Tuned In

Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad Postmortems: How Walt “Won” Yet Lost His Soul

Comments from Breaking Bad's creator make clear that while Walt fixed a few messes in the end, he didn't fix himself

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in the final episode of AMC;s Breaking Bad, which aired on Sept. 29, 2013

Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, has been doing a bit of a media explaining tour after the show’s finale. Last night, he told Stephen Colbert that he thought the worst thing Walt did in five seasons was taunting Jesse about Jane’s death. (Worse, he says, than actually letting Jane die, because he does it out of “pure sadism.”) On the Breaking Bad Insider podcast, he said that Walt “went out like a man.”

But so far I’m most interested by something he told Entertainment Weekly:

I guess our gut told us that it would feel satisfying for Walt to at least begin to make amends for his life and for all the sadness and misery wrought upon his family and his friends. Walt is never going to redeem himself. He’s just too far down the road to damnation. But at least he takes a few steps along that path.

Gilligan makes an important point here, something I tried to get at in banging out my review late Sunday night: that Walt may have fixed some problems, but that doesn’t mean he’s redeemed or changed–and in fact, it probably would have been phony to try to redeem him.

Breaking Bad‘s finale was in some ways a very simple episode by the show’s standards. It was generally linear. It was plot-dense, even rushed in points. It was structured as a series of successes in which Walt manages to clean up some of his larger messes before he dies: giving Skyler an out with the DEA, seeing his family provided for, avenging Hank’s death (while springing Jesse, pretty much on the spur of the moment).

And yet at heart the finale is doing something really difficult—or rather, asking the audience to do it: recognizing that Walt has done things, and been things, that cannot simply be erased by creatively rigging a garage-door opener. (Related: so that’s what that was!)

“Felina” does make an effort to please everyone as much as possible—particularly to assure the audience that the Whites will be okay. Yet the finale also asks the audience to balance seeing Walt give them what they (presumably want)—vengeance, solutions—with the recognition that Walt himself cannot just break good again. Even as he goes out on his last adventure you can see it: the grim pleasure he takes in terrifying the Schwartzes, his admission to Skyler that he did what he did not for his family but himself.

There’s really, in other words, not much sense Walt feels he’s ever done anything wrong—just that things haven’t gone as he’d planned, and he wants to fix a few of them. The finale invites us to watch as he does that, and even root for it; after all, disliking Walt does not have to mean wanting his family destitute or Jesse enslaved. But it also, at the same time, asks us to recognize that deeds aren’t enough: they don’t erase what Walt has done or unleashed, and they don’t make him a good person in the end. Indeed, the only way he can clean up his mess is by drawing on what made him an effective bad person.

Some commentators have said the finale was too committed to fan service and crowd-pleasing, and there may be something to that. (Jesse didn’t die, says Gilligan, because it would have been a “bummer,” for instance.)

But the really conventional TV thing to do would have been to have Walt see the light, to go out in some Sydney Carton-like spirit of “It is a far, far better thing That I do…” Instead, Breaking Bad committed to the premise that Walt could fix a lot of things in his last days on Earth, but he couldn’t fix Walt. And it trusted its viewers to know the difference.

15 comments
yogi
yogi

Of course Walt doesn't redeem himself, he dies with a smile on his face patting the lab equipment making his signature product. He believes he's made right with his family and friends, but there is no evidence that this would be the case.

All the main characters don't get a happy ending. Skylar and Marie's relationship is probably damaged for good, especially when Marie finds out how they found Hank's body. Flynn hates his father for the belief he killed Hank and being a drug dealer, hates his mother for knowing about Walt's business. No amount of money presented from Walt's former business partners will give him happiness, no matter how legit they make the money sound. Holly will grow up to a family of bitterness and hatred whenever she asks about her father.

Jesse may have the worst of it, sure he's free, but we've seen how he reacted to death before (Jane, Gale, and the motorcycle kid). While he didn't pull the trigger, he's responsible for Andrea's death, how could he ever go see Brock? He'll probably never feel he can be in a relationship again given his past two girlfriends have died because of his actions. His parents disown him, he can't go back home and face questions from his friends and/or police. No, Jesse, will have the psychological scars for a long time no matter where he goes, probably go back to drugs and end up ODing.


That said, I really liked the finale.

Vacatia
Vacatia

I loved the finale.  The only point still bothering me is why Vince Gilligan said he found it sad that Walt Jr would never know his dad didn't kill Hank.  Random comment for him to make, and how does he know he wouldn't find out via Skylar, or find our when via police investigation?

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

I was a little… queasy after the finale, but not in a bad way, exactly? I really didn’t want a finale in which everybody died or continued to suffer horribly, and I think probably only Walt was in a practical position to engineer a decent outcome for his family, Jesse, and Marie. I had wanted to see Skyler and Marie have more, I guess, agency at the end, but at the same time I knew that most of the actions they could take would only result in more problems or torment for them. The queasy feeling came because instead of hoping to see Walt DIE IN A LAKE OF FIRE as he deserves, I wound up rooting for him again! Which I think speaks to the show’s great mastery; these amazing final episodes tweaked Bad Fans and Good Fans alike. (“Think you’re done with wanting the bad man to win, Good Fan?! Think again!”)

