Too many great shows end their runs on a bad note. But the AMC drama won't be one of them.
If you were to trace the creative arc of most television shows, you would probably end up with a shape that looks more or less like a bell curve. A show finds its voice, rises to a narrative apex, and then begins its (sometimes steep) decline. It's part of the natural life cycle of a long-running series—beholden to breakneck production schedules and the voracious demands of audience attention spans, idea wells start to run dry, plotlines meander and characters stagnate. Even great shows will go through fallow periods, often ending their runs with something closer to a whimper than a bang. But as the fifth and final season Breaking Bad (which will air in two parts between now and 2013) launches on Sunday, it seems poised to become a television rarity: a show that will end at the height of its power.
Some of the best and most thrilling serial dramas of the current television era have tripped as they neared the finish line. Count me among fans who thought that the famously ambiguous ending to The Sopranos—the show that gave rise to the contemporary television antihero--failed to deliver adequate closure to a series that had been as much about heart-stopping drama as the existential malaise of a modern criminal. Lost spent its last seasons wandering aimlessly through a purgatory of smoke monsters and metaphysicalgobbledygook. The Syfy reboot of Battlestar Galactica painstakingly built up complicated mythologies about dreams, symbols, and the mysterious origins of the Cylon race, but left some of its central questions only vaguely addressed by illogical timelines and angel-like apparitions. (If Breaking Bad ever releases a promo image showing the characters arranged around a table Last Supper-style, it could be a sign that we're headed for trouble).
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Not all series follow this trajectory. The Wire gets my vote for the most consistently excellent drama of the last decade, maybe ever, although even that show's final season fell slightly short of previous installments. Friday Night Lights declined steeply in its second season, only to build itself back up and end on a graceful, emotionally authentic note. While it may be natural for shows to flag at various points in their runs, it's a deeply disappointing experience for viewers when a series loses creative juice just as the writers need to muster all their powers to provide an expected spectacular conclusion. In a New York Times Magazine article, Heather Havrilesky argued that serial dramas that depend on sustained suspense and mysteries layered on mysteries—or, more specifically, Lost—are killing the current golden age of television by making it up as they go along, and failing to satisfactorily solve their Rubik's Cube plots by series end.
But if Lost poisoned contemporary television, then surely Breaking Bad is the antidote—proof that the formula of delivering constant cliffhangers and ratcheting up tension to unbearable levels can work in the confines of a precisely crafted narrative. In addition to being a brilliant character study, Breaking Bad is a master class in efficient storytelling. For four seasons, it has run like antagonist Gus Fring's meth super lab, churning out a top-quality, addictive product without wasting a single ingredient. This is because, for all of its dramatic plot twists, Breaking Bad has maintained a singular driving mission: to slowly, deliberately, expose the amoral center of a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.
Over the course of this journey, Walter White and his young partner Jesse Pinkman (whose struggle to hang on to a measure of humanity is juxtaposed with Walter's descent into darkness ) have survived multiple shootouts, dodged Mexican drug cartel assassins, and narrowly avoided perishing from: terminal cancer, dehydration, asphyxiation, and falling debris from an airplane crash, among other things. The series is noted for routinely putting its characters in impossible situations and finding ever more creative ways for them to squirm out, including one episode where Walter and Jesse are trapped inside their RV/mobile meth lab while Walter's DEA agent brother-in-law waits outside to bust them.
It's a testament to series creator Vince Gilligan and the writing staff that the breathtaking cliffhangers and violent action sequences never feel like empty manipulation. In interviews, Gilligan has said that they do sometimes find themselves writing the show out of a corner and making plot decisions on the fly. (Jesse, for instance, was originally intended to die violently at the end of the first season.) But the show plays like it knows exactly where it's going. Every event has a payoff and serves to incrementally transform Walter from the desperate everyman of season one to the megalomaniac who coldly poisons a child and orchestrates an explosive murder-suicide in a nursing home in order to take down his archrival. Star Bryan Cranston's domed visage gets craggier and meaner with each season, and the stakes never feel any lower just because the characters have skirted certain doom so many times before. On the contrary, the final scene in the season four episode "Crawl Space," when the camera pulls away from Walter laughing insanely on the floor of his basement--out of options, abandoned by Jesse, with his nemesis plotting to murder his entire family—was one of the tensest, creepiest moments the show has yet produced.
Walter White is himself a combustible substance: on the one hand a calculating and brilliant scientist, on the other an unhinged agent of chaos who pulls everyone around him--Jesse, his wife, the brother-in-law, his gloriously sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman--into his destructive wake. He's constantly reacting, always just barely one step ahead of his enemies, which is an integral element of the show's high-wire act. The final season will find Walter in a new position—no longer the perpetual underdog, but the undisputed king—and will usher in a new dynamic for the series. But I have faith that over the next 16 episodes Gilligan and co. will give viewers a resolution worthy of its electrifying build-up, and that steady hands are steering this RV all the way to the end of the ride.
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