It seems to me that the final seasons of “auteur”-style shows (when they are allowed to reach their originally intended length) are always disappointing, and for structural reasons: the last season is the auteur’s last chance to make sure you get the message. The clearest example is The Wire, I think, where the final season was narratively unsatisfying precisely to the extent that it provided an opportunity for David Simon to drive home his “political ontology” — McNulty’s insane scheme shows the resilience of the system to even the most radical challenges, while the journalistic story highlighted the fact that the very narrative excellence of the series could serve to cover over or miss the structural forces at play. Similarly, one could say that the final season of The Sopranos emphasized the fundamental fragility of Tony and his position, the fact that anything could come “out of the blue” to kill him. Hence the infamous final scene was in a way the only possible ending: to have Tony definitely die would have undermined the point by providing a spurious narrative coherence.
This is perhaps why I’m not enjoying the current season of Breaking Bad very much. The silliness of the schemes (hearkening back to MacGyver or the A-Team in many cases), the hyperbolization of the motif of random chance (the “bad break”) that had always been a hallmark of the show, and — above all — the megalomania of Walt all point toward a clear message: Walt is a desperate man who can do nothing but destroy everything he touches. Presumably his choice to replace Jesse with Todd the child-murderer will only serve to exacerbate this tendency in Walt, once his tenuous moral center is absent.
Certainly Breaking Bad seems to need more clarification than most shows — apparently there are many viewers who still somehow think of Walt as a bad-ass, who think Skylar is a castrating bitch who needs to be put in her place, etc., etc. I find it appalling that anyone could come to that conclusion at this late date, but if there are many fans who are, the correction is obviously necessary. I think that the very fact that this is where the final season’s “message” is operating, however, points to a failing of the show: at least in my view, it takes place too much on the level of the individual and his moral struggle, without enough emphasis on the structure of Walt’s situation. The story is clearly “about” Walt’s moral degradation as a person, and the social factors that go into that are pushed into the background. Early on, one could say that the show is “about” the desperation of a man under neoliberalism (shitty health care, etc.), but in the last analysis all of that is merely the occasion for Walt’s “moral bad luck.” It is somehow only the story of one man in a way that even The Sopranos wasn’t.
Perhaps the final half-season will prove me wrong on this, but it seems to me that the show is a missed opportunity conceptually-speaking — obviously not just “another action show” or “another crime show,” but not quite the pillar of the Golden Age of Television that so many people are willing to declare it.