“Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.” –Walter White
“I guess I got what I deserved.” –Badfinger, “Baby Blue”
The final episode of Breaking Bad, like Walter White climbing into that frozen car in New Hampshire, had a lot of business to take care of in a short time. To list just a few of the questions hanging before it: Will Walt die? Will he be redeemed? Can he make it up to his family? What is Marie’s role? What is the ricin for? The machine gun? Does Gray Matter fit in? What happens to Skyler? Where’s the Todd and Lydia story going? Oh, and is Huell still waiting in that living room?
“Felina,” the last episode ever of the magnificent series Breaking Bad, was a kind of machine gun of narrative, knocking down all of those questions with auto-fire efficiency. (Well, almost all. Sorry, Huell!) It was not flashy. It wasn’t structurally ambitious, in the way other Breaking Bad episodes have been. It was not, in most respects, surprising. (Except for Walt’s laundering scheme with Gretchen and Elliott, I think I saw nearly everything predicted, at least in general terms, by people besides me in the last week.)
And that’s OK. Because what “Felina” was–as effective, satisfying series finales are–was true. It was true to the five seasons that preceded it, true to Walter White’s obsessions and pride, and true to what Breaking Bad is at heart: a Western. As in the song “El Paso,” the protagonist (I’m not going to say hero) rode back to town, faced his enemies, said his goodbyes, and died. A Western is meant to go out with a bang, and Breaking Bad went out with about 40 of them per second (plus a dose of ricin).
It’s a Western, though, in which we were following the man, literally, with the black hat. Having seen the trail of suffering Walt has selfishly left behind him, I didn’t necessarily want to see Walt end up triumphant, feeling like a hero. But as I wrote when this final run of episodes began, the definition of a “good” Breaking Bad finale was not whether it punished Walter White. It was whether the series stayed true to his character, to its themes, whether or not it was pleasant to see.
On that level, “Felina” was a good finale. I wouldn’t call it a great episode, in the way that “Ozymandias” instantly was. But it closed out a great series in style, with visual flair, action, and a thorough lack of phony redemption.
For let’s not be mistaken: Walt solved a lot of problems in this finale, but that’s not the same as saying that he made everything better. We saw Walt back in Heisenberg mode, ending his problems and his enemies with DaVincian invention and Machiavellian manipulation. He devised a way to get his money to his family, like it or not; he delivered Skyler, literally, a ticket out of jail (albeit a lottery ticket); he MacGyvered the destruction of the Nazi fortress and freed Jesse; and he poisoned Lydia with Huell-like dexterity.
But was it a redemption? Did Walter White set everything straight and turn himself back into a good man before he went out? He didn’t, and I think he knew he didn’t–nor did he necessarily want to. Breaking Bad, over five seasons, turned Mr. Chips into Scarface (right down to the machine gun); to turn him back into Mr. Chips in one hour would have been a cheat.
Instead of redemption, Walt ended with something like peace. He knew what he was, and he was done lying, to himself and to others. The key moment probably came in his talk with Skyler: “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family–” she begins. “I did it for me,” he says. “I liked it. I was good at it. I was alive.”
We can argue about this, but I will say that this is not a good thing: that the self-actualization of a middle-aged man is not a good enough excuse to go selling death on the streets. But it is who Walt is, and he is not going to say otherwise anymore. It is not a temporary thing that he can retire from; he knows that now.
In fact–and this upends the moral closure you often expect from TV stories–he is not really sorry about it, even if he regrets some of the consequences. He is this guy; he may be a druglord with a code, but he is still a druglord. And he is going to go out on his terms, achieving a victory the way he defines it: not because it is right, not because it is the motion of a just universe–notwithstanding the car keys dropping from heaven–but because he is good at it. He is the bad guy out to get the worse guys. Is it Justice? It’s what Just Is. At least it rhymes.
And “Felina,” in some of its most powerful moments, is also conscious of what Walt cannot engineer. He cannot get his family to love him again. Skyler lets him see his baby Holly one last time, but she does not offer her forgiveness. And he can only take what he knows is his last look at Walt Jr. from a distance, knowing that his son’s last words will be wishing for his death and that he is going off to grant that wish. You don’t have to like Walt to empathize with him here; whether he deserves love, he did once love.
