Sunday night's "explosive" season four finale of Breaking Bad undeniably changed the game, particularly in its twist-packed, jaw-dropping final moments. (Caution: Spoilers lie ahead.) Many critics called it one of the best episodes of television this year. The hit AMC drama has been a critical darling throughout its run, winning star Bryan Cranston three consecutive Emmys for his portrayal of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, once diagnosed with cancer, begins producing and dealing meth to provide for his family. Sunday's episode tested the limit of how far Walt could go and still have viewers on his side: In the final minutes, we learned that he not only set off a bomb in a nursing home (killing ruthless drug lord and arch-nemesis Gus), but also poisoned Brock, an innocent child, in a complex scheme to win back the loyalty of Walt's jilted partner, Jesse. Best revelation ever?
My mind was blown: This was a "stunning, morally searing and, well, explosive season finale," says James Poniewozik at TIME. Those final twists will go down as "holy-crap moments for the ages." Is this the point where Walt crosses "the threshold of sympathy?" The series has long been about blurring ethical lines. But willingly endangering the life of an innocent child? That may push the audience "past the point of believing his actions are remotely justifiable." It will also make next season "absolutely riveting."
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Actually, I wasn't that shocked: Yes, this finale ended an already "amped-up season" on an "insane crescendo," says Jessica Grose at Slate. But this was the first episode of Breaking Bad "where I didn't feel like every move was unpredictable." It was practically a given that Gus wouldn't survive the season finale. And Walt, with his nemesis gone and his meth lab torched, could easily walk away from his drug-dealing life for good. But, again predictably, "I don't believe that he will, not for a second."
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Still, it was an extremely satisfying episode: Considering how many tangled story lines were neatly tied up, the episode felt "like an ending," says Todd VanDerWerff at the Los Angeles Times. Sure, there's still open conflict: Walt's brother-in-law's continued DEA investigation, and the potential fallout should Jesse discover the truth about Brock. But this felt "like the closing of a triumphant chapter in Walter White's life." He spent all season beaten down and still managed to win — but the victory "tastes like ashes." The final revelation summed up everything the series is about: "No matter how much [Walt] tries to say he's still that good man, it tastes a little more empty every time."
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And cements Breaking Bad's status as stellar TV: It's official, says Joel Brown at The Boston Globe. Breaking Bad is one of, if not the, best dramas in TV history. It's deservedly mentioned alongside The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire as one of "the four stars of the current golden age." But even The Sopranos had missteps and not-so-good seasons — "remember that horrible dream sequence?" Breaking Bad, on the other hand, has maintained its "relentless momentum" more than any other series. The season four finale? It was "perfect."
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