'Breaking Bad' vs. 'Dexter' finales: Was THIS the key difference?

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A dark serialized cable drama about a murderous criminal mastermind anti-hero who was hiding in plain sight aired its series finale this month — AMC’s Breaking Bad and Showtime’s Dexter. Fan reaction to the respective endings was, to say the least, extremely different.

Breaking Bad, as it has been all season, was greeted with effusive praise for its emotionally satisfying conclusion, even though the climax wasn’t quite as surprising as one might have expected. Dexter, as through most of its final season, was pilloried for a lack of realism and its characters making loopy choices, though the ending notably had some shocking moves.

The factors and variables that went into each episode, and the fan reactions, are too numerous to count. But if you were to cite one behind-the-scenes aspect … just one … there is something the producers of each show have said repeatedly about their creative methodology that is every bit as polarized as the fan reactions.

For Dexter, the series finale was basically decided years ago. Showrunner Scott Buck pitched a conclusion to Showtime, the network liked the idea, and that was what you saw. “The kernel idea were the last few scenes,” Buck said. “They were what I pitched a few years ago … those final scenes were pretty much unchanged.”

For Breaking Bad, the ending was the result of considerable debate. Creator Vince Gilligan and his team brainstormed 30-40 very different endings, with each being defended and justified, in a search of the very best possible ending. “We tried to play a deep game and consider every move and every countermove and every possible dead end to those moves,” Gilligan said. “That took the better part of a year in the writers room, and we feel good about the work that resulted.”

So one ending was a writer-producer’s favorite idea, the other was the result of an arduous committee process that explored and eliminated numerous options.

And yet … it’s tough to extract a lesson from this.

Because sometimes, a visionary showrunner’s uncontested idea IS the best way to end a show.

Probably my favorite all-time series finale remains FX’s The Shield, with Breaking Bad close behind. Vic Mackey’s completely unexpected and fitting fate in The Shield was something creator Shawn Ryan had in his head for a few years, though, like with Dexter, the rest of the finale was fleshed out in the writers room.

And could HBO’s The Sopranos have been improved by a furious writer’s room debate? It could certainly have been made far less controversial and more immediately satisfying. But having re-watched the final season a couple months back, my feelings about that ending utterly flipped from “a pretentious cop out” to “rather fitting and brilliant” after I realized post-binge the ending wasn’t nearly as ambiguous as I once thought (Tony Soprano was shot dead in front his family in that diner, 100 percent; creator David Chase simply denied you seeing it — and if you don’t believe that, this rather exhaustive blog post argues the point better than I can).

In other words, sometimes an uncontested vision is ideal. But perhaps it’s best to enroll that idea in a creative fight club in the writers’ room, just in case. That way, you can have every element challenged and reduce the odds of, for instance, memes like this:

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