Complex Conversation: What's the Greatest TV Show of All Time, "The Wire" or "Breaking Bad"?

As AMC's hit drama comes to a close, the question looms large.

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Breaking Bad is a pretty great television show, huh? It's such a great show, in fact, that some people have begun to compare it favorably with The Wire, a.k.a the heretofore more or less universally acknowledged Greatest Show in the History of TV, a.k.a. the GSITHOTV (pronounced "zith-ot-vuh"; the "G" is silent). The similarities are there: Both series consist of five seasons, both focus on crime, specifically drug crime, but both transcend the genre of "crime drama." Of course, the shows are different in many key ways, too: setting, tone, narrative scope.

In the run-up to Breaking Bad's series finale this Sunday, we'll be having a dialogue comparing the two shows. Are you Team The Wire or Team Breaking Bad?

Complex TV lovers Justin Monroe, Ross Scarano, Foster Kamer, Angel DiazInsanul Ahmed, and Julian Kimble have been emailing for days on the subject. Here's the first part of the conversation.

Ross: Does The Wire's relatively weak final season tarnish the show's rep to such a degree that Breaking Bad becomes the champion? How much more important are the peaks each show reached? (For the record, I think The Wire reached higher peaks than Breaking Bad, and am Team The Wire completely.)

At its highest highs, The Wire is more than a TV show, it's a television novel that's able to personify the institutions that define inner-city American living to profound, poignant results. —Insanul Ahmed

Foster: First off, the question of which show's peaks are higher is kind of unfair. Each season of The Wire is basically a self-contained story that fits into a larger worldview. Breaking Bad is one story, and it's careening to one very, very important end. And also, if we're talking peaks, we're talking valleys, and The Wire had its fair share.

That said, I don't think The Wire's final season is weak. I think it just didn't cater to viewer expectations. And those expectations so often conflate climactic endings with greatness. That doesn't need to be the case. It often isn't, and a Big Payoff can be far worse than a "weak" finale.

Insanul: I will say that the final season of The Wire is undoubtedly weak. I always think of that scene where McNulty tells Freamon, "I consider myself a smart guy but even I don't understand this," when discussing their overly complicated wiretap scheme as being one of the most uncharacteristic moments of the show (along with the flashback in the pilot episode). However, much of the flaws of the season are the result of rushing. They had wanted to do 13 episodes, but HBO only put up the money for 10.

That said, Foster's point about The Wire having a "larger worldview" rings totally true. In fact, it's the exact reason why I put The Wire above Breaking Bad, and above every other show. (Alas, if only The Sopranos were able to stick its worldview.) At its highest highs, The Wire is more than a TV show, it's a television novel that's able to personify the institutions that define inner-city American living to profound, poignant results. Using realism and parallelism, the show brought to life characters that are often swept under the rug of American television and American society. Breaking Bad also has a worldview, but certainly one rooted in cartoonish villainy (which Walt's criminal behavior evolves into as time goes by) as opposed to the humanity of The Wire.

You can see a lot of this in the mission statements of each show. Breaking Bad is, as series creator Vince Gilligan has said, about "turning Mr. Chips into Scarface," which is certainly novel and entertaining, but not really an achievement worthy of moral praise. Whereas, as David Simon has said, The Wire became "more of a treatise about institutions and individuals than a straight cop show." Simply put, The Wire just feels more important.

The second season of The Wire—at least the first half—was painful. It was a smart change of pace, sure, but nothing in Breaking Bad lags even remotely like that. —Foster Kamer

Angel: In terms of real issues, The Wire wins. No show has ever captured ghetto life through so many perspectives. And the acting was authentic, especially the kids. They didn't come across as corny, like Jesse and his pals do. However, if we're talking storytelling and entertainment, Breaking Bad has a leg up. Usually HBO series have filler episodes. Breaking Bad has had only a handful of those. Each episode is a ride, and the writers have upped the ante each season. Just look how the finale is setting up. It's going to be 75 minutes of pulse-pounding suspense. But I'm still torn. I loved The Wire because I experienced that life firsthand. And I love Breaking Bad because I slept on it up until this point and can't believe how a show can get better each and every episode and season.

