In the past few weeks two television shows that sat large in the popular culture ended and the two could not have done that in a more diametric opposite ways.
Dexter and Breaking Bad were really two of the most different shows dealing with a recently popular trope in American television of the antihero. Both shows deal with a morally vacuous protagonist who goes to great lengths to hide their transgressions while deep down wanted to be accepted as a morally different than those who they work aside or in Dexter’s case victimize.
In a past post I talked about my hatred for Dexter as a series because of of it’s lazy writing, and lack of a real reason to still exist but its real sin was it’s inability to address the fact the Breaking Bad as a piece of storytelling was blowing up the foundation of what Dexter was built upon*. It’s fun for a few seasons to wind up a psychopathic character, give him a “code” and let him loose on the scum of the earth. Dexter essentially Batman with a predilection for killing, but unlike Batman there was never a Rogue’s Gallery of villains that were worth a damn**. Had Dexter’s writers really figured out a way to make me believe that Dexter could be bested(like in Season4 with John Lithgow) then I would have forgave the laziness a little bit. The writers of Dexter created a universe with no moral restrictions or real consequences for their protagonist yet they could not find a way to really be creative. The show fell into a weird blend serial killer/police procedural and character study of someone who lacks the ability to really change as a character.
In Breaking Bad we see the origin story, rise and fall of a man who is presented as that archetypal antihero. We also, for the first time, really see the broad reach of the harm he inflicts on not just other criminals but the innocents near and far from him. The Shield may be the only piece of television where we see the true fall of the main character laid out in such a black and white way but Walter White’s fall trumps that of Vic Mackey*** because of the wreckage and also twisted order left in his wake. Vince Gilligan’s ability to create a clockwork universe made Walter White more effective as a villain as we got to see the cause and effect of every choice he made. White at the beginning of Breaking Bad seems to chronically make mistakes which lead him down his ultimate path but as the noose tightened White began to more harmoniously exist in the world he had created. As the series went on, the mistakes began to become more and more rare as Walt went deeper into his criminal persona. Heisenberg consumed Walter White’s soul just as Cancer consumed his body and we got to watch it play out pressure packed episode by pressure packed episode.
In the end, the two shows actually seemed to aim for the same target, a final departure towards the characters’ respective reckonings. Dexter is torn between his duty to his self destructive sister, the problems following psychopathic soulmate and his undying need to kill other serial killers. While Walt races against his quickly impending death from lung cancer to give his family the future he had promised, and to murder those people who had taken what was his, and killed Hank. The end of Breaking Bad may not have been surprising but it was masterfully laid out in soul crushing, gut punching, breathe taking greatness. Dexter’s finish was a miasma of new characters playing big consequential plot based roles while long time characters were saved from any kind of confrontation with Dexter. It was like the show runners of Dexter didn’t want to injure the precious relationship Dexter has with his co-workers who he consistently lied to and sabotaged throughout the run of the show. Dexter isn’t just sloppy at the end, it’s essentially telling it’s viewers that have spent over 100 episodes with the show that they couldn’t bother wrapping the series up in an interesting and satisfying way. Dexter should have ended after season 5. Dealing with the aftermath of his wife’s death and the realization that he had brought it on. Had the series ended on that note it would have been tough to beat. But it went on for 8 episodes and it fizzled for the last three of those until we see Dexter has faked his death and become a lumberjack.****
Now I’m sure in a few decades there will be a university liberal arts class on television somewhere and Breaking Bad will be spoken about as a watershed series. The logical evolution from The Sopranos and the bridge to the next great piece of television. Dexter will have been looked back at as the second best show starring Michael C. Hall and just another in the long line of television antiheroes somewhere between Ray Donovan and Frank Black.
Some will say that the end of Breaking Bad was too perfect, everything went too well for Walt, but viewing the final four episodes as the climax and conclusion of the story instead of just looking at the last hour as a stand alone you see Walt’s fall and final plan as something more than just a way for Vince Gilligan to wrap up the series but a way for Walt to finish his life on his terms*****. The way that Breaking Bad finished is what will make it endure as the greatest piece of television in the history of the medium.
*And to be frank the foundation that The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Shield had created. Also I have not mentioned The Wire because I am hoping on the off chance that Jason Witlock reads this and loses his shit.
**The Trinity Killer notwithstanding.
***Not to mention that Walter White seems to be of normal height thus making him somehow more easy to accept.
****Not a joke for those who didn’t watch Dexter. He essentially became a ginger Wolverine after leaving his child with another serial killer.
*****The original premise of the series as far as I am concerned.