Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Breaking Bad: One Watery Deuce of a Finale

Tragedy struck in the skies over Albuquerque, New Mexico on Sunday. One of the best shows on television is missing and feared dead after a mid-air collision with the willing suspension of disbelief. The resulting fireball of absurdity was seen by people nationwide who tuned in expecting some compelling resolution to the mystery of the burned pink teddy bear.

Reports of frustrated viewers cursing at their televisions have been pouring in from across the country. Creator Vince Gilligan had this mildly pretentious comment on the tragedy:
In that moment, at the end of season two, [Walt] doesn't realize it, but he's responsible for the whole world figuratively coming to an end around him. It's not deus ex machina, there's another term we were talking about, Lucifer ex machina, "Devil from the machine" -- it's the opposite. It almost could feel kind of random, but it's not. It's a butterfly effect. All these gears have been turning, this particular outcome was stuff Walt put into motion a long time ago by choosing to cook crystal meth.
The butterfly effect?

Lucifer ex machina?

Pardon my Colonial, Vince, but are you frakkin' kidding me?

I get what you were trying to do. You wanted to show that Walt's actions have horribly unpredictable consequences, but in a way that didn't resort to cliches. The problem is that you set up a very compelling mystery with those teasing shots of the aforementioned pink bear and the body bags in the driveway at the start of several episodes. A lot of us spent the whole season puzzling over what could have burned the bear and who those bodies might be.

To satisfy me, the answers needed to be more than just surprising. They also had to be firmly rooted in events from this past season. We should have been able to rewatch the last 13 episodes and see old ocurrences in a new light. The shocking revelations in M. Night Shyamalan's best films like Unbreakable and the Sixth Sense work because they're clear in retrospect. Breaking Bad's twist was too random -- like learning the aliens in Signs are susceptible to water.

I don't even recall anyone mentioning that John Delancey's character worked in the airline industry. Still worse, his accident felt like some bad parody of those anti-drug commercials from the '80s with the eggs. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. This is the air-traffic controller who will cause a catastrophic accident between two passenger planes because his daughter died from an overdose of fried eggs...er, drugs.

The unforeseen evil of Walt's drug dealing could have been depicted just as disturbingly on a smaller scale. Remember how Jane's dad always attended recovery meetings with her? It seemed like the behavior of a protective father. But what if it turned out that he was an addict himself, and they originally sought treatment together? A far more devastating final scene for me would have been watching Donald relapse in despair, like Bubbles does near the end of the first season of the Wire.

The explosion could have been caused by the tankless water heater that Walt bought with tainted proceeds from his drug sales. The blast should have killed Marie, whose character is going nowhere, and maybe a reporter at the house to interview Walter, Jr., thus highlighting the harm to innocent bystanders. The shock and symbolism of such a freak accident would have been just as powerful. Indeed, the tragedy would have been all the more horrifying for its plausibility.

Many, myself included, have noted the numerous Sopranos references this season on Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse's getting caught in the desert resembled Christopher and Paulie's plight in the famous Pine Barrens episode. Walt's facilitating Jane's asphyxiation was reminiscent of Tony smothering an injured Christopher in Kennedy and Heidi. If the Season 2 Finale has a parallel, it's to the classic Sopranos installment College.

Tony and his daughter Meadow travel to Maine to visit colleges. While at the gas station, Tony unexpectedly spies a mob informant who disappeared into witness protection. Tony stalks the man to his home, planning to kill him, but hesitates upon realizing his family is present. It's unclear whether Tony will follow through, until he does in a shockingly brutal climax where he strangles the turncoat. Later, Meadow notices blood on Tony's arm and realizes her father has been up to no good.

That episode brilliantly depicts how Tony's criminal activities impinge on his family life in unexpected and troubing ways. Even in idyllic Maine, on vacation with his daughter, Tony can't escape his obligations as a mobster. There are no mid-air collisions, not even a shootout, just one man strangling another while he pleads for his life. Yet the emotional impact of this climax is infinitely greater despite -- or perhaps because of -- its comparative banality.

There were touches of this in ABQ, particularly the storyline about Walt laundering money through Walter Junior's website. Senior's frustration at the relentless ringing of the bell brought to mind Poe's classic short, The Telltale Heart. It also evoked the mute, wheel-chair bound Tio (Ding!) one of my two favorite characters from this season -- the other being Bob Odenkirk's brilliant Saul Goodman. Speaking of Tio and Saul, where the hell were they?

I know, I know. Despite the aforementioned homages, it's not really fair comparing Breaking Bad to the Sopranos, which is one of the very best television shows ever. Still, I rate Breaking Bad among the top two or three shows currently on TV, which is why I'm so fiercely disappointed by this watery deuce of a finale. (Ding!) I haven't been so filled with righteous fury since the anti-climactic conclusion to Season 1 of Heroes.

I just hope this isn't a sign that Breaking Bad has similarly jumped the shark...