Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
(This article was written before the finale. It does not reveal how the series ended.)
The end is never all there is to a journey.
Granted, everyone who loves AMC's Breaking Bad no doubt hopes Sunday's 75-minute finale will bring this sublime series to a fitting, satisfying conclusion. But it's hard to imagine any ending that would be unsatisfying enough to damage the long-term standing of one of the best dramas television has ever produced - short, perhaps, of discovering the entire five-season run was a cancer patient's coma-induced dream. And even that would only tarnish the show's reputation, not destroy it.
What creator Vince Gilligan, star Bryan Cranston, and the entire cast and crew have done is too monumental a TV achievement to be undone by one episode. So it might be beneficial to go into that episode not with reduced expectations, but with reduced demands. Walt is under enough pressure; he doesn't need any more from us.
The scalding brilliance at the heart of Breaking Bad,of course, is that Walt has not just created the crisis that now threatens to engulf him, he deserves it. For the past six years, we've watched this once-mild-mannered chemistry teacher transform himself into a murdering, often merciless drug lord - Mr. Wizard turned Scarface - a man who continually overestimated his own abilities while benefiting from the ineptness of most of his enemies.
Yet now, over seven breathtaking episodes that proved this series is exiting at a creative peak, it's all unraveled: His money stolen by neo-Nazis, his family destroyed, his former partner and protégé enslaved. And it's all his fault.
Clearly, Walt is at the center of this story, but he's only "heroic" if you view Bad as a classic tragedy and Walt as the epitome of the tragic hero: a man with good intentions who is destroyed by hubris. The intention of this dying man was to provide for his family; the hubris was believing he could dabble in crime without becoming a criminal.
What a remarkable descent it has been, so fabulously captured by Cranston - from that early, reluctant, sloppy murder in Jesse's basement to the coldblooded way he sent Jesse (the also-great Aaron Paul) off to be tortured and, he expected, killed. The point is not that crime made Walt evil, or that he was always evil at heart. The moral of this story comes from The Lord of the Flies: We're all capable of hideous things if we cut ourselves loose from civilization's bonds.
Like all of TV's best series, Breaking Bad has been influential, though in this case, the influence has not always been welcome. Too many series (the dire American version of Low Winter Sun being the latest) have copied its flawed central character and its sometimes grotesque violence without copying the skill behind them. Which is to say, too many of these series are not run by Gilligan or performed by Cranston, Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Jesse Plemons and Bob Odenkirk.
Whether that makes Bad TV's best series ever is one of those debates that's fun to entertain but impossible to resolve. How do you compare it to The Wire, for example, when the shows are so different in conception, intent and reach? The Wire is a Dickensian portrait of an entire city and time; Breaking Bad an intimate exploration into the heart of darkness. Let's just be happy we had a series as astoundingly good as Bad and leave it at that.
However it leaves us.