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The finale of a television series, much like the last pages of a book, is at best a bittersweet affair.  There’s a lot at stake for the ardent fan, she who stands at the precipice of that crowning dramatic cliff from which her beloved characters have been poised to plunge since the penultimate episode a week prior.  There is the issue of tying up plot lines, of course, of addressing the questions that have been percolating at the back of the viewer’s mind since as early as the first season, and the worry that the answer to some burning curiosity will fall through the cracks — but with the two latent jaw-dropping revelations already out in the open between Walt and Jesse, and the show’s timeline finally caught up (early in this final episode) to the teasing flash-forwards from the Season 5 premiere and mid-season premiere, the only threads left dangling at the start of the 75-minute conclusion involve the fates of the main characters themselves (as well as Walt’s legacy in the meth business, although at this point that might be considered a character, or at least intrinsically linked to the fate of Heisenberg).  Although a more character- and less drama-centric approach (bear with me — a lot happened, yes, but I’d argue nothing more than what needed to occur to deliver the characters to the ends of their arcs) proved a recipe for somewhat less of an emotionally harrowing experience than some fans might have expected, it was a fitting end to a series whose character trajectories have swept wider than the trans-formative tales of some mythic heroes.

Breaking Bad concludes on a solid, clear-cut note — rightly rewarding viewers, who have hung on from cliffhanger to cruel cliffhanger for five years, with unambiguous resolution — but, especially notable in a series celebrated for its unflagging ability to leave viewers literally open-mouthed, “Felina” manages to fall slightly flat in terms of story-line.  A friend and fellow fan put his finger on the element that I hadn’t even realized I was anticipating, but the absence of which left me feeling slightly disappointed: “Nobody died who wasn’t supposed to.”  My friends and I argued for weeks over the possibilities and intricacies of Walter, Jesse, Skyler, even Huell’s fates — I, personally, threatened an extremely violent reaction were Jesse not to live — but the truth is, none of us would have been surprised at the death of any (or all) of the main cast, or at least those with dirt (or, more likely, blood) on their hands.  This is the reason Gus Fring’s death, while certainly one of the more shocking moments in the series, didn’t cut viewers nearly so deep as Hank’s demise in “Ozymandias.”  Sure, Hank was fun to hate for Walt’s sake, but as the antagonist to the flawed hero, the DEA agent only ever acted in accordance with his (albeit realistically flawed) morality. Despite her status as a minor character, Andrea’s death delivered a disproportionate shock because she was one of the few people to maintain real innocence, having presumably never even learned about Jesse’s involvement with the meth operation.  In the final hour-plus of this cling-to-your-seat dramatic series, the death of someone like Walt Jr., or even Jesse, would have been the gut punch to sharpen the impact of an episode that, while bloody, only hit where viewers expected it to.  Walt’s death in the super-meth lab of his own design (his “Precious,” as Gilligan jokes in the hour-long post-show Talking Bad, which aired on AMC directly after the episode) felt apt but, on its own, a little too quiet — too just and too neat after a five season run where comeuppance didn’t usually come to those where deserved it.  This could be how Gilligan wanted his fallen Ozymandias to go out, finally getting his just desserts, but I wanted more tragedy, more blood that shouldn’t have been spilled — which only goes to show what level of heart-rending drama fans such as myself have come to expect from Gilligan and co., and which isn’t to say that “Felina” didn’t otherwise satisfy.

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If there’s one common element to all of the fan theories that circulated the internet in the last week, nobody seemed to doubt the events of the finale would be messier than Jesse’s aunt’s house after the bathtub incident (ah, the chaste foibles of Season 1).  And despite the lack of dead innocents, Breaking Bad hasn’t seen this much blood in one episode since — well, since the Season 4 finale, but Walt’s automaton-and-assault-rifle construction provides an unforeseen and dramatic enough slaughter that that past series of near-synchronous murders (culminating in Gus Fring’s explosive death) pales in comparison.  This — the weapon of choice for Walt’s last stand and the final mechanism of his own destruction — is the most satisfying moment of the episode and, possibly, the season, accomplishing what Breaking Bad does best: the realization of a scene that feels both inexorable and out of the blue, one that is simultaneously Walt’s final victory and his undoing and which logically unfurls from the events of one of the flash-forward moments seeded earlier in the season (the assault rife in the trunk was definitely a Checkhov’s gun).  It had to happen that way, but I never saw it coming — that’s the sentiment Gilligan loves to leave with his viewers, and he manages it in the final moments of the series, as the conclusion to an episode that is otherwise a straight-arrow farewell tour for both the viewer and Walt.  It’s meandering without feeling too drawn out, reserved but nostalgic (cue the tears for two brief notable flashbacks, the final stark contrast between what was and what now is for Walt and Jesse just before events spiral to their conclusions with the once-unlikely duo caught in the crossfire).  The futures (or lack thereof) of Skyler, Holly, and Walt Jr., the Aryans, Lydia, and of course Walt and Jesse are all sewn up more tightly than most shows would have been able to accomplish with so many intricately sketched characters and so much left to address at the top of the final 75 minutes — although the extended length of the episode, as well as the helpful lack of past plot lines to deal with (here’s where I acknowledge it probably was best after all that the writers dealt with the Jane/Brock truth bombs a few episodes prior), allow for most characters to receive a timely farewell.

Everyone and their brother will have their own (probably strong) opinions on what should or shouldn’t have happened in what’s been dubbed the most anticipated series finale since the Sopranos.  I’m not even sure what I really wanted to happen, since half of me is ecstatic at Jesse’s ultimate freedom and the other half (the dramatic writer in me, obviously) wants to yell at Vince Gilligan for letting him live.  And the thing is, it doesn’t matter, because the Breaking Bad team succeeded either way: I cared deeply about these characters up to the final fade out on Walt’s dying body, and my emotional investment was rewarded with a concrete ending that, okay, could have tugged at my heartstrings a little more, but is it so bad that the third to last (“Ozymandias”) was the best episode of the series?  Despite the qualms myself and others may have, there’s no arguing Gilligan and co. turned out an episode in keeping with the unfaltering quality of the show.  Another drama would have me picking at the loose ends, but Gilligan’s too masterful to leave any of those, so I’m left to nitpick at the characters’ fates — an entirely subjective matter, and one that has no bearing on Breaking Bad‘s status as one of the best shows ever to air on television.  As sure as Elliot and Gretchen will bend to the imaginary hit men and “gift” Walter Jr. his millions, there’s no doubt about that.