The Breaking Bad Backlash begins 60 hours from now and, if you listen very hard, you can hear the stirrings already, through the fever pitch of the phenomenon that the show has become and the nearly desperate anticipation surrounding this Sunday’s series finale. Mere ratings can’t capture an intensity that’s beyond quantifying by even (or especially) a stickler for precision like high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-maestro Walter White; no conclusion since The Sopranos’ infamous cut to black has attracted this much zealous attention. If you haven’t seen a single episode of the show, odds are you know nearly as much about it as you do about shows of which you’ve witnessed every single inconsequential second, because for the last month the unhinged around you won’t shut the hell up about it.
It would be kind of cool, and maybe even healthy, to start the backlash here but I can’t, because I’m convinced that White, as played by Bryan Cranston, is the greatest lead character in television drama ever. Breaking Bad’s achievement of psychology over plot is a rarity on television even at its best, and while “arc” may be the most overused word in visual storytelling, including by people who don’t know an arc from a boomerang, this is TV’s arc of triumph, which accounts for a viewer passion that’s 96 percent blue ice and the stuff of untamed addictions. I entirely take my friend Tom Carson’s point, expressed on this site a few weeks back, that White is a dinosaur and the figure who finally will exhaust the current vogue for antiheroes, and not only has Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan taken the point as well but he’s run with it and made it the show’s unspoken agenda: What antihero, on TV or anywhere else, can possibly follow a hero so anti that any heroism left is only our collective delusion? Week in and week out over the course of five seasons the show has challenged our need for something redeemable about White, and the only suspense left for the finale to resolve has less to do with him than with us: Will the show grant to White the slightest absolution, and will we be able to stand it if it doesn’t?
Of course I root for absolution, but then I’m a cheap sentimentalist who nonetheless harbors a gnawing dread. Last year at the San Diego ComicCon where I took my teenager (with whom I bond over Breaking Bad like other dads and sons do over baseball), Gilligan and the show’s cast convened before an overflow crowd that posed quandaries of existential ethics like: When did White cross the line? At what point did the break to bad become irreparable? Even as some arguments raged for earlier moments of damnation, everyone agreed a moral rubicon was reached at the end of the second season when White passively watched the girlfriend of partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman choke on her own vomit. Gilligan, however, was having none of it: Walter, he maintained, had gone wrong from the get-go. If that is so, he did it without utterly nullifying his humanity and, with it, our sympathies.
This past Sunday, watching a lonely and dying White listen to the fury of his son on the other end of the telephone line or offer a near-stranger $10,000 to play cards with him for an hour, you still could feel badly for him. Two Sundays ago, when White offered to sacrifice the entire fortune he’s made from his drug empire in order to save the life of the brother-in-law turned arch-nemesis, only to coldly doom Jesse moments later—tossing in the revelation about the girlfriend’s death for good measure—both the mercy and the ruthlessness were borne out by everything we’ve learned about White before. Return to the series’ opening chapters and the seeds of disappointment, resentment, and thwarted ego that account for White’s outrageous transformation already are there, even as these baser drives continue to coexist with a persuasive desire by Walt to protect his family, whatever else about Walt might also be true. All great characters, in TV or movies or theater or fiction, are distinguished by profound contradictions that we believe in, and Breaking Bad’s coup is the extent to which White has earned his arc. The show has remained so true to its own original conception as to leave even loose ends (a sister-in-law’s kleptomania, for instance) in the dust of memory.
The finale, then, may be destined to underwhelm not just because of expectations outside all reasonable calibration but because the show’s integrity won’t let it do otherwise. Many still consider The Sopranos’ climax an example of how a great show can drop the ball—even as others of us found it fitting and audacious, and can’t imagine an alternate conclusion that wouldn’t have been cheesy in comparison—and speculation has run so rampant about the various prospective endgames for Breaking Bad that some in the audience will only be satisfied by some wild twist for its own sake. Nothing Gilligan has done so far indicates such a contrivance is in store. The only outcome really in question isn’t White’s but that of Jesse who has matched Walt’s descent with his emergence as the show’s conscience, albeit with blood all over his hands. The narrative trajectories appears so set that at this point it almost would be silly if that arsenal in White’s trunk is for anyone other than Todd and his Uncle Jack’s neo-Nazis; surely that ricin capsule has Walt’s own name on it, since shooting Todd or Lydia would be easier than shoving a pill down their throats; and White’s survival would rob the show of tragic grandeur, which is the best we’re likely to get when salvation seems off the table. Come Sunday night the lurking backlash may be the One That Knocks, but Walter White is now on our side of the door.