Warning: Spoilers all over the place.
Vince Gilligan had famously never taken a single chemistry course before he built his celebrated television verité around the subject. The science depicted in the show, in fact, is one of its more emphatically fictional elements. That blue meth, for one thing, is entirely fabricated; purer stuff is white or yellowish. Transgressions like that have engendered arguments that Breaking Bad is actually some of our generation's best straight-up science fiction.
Whether he did so willingly or not, Gilligan astutely manipulated the science of how we watch TV in crafting what is already being considered by critics and viewers to be one of the best series finales in television history. That's not an understatement either; the internet, which tends to go easy only on wronged children and bullied old ladies, seemed nearly unanimous in declaring the finale a masterpiece. So much so that Business Insider ran a piece headlined "Everyone Agrees: The Ending to Breaking Bad Was Absolutely Perfect."
That almost never happens. Most classic modern TV series end amidst divisive critical debate—The Wire petered out, Twin Peaks faded away, and, as the reviewer for The New York Times points out, similarly epic (and anti-hero-laden) fan favorites like The Sopranos and Lost received mixed reviews for concluding in a mush of overt ambiguity.
Gilligan, who wrote and directed the finale, made this one so appealing to his audience by resolving any ambiguity, on more than one level. On the entertainment side, fans obviously tend to love closure: We know exactly what happens to Walt and his family, and, more importantly, to everyone who crossed them: the neo-Nazis get machine gunned down, Lydia gets poisoned with ricin, and those smarmy millionaires who screwed the Whites long ago are forced to become extortionists. Hank will get a proper burial, Marie can mourn, and Jesse will, finally, for the moment, be free.
Considering that this was one of the—if not the—bleakest popular TV shows ever aired, these resolutions rank as home-run crowd-pleasing catharsis compared to events depicted in the previous two episodes.
Which brings us to the science. That catharsis, according to a major theory of entertainment psychology, is probably the key to last night's near-universal acclaim. Before the show's conclusion, Scientific American ran an article investigating why TV viewers—long thought to demand only lighthearted, escapist fare—are such suckers for morally ambiguous, even morally repugnant, television.
Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor of communication studies at West Virginia University and author of the SciAm article, points to the work of Dolf Zillmann, who is "widely recognized as the founder of entertainment psychology as a field of study."
Zillmann "theorized that the answer lies in the emotional intensity these types of shows make us feel," she writes. "His excitation transfer theory says that we can experience a wide range of emotions while we watch distressing shows, and that all the excitement from each of those emotions builds up while we watch."
The catch with excitation transfer, however, is essentially that our brains have to perceive justice getting served in order to bring on the rewards.
"Experiencing intense stress might not be very pleasurable while it’s happening, but according to excitation transfer theory, all that intensity can carry over to boost positive emotions like relief or happiness if the episode ends on a good note," Cohen writes.
All that stress whipped up in the Albuquerque desert, the anxiety over the death and loss, the tensions of who might be next, all that torturous time spent wallowing in the foggy gulf between right and wrong, can bloom into happy fulfillment if we're made to understand that the "good guys" have emerged victorious. In another theory of Zillman's, and psychologist Joanne Cantor's, affective disposition theory (ADT), entertainment consumers are constantly judging the TV characters' actions, indefinitely repositioning them as "good guys" and "villains."
This may be why show constantly introduced us to characters that were worse and more morally bankrupt that Walt; perhaps even incrementally so, in order to one-up his devolution into a sociopathic killer and drug kingpin. First there were the meth dealers he dispatched early on, then the leaders of a drug gang, then the Mexican cartel itself. Finally, we end up at the apotheosis of fictional evil—a meth-dealing neo-Nazi hit squad.
As Walt, who is despicable in contrast to almost anyone else, descended deeper into sociopathy, we forgave his sins because he was, relationally speaking, the "good guy." He started out doing this meth thing for his family, after all, and he was smarter and cleverer than everyone else, and seemed to deserve to win out. According to ADT, we receive a positive emotional boost when good, or at least the protagonist, triumphs—in part because we empathize with them.
In a 2004 paper, Cantor argued that “humans are naturally inclined to empathize with the emotions of protagonists." Feeling close to Mr. White brings us down with him; we experience his anger, helplessness, fear, and megalomania—and what could be more satisfying than rising back up with him? And that's what Gilligan did in "Felina." After two seasons where Walt finally seemed to have broken more bad than his competition—his responsibility for Hank's death the clear nadir—Gilligan and his writers decided to pull him back from the void.
Reviewing the final episode in Slate, Matt Yglesias hits on the crux of this problem. "The fact is that the show is more fun when you’re rooting for Walt than when you’re watching him suffer," he writes. "And in the vast majority of the episodes Gilligan manages to cook up antagonists who are decidedly less sympathetic than Walt is. Walt goes out very much the hero."
Though later research by Arthur A. Raney showed that viewers can identify with characters before any moral judgment has taken place—thus perhaps explaining the cult of Walt fans who cheer the anti-hero even at his worst—it seems pretty clear that our satisfaction increases the more comfortable we are with the moral choices of our hero.
And Walter White, the monster we traveled to hell with, finally did right. He made sure his family would inherit his fortune. He gave Skyler a get out of jail free card, and concealed the fact that he would eventually be responsible for the family's financial wellbeing. And he did the one thing we'd least expected—he told the truth.
"I did it for me," he told Skyler. "... I was alive."
Then he killed a bunch of racist murderers, threw his body over the kid who'd always looked up to him as a father figure, and set him free. Pretty redemptive stuff, all around. This was more than enough to push Walt well into the arena of "good guy," at least as far as our base emotional instincts were concerned. If there was a viewer who was rooting against Walt last night, then they are immune to drama—the excitation transfer was complete. And, as in keeping with ADT, our moral judgments about Walt realigned with a more conventional moral compass enough to feel that loaded resolution right in our marrow.
Gilligan and his team of writers unabashedly manipulated our neural pleasure centers with unparalleled expertise. Breaking Bad was indeed a science experiment. They made a show about a man who synthesized and sold vast quantities of a deadly drug, let an innocent woman choke to death, wantonly poisoned a child, and left a trail of bodies longer than the line for blue meth at an Albuquerque truck stop—and then made us feel, for lack of a better word, happy at the end. They manufactured a sensation that allows us to unironically watch clip reels of a show about torture and degradation set to Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."
This expertly executed moral recalibration allowed millions of viewers to nod contentedly, even cry openly, at the demise of one of the most relentlessly brutal characters (and shows) to garner a wide audience. Steelier-eyed fans may question the surfeit of redemption in the final hour, but they'll be in the minority.
Most of us are quite happy about that pile of Nazi bodies in the desert, about the fact that Walt didn't die alone of cancer in a freezing woodshed in New Hampshire, about the notion that he ultimately emerged victorious. It might not make much sense, but we don't have much say in the matter—Vince Gilligan used science to play our brains like a fiddle.