Walter White, a chemistry teacher, discovers that he has cancer and decides to get into the meth-making business to repay his medical debts. His priorities begin to change when he partners with Jesse.
And as that first generation of shows from television’s post-millennial Golden Era threw off so many of the shackles of convention inherent in the medium, they kept this one.
Tony Soprano was a man who didn’t change, couldn’t change. Jimmy McNulty, Stringer Bell and other characters of The Wire fought hard for change—changing themselves and changing the system—but Simon’s message was that the drug/cop/court/prison/politics system in a fictionalized Baltimore was, tragically, too big and too strong to be taken down by a few angry men and women.
Vince Gilligan started Breaking Bad with no such constraints. Whereas Tony Soprano spent seven seasons running errands around North Jersey, Walter White embarked on an epic journey, tracing an arc reserved for iconic characters of literature and cinema like Jay Gatsby and Michael Corleone.
As he morphed Mr. Chips into Scarface, Gilligan wrote his own version of The Great American Novel. On Steroids.
Part of Breaking Bad’s grandeur stems from the medium itself. Watching The Godfather Part I and Part II takes about six and a half hours. You can read The Great Gatsby in roughly the same amount of time.
When it’s over, Breaking Bad will span 62 episodes. We’ll have spent almost ten times as much time with Walt and Jesse and Skyler as we did with Gatsby and Daisy or Michael Corleone and Tom Hagen. We know Walter White in a way that few great characters have ever been known, coming to that knowledge organically, over time.
But we spent that same kind of time with Tony Soprano and McNulty. Breaking Bad differs from those shows–and surpasses them–in one important way. This is a story that’s moving toward an ending.
The ending of The Sopranos, whether you loved it or hated it, was largely a non-ending. It was designed to make us think about the show and the act of watching it, as much as it made us think about Tony Soprano. The last season of The Wire, despite a number of resonant, even heartbreaking moments featuring Michael, Omar, and Bubbles, was simply not up to the standards of the four seasons that came before. Deadwood didn’t have a proper series finale at all. For all their cardinal virtues, those other contenders for the Best Show Ever left us feeling somewhat unsatisfied.
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is sticking the landing. Last week Gilligan teased us with a vision of how Breaking Bad might have ended if it were a 1970s cop show, with the click of handcuffs and a vindicated cop placing a triumphant phone call to his pretty, relieved wife.
Having taken us on that detour, Gilligan pulls back from brink and begins an ending that’s majestic and horrible and completely of a piece with the 60 hours that came before. As Hank faced death last night and Walt unleashed his monstrous, destructive rage (setting in motion, as it always does, a torrent of suffering to come) these gut-wrenching moments were bought and paid for.
“You’re the smartest guy I ever met,” Hank told Walt as Uncle Jack pointed a gun at his head. “And you’re too stupid to see. He made up his mind 10 minutes ago.”
It’s a moment that can proudly stand beside the killing of Big Pussy on The Sopranos, or the execution of Stringer Bell on The Wire. But unlike those great moments, Breaking Bad has built toward Hank’s death, and whatever comes next.