And season two of The Wire was so boring. That holds it back. The Barksdales were but a memory during that season. I wasn't feeling that.

Foster: The second season of The Wire—at least the first half—was painful. It was a smart change of pace, sure, but nothing in Breaking Bad lags even remotely like that. Say what you will about Breaking Bad, but there are virtually zero boring episodes where nothing happens.

What is Breaking Bad about? It's never struck me as the most ambitious show. It's about family, I think, and about empathy, in that you're asked to watch a person become an unrecognizable monster. —Ross Scarano

Ross: I love the second season! I don't know of any other show that's delved into the white working class like that. David Simon's show (and his project at large) is about exploring how people interact with systems, all kinds of systems, whether it's the legal system, the drug trade, public education, etc., and taking a long look at unions was only natural. I don't think there's anything weak about Ziggy's story. Or Sobotka's story. Those are powerful stories that I haven't seen told anywhere else. The final three episodes of season two are some of the strongest the show ever produced, whether you want to talk about writing, directing, acting—whatever. When Ziggy, after a season of fucking up, shoots those two guys and then breaks down in his car? That's some of the best TV I've ever seen. When Sobotka, who you know is fucked, walks into the meeting with the Greeks, where you know he'll be killed? That's powerful TV.

I just watched those episodes over the weekend, preparing for this conversation, and yes, they don't set your pulse to racing. But that's not what The Wire is about. The Wire isn't interested in cliffhangers. When the episode ends with Sobotka walking to the meeting with the Greeks, it isn't about leaving you hanging. It's about leaving you with the sensation of inevitability. The Wire is interested in the possibility of working against the system (and depending on who your parents are, and where you were born, that system could be any number of things). It's about failure and repetition and power, how few of us have it.

Every episode of The Wire ends reliably with some assertion, either vague or implicit, of its overall worldview. Some kind of 'It is what it is' statement that pushes The David Simon Doctrine on viewers yet again. —Foster Kamer

What is Breaking Bad about? It's never struck me as the most ambitious show. It's about family, I think, and about empathy, in that you're asked to watch a person become an unrecognizable monster. This piece from Salon makes the case that the show is a critique of white male privilege, and I sorta buy that, though I think the show has been pretty oblique about this angle.

The Wire is about systems and power, and so it's about America. It's also far more radical in terms of its narrative than Breaking Bad is. The Wire tries to tell a story that isn't fixed around a single protagonist. It's about the entire cast, all these different voices. It embraces a kind of democracy of storytelling. It believes in democracy, and so it believes in the power of many voices. This plays into the leftist politics of the show, strengthens and reflects its ideas and ideals. I think Treme accomplished this to an even greater degree, the move to make a show that isn't driven by one character in particular.

I also don't know what's wrong with slow episodes. (There is not a single episode of The Wire where nothing happens.) I don't think saying that an episode doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat means it's bad. Different stories demand different means of storytelling. Honestly, I don't think it even makes sense to compare The Wire and Breaking Bad. One is pulpy entertainment accomplished at the the highest level possible, with incredible acting and technical prowess that no other show has matched. And the other is asking you to rethink the way you see the institutions that make up this country. I give more weight to the show that does the heavier lifting.

In the best way possible, it doesn't matter what happens in the final episode of Breaking Bad, because the transformation is complete: This character has made its journey.

Foster: The second season of The Wire is far from first time the lives of the white working class have been delved into on television. Let's start with Breaking Bad, whose main character is a high school teacher who has to support his family with a second job at a car wash. And then we could simply draw a line all the way back to All in the Family. Or Married... With Children. Or Good Times. Or The Simpsons. Or Roseanne. Or Shameless.

