Breaking Bad gave us the ending the fans demanded, rather than the one Walter deserved

After the show's creator Vince Gilligan spent years promising moral retribution - did Walter get off too lightly?

Breaking Bad is not the best television show ever made. Either those who say it is have never seen Deadwood, The Wire or The Sopranos – or they have not understood them.

The programme is often described as an HBO-style drama in which a terminally ill chemistry teacher in New Mexico starts producing crystal meth in order to provide for his family, but really it is the story of a middle-aged loser searching for significance. It is an answer to the question: “If you had six months left to live, what would you do?”

In the very first episode, aired in 2008, Walter White attempts to hold his students’ attention by playing tricks with Bunsen burners. “Technically,” he says, spraying chemicals across the naked flames to create vibrant flashes of colour, “chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.”

Over the next two years, Walter is transformed from a sympathetic family man with poor health, no money and a second child on the way into the drug lord Heisenberg, driven by monstrous ego and ruthless enough to eliminate those who jeopardise his personal empire. The plot progresses like a volatile chain reaction, its pace distracting viewers from the questions they ought to be asking: is Walt still good? Was he ever?

Like Whitman, the poet for whom Walter is named, Breaking Bad’s protagonist contains “multitudes”. He is pitiable, attractive and deadly all at once. Scores of zealous admirers have taken to social media to defend and rationalise his crimes. Bryan Cranston, the actor who plays Walt, found himself so in love with the character that he believed in his motives being pure right up to the final scene.

“If religion is a creation of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished,” the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said. “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” This duality drives the series: behind the interplay of cause and effect, of every action and its consequences, there is always a desire for justice. When a plane exploded above Albuquerque at the end of series two, Gilligan explained it as nothing less than “the judgement of God” on Walt.

That is why it was surprising that the final episode, broadcast on 30 September on the online streaming service Netflix, gave us the sort of ending the fans demanded, rather than the one Walter deserved.

Perhaps Gilligan feared the abuse the Sopranos creator David Chase suffered in 2007 when the show concluded with an abrupt cut-to-black, just as its mobster family appeared set for execution. Or maybe the kernel of the finale was not Walt’s death but rather the death of his self deception. Either way, Breaking Bad is essential viewing: a Molotov cocktail of poverty, science and decline.

Breaking Bad's Walter goes from family man to drug lord. Image: Getty

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times