And then he heads off to the showdown with Jack at his compound, where he wins one more time, with ingenuity and science. (He also, maybe fittingly, essentially kills himself; we see him take what look like two gunshots from ricochets as he lies on the floor with Jesse.) His last moments with Jesse, I felt, were one point where the finale fell short. It’s brief and intense, and maybe that relationship is too far gone for there to be any more to it. But at the end of it I felt mostly relief for tortured, manipulated Jesse–not so much that he got free as that, finally, he had a chance to pull a trigger and refused.
But we’re probably past the point where Walter White could have catharsis through an encounter with another person. There are no moving last words, no epiphanic speech for Walt, who instead leaves the world after telling Lydia that she is going to die a painful death of poison for threatening his family. He ends in silence, and alone.
In a way, this ending is sort of ideal–and maybe more complex than the relatively straightforward finale seems. We’ve been talking for weeks about the different camps fans have been in awaiting the ending. Do you want Walt to live or die? Do you want him to triumph or be punished? And you could say, on the surface that this is an ending that plays out ideally for Team Walt, those who wanted to see him win spectacularly. His plans are a success. He watches his enemies defeated, his voice the last they hear. He ends things on his terms. It is over when Heisenberg says it’s over.
But you could see this ending another way, not as an endorsement of Walt and Heisenberg but as simply a clear reflection of him. In the “Talking Bad’ interview after the finale, Vince Gilligan alludes to Walt at the end as being like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, in the meth lab, reunited with “his Precious.”
It’s an interesting comparison: Smeagol/Gollum was a dual character like Walt/Heisenberg, and he too ended The Lord of the Rings not redeemed–indeed, villainous–yet instrumental in defeating a larger evil nonetheless. Here, likewise, Walt is alone at the end of all things with a beloved, cold thing. He takes a moment to himself, considers his life’s work, and the last things he sees are himself, his machine, and a smear of blood. One more time, he is caressing his baby. He’s alone with what he loves, and what he deserves.
I can’t say that I loved you in the end, Walter White. But I did love watching your story, in all its cold and hard and bloody beauty.
Now one last hail of bullets:
* Walt may have spent the episode trying to right the suffering of his family, but am I the only one who feels really badly for Lydia’s daughter?
* I saw a lot of talk on Twitter right after this episode was done about whether this finale was better than The Sopranos’, or Lost’s, or vice versa. I might write more about that later, but for now, I’d just say that giving this kind of ending to a very different show like The Sopranos or Lost would have been ridiculous. It makes no more sense to me to argue that finales that “answer all the questions” are better than to argue that cubism is better than impressionism, or nonfiction is better than poetry.
* “Elliott, if you’re going to go that way, you’re going to need a bigger knife.”
* While we’re talking about people amassing massive illicit fortunes–I know AMC is a business, and I’m glad that that business gave us five seasons of Breaking Bad, but the hacking up of this episode for commercials was itself criminal.
* “The whole thing felt kinda shady, you know? Morality-wise?” You could just slap that quote right on the front of the DVD box set.
* As I’d said, I wished the episode–and this finale–had given Jesse more of a moment, but the callback to his box monologue from season 3 was really moving.
* And that’s it. Because I wanted to kick off the discussion here–and am not going to be any more insightful if I stay up until 4 a.m.–I decided to err on the side of getting this review done faster. Which means I probably erred on a bunch of other sides too! I’ll update in the morning to correct any egregious mistakes, and don’t be surprised if I write more about this finale in the days ahead.
* Finally, to everyone reading this post, thanks. I reviewed Breaking Bad on and off its first season, and starting reviewing individual episodes in season 2. It’s been fascinating to watch in real-time as this series deepened, grew darker and more audiacious. And it’s been gratifying to see the commenting community that grew up around these posts here. Whether you were reading these posts from the get-go or just came across this one, thanks, and I’ve been glad to have this amazing, terrible experience with you. So for the last time, have at it: no half measures.