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Commentary: Breaking down AMC’s final season of ‘Breaking Bad’

Courtesy of Frank Ockenfels / AMC

With the first half of the fifth and final season wrapped, and the AMC TV series drawing to a close next summer, it would take several very serious narrative missteps to tarnish “Breaking Bad’s” legacy. From twisting storylines reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, to arid visuals worthy of Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns” spanning over the past four years, creator Vince Gilligan and his incomparable acting ensemble, led by three-time Primetime Emmy Award winner Bryan Cranston, have repeatedly outdone themselves. Part pitch-black comedy, part paranoid thriller, “Breaking Bad” has made good on Gilligan’s promise to take average-Joe chemistry teacher Walter White (Cranston), and turn him from schoolteacher Mr. Chips in James Hilton’s novel “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” to Scarface. And at this point, if push came to shove between Walt and “Scarface” protagonist Tony Montana, I think I’d put my money on Walt.

Season 4 ended with Walt poisoning a child for leverage, and orchestrating a nursing home-bombing which removed his employer/drug-lord nemesis Gustavo “Gus” Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) from the equation, effectively putting all the power in his hands. Throughout the bulk of Part 1 of Season 5, it was clear that Walt was in no hurry to relinquish his power. In some ways, the character of Walter White has also gone from a giving “Daddy” Warbucks to a selfish Donald Trump.

He first started cooking methamphetamine to pay for his cancer treatments and build a nest egg for his family should he succumb to his illness.

But with the cancer (supposedly) in remission, and his family life in shambles, his meth business was, as he claimed, all he had left.

This might have been true, but Walt still used it as an excuse to serve his pride.

The reason why he has all the power, the reason he was ever working for the departed Gus in the first place, is because he was the best. That is, he cooked the purest meth around. And Walt is not used to being the best. So when his partners, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Mike (the staggeringly brilliant Jonathan Banks), wanted out, Walt – to no surprise – did not take it well. The crux of the first half of Season 5 was showing just how far he was willing to go to stay the leader of his empire.

That is, until Sunday night’s finale changed, you know, everything. It was business as usual, as Walt worked to tie up loose ends after yet another advancement of power. Playing out like Michael Corleone’s plan to settle all the family business in “The Godfather,” a montage of brutal prison killings removed any and all potential threats to Walt’s security in anonymity. Or rather, almost all. The greatest threat to Walt has always been, of course, himself. The episode ended with a family dinner made unbearably tense by the simple fact that nothing was going wrong. But then, something went wrong (or right, depending on where we’re supposed to fall, morality-wise), and with the other shoe just about to drop on Walt’s not-so-secret double life, we’re left hanging for a year, imagining just where the rest of Season 5 will take us.

The short run was typically strong, with some minor plot and pacing issues throughout. If Walt seemed a little one-note in his egomaniacal ranting at times, and his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) a bit too distant in her emotional severance from him, I’m willing to wager this was only to serve this finale, and the endgame ahead. Those nitpicks aside, the series continued to be the perfect blend of innovative crime drama and dark comedy.

One of “Breaking Bad’s” greatest strengths has always been how it deftly balances those laugh-out-loud moments with crippling suspense (and often, outright terror). But now, the laughs come less frequently, and the terror is tenfold.

Nearing the end, it’s important to remember that the show started out as a series focusing on the misadventures of a tighty-whitey-clad chemistry teacher and a wannabe thug in over their heads in the Albuquerque, Ariz., meth trade. There was a lightness there, a playfulness even while it was firmly rooted in gallows humor. The audience was at least occasionally permitted to crack a smile. But “Breaking Bad” stopped being that show a long time ago. Now, this is tragedy of the highest order. This will not end well.

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