Sunday, September 29, 2013

Thoughts on the Breaking Bad Series Finale

Warning: Spoilers ahead... please stop reading if you have not yet seen the end of Breaking Bad.

I've only watched the episode once, and that ended just a few minutes ago, so I haven't had time to process the ending completely other than to paraphrase what I posted on my Facebook page: Step aside, Six Feet Under... there's a new 'best series finale ever' in town.

From the very beginning, we've speculated on how this series will end. Will Walt win? He can't win. He has to die. But he MUST win. We're all rooting for him. But we're not, because he's made every single bad decision a person can make, and there must be consequences for it. So he won't die. He'll end up in prison. No... Jesse will kill him. No... the cancer will kill him. No... he'll kill himself. No wait; that last one is bananas. Walt is all about self-preservation.

From the beginning, he said he was doing it for his family. But that was only the case when he was pantsless in the desert, calling his wife to let her know he'll be late for dinner. Once he got the taste of it, he knew he loved it. He continued to cook for his own pride. When he was Heisenberg, he was important. Even his own wife was afraid of him, and while that wasn't his original intent, hell... it's better than having her look at her laptop while jerking him off on his birthday, right? At least... that's what Walt thought at the time.

This has been a show that followed an absolutely perfect arc: we begin at what appears to be the bottom, and then we see the rise of Heisenberg until he becomes a drug kingpin, and then his family finds out, and then Hank finds out, and then it all unravels into a horrible, terrible place, and he ends up lower than he was before. But in hindsight, you realize he was never higher than he was at the very beginning. That it was all a downhill slide.

But this finale — this perfect finale — showed us the real trajectory: that it was all about perspective. From the perspective of family, yes, it was entirely downhill. But from the perspective of Walt's own pride and sense of place and importance in the world, Heisenberg actually was important to him, to his wellbeing. It made him feel important. He's become the consummate liar, where lies just roll off his tongue like sugar, but in the moment in "Felina" where he looks at Skyler and finally — finally — admits that he didn't do it for his family, but for himself, he's telling the truth. He's seen it, we already knew it, and it's an absolutely perfect moment in an episode filled with them. This series has documented the fall of Walter White, family man, but it certainly also showed the rise and fall (and rise and fall) of Walter White, man of pride.

Perhaps some viewers will see the episode as being a little too careful, too pat, but I don't think so. I think Gilligan managed what seemed to be the impossible: he made everyone happy. If you wanted Walt to die, congratulations. If you wanted him to lose, he did. Big time. If you wanted him to win... he did. If you wanted Jesse to be free, he was. Happy? Not for a long time, but he'll get there. Maniacally happy is the best we can get right now, and I'll take it.

Walt managed to get revenge on the Schwartzes: don't tell me they won't spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulders at every bump they hear. (Funny side note: my dad came over to watch the finale with us, and when the red lights appeared on their chests and Walt began terrifying them, we were all laughing nervously and my dad said, "Watch. It'll be Badger and that other guy with laser pointers" and we all laughed and THEN IT WAS!!)

He helped get Skyler off the hook with the police, if she decides to use the coordinates as leverage in the way he suggested.

He was able to say goodbye to her, and let her know he cared about her, and she had one moment of seeing him as a loving father to Holly, something she hasn't been able to see much of at all.

He saw Flynn one last time, and realized he's a man now, who can take care of himself and his family.

He gave Marie the closure she needs with those coordinates. And he let Skyler know that he didn't actually kill Hank (even if his actions did).

He found a way to get the money to his family, and finally realized that almost $10 million is quite enough. You don't need $71 million to be happy. I loved the moment when Uncle Jack said, "If you pull that trigger you'll never find out where the mo—" Bang. Walt no longer cares about the rest of the money.

He allowed Jesse to kill Todd. It had to be Jesse who did that.

He got rid of Lydia by using her own weird OCD against her.

He allowed Jesse to get away. Jesse's name isn't tied with Walt's at all in any of this; remember, the only people who realized Pinkman was tied with Walt were Gomez and Hank, and they're buried at those lottery coordinates. Jesse is a broken man, but maybe that fantasy we saw of him with his own woodworking shop will actually come true. I hope so.

And then, he died. Jesse didn't shoot him (thank god; I knew deep down Gilligan wouldn't make that misstep), because it was what Walt wanted. And Jesse is DONE with doing what Walt wants.

Surprisingly, and beautifully, Walt died by his own hand. He died because of his hubris of taking care of everything by himself. He died because he'd misjudged where the machine gun would fire (or, perhaps... he KNEW it would hit him?) He died because he was protecting Jesse with his own body. Walt's death is so complicated, yet simply handled. He died. The end.

