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critic’s notebook

‘Breaking Bad’ has remained thrilling to the end

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad.”

Ursula Coyote/AMC

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad.”

The first miracle of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”? That the drama has survived all the scrutiny. It has triumphed over the endless micro-analysis that has turned even peripheral items – Lydia’s shoes, Saul’s shirts, Marie’s purple shag rug – into fan fetish objects.

As “Breaking Bad” heads into the finale on Sunday night at 9, it’s as if every critic, recapper, and viewer has been trying to earn an honorary PhD in “Bad”-ness. We’ve brought all of our interpretive and philosophical powers to bear on every scene in every episode of the series. Is Walter White, the dying chemistry teacher turned meth maker, an anti-hero or a villain? Can he be redeemed? What is redemption? You really can’t mention the show without an ensuing conversation that dips into issues of morality and evil, life and death.

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And yet watching “Breaking Bad” has remained thrilling to the end. The beast of analysis that it inspired has not consumed or weakened it. The show has stayed rich and compelling, still able to stimulate new ideas and theories, a kind of bottomless well of thought provocation. Perhaps this would not be the case and burnout would set in after another season or two, but creator Vince Gilligan has wisely decided not to milk his cow dry. He is ahead of the curve when it comes to the pitfalls of TV.

And that’s the second miracle of “Breaking Bad”: Gilligan has consistently kept a lead on viewers. Most TV shows dabble in boilerplate and cliché, which enables us to predict where the story might be heading. We can see what’s most likely going to happen, based on the use of familiar tropes. But Gilligan has crafted such an original piece of work that it’s hard to guess where it will wind up – and many, many people are guessing. There’s no previously drawn blueprint for what he has done on “Breaking Bad.” I have no idea what will happen in the finale, and that is a fantastic and unusual feeling.

Gilligan has been on top of every season in this way. There have been almost no go-nowhere plot detours on the show, no glaring loose ends, no sense that the writing has slipped behind. Even the best series sometimes try out a subplot and then jettison it because it’s not playing well. But “Breaking Bad” has never been sloppy or rudderless, particularly since episodes and seasons have opened with flash-forwards that indicate forethought – the falling debris from the plane crash in season two, for example. When you catch a glimpse of a later part of a story, you are usually on a carefully thought-out path. Gilligan’s confidence with structure –not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s in “Pulp Fiction” – has led to episodes where each act is covering the same time period from a different perspective.

Gilligan’s sure hand has also played out in the pacing of the show, which is slow. That is the third miracle of “Breaking Bad”: The refusal to rush. Gilligan has never succumbed to the urge to make his scenes jumpy, to shorten them and skip forward to force the viewer to stay alert. He ignores the short-attention-span editing that has dominated our movies and TV shows in the past two or three decades.

And yet because they are so measured and deliberate, Gilligan’s episodes are as riveting as anything that has ever been on television. You won’t find a more perfectly controlled hour of TV than the Kafkaesque season three episode called “Fly,” in which Walt does obsessive battle with a fly he believes has contaminated the lab. You can’t look away, despite the grueling stride. Gilligan’s counterintuitive pacing has worked so effectively, other shows have been borrowing it, including the promising ex-convict drama “Rectify” on the Sundance Channel.

Bryan Cranston (left) as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse in “Breaking Bad.”

Cranston (left) and Aaron Paul as Jesse in “Breaking Bad.”

The fourth miracle is a hallmark of the show: The chronicling of change. So many series are about the lead character’s arc, the way he or she shifts over time. That is one of the rudiments of narrative, unless, as in the case of “The Sopranos,” the point is that the lead character cannot change because he is a sociopath. “Breaking Bad” has chronicled Walter White’s radical conversion with stunningly incremental steps. Partly that’s thanks to Gilligan’s vision and guidance, and partly – mostly? – that’s thanks to Bryan Cranston’s remarkably gauged performance. We’ve seen a man dredge up his dark side, piece by piece, to slowly build a reconstructed person.

And that same step-by-step process of change has been echoed by the people around Walt, particularly by his wife, Skyler, and his business partner Jesse. While Skyler’s transformation has been a shadowy one, like Walt’s, Jesse has moved in the opposite direction. He has found a conscience, and deep sense of remorse. The three characters have wound up in a place that they, and we, never saw coming.

“Breaking Bad” leaves the air as one of the finest examples of TV’s drama revolution. Is it better than “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” the two shows that generally land at the top of the best-of lists? Only time will tell. And it will be nothing short of another miracle if something takes its place.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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