And you're right, The Wire isn't about cliffhangers. Quite the opposite, in fact: Every episode ends reliably with some assertion, either vague or implicit, of its overall worldview. Some kind of "It is what it is" statement that pushes The David Simon Doctrine on viewers yet again. And you'll never hear me argue against this doctrine—that systems are complicated, and nuanced, and there is no Right Answer—because it's a doctrine that understands wide truths as muddy. It's a journalist's perspective. But it's also, in so many ways, wildly predictable. And say what you will about Breaking Bad, but even when you know what absolutely must happen next, you have no idea how it's going to go down.

As for Breaking Bad's lack of ambition: What? A five-series story about a character starting out great and lovable and becoming terrible has never been attempted on television. If that show is anything, it's ambitious. The Wire is an exercise in over-indulgence (see the point about doctrines above). And this was always my problem with The Sopranos: Tony was a piece of shit! He was a goon. He was a shitty family man and a shitty mobster. But he became this larger-than-life everyman hero to people, somehow, which is why the end of that show felt so vindicating, but also frustrating. On the one hand, Sopranos fans didn't get to see Tony become a martyr for the great life, or live his life out happily. On the other, I wanted to see David Chase make a choice. He didn't. And it's very clear that Vince Gilligan already has made choices.

The sign of a great show—or story—to me isn't necessarily how they've tracked a plot, though. It's about a character making an emotional journey. It's why it didn't matter that they never really explained the island on Lost. We found out why the characters were there, what they had to do, and whether or not they did what they had to do. That's fundamentally the important and compelling part of the story. In the best way possible, it doesn't matter what happens in the final episode of Breaking Bad, because the transformation is complete: This character has made its journey. Now it's a question of how he plans on mitigating all of the damage he's exacted on the world in his final act, which is insanely compelling. I can't think of a final episode that's been more anticipated than this, simply in terms of narrative.

I don't think you can debate the 'importance' of these two shows. They're apples and oranges. —Justin Monroe

Insanul: The difference between The Wire and all the shows you named is that those are comedies. There's a great David Simon quote about how those shows are all essentially making a joke of being poor in America. You look down on those people and tell yourself you're doing well because, unlike Al Bundy, you're not eating a toothpaste sandwich.

(Sidebar: I don't wanna go down the rabbit hole of me talking about The Sopranos or Lost, but I will say the Sopranos finale is perfection and the Lost finale sucks. I definitely didn't watch Lost for the emotional journey.)

Foster: Breaking Bad—not a comedy! Also, if you want a white, working-class drama, you have Downton Abbey. Or Rescue Me. Or Blue Bloods. None of which are really great shows! So, did David Simon make a great white blue-collar drama in the second season of The Wire? Sure. But in the canon of great television, where the bar is raised higher, watching McNulty pitch a fit about his shitty reassignment for half a season felt like a waste of time.

Justin: I don't think you can debate the "importance" of these two shows. They're apples and oranges. The Wire was an ensemble show that focused on universal themes relating to "the human condition" and "a national existentialism," to quote David Simon's pitch to HBO, and Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad honed in on the evolution of a single protagonist "from Mr. Chips to Scarface." It's not to say that there aren't important themes in Breaking Bad, but I think it's obvious that The Wire has greater meaning for society. It illustrates how institutions are destroying individuals. It's not optimistic that change will occur but perhaps it helps to change the way people think and ultimately does make a difference.

Where I see room for debate is in the storytelling and consistency of tone and character. I loved The Wire for four of five seasons. I consider its fourth, school-set season the best, most important 13 episodes of television ever. I had no qualm with the series shifting focus each season because I understood that it was a show about the American city as a whole, not any particular characters therein. From the streets to the docks to the courts and City Hall to the classroom, The Wire expanded its institutional scope each season while never completely abandoning the individuals who'd been crushed by the system previously, and always giving an honest and accurate portrayal of them.

