Series Finale Comparison: Breaking Bad and Dexter

** SPOILER WARNING for ALL of Breaking Bad and Dexter **

Breaking Bad‘s finale was better than Dexter‘s.

There. Done. I’m tempted to just drop the mic and walk off the stage to collect my paycheck, but as a fan and reviewer for both of these shows, I feel especially qualified to compare and contrast their finale episodes. What questions did they answer? What didn’t they answer? Did they feel cheap? Rushed? Satisfying? Do we feel closure? Is “lumberjack Dexter” still just as infuriating a week later? We’re going to try to answer all of these questions and more as we dive into the finale episodes of two great, long-running series’: Breaking Bad and Dexter.

So why would we compare these two shows that seem very different on the surface? On one hand you have Dexter, which ran for quite a bit longer, had the freedom of being on pay cable, featured a bigger cast with usually a few big name guest stars to each season, and was quite a bit brighter and colorful in aesthetics and tone. Then you have Breaking Bad, which only had 5 seasons (with the first being only seven episodes), had to deal with the constraints of being on AMC, featured very few guest stars and cast additions to speak of, and had a very consistently dark and dreary tone throughout the series. However, both of these shows had very strong lead actors at their center, both of which had a dark secret that they tried to keep secret from friends and family, and both of these shows would ask you to root for these characters (to a certain extent) no matter how terrible their actions might have been. They were both shows that had a lingering question during the whole series of “Will they ever get caught?” Thankfully, both shows answered this question, but to varying degrees of satisfaction.

THE SAD TRUTH ABOUT FINALES
 

You guys ready to see the staggering ratings for these two finale episodes? Here’s how many viewers the Breaking Bad series finales garnered (in millions) over the six years the show was on the air:

Year 1: 1.5
Year 2: 1.5
Year 3: 1.6
Year 4: 1.8
Year 5: 2.8
Year 6: 10.3

No, you didn’t read that incorrectly. The series finale of Breaking Bad enjoyed a record high number of 10.3 million viewers! They weren’t alone in this phenomenon, either. Just a week prior to this the Dexter finale episode bowed with the highest rated episode of anything on Showtime. Ever. Higher ratings than any other show, and higher ratings than all of the “good” seasons of Dexter as well. The only reason that Breaking Bad doesn’t have the title of “highest rated episode ever” for its network is thanks to the AMC ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead, which happens to be one of the biggest shows on television. So what does this tell us?

Lots of people tune in to finale episodes that do not regularly watch the show. It may seem foreign to you and I, since we’re the kind of people who frequent television blogs and review websites, but there are lots of people who say “Hey, I used to watch that show, I think I’ll check in on the finale and see how it all ends”. This puts writers and showrunners in the unenviable position of having to write a finale episode that will not only please the hardcore fans that have seen every episode, but the casual fans that might be checking in to see how the show ends. If they like what they see, maybe they’ll go back and buy the seasons they missed on DVD, right? You’ve got to keep everybody happy, and that sucks.

Not only do you have to factor in the casual fans, but you have to keep your entire legacy in mind. Remember how much everybody loved shows like The Sopranos and LOST? These shows won plenty of awards and accolades, did gangbuster numbers for their respective channels, and garnered millions of hardcore fans. However, if you mention either of those shows now, you can expect to get a lot of groans and eye rolls thanks to their finale episodes. While there are many who will argue for the artistic validity of both of those finales (I was a fan of the LOST finale, by the way!), their ambiguous endings left a poor taste in everyone’s mouth. So, in a way, your finale episode needs to encapsulate the quality of your entire series. Does this make any sense? Nope. Is this completely unfair and unrealistic? Absolutely. Unfortunately, the vocal fan base that you’ve cultivated and kept happy all these years is completely willing to forget about the hours of entertainment that you’ve provided them if the final hour does not meet their expectations.

With this in mind, I wanted to go through each finale of these great, long-running shows and take a closer look at them. We’ll take a quick look at what each episode got wrong and what they got right, then we’ll wrap it up and try to extrapolate the lesson that future series finales can learn from this. We’ll start out with the negative, as we see what each show screwed up.

WHAT WENT WRONG?
 
Dexter

Ok, I’m going to try my hardest to refrain from spending half of this article railing against the Dexter finale. The Dexter fans have done a great job vocalizing their frustrations for this episode, so I’m not going to rehash every single complaint that they’ve already raised, but I am going to go through two major factors that were unfortunately absent from this final episode: Accountability and closure.

Accountability is a weird one. With shows that feature anti-heroes as the main characters, you’re always wondering if they’ll ever be made accountable for their actions. I may be in the minority on this, but after seeing Dexter murder people for eight straight years, I was really looking forward to him paying for the things he’s done. I know we’re supposed to root for him and all, but he’s had 136 confirmed kills on this show! 136! That just doesn’t happen! That’s an insane amount of victims to have and never really get caught (except for Deb, but even that happened a season later than it should have). I really wished that the Miami Metro folks would have found out about him, as well. Maybe they could have just found out after he “died”, but I wanted to see those reactions! Haven’t I earned that after eight whole seasons?! What would Quinn think when he realized that his suspicions from season five about Dexter being a killer were right all along? What would Masuka have thought when he found out that the dude who worked just a few feet from him all those years, the guy that he idolized to a certain extent, was a murderer? How would Jamie and Angel handle it, knowing that their friend (and employer in Jamie’s case) was the Bay Harbor Butcher? Unfortunately, these are questions that we’ll never know the answer to. We’ll never see how Angel reacts to hearing that Dexter is the real reason that Maria died. We’ll never get to see all of these great revelations, which was made all the more frustrating when people over on Breaking Bad were finding out about Walt all season.