Because nothing’s that simple. I also thought the finale was very appropriately character-based. As in, Walt Did What Walt Would Do in this situation. (Although you can argue he was way more successful than he usually is.) I liked that within Walt Doing What Walt Would Do (with flickers of his usual pride and arrogance) were a lot of dilutions and compromises and curveballs this time. For example, the pleasantly surprising outcome of Walt seeing Elliot and Gretchen on Charlie Rose wasn’t that he decided to avenge his name with furious vengeance but that he saw a practical way to finally get the money to his family. Walt’s ambitions seemed considerably lessened (trunk-mounted machine gun notwithstanding, heh), and maybe that’s why his plans worked better this time? I tend to think that maybe Walt was 10% or 20% redeemed at the end, just enough to help him redeem a half-decent future for his family and Jesse. Which is okay with me, despite my queasiness. And ultimately I feel that my queasiness is a result of a fantastic show that really did its job and made an indelible mark on me.

paulmdoro
paulmdoro

I didn't care much for the last episode while watching it, and two days later I like it even less. It was too committed to glaring implausibilities more than it was committed to anything else. It failed to surprise. It allowed everything to go off without a hitch. It was way too neat and tidy. 

vrcplou
vrcplou

@TheHoobie I'm queasy because I've rooted for Walt all along and never saw him as a bad person, despite the terrible things he's done and I'm concerned about what that says about me, lol.  I loved the finale.  I thought it was true to the characters and true to the show.  It provided enough resolution for me; I got to see old friends (hello Badger and SP!).  That song at the end was just pure perfection in every single way.  I've gone back and watched the last 8 or so minutes of the show at least three times now and it hurts a little more every time.  It's sinking in that this spectacular show that I've enjoyed so much is really done and I won't get to spend time with these people any more.  And that makes me really, really sad.

BillyMozart
BillyMozart

@TheHoobie

I loved the finale as a piece of craft.  As a piece of art (and I think Breaking Bad as a whole is among the best art TV has to offer), I'm not entirely gobsmacked.  If you think about it, the finale was quite ambiguous in answering its most important question - is Walt, and by virtue all of human nature, irredeemable?  The core element of the show was playing with how the audience perceives the protagonist.  We root for Walt all the way up to the end - no matter how smart we are, no matter how objective we want to be.  That's the craft of Vince Gilligan.  And so, if I'm to try and suss out an artistic statement, the expected and delivered reaction from the general audience is almost creepy.  A man can not be redeemed, a man should not be redeemed, and so we the audience give in (just as Walt does) and cheer him on as he kicks ass?  As he subverts his son's will and forces his drug money into his life?  I'm stealing a lot of notes from Jeff Jensen's essay on EW - the most salient being, why not just let the cops take down the nazis and lydia?  Because it was murderous revenge, any way you slice it.

The best finales are reflections of the audience itself.  Sopranos and Lost, with their huge viewership opportunities, both said more about the audience then they did about their own shows, which is an undeniable feat.  I remember David Chase saying he was surprised to find out that so many people wanted Tony to die, but I think he knew all along - and it went in to the design of the final moments.  And do you really think Lindelof and Cuse couldn't have devised something - if not brilliant - at least more palatable, for our closure-obsessed minds?  So far the biggest thing I've learned about the Breaking Bad audience is that some are misogynistic and possibly psychotic (death threats to Anna Gunn, really?), some unabashedly identify with the worst parts of Walt and his ambition, and many are ideologues who will bully opposing opinions into silence.  

From recent interviews, Gilligan seems to be saying, maybe admitting, that he basically wrote the finale to try and please the maximum number of people.  If so, it's a decent artistic move - your coup de grace is Ozymandius, and you spend the last two episodes just viscerally thrilling the lowest common denominator of the Breaking Bad fandom - the action/tension junkies.

paulmdoro
paulmdoro

@TheHoobie Walt was an absolute monster of a human being. It's not to the show's credit that people were rooting for him at the end. 

TheHoobie
TheHoobie

I also loved how they used the song "El Paso," which has always been a favorite at our house. I thought they used it just right: as a light but straightforward nod to the general theme of the finale. It was actually a fun, happy moment to sing it along with Walt as he worked on the machine gun.

RandyMelson
RandyMelson

@paulmdoro Yes, it is a pity that Vince Gilligan didn't have access to your brilliant mind, so that the finale would have been flawless from every point of view.

vrcplou
vrcplou

@BillyMozart @TheHoobie I would just say that for me "just let the cops take down the nazis and lydia" is not satisfying because that's real life.  That's how things work in real life and I'm not really watching my entertainment for real life.  I want enhanced, better HD real life, you know?  Which isn't to say I want a fantasy, which it would be if Walt got away with everything and his money.  I'm not sure how to articulate it because what draws me to shows like BB and SOA is the "realism", but clearly it's not real at all.  Walt and Jesse would have been caught at the outset in real life.  Anyway, just throwing that out there.

paulmdoro
paulmdoro

@RandyMelson See the above post, the part about fans who are ideologues bullying opposing opinions into silence. Apply to you maybe? 

paulmdoro
paulmdoro

 @RandyMelson My original post is pretty short and shares a few of my beefs. I don't know how it comes across as self-important. By your definition every single post on the Internet is self-important. 

RandyMelson
RandyMelson

@paulmdoro @RandyMelson Uh oh. It sounds like someone is a little butt-hurt maybe? No one is trying to bully you into silence Paulie, so relax. It's just that, well, to be honest, your estimation of the relative importance of your own opinion seems to be a wee bit inflated.

I'll even let you have the last word, so that you can feel like you've won whatever imaginary argument is taking place in your head.