This Sunday marks the beginning of the end for Breaking Bad, indisputably one of the greatest shows to ever hit TV. “Beginning of the end” isn’t quite an accurate descriptor though — it’s really best to consider the first episode of the series as the beginning of the end, and this second half of season 5 as the story’s final resolution. The reality is that Walter White’s demise has been in motion long before we were introduced to his bright white briefs and even more blindingly pale thighs. The loudest stages of his descent into Heisenberg may have occurred before our eyes, but they wouldn’t have happened without the frustrating decisions of his past that left a brilliant chemist stuck in lower-middle class America. Now, because he can’t (nor would he) go back on his horrible transformation, it’s clear what his fate will be. Whether by cancer, machine gun, or ricin cigarette, Walter is destined to die. These final eight episodes will merely serve to explain how, when, and where he makes his final stand, in as tense and exacting a fashion as Walt has always cooked his blue meth.
Ask any TV viewer in America what Breaking Bad is about, and you’ll probably get something along the lines of “a chemistry teacher gets cancer and starts cooking meth to save money for his family.” Dig a little deeper and you’ll end up with stuff like “Weeds with meth” and “darkly weird buddy comedy.” Now, the show is actually all of these things, but only in slightly varying degrees of superficiality. In the same way that The Sopranos was so much more than a mob story of tits, hits, and baked ziti, Breaking Bad is at its core a study of a deeply troubled, morally compromised man, and a grand experiment in positioning viewers behind a character that by all measures would be feared and hated in real life. A lesser drama would have followed Hank, the moral compass of the show, as he grappled with the hot Albuquerque air for four and a half seasons until the truth about Heisenberg finally dawned on him. And yet, as absurd as it may feel, we have always been in the challenging position of “rooting” for Walt despite his terrible transgressions.
Showrunner Vince Gilligan always reverts to a simple explanation of his beloved show: what would happen if “Mr. Chips turned into Scarface.” Mr. Chips is a character that originated in a 1870 British novel by James Hilton, in which a beloved school teacher recalls his life throughout the years. Scarface, of course, is the man whose little friend he seriously wants you to meet. This transformation is how Gilligan pitched his show until it was picked up by AMC, and it remains the quickest way to sum up the premise over half a decade later. The key concept being that having the antagonist appear as the show’s protagonist was a revolutionary experiment in TV storytelling, challenging the way viewers interact with a show’s characters. The experiment has paid off — extensive conversations, online and in person, have been dedicated to the point at which viewers stopped cheering for Walt.
There are also many who would argue that Walter White was never really Mr. Chips—“beloved” teacher, sure, but underneath that always a bitter and inherently evil man. After all, despite the fact that we as viewers only fully realize his motivations for getting into the “empire business” in the first half of season 5, we’re aware of the former work associates that rode to great success without him in season 1. More importantly, he’s been aware that they struck it rich off of his hard work ever since it happened—years before we joined him in an RV in the middle of the New Mexico desert. The reality of it haunts him, and it’s what gave birth to an evil that’s been growing inside him since he made the biggest mistake of his life. Not when he cooked meth for the first time. Not when he killed that drug dealer in the basement. Not even when he poisoned an innocent child to get Jesse back on his side. The mistake was when he sold his stake in Gray Matter Technologies, the company he started with Elliott Schwartz, for just $5,000.
Missing out on incredible wealth and watching others attain it with your work is enough to drive any man insane. It’s a potent, multi-layered, and very real regret that drives Walter White, and the distinguishing mark of a show lauded for its dense, impactful writing. It’s horrifying to watch a seemingly good person transform into pure evil, but what’s so shocking is that it’s actually believable. We as viewers at the very least understand why Walter has become such a monster, and in many cases somehow sympathize with him. The extent to which viewers actively wanted Hank to fail for much of the series is a true testament to the strength of Gilligan and his writing team. He started out largely as another loud, brutish cop, while Walt was a meek, silent underdog. Slowly, over the course of 54 episodes, the axis rotated to simultaneously push Walter into supreme asshole territory and Hank into an honest, respected force.
The dynamic between these two is what will make these final eight episodes an absolutely heart-stopping ride straight to hell. Walter’s grim fate seems all but sealed, but how will we get there? Hank is and always has been Walter’s most consistent foil, equal parts physically tough and mentally sharp. Now we get to watch these two unstoppable objects inevitably collide, with every supporting actor likely to play a crucial role in swinging the tide as well as possibly suffering the casualties of such a showdown.
Breaking Bad has provided its viewers with plenty of memorable scenes, Hank’s parking lot scuffle and Gus’s tie-straightening shining bright among them. However, if we’re to believe Vince Gilligan’s tears while writing the finale, his calmly proclaimed satisfaction with how it ends, and what the show’s actors are saying about it, the best is yet to come. Combine all the darkness and death that’s about to arrive with some undoubtedly sharp humor channeled through the likes of Jesse and Saul, and you’ve got yourself eight hours of the best content we’re likely to ever see on TV.
The end may feel like it’s arrived too soon, but only because we want to savor the final moments, delaying life in a post-Breaking Bad world. The truth is this show is ending exactly when it needs to—expertly balancing the fine line between exiting right as the party hits full swing and overstaying the welcome. The stage has been set for the final wild ride. Its producers were ready. Its writers were ready. Its actors were ready.
And it’s viewers?