On the eve of its finale, can we call Breaking Bad the greatest series television has ever produced?
The New Yorker deconstructs it. Jimmy Fallon devotes 13 minutes of his show to an elaborate (and spot-on) parody of it.
Of course, other finales -- from The Sopranos to Seinfeld to M*A*S*H -- have occasioned mass pop cultural analysis.
But if you define "great" as something that's never been done before, then I have to agree.
Television has always had one clear advantage over movies, in that it offers the breathing room to create a believable character arc -- in the case of Walt (Heisenberg) White, from meek, mundane chemistry teacher to sociopathic meth kingpin. No way you could realistically pull that off in a two-hour movie.
But in 60 years, that advantage has hardly been used by the medium. In even the longest-running series, characters have tended to stay the same, or be reinforced. Mary Richards went from an insecure associate producer at WGM news to a self-assured producer. After 13 years, Hawkeye Pierce was still a wise-cracking -- albeit much more emotionally-wounded -- "meatball surgeon" who hated that damn war.
And when there has been a sizable personality shift in a TV series, it's usually taken the form of softening -- the result, no doubt, of network "notes."
In All In The Family, Archie's bigotry was practically sandpapered over the years, to the point where he ended up co-owning Kelsey's bar with a Jewish business partner. In Cheers, Sam Malone's thoughtless womanizing morphed into wounded-puppy sensitivity.
Even in the Golden Cable era, this much of a seismic shift is unheard of. Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson was already a bad boy before he became a big-time gangster. Dexter was as he always was, only saddled with more self-doubt. And years of psychiatry didn't essentially change Tony Soprano.
But Breaking Bad had the temerity to tackle big ideas about human behaviour, and plumb them to a depth you may never experience this side of a university humanities class.
That everybody has the capacity for good or evil isn't a new idea -- from Lord of The Flies to the Bible. But there's a paucity of explanations for how that happens, most of them simplistic (demon possession, the absence or failure of authority to stop us from acting on our natural, sinful impulses, etc.).
But Walt's journey explores this simple fact. We all think we are basically good people. The "bad guys" probably cling to this belief harder than the good guys. As Jeff Goldblum's character in The Big Chill said, -- proving his supposition that rationalizations are more important than sex -- "Have you ever gone two weeks without a rationalization?"
So when Jesse first dangled in Walt's face the idea of cooking meth, Walt had a built-in rationalization: his family. He'd gotten bad breaks (cancer, an erstwhile research partner who'd become rich stealing his work, etc.), and he deserved the money cooking meth would bring in. It would pay for his cancer treatments, and if worse came to worse, leave his family taken care of financially upon his death.
Somewhere between that and an $80-million stash of blood money buried in the desert, the notion that he was doing it for his family got stretched and bent like a polymer fiber molecule.
Jesse's girlfriend ODs while Walt watches? A small price to pay for the greater good. Poisoning a child? Ditto. A plane crashes as an indirect result of the human wreckage he'd left behind? What part of, "I'm doing it for my family!" don't you understand?
It was an all-purpose get-out-of-karma-free card - one that even Skyler was willing to embrace when Walt found his options for deceiving her had run out. She was willing to betray her sister, look the other way on Hank's shooting, and take full charge of the car-wash/money-laundering operation -- all on the vague justification that she and Walt were doing it for their family.
Then there was the shocking third-last episode, Ozymandias (I'm willing to bet this is the first time Percy Bysshe Shelley has ever trended this strongly on Google -- wherever they are, Lord Byron must be fuming with jealousy).
There we finally saw Walt's self-justifying construct come crashing down. He desperately used the "he's family" card in vain to try to convince his new neo-Nazi drug partners to spare Hank's life.
What followed was emotionally harrowing, from Skyler's confession to Walt Jr. of the truth about his dad. To Walt's violent confrontation at home, to the kidnapping of his baby daughter, to the deranged phone message he left Skyler (and even that, some suggest, was actually Walt's devious way of washing his family of his sins, giving Skyler plausible deniability as the police listened in).
And even then, in Walt's mind, he bore no guilt. The blame now shifted to Jesse, whose death he demanded (and whose character's arc -- from gangsta to morally-haunted prisoner-of-conscience -- was positioned nicely opposite Walt's throughout).
By last week's What's In A Name, he had zeroed in on two new enemies who deserved to die -- Todd and his Aryan buddies, and the Schwartzes, who'd gone on Charlie Rose to deny Walt ever invented anything.
The good guys think they're good guys. The bad guys think they're good guys. If you take a poll, there are no bad guys at all.
It's a concept that clashes with everything we were taught in Sunday school. Or on TV, before now.
Other famous TV show endings
Turned out Larry, Darryl and Darryl were all a dream. Bob woke up in his old sitcom The Bob Newhart Show, in bed with Emily (Suzanne Pleshette).
Yeah, the screen went blank. You got a problem with that? (Actually, I've come to appreciate the permission to make up our own ending.)
You know what? Having them all go to jail was actually a very Seinfeldian thing to do.
Six Feet Under
Everybody dies, and we find out when and how (some violently, some in bed). A poetic finish that underscored the show's theme beautifully.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Everyone is laid off but Ted -- the one guy who should have been (Lou once tried to fire him with a note, and he read it as, "You're fried."). Just how layoffs tend to go down in real life.Follow @JamShowbiz