Ryan, Kyle, and I, are all huge fans of Breaking Bad and decided to let the finale percolate for a bit before offering up our thoughts on its final episode, "Felina". It's not the first show to prove that television is just as worthy a medium for long-form narratives, but it certainly is one of the best. I watched the second-half of this last season with growing dread and complete uncertainty about what was going to come next. Then the series hit two benchmark episodes, "To'hajiilee" and "Ozymandias", the first a nausea-inducing game of reversals that left me in a sweat, and the second the ethical culmination of everything that Walter White has come to mean.
Or had come to mean. Then the series went on or two more episodes, and the last thought I had about Breaking Bad was, "Are you kidding me?" This was after the opening chords of Badfinger's "Baby Blue" came on the soundtrack and I groaned as I heard the late Pete Ham sing, "Guess I got what I deserved". For a series had concluded its previous two seasons, also its best, around an unpredictable turn of events and a slow burning deconstruction of the anti-hero, this ending did not feel for one second like the culmination of the events leading up to it.
Let's start at the end, with the images that form the very last sequence of events in "Felina". Walt has freed Jesse and is wandering around the neo-Nazi's meth lab. As the music comes in he has the expression of someone who finally knows that his legacy secured. His bloody hands anoint one of the pieces of equipment with what's left of his life, and then he dies with his arms open as the camera ascends to a God's eye view of the lab he surely would have had a few complaints about. But the visual grammar of this scene is far different from the visceral disintegration at the end of season four's "Crawl Space", this is a man whose consciousness is rising above all, viewing his legacy for one last time in holy triumph.
This is not the thematic culmination of Breaking Bad, this is a love letter to a character that Vince Gilligan and his crew are sad to see go. You can see this all over the interviews that they have given in the wake of the finale. They talk about how hard it was to leave Jesse, how they didn't necessarily think that Walt got exactly what he deserved, but that it was the most fitting way for him to go. In the end, all Breaking Bad did was validate the actions of its anti-hero, giving him a peaceful death with his legacy secure. Walt is the notorious Heisenberg who ascended to the throne of an international drug cartel through his cunning, the evidence he left behind will exonerate Skyler, his son and daughter will live on in perpetual security, his evil enshrined, the fans who chered Walt on were right all along, and the myth of the justified anti-hero lives on.Breaking Bad was set to destroy this and then backed off because it loved its creation too much. Kyle and I had a quick exchange earlier this year about how great the season had shaped up, and it seemed as though Gilligan was finally confronting the monster he had created. Hank was the stand-in for those in the audience who realized that Walt had been irredeemable for some time, those people who understood that many of the best entertainment consumed this passive acceptance of evil. His complete breakdown hinted at an audience looking at a culture-wide catastrophe where the best of what we consume celebrates the worst. Even the neo-Nazis had their role to play, showing that he devolved to the point where he was worse than the quickest stand-in for pure evil of the last 100 years - and then he outmaneuvers everyone one last time and manages to save Jesse not as a mission, but as a conciliatory gesture. Walt succeeded in going out on his own terms, and the show failed in its long-running deconstruction of just how destructive that idea is.
But what a glorious failure it has been. I am still completely head-over-heels in love with Breaking Bad, we're just in a bit of a rough patch right now. The first half of "Felina" contained the abandoned threads of the show that had the strength to follow-through with the thematic line of Walt's life. Then there's the forced Nazi character turn, the overcooked exposition tying up loose ends, and the shot that assures the audience that their hero was right all along.
Vince Gilligan fit as happy an ending it could around a show whose past rejects it. The finale reminds me a lot of the conflicting emotions I had surrounding Battlestar Galactica's final episode. There were seasons of brilliance, deep conflicts, a wealth of ideas and energy, all to offer an extended denouement to pad an unnecessary happy ending. Three of my favorite finales are for Northern Exposure, LOST, and Angel. They had the strength to follow-through with the ideas that built their success, no matter how wildly out of control (LOST), deceptively simple (Northern Exposure), or bleak (Angel). This is a top-to-bottom brilliant work of art, but he should have had saved some strength for the finish line.I did not have the problem with the finale that Andrew had. I found the end a very good but not great finale to a one of a kind show. Andrew mentioned three finales he loved and I have to add what I still think is the best ending to a show with The Shield. Much like Breaking Bad, The Shield had to find a way to end a show with an anti-hero and it did it with both an open-ended resolution that had many gut punches along the way. The reason I don't put the finale of Breaking Bad up to this level is simple, it is because I believe some of the secondary characters were lost in the march to the end. I felt like Jesse, who really had become the 2nd lead by season 3, was left almost mute in these last few episodes and he deserved a little more. This was the only major gripe I had with the end because I thought it wrapped up the story of Walter White really well.
I think it is almost universally agreed upon that the 3rd to last episode, "Ozymandias", was the best episode of Breaking Bad and one of the best hours of TV period. In that episode all the balls up in the air came crashing down with full force on the characters. By the end of the hour everyone that Walter White touched was either dead, tortured, grieving or in trouble with the law. Much like the last hour of The Shield, this was one gut punch after another and if the end of the show was Walt getting into the van to start anew all alone it would have been a wonderful finale. Yet, it didn't end at that point and the audience was left with two episodes to go. "Granite State" had the tough task of following "Ozymandias" and all the emotional fireworks but the more I have thought about that episode the more I liked it. The episode had Robert Forrester in it as "the Vacuum guy" and anything he is in is automatically better. More important this was the episode that killed Heisenberg.
