**This article contains spoilers
When hit HBO series The Sopranos ended in 2004, it was heralded (and somewhat lamented) as the pinnacle of modern television. But not too long after, more crime-related shows emerged, from The Wire to Boardwalk Empire, creating what seemed like a new Golden Age of television. Although many consumers of culture would argue that nothing has ever been as good as it was in the past– films, music, etc.– television, arguably, seems to have improved, at least for dramas, many of which have a philosophical edge. The AMC now-classic program Breaking Bad, too, has been heralded as the greatest ever show in television history, with various viewers in awe of its iconic status, regretting the shows end. The final episode, endearing titled Felina (anagram for Finale), aired on Sunday, 29th of September. Long and short-term viewers were finally treated with the fate of the show’s protagonist/antagonist, Walter White. Having gotten into the Meth-making empire to support his family when he dies of lung cancer, the ending of the series is a rather ironic one. Rather than succumbing to death from cancer, the reason for his entry into the drug business, Walt instead dies from a fatal gunshot wound, as an eventual result of the crime life he entered into to help his family. But, as he tells his insufferable wife Skyler in the finale, he enjoyed the work he was doing for his own glory and satisfaction, as much as for his family’s welfare. One may then argue that although Walt could have had a much less horrifying and despairing eventual death from cancer, and although his choice to get into the business may have killed him off earlier than if he had lived with the cancer, as he says to Skyler, he got a chance to really live. He had a more exciting life that way, rather than just eventually succumbing to cancer. More ironic is that the men Walt kills are the very same men that saved Walt from being caught by the police. In the end, Walt not only kills them with an ersatz bazooka, but also wounds himself in the process, and dies before the police can catch him. He dies with experiential dignity. He isn’t put in custody, his cancer doesn’t get the better of him; he dies of a wound created by his own luxury, by the life he created for himself, a life that is, for all intents and purposes, far more thrilling than the alternate life of dying from cancer. He therefore dies a greater death, a death he made for himself.
Walt’s eventual predicament, while horrible and heart-wrenching, is also laugh-out-loud incredulous. The utter incredulity of Walt’s journey and fate is at once ironic and poignant, hilarious and horrible. The reasons for his actions, his family, turn away from him, and it almost appears as though his efforts are all in vain. But of course, this is not the case, as I said, the motive that emerges in the finale is Walt’s own ‘selfish’ desire to live like a king. As he says in the very first episode to his partner, Jesse: “I am awake.” Better to die as a notorious drug-lord than to die a carwash-cleaning chemistry teacher. And so what the show illuminates is not only the consequentialism of one’s actions, or even the moral ambiguities of a life of crime, but rather a theme of self-determination and free will.
Of course Walt epitomizes the anti-hero that has been established in television time and again: those beloved misanthropes from Tony Soprano to Nucky Thompson. It is never enough to set up the dynamics of good versus evil; far better it is to explore how good and evil are often one and the same. What is perhaps more startling in Breaking Bad than say, The Sopranos, is that Walt’s journey into villainy is far more pronounced and enticing than Tony’s, whose life begins in crime. While Walt becomes ‘badder’ as the seasons progress, Tony is seen as a character always attempting to redeem himself in some way, but always failing. Tony’s journey is one that is more concerned with redemption, although by the end we aren’t wholly certain that much has actually changed in his psyche and outlook on life. Repetition is thus key to Tony’s journey, as he often complains that he gets no where in therapy. Though he also points out that although he engages in illicit activities, that he does not deserve to die. Thus Walt’s fate is sealed, while Tony’s fate is left open to interpretation. In this way both finales fulfil the overall theme and aura of their shows: The Sopranos offers ambiguity at its end, reflecting the theme of the show, while Breaking Bad offers a more conclusive ending to fit with the premise of the show, and to finish off Walt’s dramatic transformation. Yet both finales are satisfying in relation to what points they are trying to make in relation to their anti-heroes. While Tony believes he does not deserve to die and go to hell with ‘all the sickos’ who kill for fun, Walt seems, even from early on, aware of his fate, and somewhat content with it. The moral relativity of both characters is fascinating, especially since both Tony and Walt attempt to rationalise their predicaments, often to no avail. And this is often what fuels these programs. Although both Tony and Walt do what they do mainly for their families, following the theory that the ends justify the means, there is always the dilemma of whether these reasons are enough, or whether they are worth it. For Tony, the mafia is more important than his actual family, while for Walt, having been abandoned by his family, the very ones he engages in meth for, he realises that his love of danger and cooking became a greater reason for his meth-empire than protecting his family. Thus for both protagonists, there is that self-involved element of sating one’s own desires for the criminal life, for no other reason than just to enjoy life before one dies.
And so another iconic program ends, leaving fans distraught but eager for another anti-hero and another crime drama. Bryan Cranston’s brilliant performance is surely up there with James Gandolfini’s. Until next time…
(NOTE: Australia reportedly topped the list of illegal downloads for Breaking Bad’s final episode)