Here in the US, I’ll be watching the Breaking Bad finale on basic cable. There in the UK, you’ll be watching it on Netflix.
Even as it splinters into multiple services, schedules and devices until it barely fits its own definition, it’s reassuring to know that when a character as resonant as Walter White at last faces the inevitable, television can still muster a sense of collective cultural anticipation.
With Dexter just departed, and Don Draper approaching his own endgame, we are living in the last days of the age of the antihero. And if the protagonist/antagonist of Breaking Bad is not first among equals, he is unique in at least one respect: Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, Al Swearengen – they were all born bad. Walt broke.
The oft-cited intention of the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, was to turn Mr Chips into Scarface, yet such a trajectory could only have been possible in this golden era of television drama, when narrative can unfold over several seasons.
Walt made a conscious choice to break bad. Before committing his very first murder, of a small-time drug dealer, he even wrote a list of the pros and cons of killing. His top reason for letting Krazy-8 live: “It’s the moral thing to do”. (Second was my favourite: “Judaeo/Christian principles”.)
Back then, before he styled himself Heisenberg, Walt was a hapless criminal, his antics blackly comic. As he shaved his head, donned his pork-pie hat and sunglasses, and grew visibly in stature, we were briefly allowed to think it might be sort of cool to make that same choice. Yet Breaking Bad is a fiercely moral show and has already more than demonstrated the awful cost of Walt’s actions.
One thing has been certain since Walt’s cancer diagnosis: he is going to die. Yet the manner of his death, and the identity of his killer – Jesse; Skyler; cancer; himself; Uncle Jack – will speak volumes about the way the show’s creators see the world. Judaeo/Christian principles? Don’t be too surprised.