'Breaking Bad' Deconstruction, Ep. 16: 'Felina'
One of television's greatest dramas ever goes out on the terms imposed by its creator, Vince Gilligan, and gives closure to a legion of fans who embraced one of the darkest television shows ever created. All hail the finale.
The greatest element of a series finale is that the creator gets to make the choice -- and that choice is as equally enormous and difficult as coming up with the original idea and executing it in a way that enthralls an audience. The beauty here is not in the reaction so much but in the triumphant finality of closure that a storyteller gets.
Because, as we know, so many people who create television series never get to write the ending. Some don’t even get to write the middle.
For Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad, the most important part is that he’s happy with how it ended. He’s at peace with his decisions. You may share his view or you may differ on it, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. This, fittingly, was Gilligan’s choice. And no amount of analysis, no deconstruction, no endless Twitter banter can change the fact that he did it his way and has no regrets.
I probably wouldn’t have that same level of happiness and appreciation for someone who makes mediocre work. (Hey, there’s no crime in simple entertainment.) But what Gilligan did was create one of the best series that television has ever seen. And he did that for five seasons, 62 episodes. From a critical standpoint, his missteps were minimal, almost infinitesimal, and the enormity of that accomplishment and where it puts Breaking Bad in the pantheon of television series cannot be underestimated. (Tomorrow I will revisit a column ranking the all-time best contenders and the place Breaking Bad holds in it.)
Just to underscore the sentiment here, the thing to remember is that people who create television put it out there to be judged. Do people watch it? Do people like it? Do they stick with it as it grows and evolves? Do they grow tired of it and wish it wasn’t around anymore or ended earlier? There’s so much judgment. There are so many opinions. But a finale reclaims the series, in a way, from the public, and -- like the pilot -- allows the writer to forget about all the outside forces and just make up a story. It’s personal, at that point.
The story Gilligan made up for Breaking Bad was excellent. Having interviewed him on this idea of endings, it was nice to hear him say then and again on AMC’s Talking Bad series after Sunday’s finale, that he loved the way that David Chase ended The Sopranos but, for him, he wanted more closure in the Breaking Bad story. That’s one storyteller not passing the kind of judgment on another show that fans will now be doing for the next two weeks.
This means that it’s fine to love the ending to The Sopranos (which I did) and to also love the ending to Breaking Bad (which I also did), or to differ on either provided you recognize that this wasn’t really your property -- it belonged to someone else and, if he got lucky, he was able so see it off creatively with as much control as he introduced it. That’s a wonderful thing.
There was a lot of closure in Breaking Bad. You can say that Gilligan gave most of the viewers what they wanted (and, impressively, he did that by staying true to himself and the story without selling out or becoming unrecognizably saccharine as he tied the bow).
Walt died, played out to the strains of “Baby Blue” by Badfinger (and yes, that certainly felt a bit Sopranos-esque), as the lyrics “I guess I got what I deserved” rang out over Walt touching the meth lab equipment like a midcentury modernist stroking an object of desire from Charlotte Perriand or Eero Saarinen. “Didn’t know that you’d think that I’d forget / Or regret / The special love I have for you / My Baby Blue.”
This exclamation point on Walt’s purest of blue meth was an echo of the conversation Walt had with Skyler at her depressing row-house sanctuary, when she began to scowl at the notion Walt was going to say he did it all for his family. Instead, he said: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really -- I was alive.”
Not only is that a super tie-in, it also allows a cancer-stricken and defeated (yes, he’s defeated) Walt to cop to the truth. His initial idea, the one that made him break bad in the first place, was clearly and unarguably based on the idea that he needed to leave his struggling family some money to survive on when he died. But once the milquetoast Walt started doing something illegal, something that allowed him to assert his will and not be a victim, it was intoxicating. It’s why he got into the empire business. Becoming Heisenberg was the ultimate midlife crisis -- an existential uprising of epic proportions. So to hear him tell Skyler, “I liked it” was much needed closure on the story.
And that, for Gilligan, was a task that needed to be done for the fans -- to have closure. In a strange way, as critics across the country recap or, as I prefer, deconstruct, this final episode, never has it been easier or less necessary. The finale laid it out in detail. Walt uses Gretchen and Elliott to secure a future for his family (and, interestingly, he will leave control of it in the hands of Walter Jr., not Skyler). He gives Skyler the coordinates to find the bodies of Hank and Gomey, giving her leverage (on top of the recorded phone call in the last episode), to free herself from the clutches of the DEA as an innocent.
Gilligan sets up a phone call between Marie and Skyler, the disparate sisters, that begins with “truce” -- and heralds a possible future between them. Walt is allowed to touch and gaze upon Holly and, from a distance, watch his son. Those are, for parents, heartbreaking elements. I had hoped that Walter Jr. would pay the price for his father’s indiscretions. Sklyer, too. If I have one complaint about the finale, it’s that Walt never paid the ultimate price. Yes, he witnessed Hank get shot point blank in the desert (and Gomey, too). But his actions never brought reprisal upon Skyler or Walter Jr. or even baby Holly. His master plan with Elliott and Gretchen even usurps Mike’s ability to get his ill-gotten gains to his extended family. Short of dying himself, retribution for Walt’s decision to break bad and cause awfulness for so many people is unattained. Brock is still motherless. Jesse, despite being freed, is still haunted (and, one would assume, left to be on the run for the rest of his life, unless the DEA just gives up that part of the investigation). Marie is still without Hank. Skyler, Walter Jr. and baby Holly will have to move to get away from the notoriety.