The first episode of the final season, way back in July 2012, was called "Live Free Or Die" (that flashes quickly at the beginning of this episode on Walt's license plate). And in this episode, Jesse lived free, and Walt died.

Walt did a lot of bad things, and we want him to pay for it. He does, with his life. But his family was innocent, and they will receive the money: is it drug money? Perhaps. But let's look at it another way. If Walt had been given his due by the Schwartzes, who took his idea and ran with it and acted like he'd never contributed anything to their giant empire, then his family would have lived in the opulence they've achieved. It's genius to have the trust money come from them: they are finally handing over the money that's long overdue to Walter White. Yes, he earned that money, through his brilliance in chemistry. Whether it's meth money or money because of his original ideas that made the Schwartzes filthy rich is up to how you want to perceive it.

I loved the final scene, with Walt walking through the meth lab one final time, tapping the pressure gauge (which we've seen him do countless times). For a moment, I thought he was actually going to finish Jesse's cook. But instead he walks up to the stainless steel container and looks at his own reflection. We'll never know if he likes or hates the man he sees looking back at him.

And then he falls onto his back... and he's gone. The king is dead.

I couldn't help but notice the final image (aside from being very Lost-like!) was like the final image in one of my favourite episodes, "Crawl Space," which ended with Walter lying on his back in the crawl space, with the money, which is partly gone because Skyler has given it to Ted, and Walter pretty much has a nervous breakdown on the spot, laughing and laughing as the camera pans back to show a man at rock bottom.

Walter's lying in a very similar position at the end, eyes wide open (of course, since as I've mentioned before, eyes are extremely important on the show), but dead.

The episode was called "Felina," which baffled fans leading up to it. My favourite explanation was that it's actually three chemical compounds: Fe (iron) Li (lithium) and Na (sodium), which are found in blood, meth, and tears. (Other fans shot it down by saying Walter never used Lithium in his cooks, so...)

But in the opening of the episode, it was clear the title referenced Marty Robbins' "El Paso," and the lyrics not only sum up the themes and tensions of the entire series, but foreshadow exactly how Walter was going to die:

Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl.
Night-time would find me in Rosa's cantina;
Music would play and Felina would whirl.

Blacker than night were the eyes of Felina,
Wicked and evil while casting a spell.
My love was deep for this Mexican maiden;
I was in love but in vain, I could tell.

One night a wild young cowboy came in,
Wild as the West Texas wind.
Dashing and daring,
A drink he was sharing
With wicked Felina,
The girl that I loved.

So in anger I

Challenged his right for the love of this maiden.
Down went his hand for the gun that he wore.
My challenge was answered in less than a heart-beat;
The handsome young stranger lay dead on the floor.

Just for a moment I stood there in silence,
Shocked by the FOUL EVIL deed I had done.
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there;
I had but one chance and that was to run.

Out through the back door of Rosa's I ran,
Out where the horses were tied.
I caught a good one.
It looked like it could run.
Up on its back
And away I did ride,

Just as fast as I

Could from the West Texas town of El Paso
Out to the bad-lands of New Mexico.

Back in El Paso my life would be worthless.
Everything's gone in life; nothing is left.
It's been so long since I've seen the young maiden
My love is stronger than my fear of death.

I saddled up and away I did go,
Riding alone in the dark.
Maybe tomorrow
A bullet may find me.
Tonight nothing's worse than this
Pain in my heart.

And at last here I

Am on the hill overlooking El Paso;
I can see Rosa's cantina below.
My love is strong and it pushes me onward.
Down off the hill to Felina I go.

Off to my right I see five mounted cowboys;
Off to my left ride a dozen or more.
Shouting and shooting I can't let them catch me.
I have to make it to Rosa's back door.

Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel
A deep burning pain in my side.
Though I am trying
To stay in the saddle,
I'm getting weary,
Unable to ride.

But my love for

Felina is strong and I rise where I've fallen,
Though I am weary I can't stop to rest.
I see the white puff of smoke from the rifle.
I feel the bullet go deep in my chest.

From out of nowhere Felina has found me,
Kissing my cheek as she kneels by my side.
Cradled by two loving arms that I'll die for,
One little kiss and Felina, good-bye.

Thank you, Breaking Bad for the five best seasons of television I've ever seen. Even better than The Wire (blasphemy!!! but true), with an even more perfect ending than Six Feet Under, with an ending that left me satisfied and bereft, and I doubt will divide fans the way other finales have done (see Sopranos, Lost, Dexter...) An incredible show has come to an end. And with one little kiss... I wave goodbye.


