A series finale is a tricky thing to pull off. Especially now, in an era when the culture of TV fandom is as fervent and widespread as it is. End ambiguously like The Sopranos and you risk enraging some fans and set the rest up for a lifetime of frustratingly unanswered questions. If you try to tie things up in an epic bundle you wind up with something as overblown and corny (and lazy, in a way) as Lost. Or it can just feel dull and arbitrary, out of nowhere and unsatisfying. That was the case last week when Dexter lurched to a close. The disappointing end of that show had me nervous for this month's real big closer, last night's Breaking Bad finale. But I was wrong to worry. Creator Vince Gilligan put his show to rest with the same cool confidence it's had since the beginning, without any fuss or overreaching. It was solid, and satisfying, if not terribly exciting.
In many ways, the hotly anticipated end to the saga of science teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White felt like just another episode, sporting the show's usual mix of dread and sardonic humor, the frequent technical flourishes as assured and interesting as ever before. The nifty reveal in Skyler and Walter's last scene — we saw Skyler on the phone with her sister, thinking she was alone, but then the camera moved past a beam and there was Walter, standing over her like some weary angel of death — reminded us how clever this show could be with simple camera tricks, how playful it was even though it was merrily tromping into the abyss. But there weren't any seismic moments last night, the episode just sorta happened. And that's okay! In fact, it's probably for the best.
People had been theorizing for months, years even, about what awaited Walt at the end. Would he get away with it? Would he die? Would he wind up in jail? Fans went a little nuts analyzing tiny details in the show's final run of episodes, looking for clues and hints that it now seems were never really there. After a few truly huge episodes this season, the finale delivered a few bangs but mostly just did the basic work of wrapping things up. Walt said goodbye to Skyler and Holly and wistfully watched his son walk home from school one last time. He tried to insure their financial future by leaving them what was left of his money. He rescued Jesse as a final thank you and a final apology. And then Walt collapsed into a pool of his own blood just as the cops closed in. There was a slight note of ambiguity to the ending, I suppose. But I don't think the show was courting speculation. The ending felt finite and specific in an admirably frank and confident way, capping of the show in its usual gruff, no-nonsense style.
Some people may feel let down that the show didn't end more epically, that there wasn't some towering climax that blew the whole thing up. But what could have topped Gus Fring's assassination, or Hank's heroic death? Plus the show has always trafficked in suspense, and you can't really end a series on a white-knuckle cliffhanger. The finale wasn't exactly low-key (we were still dealing with a machine gun, after all) but by necessity it ratcheted everything down. It resolved the conflict. And isn't that what a good ending should do? Instead of running away from resolutions, like Dexter on his little boat? I think it is, and in that vein Breaking Bad did a competent and fulfilling job last night. Sure it maybe wasn't the most thrilling that the show's ever been, and some characters were missed. (Though, we'll be seeing you soon again, Saul.) But I don't feel like there were any big questions left unanswered and, more importantly, couldn't see where another season would have taken us. We ended here for a reason. We'd reached a natural stopping point.
I'm sure that some fans will disagree, and say that this fretted-about hour of television was underwhelming, that it didn't deliver on this season's promise. I can see where they're coming from, but would also suggest that they maybe let their expectations get outsized. Breaking Bad didn't have the same kind of existential or philosophical questions to answer as The Sopranos did. There was no big island mystery to solve. This was a thriller series with one real topic on its mind: The success or failure of Walter White. And we got the answer to that question last night, and so we're done. The rollercoaster has stopped, and the excitement is over, as we always knew it would someday be. That no one seems to be really upset, throwing things at their televisions and whatnot, is a success in its own right. It's pretty hard to do a finale these days without alienating at least half your audience. But in a larger sense, for ending his show in the deliberate, idiosyncratic, thoughtful way he ran it for five seasons, Gilligan deserves a hearty dose of praise. He made a good product.