Given how much—well, pleasure, might not be the right word—excellence he’s given us over the past five years, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan is probably entitled to heighten our anticipation as the show heads into its final eight episodes this summer. Yesterday, he gave the Daily Beast the first sense we’ll probably get of what the finale might be like:
“Anyone anxious that there won’t be resolution enough at the end of these eight episodes can rest assured that the story very much reaches resolution,” Gilligan said Monday in his most extensive comments on the Breaking Bad finale to date. “It will not end in any kind of open-ended sense.”
Speaking from Los Angeles, where he was busy editing the final batch of episodes—”We’re about halfway through,” he explained—Gilligan struggled to “say something of substance” about the end of Breaking Bad without “giving anything away.” After much hemming and hawing, he finally settled on a single word to describe the finale: “victorious.”
“I’ll say this much,” Gilligan began. “I’m surprised by how victorious, in a certain sense, the ending feels to me.”
Obviously that’s not much to go on. But victory isn’t an uncommon emotion to Breaking Bad—it’s just that what those victories mean in the context of the show has changed over the years. When Walter White, the show’s chem-teacher-turned-meth cook survived his initial encounters with the violent criminals who run the Albuquerque-area drug trade, it was easy to root for him over them, and to be relieved that he was still alive to build his legacy for his family, and to hope that once he’d done his share of damage to public health and safety, he’d retire to a more decent end of his life. But as Walt’s own sense of right and wrong let him do things like watch an addict choke to death on her own vomit, it was harder to root for him relative to other characters on the show. By the time he blew Gus Fring, his boss in the meth business, to high heaven at the end of the fourth season, and was revealed to have poisoned a small child, the impressiveness of Walt’s technical prowess and the means to which he put it were no longer in alignment. It was easier to root for Gus, a man who had no compunction about slitting an employee’s throat with a box cutter or poisoning an entire cartel, than for the disappointed family man in the tighty whities.
So what would a victorious end to Breaking Bad look like. It could end in Walter White’s triumph and our utter despair. Though if that were the case, we wouldn’t have gotten Walt alone on his birthday making numbers out of bacon and a gun in the trunk of his car his only present. And the ending of last season, in which Walt sits back to launder his millions and throw family barbecues, his browbeaten wife reconciled to him, his son and daughter home might have been the place to stop, with a searing portrait of the rot that underlies his particular American dream, might have been the better place to stop. But it might also be too simple for Breaking Bad to turn out to be a classic morality tale told from the perspective of the villain rather than an anti-hero drama, and for Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, to put him away or put him down. Death in a gun battle seems too fair for Walter White, and time to reflect on his megalomania in jail seems unlikely—under those circumstances, it seems like Walt might use his technical prowess to hack the prison and let Heisnberg rule over his fellow inmates, rather than recognize the enormity of his crimes. Maybe Walt will win by losing, his cancer coming back and denying anyone the satisfaction of imprisoning him or fully unraveling his schemes.
And the truth is at this point, Walter White’s victory over both his physical disease and the corruption of his ego don’t matter very much to me. Real triumph to me would be Jesse Pinkman finding a way to make a live with Andrea and Brock, having taken away from his time with both Walt and Mike that he has actual capacities, and finding a role for himself as something other than predator or prey. Victory would be Skyler White finding a way to make good, to protect her family, and in some way make recompense to Ted, her boss, who ended up crippled by Skyler’s fling with criminality. It might even be Marie and Hank finding a way to have a child after years of infertility, or Holly, Walt and Skyler’s daughter, growing up safe and under circumstances where she sees Scarface at an appropriate age. If the true source of Walter White’s criminality isn’t cancer but a need for greatness, maybe happy normality is the real victory.