That changed in season five, which dealt with the city's crumbling newspapers and the adverse effect the money crunch was having on the dissemination of information to the public. It was a deeply personal arc for David Simon, who experienced it firsthand as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. In his drive to show how good journalists were were being bought out and important news stories were going unreported because sensationalistic nonsense sold more papers and won more prizes, Simon went off the rails in a plot where a reporter latches on to the story of a non-existent serial killer that Jimmy McNulty fabricates by doctoring old reports and death scenes. Frustrated with the police department's closure of the wire-tapping Major Crimes Unit, McNulty tries to draw attention to homicides and revive the taps by literally taking matters into his own hands, strangling corpses post-mortem to create a pattern. Wise old, equally jaded Lester Freamon eventually joins in to help make the largely unnoticed "serial killings" appear more sensational, adding bite marks with a pair of dentures.

It's not a terrible plot—for another show that wasn't so rooted in reality—but it was an absurd entanglement for the show that everyone considered the realest thing on television, and it ruined the final season for me. Sure, you can argue that it made sense with McNulty's flawed personality, which is spelled out for him during an FBI profile of the fake killer at Quantico. His feeling of superiority, "problem with authority and a deep-seated resentment for those that have impeded his progress professionally" sounds a lot like Walter White, actually. And in fact, the far-fetched storyline feels more in line with Breaking Bad, which has never touted its realism and self-importance. In that regard, Vince Gilligan's show was more consistent from beginning to end. People have criticized the first season of Breaking Bad for being cartoonish and goofy, and relative to the subsequent seasons, which get progressively darker, it is, but that's tonally on point with the mission statement of transforming the protagonist "from Mr. Chips to Scarface." We're now one meth-fueled shootout from Walter White fully realizing that initial pitch Gilligan made to AMC and, while consistently surprised by how events unfolded, I've never once felt like the writers betrayed the character to achieve its ends. I can't say the same for the final season of The Wire.



Part II

Note: This part of the conversation took place on the weekend before the Breaking Bad series finale, and then immediately after "Felina" aired.

Justin: We've debated the consistency and overall importance of The Wire and Breaking Bad, but which show had better characters?

This one is tough. Both Breaking Bad and The Wire featured many well written and highly entertaining characters. (Stringer! Avon! McNulty! Bunk! Marlo! Snoop! Jesse! Saul! Mike! Todd! Flynn's breakfasts!) To me, they even out, although it should be noted that the sprawling ensemble cast of The Wire ultimately created more, but many of them got only occasional shine, whereas the core cast of Breaking Bad had far more development. Among these memorable characters, there were a handful that were unlike any you'd ever seen on television, and I think it's in them that we find an inequality.

On the Breaking Bad side, Walter White went totally against the norms of television with his "Mr. Chips to Scarface" transformation. Who takes a harmless, likable protagonist with admirable motivation and turns him into a detestable, egomaniacal monster? You're not supposed to hate a show's central character! (Note: If you're not at least conflicted in your love of a guy whose ego-driven criminal exploits led to the deaths of women and children, you should probably sit on a therapist's couch ASAP.) But that tug-o-war with Walt, seeing just how bad he could become before he failed to be sympathetic, was part of Gilligan and Cranston's genius. As Foster pointed out in the first part of this debate, the beloved Tony Soprano somehow remained a sympathetic Everyman despite being a scumbag and failure as a father and mob boss. Walt pushed that anti-hero further, in part because we saw him as innocent Mr. Chips first, whereas Tony was a shady character to begin.

As far as villains go, Gus Fring is an all-time great to me, though less revolutionary. In some ways he's not far removed from other bad men in series who have fronts (see: Dexter and its numerous serial killers, Dr. Narcisse on Boardwalk Empire) but the thing that made fried chicken emperor/drug kingpin Gus so remarkable was how well he sold the good guy public persona, with just the hint of something really sociopathic behind his wide smile and pleasantries. His two-faced nature made him the perfect ally/adversary for a character like Walt. (I'm assuming the criminal side was the one that got blown off.)

