News Column

OPINION: No good way for 'Breaking Bad' to end

October 1, 2013


Oct. 01--I was working Saturday evening while beer-fueled young men were preparing, in groups apparently bereft of engaging female company that might have distracted them, to turn over cars, to destroy perfectly innocuous attempts at landscaping and to commit other acts of antisocial behavior, such as urinating in public and starting fights with perfect strangers.

I took a break at about 6:30 p.m. and walked downtown, thinking I'd grab a quick bite ... maybe a brat from a vendor on the street. Things were already getting a bit chaotic, so I kept walking, all the way to one of my favorite local eateries, and picked up a carryout.

On my way back to the Tribune, still afoot, I encountered several young men insisting on high-fives. I obliged, as declining such a request during Oktoberfest means accusations of being antisocial. (I'll be 50 this month, and I don't care to get into it with a 21-year-old over whether my disdain for his offer of a high-five is reason for him to trade insults or get into a shoving match with me.)

Two of these encounters were preceded with cries of "Walter White!"

While my hair and beard are getting pretty white, I do indeed keep my hair short in the summer, and I wear a few chin whiskers. I get the reference. And in the Oktoberfest-related excitement of the past few days, the Tribune has all but ignored a cultural event of some small significance: the "Breaking Bad" finale Sunday night on AMC. Would Walter White, the put-upon high school chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin turned desperate fugitive, survive? More important, would he be redeemed ... in some way ... however small?

"Breaking Bad" ended spectacularly. It was no thrown-together-at-the-end denouement. Foreshadowed when actor Brian Cranston's character appeared episodes ago in one of the series' signature flash forwards, the final episode was appropriately lacking in real redemption and full of the series' signature ambiguity, an ambiguity for which it is sometimes accused of amorality and even immorality.

Here are a few lessons I took away from the phenomenon of "Breaking Bad."

n Good TV can mesmerize big portions of the American public. More than 20 years ago, Bruce Springsteen sang of "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)." Today we have 500 channels and nothing on, so the demand, from network and cable and Internet outlets, for something -- anything -- to put on "the air" means a demand for content unlike anything we've ever seen. That demand results in a lot of crap, but it also results in things such as "Boardwalk Empire" and "Breaking Bad." Who would have thought that network TV this late in the game could produce shows as good as "Community" or "Parks and Recreation"?

n A single, mesmerizing performance, in this case that of "Malcolm in the Middle" dad Brian Cranston, can lift drama to a level that wouldn't have been possible with a lesser actor.

n A constant of the human condition is disdain for "kids these days." Some people who eagerly anticipated the next installment of the interminably slow-paced "Sopranos" dismissed the fast-paced, morally complex, intriguingly ambiguous "Breaking Bad" with a wave of the hand, despite the fact that it was a remarkable piece of work that will have a significant effect on what we'll get to watch in the future.

n The themes that resonate in any art form -- good and evil, forgiveness and vengeance, redemption and damnation, reality and illusion, madness and sanity -- are timeless. Writers and actors and directors and producers who can dollop those out in the right measure, whether at the Globe Theatre in 1610 or on HBO in 2013, without telegraphing audiences how to feel about them, will have a hit on their hands.

n Those of us who have experienced or observed hubris and resentment knew early on that there was no good way for "Breaking Bad" to end. Breakneck twists in implausible plots and spectacular action sequences alone aren't enough to sustain a great show. Beneath those were legitimate moral questions that were far more ambitious than the show's critics were willing to concede.

I worked Sunday night, too, so I missed the initial airing of the "Breaking Bad" finale. I went home, watched a repeat of the final episode ... and proceeded to watch bits and pieces of "Talking Bad," the post-series gabfest about the series that some are calling the best in television history.

Monday morning, my son complained that the final episode of "Breaking Bad" was too ambiguous, that Walter White might still be alive, that the DEA agents who found him found not a corpse but a drug kingpin to revive.

I say no. "Breaking Bad" was an accurate title. The title was not "Sometimes Breaking Bad Turns Out Good" or "Breaking Bad Turns into a Chance for a Lucrative Movie Sequel."

I love Richard Rush's only great movie, "The Stunt Man." Peter O'Toole's character, a movie director named Eli Cross, remarks to his writer: "You can't shake your finger at them, Sam. If you've got something to say, you better slip it in while they're laughing and crying ... over the sex and violence."

"Breaking Bad" did that.

In the face of hardship, in this case both ennui and cancer, we can choose resentment and hubris. If we do so, we destroy family and friends, and then end up a dead heap in the middle of a meth lab.

That doesn't sound like a terribly amoral message to me.


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