Lasting judgments are riding on ‘Breaking Bad’ finale

Michael C. Hall  (“Dexter”), James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), and Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) played memorable roles in long-running series.
Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”), James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”), and Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) played memorable roles in long-running series.

Mention the pitch-black screen at the end of “The Sopranos,” and most fans will tighten their fists and break into a tirade. Six years later, they’re still incensed by creator David Chase’s big nonstatement statement, which left Tony Soprano’s fate up in the air. Mention the 2010 “Lost” finale? Oh, don’t even.

Ending a TV series is a fraught proposition, especially when that series is as passionately revered, beloved, and analyzed as “The Sopranos,” “Lost,” or, now, “Breaking Bad.” As the AMC meth drama heads into its final episode on Sunday night at 9, amid miles of online scrutiny and conjecture, millions of fans are nervously waiting to see how creator Vince Gilligan will conclude his epic tale.


Will Gilligan make “Breaking Bad” into a moral lesson by bringing justice down on Walter White, the meek man who turned into a power-hungry meth-making murderer? Or will he set his antihero free, another sinner in the winds of anarchy, imprisoned only by what’s left of his own conscience? Is it possible Gilligan will take a sharp surrealistic detour, cutting to a blank screen that’s the pale blue of Walt’s famous product, or putting the whole story in the head of Walter White Jr. staring at a snow globe, “St Elsewhere”-style?

Fans are hoping Gilligan will do better than Showtime’s “Dexter” writers, who finished their eight seasons Sunday with a hole-filled hour that made Twitter tremble with rage.

“Great Dexter finale tonight,” read one tweet. “Loved the twist where it turned out that all along, Dexter was a ridiculous waste of time.” Meanwhile, over on the network’s Facebook page: “Showtime, why the ending? You totally messed up the Dexter series!!!”

For many, what goes down in that last episode of “Breaking Bad” will determine how they ultimately feel about the entire series. It will establish for them whether or not the years of commitment, conversation, and cogitation since the show’s 2008 premiere have been worthwhile. They feel that the conclusion will play an integral role in shaping the show’s long-term cultural legacy.

“It’s crucial to how I would look back on the series as a whole,” “Breaking Bad” devotee Jeff Anderson of Stoneham, said of the finale. “‘Breaking Bad’ has been so perfect, if the last thing we see isn’t nailed perfectly, it will tarnish the show looking back on it.”


Anderson recalled the Patriots losing the 2008 Super Bowl after a perfect 16-game regular season: “I hope ‘Breaking Bad’ doesn’t lose the Super Bowl.”

James Tate Hill of Greensboro, N.C., is also apprehensive, like the legions tweeting and posting chunky online comments about their finale angst.

“There’s an extra layer of tension now, this intense fear that they’re going to mess something up,” he said. “I do trust the writers, but . . . if you don’t stick the landing, it does undo a lot of what you’ve accomplished.”

Series finales were notable events for many decades, even before “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” gang shuffled out of the WJM-TV newsroom in a group hug singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” When a show knowingly left the air — when it wasn’t canceled midstream — the writers generally nodded to viewers who were looking for a parting glance. But since the advent of the novelistic drama in the 1990s, with serialized storylines and mythologies moving front and center, the finale has become of paramount significance. These dramas aren’t static procedurals with self-contained episodes; they’re narratives leading toward something. And in the era of binge-viewing entire series, when we watch the beginning and the ending close together, sometimes in the same weekend, the finale is even more pertinent.


But do we now give series finales too much weight in a medium that is primarily about swimming forward, season after season? TV writers spend years opening up a premise, keeping the story in motion; they’re in alien territory when making a full stop.

“The joy of television is the week to week, the episodic, the moments,” says Christine Becker, an associate professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame. “Whether or not I liked the ‘Lost’ finale doesn’t change the fact that the episode with Desmond called ‘The Constant’ was one of my great TV-watching experiences.”

To use the metaphor of death — and the end of a series is a small death of sorts — viewers like Becker try to remember the whole life, and not simply the circumstances of its end.

The 1983 finale of “M*A*S*H” was the most-watched series episode ever.
The 1983 finale of “M*A*S*H” was the most-watched series episode ever. AP

Naturally, the definition of a strong finish varies. To this day, “M*A*S*H” fans disagree about whether the 1983 finale — at 105.9 million viewers, the most watched series episode ever — was too schmaltzy when Hawkeye Pierce saw “GOODBYE” — sniff — spelled in stones as he flew away from the 4077th. Some viewers don’t care about loose ends; they mostly care about emotional closure. Others require every plot strand wrapped up in one neat bow, as in the flash-forward of “Six Feet Under,” which chronicled the deaths of all the characters, leaving no hint of ambiguity.


“I like to have everything wrapped up,” Anderson said, citing “Six Feet Under” as a good example. “All the storylines should be brought to a conclusion. That’s what audiences want. In life we obviously don’t get to choose our endings. Life just happens, and sometimes it’s the end you want and sometimes it’s not. So that’s something we like about TV shows and movies and novels — that sense of completion.”

For Jason Mittell, professor of American studies and film and media culture at Middlebury College, the best endings are in tune with the rest of the series, such as the finale of “The Wire” and “The Shield.”

“When I think of finales that worked well, they’re finales that feel true to what the show has been,” Mittell said.

Since “Breaking Bad” is a show about a man’s moral journey, Mittell is expecting the finale to include some acknowledgment of where Walt’s journey has gone on that level.

“So if the show ends with Walt machine-gunning everyone down and it feels untrue to who the character is,” he said, “that would leave a pretty sour taste in my mouth. I’d think that wasn’t the show I thought I’d been watching.”

Of course, for “Breaking Bad” fans who watch for the action and violence, and not for the moral questioning, a bloody massacre just might do the trick.

Hill said he is so charged up about the “Breaking Bad” finale that he has taken to the online message boards for the first time in years.


“My anxiety is about whether this is going to end right,’’ he said. “How can Vince Gilligan tie up the loose ends so that Jesse will be in a place that I’m satisfied with and Walt will be in a place where I need him to be?”

That’s a big challenge, one that the makers of some of the greatest series, including “Seinfeld” and “The X-Files,” have failed.

“Your experience of a series is so many hours invested in it, so many emotions,” said Becker, “and to expect one or two final episodes to measure up to that, it’s almost an impossible task.”

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