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October 1, 2013

A fix of ‘Breaking Bad’

(Warning: This column contains series-finale spoilers.) One of the most awarded, brilliant and important series in television history has ended. AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” a post-modern Western, concluded Sunday night after a weeklong marathon. I knew better than to try it. Writers and actors had told me I’d get hooked the first time. But I’m stronger than they, so I took a peek — and got transfixed just the same. The first episode grabbed me by the neck and dragged me inside the minds and moral dilemmas of complex, compelling characters — most of them quirky but endearing.

Audiences breathlessly anticipated the series finale. The central tragic figure, Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher, came into conflict with nature when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Amid his fearsome existential crisis, he became a master meth maker. His status as the best in the Desert Southwest grew new cancerous conflicts — with himself, society and drug kingpins north and south of the border. Sloppy secrets and lies sickened his marriage. By the time he volunteered to come clean, his pregnant wife was too afraid to hear it. When she did, she aborted his explanation, offering to keep his secret if he would leave forever. He later reasoned that he became a meth cook to protect her, their teenage son and unborn daughter — to pay off vast medical expenses and the mortgage with plenty of cash in reserve for college funds and a secure future.

But as slick a manipulator as Walt had become, his noble defense rang hollow as danger deepened. His family sought federal protection at the home of his brother-in-law, Hank, a drug enforcement agent who was reportedly the target of a drug lord. Walt neutralized the threat with a bomb activated by an elderly enemy of their target, but an innocent bystander died, too. Nevertheless, Walt declared victory.

It was short lived. When the season finale aired, Walt was America’s most wanted fugitive from justice — holed up in a remote New Hampshire cabin with a barrel of cash. His family was disgraced and devastated. Hank was dead. Walt Jr. blamed his dad and refused to accept his drug money, which Walt steadfastly insisted he had earned. Walt delivered all his cash to a wealthy philanthropic couple who agreed to establish a trust fund for his son. The deal was sealed with a handshake and a convincing death threat if they failed. He returned home to say goodbye to his wife. In a poignant, stunning moment of clarity, he confessed, “I did it for me,” an unprecedented, regretful affirmation of his selfish surrender to darkness. On the bright side, he felt alive. His last act was heroic. In a bloody massacre, he freed Jesse, his former student and meth-making protégé, from captors at a meth lab where he bled to death among the victims of his homemade automatic weapon.

Seems like he coulda been somebody without all that trauma. But he owed Jesse a rescue after blackmailing him to collaborate in the first place.

We’re not likely to see another TV series as masterful as “Breaking Bad.” Once in a blue moon, an elite group of creative geniuses converge to create a masterpiece. And America owes them a debt of gratitude. By exposing the horrors of addiction as graphically as would Quentin Tarantino with the intelligence of Ken Burns, there’s no doubt they have saved many lives.

And thanks to the complete series package that can be pre-ordered online, the show will immunize generations to come. Maybe the squeamish schools will realize that their aversion to sex- and drug-education will one day be viewed as ludicrous as the age when “cancer” was whispered in polite society. Meth, heroin and prescription pill abuse are here to stay. While ignorance of the awful truth is deadly, education saves precious lives.