Before The Wire's Omar Little, nobody had ever used the words "badass" and "gay" to describe a character. Michael K. Williams' corn rowed, trench-wearing, shotgun-toting homosexual stick-up man was a total shock to most viewers when he appeared with his boyfriend Brandon, and so gangster that he eclipsed most of the show's thug element. While whistling! Even people who were uncomfortable with his homosexuality loved him and agreed that he was the baddest motherfucker on the show.

Andre Royo's snitch Bubbles is hands-down the most honest portrayal of a heroin addict ever on TV. There's not an ounce of overacting cliché bullshit to him. I once spoke to Royo about his research for the role and he explained that Fran Boyd, who David Simon and Ed Burns featured in their book-turned-HBO-mini-series The Corner during her struggle with addiction, took him under her wing and introduced him to users. He observed them and listened to their complaints about portrayals of addicts in the entertainment industry and promised them (and especially Fran, to whom he felt indebted) that he would humanize them and not resort to stereotypes. And he did. So perfectly, in fact, that a dealer once mistook him for one of the real-life addicts who frequently walked through the Baltimore set and gave him a packet of heroin because he looked so genuinely strung out. Royo, who never won a single Emmy, let alone the five he deserved, referred to that as his "street Oscar." Praise doesn't come higher than that.

Is it a failure on Breaking Bad's part that Skyler and Marie, the female characters on the show that had more opportunity to develop its small cast, were relatively underdeveloped and powerless props for their husbands? —Justin Monroe

Ultimately I have to give The Wire the nod because of its groundbreaking characters' societal significance. As great and fresh of a narrative construction as anti-hero Walter White is, consistently challenging the audience's sympathy for him with increasingly unsympathetic acts, he doesn't push society to see the humanity in a heroin addict or the masculinity and power in a gay thug for the first time, like Bubbles and Omar did. I think Omar is especially important because he was neither an effete punch line or a confused and deranged serial killer, which were TV's two common visions of what gay men could be.

I've returned to importance, so if anybody wants to just go in on overall entertainment value, by all means do. And what of the women? Is it a failure on Breaking Bad's part that Skyler and Marie, the female characters on the show that had more opportunity to develop its small cast, were relatively underdeveloped and powerless props for their husbands?

After the finale we'll also have to debate better ending. The Wire, though a great show, already loses to The Shield's ending (sus show at times, but a perfect beginning and ending), so I don't anticipate it holding a candle to what I expect will be a soul-shattering finale tonight.

Ross: I agree with you on almost all counts, especially about Omar and Bubbles. A thing I'd like to add about Omar that can be summed up with a single scene. It comes from the end of season two, when Omar confront Brother Mouzone about the horrific killing of Brandon. Mouzone, gut-shot, is bleeding on the floor of his motel room, and Omar is standing above him, ready to finish the job. Explaining why he's about to kill Brother Mouzone, he talks about Brandon. "But see that boy was beautiful," he says, a simple line that Michael K. Williams sells the hell out of by softening his voice for a split second. The Wire deserves more of our praise for letting the character be gay. It's not some secret he carries around, nor is it something the show is skittish about showing. The show doesn't work hard to convince you of the believability of a gay stick-up man. He's just gay. It's a fact. It's like the difference between Brokeback Mountain and A Single Man, to relatively recent films about gay men that attracted attention that went beyond the world of queer cinema. Brokeback spends most of its time convincing you that the love between two cowboys is possible. A Single Man, about a college professor who loses his long-time partner in a car accident, comes from a place where that kind of love is a given. Tellingly, A Single Man was written and directed by a gay man. Brokeback Mountain wasn't.

