Bryan Cranston in ‘Breaking Bad’.

I watched the final season of Breaking Bad over the weekend – all sixteen episodes in the space of two days. I found it gripping and funny, but also quite shallow for a show that’s mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Wire.

The Sopranos is the more obvious comparison. Many (if not most) of the dynamics are the same – the criminal antihero running up against various ruthless opponents while running his business, the wife wrestling with her complicity in that life of crime, the adopted son who’s closer to the antihero than his biological son can ever be.

Breaking Bad relocates these elements to New Mexico, with the added difference that, unlike Tony Soprano, who was born into an existing Mafia culture – who inherits his mantle from his father – Walter White comes to organised crime as a neophyte. A great part of the richness of the early seasons of Breaking Bad is the way Walter tries to live in two worlds simultaneously – the crystal meth trade and his civilian life as a high school science teacher.

Tony’s two worlds – the Bada Bing and Carmela’s suburban palace – were always at the centre of The Sopranos. However much Tony might try to keep them apart, their boundaries were always porous. It’s not a perfect show. To my mind, it peaks with the three incredibly intense episodes at the outset of season three – when Livia dies, Dr. Melfi is raped and then refuses to go to Tony about it, and Carmela hears the brutal truth about her marriage from her therapist. Those three episodes say everything about the aridity of Tony’s family relationships, what set Melfi apart from Tony and his world despite her sympathy for (and attraction to) him, and Carmela’s inability to act on her guilty conscience. Much of the rest of the show’s run was simply these themes restated, though it does pick up towards the end as the rival gangs go to war.

Even when the show is repeating itself, however, it never ceases to insist on both its worlds. Nor does it forget its large cast; Tony is always at the centre, but the show is stacked with indelible characters like Paulie and Janice and Adriana and Vito, and it spends considerable time exploring their perspectives. It has the richness of lived experience.

In its early seasons, Breaking Bad had much of this richness – as well as a trenchant sense of humour about the American economy and the failures of its health-care system. Walter was a cosmic loser, forced to wash his students’ cars after school, patronised by his swaggering cop brother-in-law, saddled with a cancer diagnosis. It was funny and satisfying when he found something he was good at, even – perhaps especially – if it was illegal. The show’s location was something of an accident (it was cheaper to film in Albuquerque than Los Angeles) but it too added something – it took us away us away from the usual East Coast/West Coast binary and showed us less familiar territory.

The show was moral, too, as Walter and his partner Jesse learned that participating in the drug trade was not as simple as providing a quality product to a willing market. As their profile increased, they came into contact with increasingly powerful dealers and heavies: these powerful men saw the upstarts as unwelcome competition, and acted ruthlessly to stop them. It became obvious early on that killing was a necessary part of this business, and watching Walter and Jesse find it in themselves to act with equal ruthlessness was a good part of what made the show so compelling. It took murder seriously.

Breaking Bad also peaked in its third season, with a weeping Jesse poised to commit his first murder. The fourth season suffered from repetition – once again, Walter was Gus Fring’s employee in his massive underground lab, chafing at the constraint – and what came to be the show’s biggest fault in its later run, plot for plot’s sake.

Vince Gilligan and his team of writers lived by the seat of their pants while creating the show: often they didn’t know where a season’s story was headed. (When Gilligan showed us Walter loading a machine gun into his car at the beginning of season five, for example, he wasn’t sure yet of how Walter would use it.) This sometimes led to marvellous unpredictability, like the Mexican twins – introduced as Walter’s main opponents at the beginning of season three – being dispensed with halfway through that season. It also led to a sort of bull-session implausibility in the later seasons, as Walter’s schemes become more and more ornate. The fourth season and the first half of the fifth are largely devoted to these capers – slow-acting poison, a bomb triggered by the ringing of a bell, a powerful magnet used to destroy evidence, a train heist.