Closure? Sure. But it’s not pure. When you opt to tie up a lot of loose ends -- and perhaps the situation with Jesse was the most dynamic among those -- you leave a lot to doubt. Not speculation, as was the case with The Sopranos, but doubt.
Yet it was ultimately satisfying, wasn’t it? The finale even had the reappearance of Badger and Skinny Pete, shining a red dot laser on both Gretchen and Elliott to freak them out enough to complete Walt’s plan. The beauty of that extended scene is that Walt got to have a measure of revenge -- and closure for himself -- on those Gray Matter thieves. “Cheer up, beautiful people. This is where you get to make it right.”
God, I loved that.
And then, after jumping in Walt’s stolen Volvo, our favorite ill-equipped bad guys had one last chance to make us laugh. In the words of Skinny Pete, pointing the lasers at the Schwartzes wasn’t cool. “The whole thing felt kinda shady, morality-wise,” said Skinny Pete. The money Walt gave them, however, put a Band-Aid on that.
But I loved the finale in so many ways. I loved Jesse dreaming about building the perfect wooden box (a reference to his earlier days in therapy) and how that contrasted with the box he was put in by the Nazis. I loved how Jesse was able to kill Todd by viciously choking the life out of him but was also able to choose not to kill Walt. I never, for even a second, thought Jesse would die in this series. He was always the misguided innocent. And there’s a reason Aaron Paul has those Emmys (and should, by rights, have one from this year).
Walt got to kill Lydia (even though I was angling for the ricin to be for him). All the Nazis got blown to hell -- and I love how they kept that one guy half alive, just so you’d think he might rise up and ruin everything. I love that part of Walt’s plan involved a car battery (an idea second best only to the notion that a robot would rise from the trunk and kill everyone).
I loved that Gilligan, who wrote and directed the finale, was able to have Walt and Skyler face to face again and for her to say, “You look terrible,” (which he did) and for him to say, “Yeah, but I feel good.” That’s great writing -- Walt only feels good because he knows his plan is going to work. He will get his revenge. He will save his family. I laughed at Todd having “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” from the Marx Brothers as his ringtone, which was even more absurd than having Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” as his ring tone prior. It beautifully reiterated how committed the bleak Breaking Bad was to injecting comic moments.
I don’t think the humidifier is going to help Lydia with the ricin. Walt got you.
As usual, Breaking Bad had numerous moments where viewers were tricked into thinking something else was going to happen. Jesse could have killed Walt (Walt gave him the option). And for a moment there -- twice, to be exact -- it certainly looked like Jesse was going to plow over Walt with the El Camino.
This finale certainly wrapped things up -- mostly -- in a bow. It had similar strains to the shots that The Wire used and was nearly as effectively tidy as Six Feet Under was in spelling out the fate of those involved.
But it was also its own thing, which was necessary. Walt was definitely going to the Nazi compound to kill everyone -- including Jesse, whom he thought was willingly making the nearly pure blue meth for Todd’s extended family of psychopaths. However, when he saw that Jesse was nothing more than a slave, he opted to save him (plus gave Jesse the chance to kill him). I might not have wanted that so clear cut, but for a lot of viewers, that will be a huge relief not to ruminate over.
As for Walt, who was shot by his own gun, in essence, trying to save Jesse, which was inconceivable before, his demise wasn’t by the ricin (my guess), wasn’t by the hand of Jesse and wasn’t by the cancer -- an ending I would have loved: Walt, getting away with it, dying slowly of the cancer that kicked off the series, not by a bullet.
It was merely an unexpected occurrence. The remote-controlled machine gun decimated everybody at the compound and got Walt as well. It was just enough time for Walt to walk down into the lab where Jesse was forced to cook. He touched the stainless steel machinery, left a bloody hand print and fell to the ground as “Baby Blue” from Badfinger played.
Was that how you wanted it? Was that how you imagined it? I certainly didn’t guess that. But it comes back to the creator, as I said at the top. Vince Gilligan, who along with Aaron Paul guested on the Talking Bad after show, spoke about the final Breaking Bad visual images. “I think in that last scene, he was with his Precious,” Gilligan intoned, citing the oft-repeated language of The Lord of the Rings. The lab -- science -- even in the duty of the damned, was his Precious. He touched it one last time. He was reminded how it made him feel alive (for once in his sad life), and then he died.
I’m fine with that ending. In fact, I was quite taken with it. But even if I wasn’t, more than anything, I love a creator’s ability to end the story as he or she wishes. That doesn’t make every decision acceptable. The finale to Dexter was an embarrassing ham-fisted disaster. But the finale to Breaking Bad -- even if it wasn’t what I’d hoped would happen -- was more than enough to thrill me and make me appreciate five seasons and six years of brilliant work.
What an outstanding achievement.