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Farewell, Walter White: Why would anyone miss the 'Breaking Bad' antihero? (+video)

The finale for ‘Breaking Bad’ drew in more than 10 million viewers. The Walter White character faces many of the same pressures that average people face – health, job, and income.

By Staff writer / September 30, 2013

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in a scene from the series finale of 'Breaking Bad,' which aired on Sunday night, Sept. 29, 2013.

Ursula Coyote/AMC/AP

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Serious spoiler alert: “Breaking Bad” really is over, wrapping with what series creator Vince Gilligan calls a very “finite ending.”

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The lead character of the dark AMC series – a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin and murderer – died on Sunday night. This completes the journey that began five seasons ago when Walter White, diagnosed with a fatal cancer, parlayed his lab skills into cooking up and selling crystal methamphetamine to pay for his son’s separate medical issues and provide for the arrival of a new baby.

The basic cable show averaged at most 3 million to 4 million viewers in its first four seasons, jumping to 6 million viewers in the final season – and more than 10 million on Sunday night, according to Nielsen. More important, it became that most elusive of TV programmers’ dreams, a critical hit that garnered Emmys and water-cooler buzz.

The series touched a nerve in US society for several reasons, says Mark Tatge, journalism professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. The fact that the main character is someone who faces many of the same pressures that average people face – health, job, and income – means that the show reached the public on a gut level. But Walter’s extreme strategies are a cautionary tale, Professor Tatge says.

The show’s message is that “we are on our own to solve our problems and this means that we may have to do unorthodox, even illegal things to solve our problems,” he writes in an e-mail. “It is a very, very dark view on the current state of our society.”

Media watchers point to the dark hit both as a sign of our violence-saturated times and as an important indication of the maturation of TV storytelling.

“You would never have seen this kind of exploration of such dark themes even as recently as the late 1980s,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. For one thing, a code among the National Association of Broadcasters stipulating that characters not be rewarded for bad behavior did not end until 1982, he notes.

“It took awhile for broadcasters to begin to expand into more complex themes,” he notes, but even then with such series as the seminal police drama “Hill Street Blues,” “you still only saw a bad cop in the larger ensemble of good cops, never as the star.”

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