These set pieces are tense and exciting in themselves, but increasingly abstract – a chess game. As the show foregrounds Walter, and he becomes more completely (and simply) the villain of the piece, the show loses its context, its situation in the real world. Much like Don Draper, the very different antihero of Mad Men, Walter becomes less, not more, complex the further he descends into depravity. (In season five, he’s given to campy pronouncements like, “I’m in the empire business.”) The characters are defined by their relationships to Walter, their interactions with him opportunities to showcase his Iago-like powers of persuasion. The show’s civilian world is more or less completely subordinated to its criminal one.

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You could argue that I’m using the wrong terms to assess Breaking Bad; that the show’s priority is not depth of characterisation or breadth of world, but rather narrative momentum. On this front, it’s a delirious success. Both halves of the final season open with a flash-forward to a future in which Walter’s fortunes have clearly collapsed; it’s a terrific device for urging us forward through the episodes that follow, to find out how he arrives at that point. The show’s endings are just as effective – cliffhangers that cry out for resolution. Crystal meth is an apt metaphor for the show itself; it induces a state of mind just as hectic and single-minded.

What I’m describing is pulp – the sort of compulsively readable genre fiction you might consume on a long plane ride. The Sopranos and The Wire both have roots in pulp; both shows transcend those roots. In the case of Breaking Bad – particularly its final two seasons – I’m not so sure. The movies Argo or Speed are much better parallels – terrifically well-made examples of the thriller genre. Both films are tense and gripping and entirely digested in one sitting. I’m a fan of thrillers, but their intention is usually so specific – to induce a state of tense excitement in their audience – that it limits their comprehension of the world. (Of course, there are thrillers – like The Hurt Locker or Heat – that explode the form.) I think this is what Breaking Bad becomes – a very well-made thriller.

It’s a feat in itself to sustain such a high level of tension over the long haul of a TV series, particularly one that ran for six years. (Movies only have to keep it up for two hours.) The longer something runs, however, the more of our time it consumes, the more we as an audience have the right to demand of it. Good pop (and pulp) is usually concise.

There’s a noticeable lift in quality in the final eight episodes. Hank has finally discovered Heisenberg’s true identity; the confrontation between the two men happens almost immediately, in the first episode. Walter’s family unit, which he has always considered sacrosanct, is suddenly under threat. The stakes are high, the storytelling terse, the drama personal; the MacGyver excesses of the previous run of episodes are soon forgotten. From Carol’s terror at Walter’s reappearance to Huell lying down on his bed of money, the show begins to be funny again, too.

The show’s past mistakes continue to impact on its storytelling, however – much as Walter is hounded by his errors. Chief among these is the Nazi gang. Once Walter assumed the role of Heisenberg, Gilligan and his writers endeavoured to introduce worse villains for him to face off against (in large part so he could retain audience sympathy). This was the role of the Mexican twins in season three, almost robotic in their killing efficiency; the purpose of the (transfixing) scene in season four in which Gus Fring calmly dons a biosuit before slitting his lieutenant’s throat. In season five, Walter employs a Nazi gang to carry out a series of murders; they come to play a large role in the final run of episodes. It’s both a distraction from the far more compelling drama going on in Walter’s family, and a cop out, morally – we’re meant to cheer Walter as he returns to face the gang because, obviously, no one’s worse than a Nazi.

The character of Skyler, too, is a problem. She’s well performed by Anna Gunn, but she’s hopelessly inconsistent – largely because she’s written as an obstacle for Walter to get around. One moment, she’s looking forward to Walter’s death as her only hope of escape; the next she’s so loyal to him that she refuses the sanctuary offered to her and her children by Hank and Marie. One moment, she’s repulsed by the knowledge that Walter has committed murders; the next, she’s urging him to kill Jesse. It may be a result of Gilligan’s make-it-up-as-we-go-along approach; certainly she’s less fully imagined than Carmela in The Sopranos. (This is true even though Skyler is far more actively complicit in her husband’s life of crime.) In the end, it limited my involvement in the climactic fight between Skyler and Walter, because she felt more like an exigency of the plot than a real person.