulled into the walls of the police office, was hilariously beneath what “Breaking Bad” is supposed to deliver.

That is not to say the season was disappointing overall; when it focused on character and allowed tremendous actors like Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Jonathan Banks to honestly investigate the implications of Gus’ death and their burgeoning business through the unique lenses of Walt, Jesse and Mike, the elite cable drama hit an endless series of home runs. The acting, dialogue and intensity was as good as it ever was, and the talent behind and before the “Breaking Bad” camera reminded viewers each and every week why no show outside of “Mad Men” can even hold a candle to its excellence.

But when sighing at the disappointment of all the “caper” elements, there had always been that lingering relief that something big was ultimately in the process of happening. Something was going to change the game not in an action sense but in an emotional sense; the key characters’ conceptions of the world and their relation to it would be irreparably changed.

Sorry, but just as Debra’s exposure to Dexter’s secret did nothing to drop jaws, Hank’s bathroom revelation similarly failed to shake the world in which “Breaking Bad” exists.

This reporter has no doubt that at least four of the final eight episodes will be masterpieces and that all eight will be better than just about anything on television. No one should doubt that–after five seasons of generally delivering, “Breaking Bad” has earned that faith.

But following this “nothing” of a cliffhanger, this reporter does seriously wonder if the action narrative building to the presumed showdown between Hank and Walt will correctly take a backseat to the emotional narrative that has always been at the heart of the series.

I hope so, but I also know that this year’s finale did not deliver the unshakable certainty it needed to. It featured amazing montages, great character development and terrific acting, but it then felt the need to deliver the kind of reveal anyone can expose, rather than the kind of reveal only “Breaking Bad” can deliver.

Like my thoughts and want more? Hate what I have to say and want to publicly call me out? Follow me on Twitter @cantorpedia

  • Erin

    Knowing what we know and realizing what Hank now knows is a cliffhanger enough. We don’t need some dramatic ending to be stoked for the next half of the season.

    • http://twitter.com/cantorpedia Brian Cantor

      I’m just as excited as you are for next season, but I do think you’re making a logical flaw in your analysis.

      Breaking Bad has earned enough credibility with its great storytelling (and pretty much great everything else) to make us all excited for next year.

      But a great closing moment could have immensely amplified that anticipation. A weak one could have calmed it a little bit. I feel like this was the latter, and so while I *AM* excited for next year, it’s because I like Breaking Bad…not because this cliffhanger hooked me.

  • http://twitter.com/JessAguirre33 Jess Aguirre

    I guess I was wrong for assuming everyone knew Hank finding out would be the cliffhanger. I agree the final scene was weak, but only because thats what I was expecting. To me that is not a shot at the quality of the show or Vince Gilligain, it is simply that Hank finding out was the only logical way to end this half of the season. In my opinion a major overwhelming twist, like Skylar dying, would not be justifiable or stay true to the show and it would only come across as Gilligain trying too hard when true fans of the show don’t need/want him to. Any big twists in the past have either been hinted at or foreshadowed and this ending has both of those elements. Also it was logical and very satisfying, but totally expected. I’ve been looking forward to and always wondered how Hank would find out about Walt and the cat and mouse that would ensue since the beginning of the show. I’ve felt this is the ultimate show down and it’s only right that it be played out as the show ends. Can’t wait for next summer.

    • http://twitter.com/cantorpedia Brian Cantor

      I respect your viewpoint completely, but I also thought a major death within the White family had been very aggressively foreshadowed throughout the season. And I just felt like it was fitting for the high stakes of this game Walt played to hit HOME in the biggest possible way.

      Most online discussions across which I came focused not on the question of *IF* one of Walt’s immediate family members would die this season but which one it would be.

      And the general consensus even tonight seemed to be that the happy scene of the family sitting together, talking and playing was going to end with a gunshot or something.

      I completely agree that “Breaking Bad” should not have to reduce itself to shock storylines to impress viewers (in fact, I enjoyed last week’s episode BECAUSE Mike’s death was so predictable), but I just don’t think Skyler, Walt Jr or Holly dying would constitute a cheap shock.

      • Guy

        Looks like you shouldn’t do so much research and speculation about what might happen in a TV show before watching it. It is clear that you built up these expectations and hypothesis and you are disappointed because they didn’t play out as your research and speculation lead you to believe it would.The funny part is that you mention this in the article: “Something was going to change the game not in an action sense but in an
        emotional sense; the key characters’ conceptions of the world and their
        relation to it would be irreparably changed.” This is what happened. If someone in the family had been murdered, THAT would have been action.

        • http://twitter.com/cantorpedia Brian Cantor

          As I wrote, I would have been fine with something “truly unimaginable” happening to change the dynamic of the show. It didn’t have to be death to a White family member. I’m not disappointed that I didn’t “guess right” regarding the ending.

          I was only noting my disagreement with the fact that such a death would be an out of left field twist. It wouldn’t have been.

          Nor was Hank finding out, but the difference is that the “authorities vs. drug dealer” element of the show is not as profound as Walt’s personal journey. So while I expected a major death AND Hank to find out at some point either this week or in the very early part of next season, the “major death” would make more sense as a mid-season finale moment.

          There is still some salvageable drama associated with the moral and practical dilemmas of Hank’s next move, so it’s not like the show is automatically going to be weak next year, but I’m just noting my frustration with the fact that I always saw Hank as a minor piece of the larger puzzle, and this ending seemed to position it as way too central.