The legacy of Breaking Bad five or 10 years down the road will be debated for the next 5-10 years. But in the short term, Breaking Bad has not only gone alongside TV’s all-time great dramas, it exposed the limits of several present day drama hits. However, when the show threw off the curve for so many of Heisenberg’s current rivals, it may have also came back around in its own finale.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The first obvious casualty to the greatness of Breaking Bad’s final episodes was Dexter. While that show about a murderous antihero in plain sight had its share of critics, a rebuilding season last year and a promising start to its final stretch suggested a big finish ahead anyway. But after the first four episodes, Dexter settled back into a pat status quo – and then the minute Breaking Bad shattered theirs in its final half-season premiere, all was lost.
The more uncompromising and punishing Breaking Bad became as Walt’s empire collapsed, the worse Dexter looked for not having similar guts in its end game. Nevertheless, this wasn’t the first time Dexter chose to play it safe rather than risk it all – a funny thing for a show about a heroic serial killer to do. But as Breaking Bad showed more and more fearlessness in having the sins of the past come crashing down, it permanently proved how Dexter may have never had that ambition all along.
Given how poorly received Dexter’s final season and episode was, it may have been exposed either way. Yet the damage might have been better contained had it all unfolded in the fall, like most Dexter seasons. To air such a lacking ending alongside one like Breaking Bad’s was practically suicide – and if the Dexter masterminds didn’t take that into account then, they will never be allowed to forget it now.
Dexter isn’t the only Showtime show that’s failed where Breaking Bad succeeded, however. Homeland had a meteoric rise in winning the Emmy for its first season, and for the acclaim of its first five episodes in Season Two. But like this past season of Dexter, Homeland wasted its big start last year by stretching its plot too thin. However, many would argue that its big mistake was keeping soldier-turned-terrorist-turned-spy-turned-wanted man Nicholas Brody alive time and again.
Homeland isn’t the only show to get more implausible and less suspenseful in keeping a main character alive. In fact, when Brody was spared at the end of Season One, it didn’t look like a fatal mistake. And given that Breaking Bad might have killed off Jesse Pinkman if the writers strike hadn’t halted their first season, there is a case that keeping characters alive works.
But the end of Season Two showed that Homeland might have benefited from cutting the cord with Brody, and having the bravery to shake things up. As such, if they keep finding new ways to spare him in Season Three, the Dexter comparisons will begin in earnest. The show that Breaking Bad became wouldn’t have been so afraid to shake its foundations, or at least didn’t appear to be – leaving aside how only Hank Schrader met an inevitable end among the main cast before the finale.
Another show that can’t cut the cord of a character who’s past his prime is Sons of Anarchy. Two seasons ago, it had the chance to bring the power struggle between Jax Teller and old, increasingly sadistic Clay Morrow to a bloody, Shakespearian end and change its game. Instead, it implemented highly debatable twists as an excuse to keep him alive, and is still doing so even now in its next-to-last season. Although Sons hasn’t been shy in killing important supporting characters, its inability to shake up its core has diluted its impact – and this is a show that’s featured school shootings and people getting burned alive.
If Breaking Bad worked like Homeland and Sons, Gus Fring would have been spared instead of killed off so memorably. If it was that determined to keep the status quo, Walt would never have broken as bad as he did. And if it felt a need to drag things out like those shows, Walt and Hank’s final showdown wouldn’t have started right at the beginning of the last eight episodes. So many viewers were stunned it happened so soon – which speaks to the low expectations that even top-tier television has conditioned in us.
The last stretch of Breaking Bad redefined epic television, showed how to make years of horror pay off in brutal fashion, and made most other epic dramas small by comparison. Game of Thrones is the only other show that comes close to doing the same, but its twists were written years ago in book form, for a much less coddled audience.
For the rest of television’s elite and aspiring newcomers, the shadow of Breaking Bad is going to be too big for a while. The likes of Boardwalk Empire, Ray Donovan, Low Winter Sun, True Blood, and even Mad Men in its recent repetitive episodes have also suffered for not aiming higher. For the foreseeable future, whenever a hit show comes to an end or tries and fails to shake things up, it will either have to match Breaking Bad’s finale bar or risk looking pretty bad by failing – or not even trying.
However, this is a bar that not even Breaking Bad itself matched in its own finale. At least not for everyone.
Not only did it set the standard too high for others in its first seven final episodes, it gave its own finale impossible standards. To many, “Felina” matched those standards on Sunday, Sept. 29 – at least more than the finales of Dexter, Lost, The Sopranos and Battlestar: Galactica did.
Yet there was a small but noticeable undercurrent of dissatisfaction, both with how neat and tidy everything wrapped up – and how Walter White stopped being punished in terrible ways for his terrible deeds. In fact, one could say that Dexter suffered a harsher fate in his final hour than Walt did, although it was still 100 times sillier and more insulting.
The last three episodes before the Breaking Bad finale poured salt in Walt’s every festering, six-year-long wound, and that of all those around him. As such, it was easy to expect one or two final horrific punishments, or one or two new terrible sins for Walt to commit on his way out. Instead, he was allowed to end everything on his own terms – even his own self-inflicted death – in a way that not everyone believed he should have gotten to. Certainly, if the last episode was like those before it, he would never have gotten the chance.
This may be what comes from setting the curve way too high for other dramas – it also set the curve too high for Breaking Bad itself. While the previous seven episodes and five years built too much good will for the finale to alter – unlike other legendary shows, apparently – there will now be a lingering debate on whether the show finally went soft in the last 75 minutes. Soft is relative by Breaking Bad standards, yet the fact that the finale was anything resembling soft on Walt left the door open.
Walt rose to power with the most chemically pure product the West had ever seen. Likewise, Breaking Bad rose to power with a show that got more pure – and nightmare inducing – as it went along, in a way that only the elite in TV history have done for their entire run. What’s more, it made the inadequacies of so many inferior products – or products that wouldn’t let itself break bad enough – harder to ignore, and it should stay that way until another Breaking Bad comes along. Or until the final season of Mad Men starts.
But the criticism of the finale, and the ways it left itself open to it – in ways that its previous episodes didn’t – showed how even Breaking Bad was victimized by its own high standard. For a show that had relentlessly showed how Walt’s own pursuit of brutal success came back around on him, it is a fitting and ironic final twist.
However, Breaking Bad and Walt should ultimately survive this even after their deaths – while the contemporary shows and characters that are still alive have to try even harder to chase the blue dragon. Assuming they were that ambitious and willing all along.