Interviewed by The Vulture, Vince Gilligan had this to say about his vagueness and unease over how the show should end (post- the mid-season cut-off):
It was everything. We knew very little as of last summer. We knew we had an M60 machine gun in Walt’s trunk that we needed to pay off, and that was about it. We kept asking ourselves, “What would satisfy us? A happy ending? A sad ending? Or somewhere in between?”
It’s not a comment that sparks much hope for viewers who came to the stark realisation that series they had invested serious amounts of time in, such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica, were being made up on the fly. Sure, some were happy with the slipshod conclusions, but many were not (in the case of the former most definitely).
Breaking Bad is slightly different in that there are no enormous mysteries to solve; the puzzle for Gilligan to solve is where he leaves the audience emotionally. But I can’t help thinking (hoping!), “Wouldn’t that be clear way in advance?” There’s being adaptable and there’s looking around randomly for inspiration. Probably, I’ve just been let down one time too many to wholly invest in the possibility of a satisfying sign-off (the one I keep flashing on is a Michael Corleone type situation, but that’s probably a little too obvious).
There’s a boulderising effect once a new series gains a place in the online and media consciousness; an exhaustive fascination takes hold , which can do its upmost to wring the joy of discovery from anyone who strays too far from simple straightforward enjoyment. Breaking Bad is just the latest to have experienced a groundswell of passion following its first couple of seasons. While I came on board relatively early, I’ve taken the more laidback approach of waiting for the DVD releases to experience it. As a result, I’ve willfully (or lazily, depending upon your take) divorced myself from the weekly anticipation that gripped me during Lost.
So far, the series hasn’t disappointed. Indeed, Season Four takes some beating, a white-knuckle ride requiring Walt to use all his wits and ingenuity to outwit nemesis Gus Fring. Wisely, Gilligan has stuck to his guns and finished shy of the basic edict of seven season runs (if you get that far). It doesn’t mean he won’t be seen to have peaked early, but at least it ensures the kind of problem encountered by Dexter (all downhill after the unbeatable fourth year) is resisted.
But 5.1 of Breaking Bad begins, by necessity, with the fallout from the tension of the previous run. You can’t hope to equal it, and the series can’t hope to sustain itself in the same way, so it opts for a caper plotline involving magnets and wiping computer hard drives. It’s a wise move, keeping things lively while juggling the balls of where the characters need to realign themselves. Later in the run we’re thrown a train heist, and it’s a reminder of the skill with which Gilligan delivered many of the best X-Files one-offs (Driveand Monday spring to mind).
I’ve read criticisms regarding of the series’ plotting and how sequences don’t ring true, but it’s not something I can readily relate to; it’s only internal consistency (of tone) that is really important. I've found the whole series to be on a heightened plane from the off; to me, this isn’t attempting realism in the manner of The Wire was (one of the reasons the fifth season of that show doesn’t quite work for me is that the serial killer plotline is something out of a more mainstream, glossy show). I've certainly never seen it as something that would hold up to much scrutiny in terms of "Could this happen?" There’s the veneer of realism; domestic strife, guns, violence, deaths, desperate situations. But the series stacked the odds against believability as soon as it had its meth cook doubling as brother-in-law of a DEA agent.
In terms of the moral degeneration and criminal rise of Walt, his burgeoning sociopathy is something that's seemed entirely consistent; from the second season on, when he leaves Jane to die, there’s never been any doubt about the path he will take or the lengths he will go to; the skill is making you care about him despite it all. Bryan Cranston consistently works wonders, wringing out every scrap of nuance in his (d)evolution; you believe that he can be such a (creepy) blinkered doofus on one hand (his behaviour towards Skyler) and a cool customer on the other. I don't think that means he wouldn't indulge a bit of sentiment when it comes to someone like Mike. (Although, it’s as likely that the sentiment is only of the sort he can feel towards himself, reflected off feelings he has manufactured concerning Mike; everything with Walt has become so self-justified and insincere that he no longer has any grounding.)
The most resonant aspect this half season has been Jesse's realisation of Walt’s callousness. While Jesse gets to offer some inspired problem solving, his distancing from Walt means he’s not so front-and-centre, particularly following the heist. It will be interesting to see how this plays during the last half; there’s an assumption that all of Walt’s manipulations need to come out, but really why should they (and would Jesse blowing Walt’s head off really be a satisfactory conclusion?)
As far as Hank discovering the book dedication is concerned, it didn't particularly bother me that the reveal of Heisenberg’s identity hinged on an arbitrary discovery rather than solid detective work. But I was expecting a reveal that Walt is still in business. Going back to his conversation with Jesse about Gray Matters, and how cooking meth is something he's really good at, it seems inconsistent that he'd stop after all that groundwork has been laid to build his empire (of course, we'll probably find he lied during Episode Nine).
Disappointing to see Mike exit, as Jonathan Banks is a mighty screen presence. Many cite his Wiseguy role (I only ever caught the odd episode) but it was the underrated and prematurely curtailed Day Break where he first caught my attention (in a role that makes Mike look like a pussy cat).
I’ve particularly enjoyed the additions of Lydia and Todd. I loved Lydia (Laura Fraser) going batshit paranoid when the DEA are hassling her. I recognised Jesse Plemons from The Master, a kind of junior ginger Matt Damon; Todd showing himself to be a stone cold killer, but then displaying such diligence in getting the cook right, makes him an appropriate successor to Jesse. He mirrors what Walt is now about.
I’m curious regarding Gilligan’s comments suggesting that anyone who has a problem with the female characters in the show are misogynists. It seems like a too neat transference of the blame for not getting the dynamic right. That said, I don't think the problem is with the writing of Skylar (and I do think there is a problem somewhere in the mix, as like it or not the writers ensure you side with Walt; that’s what making a good anti-hero is all about, no matter who the moral compass is), it's that Anna Gunn isn't a particularly sympathetic presence; this is an issue that was there from the first episode (ie before Walt cooked up a batch).
So 5.1? Great stuff, but not quite as great as Season Four. It was probably wise not to find a replacement for Gus (I mean in terms of bringing in a new guest star), as the series should rightly drillsdown to its core relationships for the finale. But so far it’s been a case of holding my attention rather than putting me on the edge of my seat.