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Endings

jack_solomon
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With all the buzz surrounding the final season of Breaking Bad (not to mention the fact that this is my last blog for the summer, though I'll be back in the fall), I thought that this would be a good time to consider the significance of endings.  Of course, if you want to read a full, and magisterial, study of fictional endings as a whole, I highly recommend the late Sir Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending.  Here I wish only to look at the finales of highly popular television dramas. The high level of attention that the concluding episodes of Breaking Bad is receiving just now puts it into some pretty select company, joining such other series as M*A*S*H, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Lost, and The Sopranos, whose conclusions were also national news.  In the case of Twin Peaks, Lost and The X-Files, much of the fascination with their finales was due to the devilishly complicated—not to say obscure—nature of those series, whose audiences looked forward to their concluding episodes rather in the manner of someone waiting for the arrival of next Sunday's newspaper to find the solution to that impossible crossword puzzle. Here sheer curiosity, the desire to finally have clarified just what exactly had been going on through all those seasons, was the driving factor (and which is why the impossibly obscure final episode of Lost was such a letdown for many of its fans).  With M*A*S*H (whose final episode set a long-running record for television viewership), on the other hand, there was a kind of family dynamic going on, a desire to see what would happen to this cast of characters who through eleven seasons had become like personal friends to their audience.  But when it comes to shows like Breaking Bad, while the curiosity and the sense of personal relationship are there too, something more is going on. What this "something more" might be is suggested in Mary McNamara's Los Angeles Times review, "What will Breaking Bad's story mean?".  Seeing Walter White not as an anti-hero who has blundered into evil territory but as an out-and-out villain, McNamara proposes that "Breaking Bad wasn't about how good men will go to extremes when pushed; it was about how 'good men' can be secretly bad."  This significantly raises the stakes, and so, for McNamara, while series finales "are notoriously difficult .  .  .  this one seems more important than most, carrying with it a discernible moral weight. In Gilligan's [Breaking Bad's creator] worldview, does evil survive and thrive? Can there be redemption or simply containment?" Good questions, these, because, like The Sopranos, Dexter, and Mad Men, Breaking Bad has been a television series that invites viewers to put themselves into the shoes of some awful creeps.  What this TV trend signifies is not easy to assess.  Of cpourse, there is always the old "misery loves company factor" to take into account: that is, the appeal of a program featuring people whose lives are so bad that your own life feels better to you.  But I think that there is something more going on here, a sense of growing desperation in this country that causes millions of viewers to wonder what their own breaking points might be, just how far they can be pushed before they abandon every restraint of civil society—before they even care any longer what those restraints are.  For such viewers, Breaking Bad, and shows like it, may be a vicarious experience. The success of series like The Walking Dead, in which all that is left in the lives of its characters is an unending war for survival of everyone against just about everyone (even your own relatives can become the "enemy" with just one fatal infection in The Walking Dead), indicates that something like this is indeed the case.  It isn't the horror here that stands out: it's the absolute freedom, the complete abandonment to violence. In the end, then, the power of Breaking Bad lies in the way it holds a mirror up to a society that is tearing itself apart, and where crime, all too often does pay (they don't call them "banksters" for nothing).  My guess is that the finale of Breaking Bad will hold neither redemption nor containment, only the sickening feeling I presume we were supposed to get at the end of Natural Born Killers, when it becomes clear that the psycho-killers have finally gotten away with it.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.