Even though it’s only been a short time since the final Breaking Bad episode aired, much has already been discussed and dissected about the way the series ended. (My two cents: mechanical but brilliant, like its lead character.) Whether you loved it, hated it, or were indifferent to it, the finale — and the entire last season — followed the time honored troupe that many shows before it did: present a meta-commentary of the series as a whole.
That commentary could be the main thesis of the show (the reason it’s on the air), lip service for the fans, the pointing out of societal shortcomings, or all three but it’s usually done in a very self-aware way. And it’s a luxury that writer’s rooms have once they know in advance of a show’s end date.
Vince Gilligan and company were quite aware that most of the fans of Breaking Bad were rooting for Walter White to BOTH get away with starting up his meth empire AND to pay for those very crimes. They’re polar opposite ideas that had only one solution, which was hinted at in “Granite State” when Saul advises Walt to give himself up to the police and enter federal prison as the biggest badass of all time. (Think the sequence in Goodfellas when mobsters serve their time by cooking big Italian meals and easily smuggling goods in.) Now, as much as we wanted to see that happen, it would only have confirmed our own personal identification with the lead character. Being in Walt’s shoes, we wouldn’t have wanted to get shot down in a hail of bullets or left alone to contemplate how awful our lives have turned out. No, we want to have our cake and to eat it too.
As the damages caused by Walt, both collaterally and directly, kept piling up in the final season – the deaths of Mike, Hank and Andrea; the enslavement of Jesse; the breakdown of his family – he had no moral right to living his life as the King of Meth Mountain even if it were in prison. Instead, Walt died while in the middle of a multi-tiered plan towards partial redemption. And he did so only after coming to the realization that everything he did over the last five seasons was to satisfy his own ego, something most of us viewers kept turning a blind eye to. He thus then caused his own death both metaphorically and figuratively — by catching a stray bullet from the machine gun he rigged to kill a bunch of Neo-Nazis. That is the ending he, and the show overall, deserved not the ending most of us were craving.
(And speaking of Neo-Nazis, Todd, Uncle Jack and their bloodthirsty friends kept providing their own side quips on the action, like in “Granite State” when they called Jesse a “pussy” for crying while watching his videotaped confession. Their opinions tended to be very much in line with certain hardcore fans who’d been trolling the comments section of various sites. That is pretty much the definition of meta-commentary.)
This mirrors the final episodes of other TV crime dramas like The Sopranos, The Shield, and The Wire. With “The Sopranos”, David Chase and his fellow writers hammered the point time and again in the last season that not only life is messy and that Tony Soprano was a product of that mess, whether he wanted to be or not. His “evilness” was so ingrained in him that he couldn’t escape from its shadow, like guilt weighing him down. No form of punishment would be enough, including the Scarface-like showdown the show seemed to be heading towards with the New Jersey mob vs. New York mob plot – a showdown we, the viewers, were craving. Tony may only see true punishment in the afterlife but even then every bad (and good) thing in our realm will continue “on and on and on and on”. (Sorry for the Journey pun.) It’s a very Roman Catholic way to end a show. And a great way to knock the wind out of our own sails.
The Shield presented the viewers’ dream of crime fighting: attacking fire with fire (or bad guy with bad guy) in the form of Vic Mackey, a highly corrupt but more than competent cop, for six whole seasons before pulling the rug from underneath him in Season 7. The idea was that as long as he got the job done, most folks – and most viewers — would turn a blind eye to the crimes Vic was committing himself. He was like an angry junkyard dog, chasing intruders off the property, but when he became too much for even the Feds to handle, he was put on a leash in form of a desk assignment. He got away with his misdeeds (by not going to jail) but was left alone to contemplate his place in the world. That then put us in the position of contemplating why we were rooting for Vic in the first place.
The Wire possibly has the most famous of all meta-commentary finales in the form of the fifth season plotline that had Jimmy McNulty fake serial murders so that the Baltimore PD could get more funding from government officials so that the police could do its actual job of protecting citizens from drug dealers and other criminals. One of the inadvertent side effects is exposes the media’s need for sensationalism as local papers start to chase down this story instead of covering actual crimes. This was David Simon’s giant middle finger to everyone – viewers, politicians, other TV shows like CSI – everyone who has ignored or belittled the plight of the inner city. And what a way to make that point: by trying to guilt-tripping us all.
What the writers of Breaking Bad have done is give us multiple endings over the course of the last three episodes, each one to satisfy needs certain audience members had, without compromising their story. Those who wanted to watch Walt get away with his crimes but punished by tremendous loneliness got to see it play out in “Ozymandias” and for parts of “Granite State”. Those who wanted to see Walt turn back into badass Hesienberg got to see it happen at the very end of “Granite State” and for most of “Felina”. They were able to please most of the fan base to a certain extent – by saying “here’s your wish” — and then comment on it during the process, all while leading us to the show’s TRUE ending. A great example of this is the Charlie Rose scene at the end of “Granite State” where Gretchen and Elliot got their opportunity to throw in their two cents regarding Walt’s reputation. You like Hesienberg? Well, the rest of the world, including a PBS host, doesn’t.
It’s a matter of opinion whether or not Breaking Bad was successful in making its meta-commentary, or even if it rivaled the commentary others shows made. It’ll be an interesting debate among TV watchers.
Other shows to incorporate meta-commentary in its final episodes:
Lost – famously angering many fans by having major characters point out certain plot points – many of which have been played out across its six season – weren’t important after all (like the magic cave with the energy hole). The characters’ experiences in developing a community was suppose to be the most important journey of all. Now, was it successful? That’s still up for debate.
Seinfeld – Larry David returned to write the final episode were Jerry and the gang are sent to prison for being bad people, with a bunch of side characters popping out of the woodwork to testify against their awful behavior, a massive “FU” to fans who enjoyed the antics of the comedian and his friends.
30 Rock – the show’s entire run was colored by meta-commentary so it’s to no one’s surprise that its shortened last season was nothing but callbacks and winks to the audience, including one throwaway joke were Alec Baldwin’s Jack fulfills his dream of dating TWO gorgeous guest stars at the same time and another acknowledging that certain stretches of episodes weren’t up to snuff.
A show that could have used some form of commentary in its final season:
Dexter – a show that wore out its welcome somewhere in Season 5, its eighth and final season was marred by a complete lack of care by the showrunner and writers. The finale, where the title character is treated like a saint and gets to live his life as – of all things — a lumberjack after committing countless of murders, including some in front of seemingly incompetent Miami police force, will go down as one of the worst ever (somewhere between the Roseanne and Battlestar Galactica finales).