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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.