‘Breaking Bad’ And What Happens When Shows Try To Talk Back To Their Fans


Credit: AMC

I am, as I suspect many of you are, struggling with the series finale of Breaking Bad, an episode of television that’s shrunk for me in the days that followed its airdate, and has, to a certain extent, shrunk the reputation of its series along with it. So I got together with Rolling Stone‘s Sean Collins to try to suss out exactly what it was about the episode that didn’t precisely work for us:

For me, the end of Breaking Bad got incredibly caught up in the question of whether Vince Gilligan sided with fans who thought Walt was a badass, whether he believed that Walt was a monster, or whether he was making an argument about the ability of even the worst people to repent and be somewhat redeemed. Ultimately, what matters to me more than Gilligan’s ultimate alignment is the fact that his vision was less clear to me than the debates about what his point might possibly be. It can be fascinating when a show gets into a conversation with its fan base, but when that conversation swamps whatever the creator is actually trying to say, I worry, a little.

Prestige television’s caught in an interesting place right now. Shows like The Sopranos and The Wire get compared to novels, which are unitary works of art, completed and locked in place before audiences actually get a chance to see and respond to them. Authors of series may grow from book to book, but there are fewer installments for them to write, and fewer chances for readers to convince them to try to make particular changes or to go in particular directions. And the need for television shows to pull in more and more viewers to make themselves sustainable encourages creators and talent to be significantly available to fans, whether they’re answering questions on twitter, hanging out on one of AMC’s after-the-episode chat shows, or explaining themselves at length in the entertainment press. In other words, television is caught: it’s expected to have the unity of vision and long-range planning of novels while also being in conversation with fans’ expectations, correcting course, and tweaking the argument along the way.

Technically, these ideals can go together if a creator has a strong vision and is willing to try to nudge viewers towards it. Sean and I talked a great deal about the way David Chase’s conversation with fans of The Sopranos seemed to be a clearer one than Vince Gilligan’s dialogue with Breaking Bad fans. For Chase, there was a wrong way to watch his show, and he tried over and over again to make that clear, whether he was giving Tony selfish fits of pique, having him menace and humiliate Carmela, or through the in-show conceit of the mob slasher movie Cleaver, which held up an uncomfortable mirror to both Tony himself and to fans who wanted to believe they were watching more than mob action pornography (of course, there were fans who didn’t care that they were watching that).

The final run of Breaking Bad, by contrast, seems to suggest that there’s no wrong way to interpret the ending: there’s something there for people who think Walt’s a misogynist, who think Walt’s a hero, who think that Walt’s a failed man who really cares about his family, who think he was never fully appreciated by his ungrateful wife and son, who are really in it for the machine gun contraptions and train robberies. Gilligan’s statements after the fact, in which he’s said both that Walt isn’t actually redeemable and that Walt went out as a man, are equally intended to keep the show pleasurable to everyone on whichever terms they choose to see it.

Ambiguity can be good for art. And it can be enormously pleasurable to watch a television show grow into itself as writers find their groove and work themselves out of challenges they created for themselves, finding surprisingly elegant solutions along the way. It’s a process that isn’t really available in any other medium, and it’s part of what makes television special. But while Breaking Bad is a masterpiece in a number of ways–Sean and I talk at length about the show’s visual mastery, which should raise the bar for all television to come afterwards, and the remarkable performances of its stars–the finale left me feeling like like all of the show’s growth had sort of fizzled out. Despite the definitive nature of Walter White’s death (though of course, there are people speculating that the police saved him), Breaking Bad feels morally inconclusive, but in a way that’s left each side dug deep in our trenches, unable to wage a decisive battle, or even hold a kind of televisual Christmas Truce.