Spoilers for the season finale of Breaking Bad coming up after the jump:
I have a feeling people are going to be arguing about the last scene of season 2 of Breaking Bad, and how it relates to the first scene of the season. Since we saw that glimpse early on of a charred teddy bear floating in a swimming pool—and then had the scene elaborated on, over and again—the hints were strong that something terrible was going to happen at Walt’s family’s home. It did, but as it turned out, it didn’t happen to Walt’s family.
I don’t mind that the show went for a cosmic rather than personal disaster for Walt, though I generally don’t like it when shows treat themselves like puzzles for the audience to figure out. (In a postmortem interview with Alan Sepinwall, Vince Gilligan notes that the titles of each episode that feature the teddy-bear-pool scenes spell out “737 Down Over ABQ.”) As much of a fake-out as the plane crash was, however, I was glad that Gilligan and company didn’t make the big surprise! switcheroo the whole point of the closing minutes. It was clear from the opening scene—with smoke plumes in the mountains and the NTSB, which doesn’t generally investigate drug crimes, clearing the bodies—that we were seeing the aftermath of the plane crash.
What I liked about the conclusion is that we already know—and we know that Walter knows—how much death he is responsible for, and in how much jeopardy he has placed his family in. But with the plane crash, the direct result of his letting a woman dies before his eyes, we now know that Walter is responsible for far more death than he’s even aware of. To focus on whether it was a cheat that the burnt teddy bear didn’t belong to Walter’s daughter is beside the point. He’s now responsible for the horrible death of someone else’s baby—and far more.
As for Walter, he lost his baby in a less literal, but wrenching way, as Skyler was finally overwhelmed by his lies and left him. (You could see that coming from the point when she started asking the doctor how soon Walter would be able to care for himself, a nod to the double burden she’s had of being infuriated with Walter yet having to hold back because of his illness.)
Now, rather than being able to leave something behind for his family after his death, he is faced with the prospect of losing his family and having to live through it, having lost them through the very moral compromise he made to provide for them. The scene in which Walter listens to Walt Jr. tell the TV interviewer how he’s a decent man who “always does the right thing” was one of the best this series has ever done. I had expected Walter to have some kind of outburst in the scene; instead, we just saw Bryan Cranston’s suffocating discomfort, as he realized that the beloved father on his son’s web site is already dead.
Breaking Bad never had the chance to do a real season finale for its strike-shortened first season, so we finally got the chance to see what this strange, yet moving stuff it could pull off for a season-ender. And this one showed off many of the strengths this show has developed over its second run. There’s the growth of Hank as a supporting character (while he still delivers the show’s funniest lines: “Combo? I’m unfamiliar with that name. Was he a Nobel laureate, perchance?”) The tough-love connection that has developed between Walter and Jesse. And the painful unraveling of Walter and Skyler’s marriage, as it comes clear how much Walter has taken from his family in his misguided effort to give to them.
In the meantime, the cartel is still out there. And after this haunting, open-ended finale, there are any number of directions the show can take in season 3. I can’t wait to find out.