Well, guys, I said I was ready to move on, but everything else is taking too long, so let’s derive one more rule from that “Breaking Bad” finale, shall we?
In later seasons of “The Sopranos”, for instance, you could practically hear David Chase saying to his audience, “I’m not going to wrap things up all neat and tidy for you— what do you think this is, ‘Diff’rent Strokes’?” He let all those awards convince him that he was making “Scenes from a Marriage”, not “The Godfather”.
The gangster genre is synonymous with “rise and fall”, but Chase refused to satisfy those genre cravings because he decided that, no, it was a show about the mobster in all of us, and once he switched to the retribution phase of the story, then the audience would get to divorce themselves from identifying with Tony and suddenly adopt a smug condemnation of him, as if they weren’t enjoying his actions all along.
I sympathize with this concern. It is annoying that audiences get to have it both ways: first getting joy from living vicariously through an antihero’s transgressions, then getting just as much enjoyment from watching those transgression be harshly punished. Chase must have known that Tony’s arrest and trial would make for a great story, but he was unwilling to flip that switch.
But “Breaking Bad” never found itself caught up in that kind of antagonistic relationship with its audience, perhaps because it always put genre first, and drama second. Gilligan knew that Bryan Cranston count inject powerfully-real human emotion into even the most over-the-top situations, so they could continue having fun without losing the gravity.
Even more impressively, Gilligan managed to straddle two genres and totally satisfy both: the Crime Saga and the Western. It’s amazing that the most heartbreaking episode of this critically beloved show still managed to include an old-fashioned desert shoot-out. In fact, Gilligan has made it clear in interviews that the finale was heavily influenced by The Searchers, and it shows.
Rather than chafing under the strain of his genre obligations, as Chase did, Gilligan decided to dance with who brung him and deliver a delightfully pulpy final season, even going so far as to include a great train robbery!
Gilligan cut his audience some slack: we had come with him this far, stuck with his hero though some very alienating periods, and let him put us though a lot of twist-the-knife moral queasiness, and now we had earned a cathartic blaze-of-glory finale. He trusted the earlier darkness to stay with us, long after the catharsis had faded.
In the finale, as in the whole series, he was more than willing to offer a heaping spoonful of genre delights to help the audience swallow a very bitter pill: the show’s bleak diagnosis of America’s sick soul.
* I would say that the only overly-arty episode was “Fly”, about Walt’s allegorical hunt for a fly in his lab, though I know it has big fans.