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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

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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.