This week's finale of the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad achieved what most series dare only dream of, transcending the confines of the small screen to become a socio-cultural event, anticipated with not so much eagerness as frothing vigour and concurrently mourned by many like a death in the family.
A slow burning success story, fueled by the show's availability on Netflix, Breaking Bad follows high school science teacher Walter White as he deals with a potentially terminal cancer diagnosis by putting his chemical expertise to use producing crystal meth as a way of providing his family with a nest egg.
The show has always been wildly entertaining, but the longer it has gone on, the more apparent it has become that to merely class it as a piece of televisual pulp is to do it a major disservice. The meticulous, intricate design that has gone into the most seemingly innocuous details is staggering, and the classical dramatic influences have become more and more clear, with comparisons from Hamlet to King Lear (to summarise just the Shakespeare connection) all holding various allegorical truths.
The difference between being a piece of entertainment, albeit an excellent one, and a work of art is what sets the good series apart from the great. But where does Breaking Bad rank amongst the plethora of masterful shows from the ongoing "Golden Age" of TV drama?
As a study of individual characters, Breaking Bad is simply peerless. A prolonged flashback to the very beginning of the series in the third to last episode was demonstrative of just how drastically (yet almost imperceptibly) Walt has transformed from a mild-mannered, loveable loser trying to look out for his family to the monstrous, calculating criminal mastermind we're faced with in the final episode (creator Vince Gilligan has described his original idea for the show as simply "Mr Chips becomes Scarface"). The Wire was far more concerned with the social milieu that it set out to explore than the individuals that exist within it. Mad Men prides itself on its pensive study of its characters, but none in the series have undergone such a seismic upheaval as Walt and his family. Breaking Bad's closest competitor in this field is The Sopranos, another series concerned with family life in the throes of criminality, but in Breaking Bad we've seen the descent, rather than beginning in medias res.
Endings have proven perennially problematic for even the most cultured and inventive writers, largely due to the scope made possible by the medium, and the need to then tie up the loose ends. The Sopranos' climax was either a stroke of genius or a cop out, depending on who you ask, but there's no denying its lack of closure (although some argue that this is precisely the point). Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has taken the unusual step of announcing how the show will end, although the glacial, character-driven plot lines of his series make this more understandable and less problematic in terms of spoilers.
Lost and Breaking Bad hold various similarities in both the circulatory and thematic natures of their narratives, and the way in which various cast and crew members have been talking up the cohesion of their respective finales. In the case of Lost, these assurances proved somewhat hollow, as the series stumbled toward a conclusion that left numerous red herrings in its wake; the same can not be said for Breaking Bad's high octane climax.
There's also no doubt that Breaking Bad avoided the fate befallen by another show which ended in the last week, Dexter, where momentum was completely lost over the final series. The skill with which propulsion and anticipation were generated going into the final stretch of Breaking Bad has only been truly matched by The Wire's dour, downbeat climax, which served as a fitting end to an unremittingly bleak series.
Almost all of the great series from the past twenty years have taken cues from classical influences, from Lost's deference to religious iconography to The Wire's focus on social inequalities and corruption, but once again, Breaking Bad takes these a step further. From its relatively incongruous beginnings, the show has borrowed from any number of classical works, depending on which theories you personally subscribe to. Some - like Ozymandias, the name of one of the final episodes - are overt, whilst others are more subtle - for example, this fantastic idea surrounding a throwaway comment about Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium in the penultimate episode.
While the answer to the question of which series comes out trumps will ultimately always come down to a matter of subjectivity, Breaking Bad's taught, interwoven storylines, beautifully developed characters and thematic richness that just begs for further analysis means there's no denying its place on the elite pedestal of TV drama. In the penultimate episode, Walt tearfully whimpers that it "can't all be for nothing", and while rubbing shoulders with small screen royalty will be little consolation to Heisenberg (White's drug kingpin pseudonym), it most definitely hasn't been.
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