WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Robert Bianco, USA TODAY
USA TODAY - If you have to go, go out on top.
In a stunning 75-minute extended finale, Vince Gilligan brought Breaking Bad to a supremely fitting close, tying up all the loose ends in his modern classic AMC series and killing off his now iconic anti-hero Walter White. And he did so in a way that confirmed Bad's status as one of TV's greatest series -- and star Bryan Cranston as one of America's best actors.
Tense, witty, violent, oddly tender and, in its own strange way, as close to a "happy" ending as a story this dark could hope, this last episode brought the story to a straightforward, definitive conclusion, without the spirituality of Lost or the ambiguity of Sopranos. If it's debated, it won't be for what it meant, but for what it did: Killing Walt, but leaving Jesse alive and Walt's family rich.
So sometimes crime does pay. It certainly did for viewers.
Sunday's dazzling finale began with Walt at a series low point: dying, alone, and so thin he has to wear his wedding ring on a string around his neck. But he has one last burst of energy in him, fueled by his remarkable ability to convince himself he's the aggrieved party.
So it's out of New England, to the prophetic strains of Marty Robbins' Streets of Laredo. ("For I'm a young cowboy and know I must die.") He's off to New Mexico, but first, he has to stop at the house of Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz, the couple he blamed for stealing his research, and whose TV interview sparked his drive for a grand criminal exit.
In a lesser show, he would have killed them, setting off a Spaghetti Western-style rampage of revenge. Instead, Gilligan twisted the scene to give Walt the first of his victories. He forced the couple to hold his $10 million in trust for his children -- a deal he sealed by tricking them into thinking he'd put a contract on their lives.
His family's future set, he was off to a surprise reunion with Skyler -- and for one welcome burst of honesty: a refutation of the claim (by him or anyone else) that he did it for his family."I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it, and I was alive."
And that settles that. Oh, and that ricin at the start of the season? Turns out that was for Lydia.
In a sense, the final episode was a goodbye tour for Walt and for us, ending, appropriately enough, with Jesse. Having planned to kill Jesse, he instead saved his life, protecting him from the machine-gun-equipped trunk that mowed down the neo-Nazi gang, and watching as Jesse killed Todd with a chain, an echo of that long-ago murder that set Walt on this trail.
He gave Jesse a chance to kill him, but Jesse left instead -- leaving Walt to die, smiling, and the series to end on a creative high.
Which is just how it began, and just what it deserved.