Christopher Meades said...

I loved it in a way I've loved few other finales. When I wasn't sure Walt would reach his keys on the pool table, I just remember thinking....I care about Walt & Jessie more than any other fictional characters I've ever met...

Don said...

Nikki - I love your writing! Thanks for summing that up so poeticly and perfect!

Don in Baltimore

Batcabbage said...

Just finished it. Fantastic. Complete and utter genius. Vince Gilligan is a... well, a genius. Frankly, I'm in awe.

shobiz said...

Perfect reaction to a perfect ending. Thanks, Nikki.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review, Nikki! I thought that the episode title was an anagram for finale but I like your theory better. :)

Colleen/redeem147 said...

Now I've seen the first episode, and the last fifteen minutes of the finale. At some point I'll probably fill in the middle stuff.

Vince Gilligan was one of my favourite X-Files writers, so I watched Drive today.

Christina said...

Now I'm crying again.
Perfectly put, Nikki. As always. :)

JS said...

It was genius, and right and just. What I loved was Walt just kept quietly showing up - at the Schwartzes, at the tea shop, at Skylers. No preamble. No time for preamble.

I loved the way it wrapped things up. VG said himself, that Ozymandias was the best episode of the entire run, and I would venture that Ozymandias and Granite state were a two part finale - really the end of everything - and that FeLiNa was the coda or postlude. It still managed to have me with a gaping mouth a few times - I loved that he figured out how to best use the Schwartzes, and I really hoped but didn't expect to see Badger and Skinny Pete again.

Yes, it was perfect.

Nikki Stafford said...

stonecoldcrazy: How did I not hear THAT theory!! An anagram for "finale," of course! Such a perfect title for the episode. I'd like to think Gilligan had all three explanations in mind for it. ;)

Chuck said...

I heard Vnce Gilligan say that Felina was just an anagram of finale, unless that was an attempt to mislead us.

Blam said...

// Thank you, Breaking Bad for the five best seasons of television I've ever seen. //

Amen. I watched on Sunday night with such anticipation followed by such satisfaction that it was almost eerie. What a great, intimate, sprawling, perfectly written, beautifully shot, electrifyingly acted, terribly dark, relentlessly human piece of storytelling.

Anonymous said...

Great finale & great recap Nikki - i need help with one thing though. Why did he kill Lydia? I can't remember one thing she ever did to wrong Walt - they made their fortune together and he "retired" and she moved on. I can't remember her ever plotting against him or lying to him.

-Tim Alan

Nikki Stafford said...

Tim: Lydia didn't move on: remember, she came back to the car wash to try to recruit and pull him back in. And then she sent Todd and his boys to Skyler's house; when you saw them in Holly's room, that was at Lydia's insistence (remember he checked in with her afterwards and told her that he had warned Sky, and she said that wasn't enough). Lydia is a viper in haute couture, as far as I'm concerned. :)

Kato Boyd said...

Jesse isn't 100% free because Marie knows that he was involved with Walt since Hank had him holed up at his house. It would seem odd to her if they just find the bodies of Hank & Gomez and then there is no mention of Jesse considering he was around them so hopefully he didn't decide to stay in the same area.

yourblindspot said...

So well said, Ms. Stafford, and so well done, Mr. Gilligan. I have a natural tendency to pick this stuff apart, but that finale just keeps getting better the more I think about it. Ugly beautiful. One for the ages. What a gift.

Anonymous said...

You're right - thanks Nikki!


Dani Abulhawa said...

Jesse is also possibly not off the hook, as the video he made with Hank was stolen by Jack, Todd, et al. and they were watching it in their hut/house. So, once the place is searched they're likely to find that DVD.

I really enjoyed the series, but I felt like that last episode tried to fit too much in and therefore left a few things rather implausible. For example, how did Walt procure a military spec. machine gun? How did he sneak past police to get into Skyler's place? How, exactly, did he get the ricin into a packet of sweetener and make it look untampered with? How did he locate Skinny P and Badger, and convince them to be involved? Some of these things would have been easy to explicate, but they were rushed through, which was a shame. I know these are largely the same criticisms many reviewers have raised, amongst others.

I think Felina could have been split up into three or four more episodes.

But, despite all this, I was also really pleased that most ends were tied up. It was a too perfect, but emotionally protective ending for me, one that didn't leave me feeling frustrated.

Anonymous said...

The best television series I have ever seen. I hope they continue on and bring walter back to life and continue with all the stars again, you must continue, excellent writers. I want more.