Mention the pitch-black screen at the end of “The Sopranos,” and most fans will tighten their fists and break into a tirade. Six years later, they’re still incensed by creator David Chase’s big nonstatement statement, which left Tony Soprano’s fate up in the air. Mention the 2010 “Lost” finale? Oh, don’t even.
Ending a TV series is a fraught proposition, especially when that series is as passionately revered, beloved and analyzed as “The Sopranos,” “Lost” or, now, “Breaking Bad.” As the AMC meth drama heads into its final episode Sunday, amid miles of online scrutiny and conjecture, millions of fans are nervously waiting to see how creator Vince Gilligan will conclude his epic tale.
Will Gilligan make “Breaking Bad” into a moral lesson by bringing justice down on Walter White, the meek man who turned into a power-hungry meth-making murderer? Or will he set his antihero free, another sinner in the winds of anarchy, imprisoned only by what’s left of his own conscience? Is it possible Gilligan will take a sharp surrealistic detour, cutting to a blank screen that’s the pale blue of Walt’s famous product, or putting the whole story in the head of Walter White Jr. staring at a snow globe, “St. Elsewhere”-style?
For many, what goes down in that last episode of “Breaking Bad” will determine how they ultimately feel about the entire series. It will establish for them whether the years of commitment, conversation and cogitation since the show’s 2008 premiere have been worthwhile. They feel that the conclusion will play an integral role in shaping the show’s long-term cultural legacy.
Series finales were notable events for many decades, even before “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” gang shuffled out singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
When a show knowingly left the air — when it wasn’t canceled midstream — the writers generally nodded to viewers who were looking for a parting glance.
But since the advent of the novelistic drama in the 1990s, with serialized storylines and mythologies moving front and center, the finale has become of paramount significance.
“The joy of television is the week to week, the episodic, the moments,” says Christine Becker, an associate professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
“Whether or not I liked the ‘Lost’ finale doesn’t change the fact that the episode with Desmond called ‘The Constant’ was one of my great TV-watching experiences.”
To use the metaphor of death — and the end of a series is a small death of sorts — viewers like Becker try to remember the whole life, and not simply the circumstances of its end.
Some viewers don’t care about loose ends; they mostly care about emotional closure. Others require every plot strand wrapped up in one neat bow, as in the flash-forward of “Six Feet Under,” which chronicled the deaths of all the characters, leaving no hint of ambiguity.
For Jason Mittell, professor of American studies and film and media culture at Middlebury College, the best endings are in tune with the rest of the series, such as the finale of “The Wire” and “The Shield.”
“When I think of finales that worked well, they’re finales that feel true to what the show has been,” Mittell said.
Since “Breaking Bad” is a show about a man’s moral journey, Mittell is expecting the finale to include some acknowledgment of where Walt’s journey has gone on that level.
“So if the show ends with Walt machine-gunning everyone down and it feels untrue to who the character is,” he said, “that would leave a pretty sour taste in my mouth. I’d think that wasn’t the show I thought I’d been watching.”