Which brings me to Gustavo Fring, from Breaking Bad. He's gay too, though the show doesn't get as explicit about it. That's not a knock against the show; I think it handles Gus with respect. I think the fact that he's gay, though, makes him a more novel, remarkable character than Justin is giving him credit for—especially because the show never dwells on it. It only comes up once, in "Hermanos." In a flashback, Gus and his partner, Max, sit by the pool at Don Eladio's, waiting to discuss a business proposition. Hector Salamanca makes a crass entrance by pulling his cock from his pants and urinating in the pool. The aggressively macho gesture is a meant as a confrontation to Gus and Max. Hector wants to paint the pair as weak and feminine because—and the suddenness with which this information comes is remarkable—Gus and Max are gay. He tells them they like the sight of him pissing and he kisses at them. This knowledge informs how torn up Gus is when Max is killed, and why Gus has been tormenting Hector so. Like Omar, Gus wants revenge for his dead lover. His quasi-closeted sexuality adds a layer to the way Gus hides in plain sight, in a well manicured suburban home, one that's conspicuously empty of loved ones.

All of this is to say: The Wire and Breaking Bad did tremendous work creating gay characters who weren't defined by their sexuality, who weren't stereotypes. (Kima and her partner, on The Wire also deserve applause.)

By his final episode, A$AC Schrader was just as fully realized a character as Jesse or Walt. —Ross Scarano

Moving on to the women of Breaking Bad. The way Skyler and Marie have developed is, to me, the biggest strike against the show, hands down. First, Marie. In the first season of Breaking Bad, which, as Justin said, is more "cartoonish and goofy" than the subsequent seasons, both Marie and Hank are broad characters responsible for lots of comic relief. Hank is a DEA agent as high school football coach. He's got his casually racist remarks and larger-than-life stereotypically male traits. Then, in the second season, Hank begins to take on more dimensions. After the exploding tortoise in "Negro y Azul," Hank begins to suffer panic attacks, symptoms of PTSD. I remember watching the scene where he has an attack in an elevator at work and thinking, "What's going on here? Hank is just one of the show's clowns—how am I supposed to buy this?" But it worked. The writers stuck by Hank's condition, developed it over time. When he did something out of left field, like collecting minerals, it was within the context of his struggle with his physical and mental problems. (The way this show never gets maudlin about Hank's struggle to walk or Walt Jr.'s cerebral palsy continues to astonish me. This show handles physical disabilities with real dignity and respect. I can't say enough about that.) The show demonstrated a real interest in his interiority, in his struggles. By his final episode, A$AC Schrader was just as fully realized a character as Jesse or Walt.

I don't think the same can be said of Marie. Up until the final season, the only bones the show has thrown her have been kleptomania and a Joker-like fixation on the color purple. She's a pretty typical TV wife. Which is to say, the show hasn't demonstrated much interest in her life outside of the male characters. We've spent significant amounts of alone time with Walt, with Jesse, with Hank. But how much alone time have we spent with Marie? She had an amazing scene with her therapist this season, but that's as the show is wrapping up. It's too little, too late. Which sucks because Betsy Brandt has been killer this season! She's demonstrating chops I never knew she had! The scene with the shrink, or the one where she confronts Skyler about telling Walt Jr.—holy shit. If makes the show look lousy for not demonstrating more interest in her life beyond reacting to the men around her.

This holds true of Skyler, too. Is there a more concise expression of the show's lack of interest in really digging into Skyler's character than the fact that she's a writer for, like, two episodes of the first season? That felt like the show carelessly inventing backstory for her to facilitate a conversation between her and Marie about drugs. Everyone loves to talk about how obsessed Vince Gilligan and company are with every last detail—then why the hell does Skyler's career as a writer not matter?

In the early seasons of the show, when Walt is honing his skills as a liar and manipulator, how much time do we spend with just Skyler? How much time do we, the viewers, get to spend with just her, or with her and another character, that really lets us feel the full force of the sympathy her shitty situation deserves? We spend so much time with Walt, understand what he's going through, but what about Skyler? For instance, we don't know what it was like for her to give birth to her daughter without her husband there. We don't get that scene. We're with Walt instead. Omissions like that that can feed the trolls. I'm not saying that any of the misogyny from bad fans is justified. All I'm saying is that if the show were interested in developing Skyler, we would have spent more time with her. For a show with such a small cast, it's embarrassing that the two principal female characters would both get the short end of the stick as far as development goes.