And then there’s closure. The incredibly stupid scene of Dexter being a lumberjack, and staring off into space, was infuriatingly ambiguous. Is he going to stay there forever? What is he thinking as he sits there? You’ve had an irritating voiceover during this whole series, Dexter! Why are you so quiet right now?! Why are you leaving your son in the hands of a fugitive in a foreign country?! None of this was satisfying, and none of it made me feel like I was closing the book on Dexter Morgan’s story.

Breaking Bad

Before you start thinking that I’m taking this opportunity to gush about Breaking Bad and rail against Dexter, the finale episode for Breaking Bad sure wasn’t perfect either. You can read a few of my complaints in my review, but it really felt like the incredible third-to-last episode “Ozymandias” was the true finale, and these last two episodes were just an epilogue. Neither “Granite State” nor “Felina” had the same level of excitement that we’ve come to expect from this series. Even the big shootout scene at Uncle Jack’s hideout was slightly marred by the improbability of it all (They’re all in the same room at the same time?), and the fact that Uncle Jack was a completely unhinged and unpredictable character. You felt so hurt by Walt calling you a liar that you just had to prove him wrong by bringing Jesse into the room? That’s like something a six year old would do if they’re being stubborn and trying to prove a point. Even when the Neo-Nazis were all taken care of, I was hoping for a little bit of a bigger showdown between Walt and Jesse.

WHAT WENT RIGHT?
 
Dexter

I know what you’re thinking, but yes, there were a few things from the Dexter finale that did work pretty well. I know there are some people who are split on this opinion, but I actually enjoyed the final scene between Dexter and Deb. Their relationship has really been the core of the series. Even though Dex will have girlfriends and wives coming in and out, and Deb will have suitors as well (before they get killed), you always loved the great brother/sister dynamic at play here. So it was very touching and poignant for me that Deb would be Dexter’s last “victim”. Instead of wrapping her in black trash bags, she’s instead wrapped in beautiful white linen, like an angel. After being shot, stabbed, and seeing basically everyone that she’s ever loved die because of Dexter being in her life, it was truly poetic that she would go down as one of his victims. She’s really just a victim of circumstance, being the sister of one of the most prolific serial killers of all time. I also really loved the symmetry of Dexter being “killed” by Hurricane Laura (as in Laura Moser, his birth mother). It would have been better if he actually died, since it was cool to have him brought into this world and taken back out by Laura.

Breaking Bad

To oppose Dexter‘s shortcomings, I’ll bring up the two major things I was looking for in the Breaking Bad finale: Accountability and closure. Breaking Bad was a show that was never afraid to have people find out about Walt’s secret. Skyler found out way back in the season three premiere, and even when Hank finally found out, he didn’t waste any time in confronting Walt about it. Walter White predicted way back in the season four finale that “The consequences…they’re coming”. These last five episodes was all about Walt’s consequences, as his family, his money, and his health is violently ripped away from him. You could definitely argue that Walter White is a bigger villain than Dexter ever was, and that he needs to have a bigger comeuppance, but it sure didn’t make it any easier to see him feebly coughing in a cabin out in the middle of nowhere.

Then there’s the all-important closure, which Breaking Bad delivered in spades. While we may not know exactly what Jesse is going to do with his life, the closure for Walter White’s story was beautiful. Heisenberg was born in a meth lab, and died in a meth lab. The final scenes of Walt tapping on the gauges and lovingly caressing the equipment, right before dying with a slight smile on his face, was absolutely beautiful. You really feel like they’ve had closure on one of the greatest television characters on all time.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN?
 

It may be tough to learn too much from these two shows, since they’re really on opposite ends of the spectrum. Dexter might go down as one of the worst series finales of all time, while Breaking Bad might go down as one of the best. As I think about these two episodes, and all of the other series finales I’ve enjoyed, I keep coming back to the concept of closure.

Have you told a complete story for these characters? Are we clearly articulating what has happened to these characters, or what will happen to them? When you think of the shows that are regarded as having great series finales, like Friday Night Lights, The Shield, or Angel, all of those series gave us a very clear indication of what is going to happen with those characters. None of them just zoomed out from their protagonist sitting in a cabin somewhere, staring off into space.

I’m not entirely against the idea of ambiguous finales, but you should never have your series finale be ambiguous. You can have a cliffhanger ending to a season, or maybe have an episode end with a mysterious “…” moment or “to be continued”, but that does not work for a series finale. We need to have a good sense of what is happening to these characters that we’ve come to know and love over the years, and the importance of doing this was clearly demonstrated by these two great series.

As Dexter and Breaking Bad now enter the history books, I’m sure that both will be remembered as key players in this “Golden Age of Television” that we’re experiencing. I will definitely miss both of these shows personally, and I’m going to miss writing about them for sure. I hope you’ve enjoyed experiencing them as much as I have, and I hope you’ll take the time to share your thoughts in the comments.

What did you think of these finales? Which shows have had the best finales? Which had the worst? Please share your opinions, and thank you for reading!