SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Click through to read what critics are saying about the finale:
Gilligan has also talked in the past about the idea of a moral force in the “Breaking Bad” universe. When he and I discussed season 2’s plane crash, he described it as “a rain of fire coming down around our protagonist’s ears, sort of like the judgment of God.” From that perspective, maybe Walt’s sudden ability to settle all family business with minimal fuss isn’t too much narrative economy, but rather the God of “Breaking Bad” deciding that after all the harm Walter White had caused to so many people, matters needed to be set right before he died, and he was the man to do it. Note that Walt — a man of science, not faith — prays when he sits in the snow-covered car in New Hampshire, desperate to get it started and escape the arriving cops; maybe once his actions were genuinely selfless and penitent, and once he was so close to death anyway, all his remaining prayers were answered.
It’s remarkable to think back on all five seasons of “Breaking Bad” and see so many perfect notes like that, so much pit-stained anxiety, so much confidence in the story that it set out to tell, but also so much confidence on the part of Gilligan and his writers to let the story tell them where it wanted to go.
When you look back, what you don’t see are the missteps and tangents that can often plague an ambitious and critically praiseddrama over time — usually somewhere in the later part of Season 2 or first part of Season 3. There just isn’t a weak season of “Breaking Bad.” There’s just superior work, a sprint toward evil that turned into a marathon.
What is the more loving gesture: to figure out what you think is best for someone and then figure out how to manipulate them into doing it, or to accept that they are individuals with the autonomous right to live as they choose, and not as you think they should? To me, Walt’s manipulation of the money was in no way redemptive, or loving, or sympathetic. It was a continuing megalomaniacal scheme to get his way, no matter what, no matter who he had to threaten to kill.
Perhaps the one thing Walt did that was truly satisfying for me was his admission to Skyler that he set all these events in motion not out of a desire to help or provide for his family, but because he liked his life as an all-powerful drug lord. He enjoyed himself. Heisenberg was created not out of desperation, but out of desire and ego. None of this was need; it was all want. That means Hank and Gomez wound up dead, Andrea wound up dead, Drew Sharp wound up dead, and Jesse spent all that time locked in a dungeon, all so that Walt could feel like a big, powerful guy. That admission, late in coming as it was, meant something.
Capping off five seasons of critically acclaimed television, the AMC series Breaking Badconcluded its run Sunday night with the shocking revelation that the entirety of the show’s story—from Walter White’s diagnosis with cancer to his transformation into a ruthless methamphetamine kingpin—was in fact merely the plotline of a crime novel that character Marie Schrader had shoplifted from a local bookstore.
I’m quite certain that many, many people adored Vince Gilligan’s kickass ending to “Breaking Bad”: it’s easy to sense that from even a brief surf in the celebratory waters online. Nothing I write can erase someone else’s pleasure: and why should it? Pleasure is an argument for itself. But if you don’t want to read a critical take, stop here. In my own way, I also enjoyed aspects of the finale, particularly the scene with Skyler. And yet, I did not like the episode. Maybe it was just me—I’ll read all the recaps, and I’ll soon find out—but halfway through, at around the time that Walt was gazing at Walt, Jr., I became fixated on the idea that what we were watching must be a dying fantasy on the part of Walter White, not something that was actually happening—at least not in the “real world” of the previous seasons.
And, if that were indeed the case, I’d be writing a rave.
I believe in redemption, but something about the particular form that Walt’s redemption took felt off. I think I get what Gilligan was driving at. In the finale, Walt stopped lying to himself about what he did and why he did it. Walt also stopped trying to avoid responsibility for his actions. Even the early Walt (before he had become Heisenberg) wasn’t willing to do that. When Walt had the drug dealer Domingo chained under Jesse house, Walt drew up a list of reasons for either freeing or killing Domingo. The option Walt left off was to go to the police. That would have involved confessing his involvement in drug production and his role in the death of Domingo’s business partner. Even early in the first season, Walt’s scruples were hedged by his determination to avoid being called to account for his actions. – See more at: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/postmodernconservative/2013/09/30/breaking-bads-finale-spoiler-alert/#sthash.Wt43Lfzj.dpuf
Augustine called sin “disordered desire” to indicate that the problem is not what we desire, but degrees to which we value these things. It’s not wrong to want to protect one’s family, it’s not wrong to want to be great at what you do. But it is wrong when you value those things more than you value God, more than you value doing what is right. This idolatry – a complete and utter devotion to protecting his family – combined with a blinding pride that prevented him from seeing what they really wanted as well as pushing him to take unnecessary risks, is what eventually tore his family apart.
Walt’s essential deceit is that life is a do-it-yourself project. This deceit is in sharp contrast with the boyhood Catholicism which is said to have shaped Vince Gilligan’s show. The rejection of charity—of love—is for the Christian the rejection of existence, because life itself is a gift. When you base your identity on something other than the grace and love of God as Creator (and redeemer—the giver and restorer of life), then you inhabit a false reality with a false identity. This is another way of describing the effects of idolatry, and for the Christian, human beings fill this space of ultimate devotion and derived significance with any number of things. This construal of love, existence, and identity is how the Christian makes sense of the existential fact of the consequences associated with Walt’s badness.