Insanul: Wait, Gus was gay?

Ross: Like I said, it's never explicitly stated, but I think there's enough evidence to make it a valid reading of the scene and character.

And then the finale happened.

Foster: That was perfect. And it was perfect in a way no show has ever managed for a series finale except for maybe Six Feet Under. There was just enough closure on all fronts. It did, ultimately, carry moral and philosophical and emotional conclusions in a way where so many other shows have missed the mark. There was not one wasted season. It carried tempo until the end. It was pulse-pounding, and hilarious, and brilliant.

The Wire's great but so full of itself it occasionally competent ceases to be enjoyable at some points. Breaking Bad never does. Breaking wins, Breaking wins, Breaking has won it all.

Ross: It was fine. It was the least surprising episode of Breaking Bad I think I've ever seen. It was so conservative.

Foster: Is a great ending supposed to be surprising? No! Surprising is "Luke, I am your father." Surprise is important for the second act. Tell me about some truly great surprising endings. 

I thought it was great in that it delivered. We live in an era of big opening numbers and big 11 o'clock numbers, but nobody knows how to get the curtain call anymore. This did. 

Justin: As far as finales go, The Wire lost the moment Vince Gilligan started writing Breaking Bad's. I've been vocal about my hatred of David Simon's serial killer plot, and McNulty's handling of a homeless man he's wrapped up in his absurd plot reminds me of this. The final shot of the city of Baltimore (the real protagonist) and McNulty's expulsion from police work for daring to challenge the ineffective institution, that works, but dammit, the fake serial killer nonsense is still there, sticking out at you like David Simon's middle finger. Always gonna feel like a betrayal of the show.

So, Breaking Bad wins this category, but not even by default. I agree with both Foster and Ross. It did feel like a character resolution checklist for Walt, but one that had some significance. He uses his wits to outsmart, outmaneuver, and settle scores with Gretchen and Elliott, Lydia, and the neo-Nazis while also providing for and protecting his family in a way that doesn't demand their gratitude or even acknowledgement. He finally balances selflessness and his personal fulfillment. The scene with Skyler is key because he owns up to his role in the destruction of their family and admits that cooking meth made him feel accomplished and alive, but doesn't ask for forgiveness, and walks away from Flynn knowing that he will remain a villain in his son's sad eyes. It doesn't matter, because he's looked out for him and raised a son who will do better than him.

Jesse and Walt's conclusion worked well for me. It was the literal and figurative breaking of chains that had bound Jesse since Walt first blackmailed him into helping him into the meth business. And like Skyler, you have no certainty that Jesse's life will be roses. But there's a release from the prison Walt locked them in, and where they go now is up to them, not his manipulations.

Walt ends the show a ghost of a human, moving in and out of spaces, none of them places he's actually allowed to be. —Foster Kamer

Ross: Is it a little gross that Walt gets everything he wants and goes out smiling? Why should we win in such an uncomplicated fashion? The episode is curiously devoid of suffering. What's up with Brock? How is Lydia's daughter doing? She's gonna pretty sad when discovers her mother's corpse.

For a show that can elicit such complicated reactions and has walked through such thorny territory (see: the phone call in "Ozymandias") this felt so simple. Too simple. Walt as lone cowboy, a real genius. I felt lukewarm when the episode ended. If this is what a "satisfying" finale feels like, maybe I don't want that.

Foster: In what world did Walt get everything he wanted? And how is it uncomplicated? By the end of the show, he's not allowed to use the strongest weapon in his arsenal: His lies. Because everyone—including the people that should inherently believe him the most—thinks he's full of it. They'll barely believe him when he's telling the truth (like when he tries to explain to Junior that he didn't kill Hank). And Junior will live on thinking his father killed Hank. He ends the show a ghost of a human, moving in and out of spaces, none of them places he's actually allowed to be. He's expelled from the universe in all but body, and forced to confront the truth: That all of this wasn't for his family, it wasn't even for nothing. It was for something worse than nothing: Himself. And he got it, and it destroyed everything. The best thing he gets is safety for his family from Lydia and the Nazis, and Walt Jr. gets some money, sure, but it's from the people Walt despised the most. We don't know where Jesse goes, we just know that he's free. Do you want to know where Jesse goes? Or what happens to Brock? Or Lydia's daughter? Because I don't. This episode served as a reminder, more than anything, about what this man was capable of. And that he remained capable of it—despite that diminished arsenal—until the very end, part of why we watched the show to begin with. That doesn't mean the results will be great, but they will be big.

