Walter White was never going to walk into the sunset at the end of “Breaking Bad.” But in its own perverse way, the series gave him a version of a happy ending.
It wasn’t a sellout, it wasn’t a reversal of anything that had come before it. But thanks to one final, ingenious plan, he does get to see what he hoped for when he first set out with Jesse Pinkman in an RV. His family will (presumably) be taken care of, Jesse is a free man, and he gets to die close to the thing he loved.
About the only ones who could probably be disappointed with the “Breaking Bad” series finale might have been those folks who were holding out hope for a follow-up movie, despite creator Vince Gilligan repeatedly saying the story would have a definitive end. The first reaction is that the series finale, like the show that preceded it, will go down as one of the greats.
A series finale often colors the perception of the entire show that came before it, which is not especially fair but speaks to the way our hearts and minds work with a TV show. As the last thing we’ll ever see from a given show, it’s freighted with not just our expectations about plot and character based on what came before it, but also with our hope (need?) to have it satisfy everything from answering lingering story questions to granting closure to the characters while at the same time allowing us to imagine those characters will be OK in their unwritten futures.
“Breaking Bad” ticked just about all those boxes. The show was never really constructed as an ongoing mystery, so that may have been the simplest thing to accomplish. “Felina” efficiently dealt with any questions about what was going on in the flash-forward scenes from the first and ninth episodes of Season 5, from the targets of Walt’s large gun (Jack and his crew, as widely expected after Hank’s death) to who gets the ricin (Lydia, for enabling Jack and Co.). About all we don’t know now is whether Huell is still in that motel room.
The other part is far trickier. Gilligan has said for years that Walt’s story would end here, and it became clear to most viewers a while ago that there was no real way to redeem him. Just how the show got there, though, would be an open question.
It could scarcely get lower for Walt, Jesse and anyone in their orbit than it did with last week’s “Granite State,” as Walt wasted away in New Hampshire and Jesse was forced to watch as Todd executed Andrea. The only glimpse we get of Jesse before the final scenes shows nothing has changed — he’s essentially a slave, and he’s gone to a place where he imagines himself a master wood craftsman to get through the day.
As for Walt, seeing Elliott and Gretchen on “Charlie Rose” catalyzes one last plan in his mind. It’s a somewhat unexpected direction — the back half of the season has given us a Walt who was reacting to events rather than dictating them — but a fitting one. This is, after all, the guy who orchestrated the downfall of Gus Fring, the “Godfather”-esque elimination of Mike’s guys and any number of smaller schemes over the course of the show.
It doesn’t hurt that he looks the way he does, thin and haggard and every bit the dying man — it makes his story about desperately needing one last score to set himself right that much easier to buy. He’s once again so nonthreatening that Lydia, Jack and everyone he comes into contact with can’t take him seriously anymore. Lydia, so frightened of everything to do with Walt and Mike when she first made contact, is downright dismissive.
Just as with Gus and others, too, the execution of Walt’s final plan is thrilling. Jack and the rest of his slimy crew distinguished themselves by actually being worse than Walt, so watching a machine gun cut them down — and then seeing Jesse choke the life out of Todd — is pretty satisfying on a visceral level.
Walt’s final encounter with Skyler (in which both Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn are brilliant, both keeping so much just under the surface) is essentially his final mea culpa. Challenged by Skyler to stop parroting the “I did it for the family” line he’s used so often, Walt finally admits, “I did it for me. I was good at it. I liked it. And I was really — I was alive.”
That’s as honest Walt has been with anyone, himself included, for a very long time. He has to know what he’s about to do has a high probability of ending with his death, and his confession is a burden off his shoulders.
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.
A couple of other notes from “Felina”:
- For fans of country music, Gilligan may have foreshadowed his ending a little with the episode’s title, “Felina.” The Marty Robbins song “El Paso,” which Walt hears as he turns the key in his stolen car, is about a man who commits murder over a woman named Felina (or Feleena), then hides out in the “badlands of New Mexico.” A posse catches up to him in the end, but he dies in the arms of his lover.
- It’s nice to see Skyler and Marie at least at a point of detente in their relationship. They have a long way to go, obviously, before they repair it, but their final phone call at least looks like a start.
- Badger and Skinny Pete make one last appearance too, as Walt’s “hitmen” outside of Gretchen and Elliott’s door. Theirs was about the only moment of levity in the finale.
- The question of how Walt got ricin into Lydia’s stevia seems like a simpler one than Huell and the ricin cigarette. Walt notes what a “schedule-driven” person Lydia is during the coffee-shop meeting, and it’s clear from the wide shot of Todd entering that Walt (sitting at the end of the counter) has been waiting. Presumably he got there a little early and planted the tainted stevia packet at her regular table.
What did you think of the “Breaking Bad” finale, and the series as a whole?