But to complain about these things now seems almost peevish. Breaking Bad has been obsessed with neatness and order from the beginning. It unfolded itself with such elegance and purpose that it’s difficult to imagine it leaving the scene any other way. “Felina” felt like the best kind of dinner guest, one who washes his own plates and sweeps under the table before leaving. (At times it felt like it even managed to unbutter its own bread.) Perhaps it’s a byproduct of Gilligan’s own Southern manners, but Breaking Bad, though shocking, never completely surprised: rather, it announced itself at nearly every turn. “Chemistry is the study of change,” Mr. White told his students at the start, and everything that followed did so accordingly. There was nothing in the final exam that hadn’t been covered in class. This was television as a science experiment: Every action had a purpose and, more important, it had an equal and opposite reaction.
But until the finale tonight, I never thought of this as a show that was made with love—or that took love as its central theme. This last hour brimmed with love, though—its cup ran over. Maybe that will read as sentimentality to some viewers. Maybe I should have the critical distance to see it. But I don’t. I feel entirely satisfied. The show turned itself inside out, and it’s making me see the whole arc—all the hours that led up to this one—in a way I hadn’t before.
In that respect, the one real lesson to take away from the phenomenon that “Breaking Bad” has become during this last flight of episodes is fundamental to the premise of the show itself — namely, when you have the right ingredients and know exactly what you’re doing, it’s possible to filter out the white noise and distractions, and create an intoxicating product.
“This is where you get to make it right,” Walter tells his former business partners early in the episode. And that, too, was a harbinger of things to come, on a show that managed to get it right not just in this run up to the finish line, but time and time again.
Which is not the same as an absolution. Walt unquestionably goes out a winner: Jesse is once again a free man, his kids will be provided for — there’s no way Gretchen and Elliott don’t set up that trust fund for Flynn — and Skyler has enough to cut a deal for her own freedom. His dying act allows for all that, but it’s scarcely repayment for all the broken lives he has left in his wake.
Early takes on the finale (including the one up above; these words are coming a couple hours after the fact) were split between “great” and something along the lines of “too neat.” I’m still in the former camp, although there’s a valid argument in the latter. For all “Breaking Bad” has done to tear its lead character down in this final season, the ending seems to build him back up a little. It’s a rare case when a number of fans were actually rooting for the bleakest possible conclusion.
But even if Walt has tried to set things right with those closest to him, he still dies (from what looks like a stray bullet; he flinches noticeably as he’s lying on top of Jesse) a drug kingpin and murderer in the eyes of the world. People will remember his name, but not for the reason he would have wanted. The final music cue, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” starts with the line “Guess I got what I deserve.” That seems about right.
As Walt wobbles over to Todd’s meth lab and paws at the shiny new equipment, he looks as if he is going burst into “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” like professed nerd Gale Boetticher. He might have had to step on a thousand corpses to get there, but he did it. Walter White redeemed himself in his own eyes. For five seasons we saw him snarl, leer, and foolishly stumble over every imaginable pratfall. As he fell to the dirt, leaving a bloody handprint on the chrome equipment, there are no more hectoring students, disparaging bosses, or rival drug lords. As he takes his final breath — evading the police one last time –Walter White actually looks, well, happy.
The theme of “Felina” seems to be this: People and machines are usually predictable. Lydia meets her business partners like she always did, tears open the only stevia packet on the table like she always does. Gretchen and Elliot betrayed on television how much they fear losing their reputation and their elegant lives, and that means that they can be manipulated. Walt has always used this predictability—this scientific certainty about action and reaction—to get what he wants. But it’s taken him until now to realize the corollary: If you can change your pattern, those predictable people and machines will miss you. Walt changes; he’s the only one who does. After their purpose is fulfilled, the machines stay in motion. The massage chair keeps rolling even though its occupant is dead. The M60 keeps sweeping even though it’s out of ammunition. But Walt’s purpose is fulfilled, and he just stops.
It seems that Walt knows all of this, that he was blessed with something like self-awareness before he died. “I did it for me,” Walt tells Skyler, simply, in the quiet coda to their marriage. “I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really–I was alive.” Whether Gilligan intended it that way or not, watching Walt stroke his daughter’s hair and be able to take pleasure from that act without the adrenaline rush of stealing her, without the transgressive thrill of sitting her in front of a screening ofScarface with him, is as powerful rebuke to the thrill of the anti-hero as I can imagine. The pleasures of a gentle touch, of powerful love, of bacon–be it turkey or pork–on your plate on the morning of your birthday are the things that really matter, not a machine gun in your trunk, laser pointers in the dark to terrify your enemies, ricin in a Stevia packet. And no matter how much Walt was a student of chemistry, he seems to have forgotten that events on a larger scale often function the same way as his nom-de-meth’s Uncertainty Principle. By the time you know how your family will react to the news that you’re cooking meth, the family that you claimed to do it for in the first place is long gone.
It’s a strange feeling, to find ‘Breaking Bad’s ostensibly happy ending so very unexpected, but we can likely all agree that “Felina” would have still proven a magnificent cap to a magnificent series, had it been an hour and fifteen minutes of blue static. Save for Saul and any lines for Walter Jr., just about every ‘Breaking Bad’ character got their due as well, including Badger and Skinny Pete, and even Hank in flashback. ‘Breaking Bad’ deserves the celebration of itself, and the happy ending to boot, after all it’s taken us through in the last few years.