Finally, "satisfying" at the end of a television series isn't a binary proposition, especially where it relates to closure. Talk to Lost fans about closure (and they'll tell you to die). Talk to most of the Sopranos mook fans about a lack of closure (and they'll tell you to die). Talk to Six Feet Under fans about closure—and closure of the most explicit, transparent, no-questions-left-unanswered type of closure—and they'll tell you how ultimately satisfying and memorable it was. On that note, this idea that "satisfying" is a term worthy of scare-quotes is an elitist proposition and a grass-is-greener vantage point of television snobbery.

Ross: So if there is this awul confrontation, how does this show end with Walt smiling? I understand that he's this ghost, but the show repeatedly plays that position for laughs! You don't feel a crushing sense of desperation (except with Flynn), you get smugness and sight gags! And, also, he lies to Elliott and Gretchen pretty well, thanks to his mastermind scheme with Badger and Skinny Pete.

Walt's actions have never been without repurcussions. He watches Jane die, and not only do you see her father's devastation, two fucking planes crash into each other and human remains and debris rain down on an entire city. And yet here he proceeds with something like impunity.

I liked "Felina" fine. I think "Ozymandias" would have made for a more interesting and exciting finale. That's the show at its best.

Justin: It did lack the surprise of some recents episodes but think about what would have surprised you and whether that's a better statement for the show to make. Nazis kill Walt's family? Jesse or Walt kills the other? It all was a dream in Fergie's meth pipe?

I don't think Walt gets off easy or gets what he wants. He salvages something of himself in providing for his fam and eliminating the threat to them, freeing Jesse, and giving Marie the closure of a body. He doesn't get recognition for these redeeming acts. It's self-satisfaction at best, but tempered by his having lost his family for his selfish acts. He dies still the monster. His son will think of him like that. His daughter (Holly has more heartbreaking moments per ep late on than anyone) will know stories of him and probably think he was the devil. That smile on his face in the lab as he bleeds out is not triumphant. I think it's a genius manipulative control freak who lost control completely fondly remembering a time and place where he was master of his universe. The lab was where he made history and was a god. And then he dies. Alone. He's not smiling about that.

Julian: Where other finales have closed stories through deus ex machina (Entourage) or borderline infuriating trolling (The Sopranos), Breaking Bad delivered the perfect send-off. In two years, Walter White made $80 million, yet lost everything dear to him. He knows that he's ruined several lives, including his own, and "Felina" was his day of atonement. He established some type of closure with a terrified Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz (really Elliot, a butter knife?); he finally came clean to Skyler, admitting that he transformed into a villain for himself and enjoyed every minute of it; and he slaughtered the neo-Nazis who stole the bulk of his money. In the process, he literally and figuratively freed Jesse, his pawn of a surrogate son. Breaking Bad was about a dying man doing all of the wrong things to take care of his family before he left this planet. It was fitting that he died—unrecognizable, albeit—after tying up his loose ends. The feds never "caught," him either.

On a small scale, Walter White's death represented the death of an archetypal television character: the anti-hero. For over a decade, television audiences have enjoyed the often terrible exploits of Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Don Draper, and Walter White. These characters are horrendously flawed, yet we root for them because their complexities humanize their atrocious behavior—to an extent. Audiences have grown tired of these characters because, as much as they love their stories, these stories have been done to death. It's been one hell of a ride, but it's time for something new. "Felina" proved that time is all but up for these dudes. Draper, you're next.


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