Crime and Punishment: Finding a Satisfying Ending for 'Breaking Bad'
What happens when you fall in love with a criminal? Do you stand by that person no matter what, or do you hope to see them get caught? What if the criminal started out as an average person – someone no one would have expected to turn to crime?
When it comes to a crime show like AMC’s Breaking Bad, those are the kind of questions we’d expect to ask about the characters, not about ourselves, the viewers. And yet it’s not too much of a stretch to say that after five seasons, fans of the show have an emotional bond with the characters – most of whom are committed (if not sociopathic) criminals.
That bond creates a unique challenge for writers. For a majority of viewers, there’s a deep-seated need for evil to be punished, no matter who perpetrates it. Most of us expect television to provide an escape, where good can triumph over evil more often than it does in real life.
That structure becomes complicated when the protagonist is actually a villain – if we want to see the protagonist succeed, how do we punish him for what he’s done? If a TV show has based its existence on getting us to care about a criminal, crafting an ending that still disciplines him can feel like bursting a bubble. It’s a harsh, unsatisfying suggestion that the audience has done wrong by becoming invested in the villain.
In the case of Breaking Bad, we have to consider the main character, chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White. Way back in the first episode, a terminal cancer diagnosis compelled the brilliant Walt to harness his mastery of chemistry to produce top-quality meth, in an attempt to provide for his family after his death. Five seasons of television later, Walt controls the Albuquerque drug scene, and the audience still roots for him. We’ve been totally seduced by his slow descent into villainy, and his constantly evolving justifications for his crimes.
The characterization is one of the triumphs of television writing of the past decade. Very rarely do screen villains come along that the audience fully understand, villains that some of us are willing to see get away with it. Consider Dexter Morgan on Dexter, Nancy Botwin on Weeds, Frank Underwood on House of Cards, or the entire cast of Boardwalk Empire. On each of those shows, we follow a villain as the protagonist, but I’d argue Breaking Bad surpasses most of them in its ability to generate sympathy for Walter and his situation.
That being said, Breaking Bad will end in five weeks’ time, and creator Vince Gilligan and his team will have to tie off Walter’s story in some fashion. So the question that fans have been asking for years, “Will Walt get his comeuppance?” will have some sort of answer.
On the surface, it might seem simple: he could be killed (either by another character or by the return of his cancer), he could be imprisoned, or he could escape. But not only are there many shades to each of those possibilities, there’s a persistent feeling that none of them would be wholly satisfying.
If Walter is killed, for example, by a rival criminal or by his on-again-off-again partner Jesse Pinkman, fans may find it cheapens the story – making Walter seem like just another addition to the sizeable body count on the show.
If it’s the cancer that kills Walt, the ending might be easier to swallow, as it was the disease that pushed him into his criminal behaviour, and now it will finish him off. Even then, viewers know how unpredictable cancer can be, and to have it magically wipe away the villain could feel contrived.
If Walt were to get caught, and spend the rest of his life in prison, the ending would probably be just as unsatisfying as Walt’s sudden death. Walter White is a character who doesn’t believe in half measures of anything, and so a prison sentence wouldn’t be enough of a conclusion. Between the potential for parole and the chance that Walt would be targeted in prison, there would be far too many loose ends.
The most compelling ending, I believe, would be allowing Walt to get away with it. Firstly, given what we now know about one character’s somewhat ham-fisted investigation of Walt, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Secondly, an escape simultaneously honours the audience’s investment in Walt’s story and presents a cold-case ending that, all too often, happens in real life.
Unfortunately, that still doesn’t reconcile the problem of Walt’s punishment. Granted, there are definitely enough cynical viewers out there who are willing to accept Walt avoiding death and prison. But if all my coverage of screen entertainment has taught me anything, it’s that audiences ultimately want the villain to be brought to some sort of justice. It’s one of the most primal desires readers/viewers have, and it has driven more works of fiction than I dare to count.
One conclusion I’d suggest would be Walt avoiding prison, but being forced to cut off all contact with everyone he knows – I’m picturing him living in some isolated cabin in Alaska, for example. One of Walt’s main motivations has been protecting his family, and so perhaps his ultimate punishment is to get away with his crimes, but to never see his family again. Walt would live out his days knowing that he’d built the empire he always wanted, and it cost him everything he had.
Happily, I’m not tasked with coming up with the real ending for the show. I certainly don’t envy the job Vince Gilligan had to craft an ending that balances the many variables involved in writing a good exit for a villain – especially when he’s the protagonist of one of best series on TV. My only hope is that in the event that the ending doesn’t satisfy, that viewers remember just how difficult it is to write a good story about a bad guy, and that Breaking Bad did it better than most.
What do you think about the trajectory of the final episodes of the series? Has the ending been hinted at already, or will we be left in the dark until the series finale? Sound off in the comments section, and if you liked this article, share it with your friends and followers. You can also find all my recent articles about TV by browsing through the archive.