Warning: The following article contains several large spoilers.
I’ve spent the past year convincing most of my family/friends/anyone I meet that Breaking Bad is the closest that television as a medium will ever come to Shakespeare. And yes, I received a lot of ambivalent stares, bewildered faces, and half-hearted nods. But I was convinced. “Just wait until the end,” I would say when met with any face that wasn’t enthusiastic agreement, “you’ll see what I mean.”
For those patient enough to hear my extended monologue, I would tell them that two of the central aspects of the show directly mirror Shakespearean tragedy: the structure of the show’s dramatic arc and the driving force of its main character’s personality.
After Sunday’s series finale, I still stand by my argument. Yet, in true Breaking Bad fashion, the complete sequence was much more complicated than any one could have guessed.
The structural parallels seemed relatively simple. Five seasons paralleled five acts, each of which propelled the story into a new chapter where destruction and tragedy appeared imminent. As others have pointed out, the show even operated its own clockwork universe that caused us to ignore, if not willingly accept, the stranger aspects of its plot. For a TV show, that singlehandedly made Breaking Bad revolutionary.
And then there was the character of Walter White, whose unbridled ambition and narcissism directly channeled the likes of King Lear, Macbeth, or Richard III. His ascension to the top of the criminal underworld and his complete transformation from mild chemistry teacher to ruthless murderer made Breaking Bad one of the best character studies to ever grace television screens.
It became clear a long time ago that Walter White would die. It was just a matter of how. The final episodes seemed to reaffirm my suspicions. All of Walt’s lies would come crashing down, his sins would be avenged, and everything that he built would evaporate. That moral arc and its karmic inevitability propelled the show. We may be sympathetic to Walter and repulsed by him in turn, but we knew that it would all eventually end. And we assumed that it would end badly.
In the hours following the finale, however, my news feed revealed a mixture of contentment and relief. Breaking Bad ended happily, as much as it could have anyway. Walt’s children will get his money. He destroyed the neo-Nazis that enslaved Jesse, killed Hank, and continued cooking his product. He even won a small victory over Elliot Schwartz, simultaneously emasculating and manipulating his incredibly wealthy former partner. It was not the tragedy that we had expected.
Yes, Walter White died. But he ended the show on his own terms, having defeated everyone around him and accomplishing his own goals. In this way, the finale resembled more of the show’s first episodes rather than the ones directly preceding it. Granted, he was not the same person who cried while having to strangle Crazy 8 (which is partly why Jesse being able to strangle Todd was so significant), but he was not Heisenberg either.
Like the beginning, Walter White was defeated by fate and, like the beginning, he became the underdog we could root for. The climax of the episode, a final moment of action-movie awesomeness in a series of action-movie awesomeness, resembled Walt’s confrontation with Tuco at the end of the first season rather than his confrontation with Gus Fring at the end of the fourth.
The reversion of Walt’s character to these initial episodes came from a significant break the show made with the typical protagonist in a tragedy. Character flaws are usually the protagonist’s undoing and the final act demonstrates the ways in which those flaws destroy the character.
For Walter White, that happened two episodes ago. The protagonist of the finale was someone who had already come to terms with his own flaws, who had accepted that he did everything for himself and not his family. His character traits had destroyed him, yes, but he would dictate how they destroyed him.
Walt’s agency in the finale changed the structure of the last two episodes and broke the Shakespearean expectations I had hoped for in the conclusion. And that may actually be one of the finale’s greatest strengths. It surprised all of the many predictions in the past few weeks and changed our expectations of what could possibly occur. It made us once again feel like we could sympathize with, or at the very least feel happy for, Walter White.
That would also explain the conflicting emotions and uneasiness that accompanied the finale. After all, there was very little focus on anyone but Walter White, whether his family or his victims (the closest we got was the satisfaction of Jesse finally breaking free).
In the end, we too were forced to accept the ending on Walt’s own terms. Like all tragedies, he was finally defeated but, in true Walter White fashion, he still got the last word.
Raul P. Quintana ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House.