"Breaking Bad" ends on a high note

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SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses the series finale of "Breaking Bad."

It’s tough to immediately discuss any series finale without letting hyperbole seep into your opinion, so take my thoughts on tonight’s roundly satisfying “Breaking Bad” finale with a grain of salt. Better make that an extra-large grain of salt, because in the immediate afterglow of “Felina,” I’m fairly confident “Breaking Bad” has produced one of the very best finales of any television show, a conclusion that brought the series full circle narratively and stylistically.

There was only ever one way “Breaking Bad” could really end: with Walter White finally fulfilling the death sentence he was handed in the first episode of the series. This final season made it especially clear that things were going to end badly for Walt, and the fallout from his ascent to drug kingpin has been devastating to watch. As repulsive as Walt became, though, the series never forgot whose journey it was following, and the last two episodes have been an exercise in convincing us to root for our protagonist one last time. Last week saw Walt at his absolute lowest, wasting away in a remote cabin, and the finale found Walt trying to make some measure of penance for his mistakes.

Even as Walt sought redemption, “Felina” didn’t hesitate to show us the ugly aftermath of the chaos our hero has wrought. Skyler has landed in a cramped shell of a home, her family in ruins. Walt Jr. has cast off his father’s name for good, going by Flynn. And in the most quietly devastating detail of all, Marie’s home has lost its trademark purple decor, her countertops and curtains colored a mournful black after her husband’s death in pursuit of Heisenberg.

Walt’s final scene with Skyler was equal parts apology and goodbye, and it was satisfying to see him finally coming to terms with the lies he’d been telling himself all series long. Newly crowned King of Acting Bryan Cranston has always been beyond reproach, but he brought a resignation to Walt’s realization about his true motives for entering the meth game that showed exactly how deep the little soul Walt has left runs.

But it was the reintroduction of the Schwartz family that truly completed Walt’s arc. The only way for Walt to safely secure his family’s future was to put his trust in the very first people who wronged him, who instilled in him the festering bitterness that would someday spawn Heisenberg, and by forcing Walt to find his own measure of reconciliation, the series brilliantly brought its hero full circle.

No one has suffered more at Walt’s hands than poor Jesse Pinkman, and Aaron Paul has brought endless supplies of shattering gravitas to the final season. Jesse’s salvation at Walt’s hands feels almost like a happy accident, but there was no moment in the finale more simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking than Jesse’s escape. Once he’s finally freed himself from Walt’s shackles, Jesse speeds away from his own personal prison, his howls of glee morphing into anguish (or vice-versa) in another indicator of the messy, uncertain emotional terrain “Breaking Bad” proudly occupies.

Though Walt spends the finale apologizing his way into his grave, “Breaking Bad” still found a way to reward us for our investment with a grandly theatrical triumph that the season had been (intentionally) lacking. Though a mounted machine gun and a brutal blood splatter on the camera is far from the series’ most unexpected or creative moments, it was hugely satisfying to see Walt etch out one final victory, and director Vince Gilligan milked maximum tension out of Walt’s attempt to put his plan into motion.

As Walt dies on the floor of a meth lab, the camera lifts away from him. It’s a shot that’s highly reminiscent of one of the series’ finest hours, “Crawl Space,” which ended with Walt having a maniacal, cackling breakdown in a dirty hole beneath his house as the camera practically vibrated away from him in disgust. But where that shot was a terrifying harbinger of the chaos to come, this finds a Walt who’s finally secured his family’s future and made things right – or at least, as right as they’ll ever be. It’s the closest “Breaking Bad” could come to a happy ending, leaving us with a Walter White that’s finally at peace.

How do you write the final word on “Breaking Bad”? It’s impossible to bottle everything that made the show truly great into a single paragraph (or article), and it’s a fool’s errand to try. With Walter White, Gilligan and Cranston created an antihero who will comfortably fit in the all-time pantheon, equally informed by the characters that came before him and influential on those that will follow. Around him, they built an audaciously plotted, visually and thematically rich narrative, and like a perfect chemical reaction, it all came together to form one of the very best shows to ever grace television.

But like I said, don't forget about the grains of salt.