While Walt never went to jail, the months that he spent at the cabin in New Hampshire was purgatory. Here Walt had no control of his life, no connection to the outside world and the only entertainment is two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. This means that he has a lot of time to look at himself and the lies he has told and the lives he has ruined. By the end of his stay in the cabin he is a husk of himself and is so hard up for company so he is not alone with himself that he pays $10,000 an hour for some card games with the vacuum guy. When he goes to the bar to call Walt Jr. with his latest scheme, it is a hail mary pass not for his family but for him. One last chance to get his family money so he can keep lying to himself that it was "for his family" and when that doesn't work, he gives up and is ready for the law to get him. In a big deus ex machina, Walt sees his old partners on The Charlie Rose Show and it kicks him for one last stand in ABQ.That brings us to the finale where Walt is painted in a shade of grey for the episode. While season 4 and 5.1 point Walt as a person without a soul and 100% on the dark side this last episode has him save Jesse in the end, find a way to give his kids money and say sorry to his wife. While some commentators are acting like the creators had him save kittens from a tree and don a cape and tights for the finale his swing in moods would be out of place without "Granite State". I truly believe Walt saw the monster he was and was not sad that he went down the path he was at least aware of the reasons he did it which gave me my favorite moment of the finale when he finally told Skyler that he did it for himself and not for the family. Did this make Walt a good guy? Not in the least because after the horrendous things he had done there is no balancing the scales but it shows that Heisenberg wasn't in control anymore, that Walt was steering the ship with all that had happened weighing down on him.
The finale also reminded me of a Western, especially with the last showdown with the nazis. Walt by the end was a bit of Will Munny from Unforgiven and Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, just much more evil. Did Walt "earn" his death in the end? Did he deserve to die helpless to stop his cancer while rotting away in jail? I would say that the safer ending would be more of a punishment but Breaking Bad never was a show about having the right things happen. By no means do I think the show had a happy ending because the collateral damage from Walt will be felt by the characters for years to come. At the end of the show Jesse is broken, without resources, and a wanted man, Hank is still dead, Marie is a widow, Walt Jr lost his two heroes in his dad and uncle, Brock is an orphan, Skyler is still in trouble and has no money for the time being and Holly will grow up without a father.
The end of the show was also directed really well and I will remember the perfect use of the first song "El Paso" , the Michael Meyers feel of Walt stalking the house of Gretchen and Eliott, the awesome reveal of Walt in the kitchen while Skyler was on the phone and the sad moment that Walt shares with his baby girl. In the end, the finale was very good and when put together with the final run of the show, was the perfect way for this saga to end.I agree 100% with everything Andrew said without being quite as upset about it, though I don't know exactly why I don't feel so strongly, a problem which is in itself fairly upsetting. The ending is so convenient for Walt in nearly every way that it seemed at times taunting the audience. There were moments toward the end where I wondered if the last shots would be Bryan Cranston walking or driving off, out of frame, without the tacky hero's ending we got, but also without justice or any certain evolutionary end point. That would have likely been infuriating considering the way the rest of the episode played, but it may have been better in the long run, as I would actually remember the end of the series. Today is Sunday, and I still feel like there should be a new episode coming on in a few hours.
Part of the problem here is setting “Ozymandias” as the third-to-last episode, which was a huge mistake. I was not one of the people for whom that episode acted as a perfectly realized shrine to the gods of television (seriously, with the fanfare leading up to it, I thought I was going to reach nirvana or something), precisely because it wrapped up too much of the show's central conflict(s) in a neat 45-minute package. I was left wondering what could possibly need 2 more episodes to accomplish. It turns out it was turning Walt into Benevolent Methland Jesus.
By breaking the character down so pathetically and completely in “Granite State,” Gilligan and crew set out a hard task for themselves—putting Walt into a position where he can acknowledge the selfish and destructive nature of his actions is great, but since he as a character has for 5 seasons been an expert above all in the art of self-delusion, without any external reckoning to back it up his supposed newfound clarity does not matter at all. All we've really seen by the end is Walt patting himself on the back for “doing the right thing,” and if the show was more nuanced about its handling of this fact, the ending could have been disturbing and brilliant, but instead it's safe and convenient, and that's disappointing.The problem is forecast in the last shots of “Granite State.” Walt has hit bottom—his son knows him for what he is, he is without his empire, the Grey Matter folks have robbed him of even his initial source of pride and indignation (his intellect), and he for the first time seems to genuinely understand in his bones that “it was all for nothing.” This is the culmination of the series. This is the point where his character means something, because, as Andrew said, he is no longer an anti-hero who's fun to root for despite his actions—he's the total of all the consequences deferred over the course of the show, the fun is over, and the illusion of Heisenberg has come crashing down.
Then we get the full version of the theme song as police storm in to realize that... Walt's gone! He's off to get revenge (or something), hooray!
It's a terrible moment.
And despite this bizarre, fundamental misunderstanding of their own show, Gilligan and the writers manage to maintain interest and suspense through the final episode precisely because they've defined themselves over the last few years by a willingness to truly defy expectations. There's a moment before he leaves Gretchen and Elliot where he tells them this is their chance to “make it right,” which shows that even after everything Walt still blames them, still won't fully accept responsibility, and we think: maybe he's not going to get away with it.
As much as the “let's put the character on a simple revenge route because no one has ever done that before” approach is disappointing, it's not quite as disappointing as the crashing realization in the last moments that this really was all these last two episodes have been about. Up to the moment where he collapses as police cars pull up in the background, I really thought the final scene may see Walt in handcuffs, dying and safe from ever having to see a trial, but at least on a personal level being forced to reckon with the fact that he was caught. Instead, Hank is unceremoniously dead, Jesse's frantically blazing a trail west to make it on time for the Need for Speed shoot, and we're pushed to be satisfied embracing the same delusional redemption as Walt has for the last hour.
Nevermind, I am that upset.