The End of “Breaking Bad” and “The Shield” (and “Lost”)

Here’s what Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman, told Rolling Stone about this final season of “Breaking Bad”:

No, all I know is, it’s the craziest eight hours of television anyone will ever see. It’s an intense, violent sprint to the finish line. The final eight shows get progressively better and progressively darker.

There’s this notion on TV of a “cliffhanger.” They happen at the end of a season. Some event will occur that’s so dramatic it makes the viewer desperate to know what’s next, only we have to wait months for the next season’s premiere.

“Grey’s Anatomy” ends its seasons with devastating crashes—an ambulance one year, a plane full of cast members another. My wife yells. When I was a kid, a season of “X-Files” ended with Mulder climbing into an underground tanker that subsequently exploded. It was all I thought about for much too long. My favorite cliffhanger ever was the season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that ended with Capt. Picard appearing as an assimilated cyborg on the Enterprise’s bridge screen. He told his crew, in horrifying robot voice, “I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life as it has been is over. From this time forward, you will service . . . us.” locutus

“Mr. Worf,” Commander Riker said, “fire.” Cue the booming horn section and “To Be Continued.” The show’s hero had been turned into a bad guy, and his first officer had ordered his death, and there wouldn’t be another new episode for a long, long time.

Chilling stuff.

We are five episodes into the eight final chapters of “Breaking Bad.” Every week we’re left with a soul-rousing cliffhanger. The premier saw Hank punch Walt in their garage, and ended with them faced off toe-to-toe. Then it was Hank going into that interrogation room with Jesse. Then it was Jesse, in a drug-crazed rage, dumping gasoline all over Walt’s house. The scene cut to closing credits as Jesse was growling and pouring the gas directly onto the camera. Like he meant to light us on fire.

And then there was this last Sunday’s episode. I’m writing this Monday night, and I’ve thought of little else over the last 20 hours. (What baby daughter?) To’hajiilee. Hank tricks Walt and busts him dead-to-rights. There’s a single tear as Walt realizes his partner and brother have teamed up to end him. Hank slaps on the cuffs. Walt calls Jesse coward. Jesse spits huge in Walt’s face. Hank’s touching phone call to Marie. Then the Nazis show up, a shootout ensues, and before we can tell if anyone’s been hit the show fades out with bullets flying.

Hello, cliff.

So Aaron Paul might be right. This really may be the craziest eight hours of television ever. I thought there was no way “Breaking Bad” could top Season 4, when Walt was warring against Gus Fring to see who could kill the other first. This last season has already surpassed that.

Which brings us to “The Shield.”

If you’re interested in how great TV shows end—maybe you’re still mad about series enders for “Lost” (I loved the end of “Lost”)* or “The Sopranos” (I’ll always hate it)—I think it’s important to consider “The Shield.” As we’ve covered here before, my personal opinion is that “The Wire” is the best TV show of all time. “The Shield,” though, had the best ending I’ve ever seen.** (“Best of all time” and “best I’ve ever seen”? Now I’m doing it. This is how it works when you write about TV these days.)

I doubt anyone who missed “The Shield” when it was new is going back to catch up. It’s a long show (seven seasons) and in the HD-TV age its gritty hand-held style is uncomfortable for our spoiled eyes to behold. So I’m just gonna tell you how “The Shield” ended.

In the first-ever episode, sociopath detective Vic Mackey welcomed a new member to his “strike team” of specialized gang cops. The new member, Mackey correctly deduced, had been planted by a politically minded police captain to dig up dirt on the strike team. And there was deep dirt to mine—the strike team was effective, but it was also dirty as hell.

Mackey killed the planted cop. That’s how the pilot episode of “The Shield” ended.

Now let’s fast-forward past a lot of crazy shit. There was a season built around an Armenian money train heist. There was the Forest Whitaker season I’ll remember forever and the Glenn Close season featuring hall-of-fame bad guy Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson crushed that performance), and endless betrayal and murder. RIP, Lem.

Michael Chiklis, as Mackey, owned this show as a shocking anti-hero and won some Emmys for his raw and brutal lead performance.

Mackey is heavy with all the evil he’s committed by the end of the show. He’s lost his family to witness protection. The strike team is ravaged, its members either dead or prison-bound. He cunningly manipulates his way into immunity from all his crimes; he just has to confess. The deal makes sense to department lawyers . . . until he starts talking into the tape recorder.

He confesses everything, saving the killing of the cop for last. Everyone is shocked. We are shocked watching it, despite already knowing what he’s done. It’s amazing.

His punishment is a boring desk job, a fate close to death for this gang-stomping street animal. They can’t arrest him, so they force him to work in an office for three years. His coworkers seethe with hatred as he lopes through the hallway in ill-fitting suits.  vlcsnap-72510-300x224

We watch Mackey sitting at his desk late one evening, hating life. Then he hears a siren outside. He reaches for a box under his desk. He opens the box, pulls out a gun, smiles, and steals off into the night. He disappears from the camera shot with that mischievous glint in his eyes, and the closing credits roll for the very last time.

I don’t know whether they planned that ending from the very beginning, or if they simply knew a cop killing would provide enough potential narrative destinations they could just figure out a resolution when the time came. It was such a great conclusion. We watch a murderer get a punishment he deserves. Then we see, in that final shot, the incorrigible personality who kept us spellbound all those seasons.

It was perfect closure. Justice giving way to a hit of devil. It’s a complicated thing to end a show about a bad guy. We know what Mackey and Walt have done, and we understand they deserve to pay. But we also like them. “The Shield” found sweet middle ground. Will “Breaking Bad”?

We know Walt survives this desert shootout. We have seen him in the future, armed with a huge machine gun and a caplet of poison. The show has referenced “Scarface” and “Heat,” each of which ends in a wild shootout showdown.

If Hank dies in the opening moments of the next episode, might Walt need the gun to exact revenge on the Nazis for killing his brother-in-law? What if the Nazis kidnap Jesse and force him to cook blue meth? Maybe Future Walt is gunning to save his partner.

Neither of those ideas feels right. They don’t fit. They wouldn’t be perfect. Not every show, though, can end like “The Shield.”

* There was no grand explanation for the island, just a strange story about immortal brothers—one in white, the other black—and one riveting hour of television after another. “Lost” was such an interesting, exciting show throughout its whole run. That finale may not have had a satisfying, unifying explanation, but it did have Jack superman punching Evil Locke, and dying as he watched the plane fly away. Beautiful.

It’s not the destination, people, it’s the journey.

Except on “Breaking Bad,” where it appears to be both.

** This will all be obsolete in five years when “Game of Thrones” ends with Tyrion flying into King’s Landing on Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons and wiping out his whole family.

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