“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.”
It’s really difficult to sort out feelings for a series finale, especially in the moments after it ends, and ESPECIALLY when it’s a show like “Breaking Bad”. Plenty of ink (virtual and real) has been spent in examining how much weight a series finale should retroactively cast upon the series as a whole. And while the plots of those finales can do little to impact the overall experience, the story of the finale can impact the show quite a lot.
What’s the difference? The plot consists of the events that happen in an episode/season/series. But the story is what those things actually mean, and “Felina” is Vince Gilligan’s way to sum up what the hell the story of Walter White ultimate means to him. To be sure: that’s very different from what it means to us, the viewers. And what I came away from “Felina” feeling is that while the two sides seem pretty closely aligned until roughly 9 pm EST tonight, it seems there was ultimately a much broader gulf between Gilligan’s interpretation of Walter White and those with whom I have conversed about the show over the past few seasons.
To be sure: this schism is not shared by all fans of the show. Nor should it! That would be a terrifically dull experience for all informed. Uniformity of opinion is the death of art, but what was problematic about “Felina” is that the show was primed to keep Walter White in a vice grip of moral punishment…and let him off the hook in the final hour. Yes, he died…but nearly everything else broke good, not bad, for him. He freed Jesse, who drove off sobbing with glee in what was probably the first scene from that “Need For Speed” movie. He gets to leave his family in good financial standing, gets psychological revenge on his Grey Matter cohorts, kills Lydia with ricin, gets graces notes with both Skyler and Holly, and vanquishes the Nazis in a way that would give MacGyver an erection. For a show to spend five seasons slowly revealing the protagonist of the series to be an absolute monster and then essentially give him a series of heroic beats in the finale is curious at best, and somewhat defeating at worst.
Why is this defeating? Because “Breaking Bad” was seemingly poised to be the antidote to all other antihero shows, labeling its lead as someone with human traits but utterly beyond redemption by the series’ final act. The show didn’t HAVE to do this. But it rigorously did so for five seasons, pushing Walter further and further from our sympathies until in “Ozymandias” we had no choice but look with horror at the man engaged with a knife fight with his wife before kidnapping his infant daughter. Had the show ended there, we’d have a much different picture of the show’s interpretation of Walter White than we do now. Now? We can look at the series’ final two episodes as something of rehabilitation for the character, with acts of vengeance and spite dovetails with acts that ensure that all of this ultimately meant something. Even if he admitted to Skyler tonight that his reasoning for doing this all along was the thrill of simply being able to do it at all, Walter ultimately got to put right some of the wrongs he caused in the first place.
Did “Breaking Bad” whitewash Walter White? ABSOLUTELY NOT, and it’s clear to state that even while I feel myself getting angrier about tonight’s finale the more I type. For every person he “helped” tonight, he had already rained down more damage and sh$t than he could ever repay. And for all those we saw benefit somewhat from his actions tonight, there are dozens, if not hundreds, hell, let’s go thousands of people whose lives were rendered asunder by Walt’s actions. Either he came into their orbit and he sent them spiraling into hell, or he simply cooked a batch of meth that made their wallets empty and their bodies ravaged. But that dissonance only makes tonight’s “heroic” beats that much more frustrating. Gilligan’s script didn’t put the final nail in the coffin of the Walt worshipers and the Skyler haters. It gave ammo to both sides, allowing them to point to tonight’s episode as Heisenberg’s Greatest Hits.
It didn’t help that the construction of the episode itself was linear in a way that took away from the show’s normal storytelling. With the focus so heavily on Walt (I’m not sure he was absent in any scene tonight, even if we originally thought he was during the Skyler/Marie phone call), we didn’t get to see anyone else reacting to his presence back in New Mexico. Without the ability to see people try to lay traps for Walt, we simply saw him enact his will one last time, using his last reserves of money and willpower (as seen most succinctly in his interactions with Elliot, Gretchen, Skinny Pete and Badger) to barrel his way towards his predetermined ending. Maybe he didn’t see himself dying inside the meth lab built by the Nazis, but he wrote the end of his story in a way that allowed him (and the show) one last instance of potency.
But Walt’s increasing impotence was the most fascinating development of the back half of this season, as people no longer bought into his bravado and his bullshit. By the time Saul can simply slink away from Walt and head to Nebraska in the opening moments of “Granite State,” we knew we were in a much different place from where he could tell Jesse and Mike that the magnet heist worked simply because Walt said so. The gap between what Walter thought he was and what he actually was goes back to his famous, “I am the one who knocks!” speech, which is the closest thing we have in modern entertainment to Polonius’ “To thy own self be true!” speech in “Hamlet”. Walter White was never the danger…unless people believed him to be so. Others gave Walt his power…and yet once Hank found the copy of “Leaves Of Grass” in Walt’s bathroom, that façade started to crumble. This godlike figure started to bleed, others recognized his form as mortal, and Walt soon feel into a quagmire so deep and so fast that the desert swallowed him hole and dumped his body into the snowy mountains of New Hampshire. This was the way Walt’s world ended: not with a bang, but with a $10,000 game of cards with Robert Forester’s fixer.
Or so we thought. The show could have ended with Walt’s fantastically complex phone call to Skyler in “Ozymandias,” which laid out all of Walt’s sins while reminding people there may have been a semi-decent person in their at some point. That would have absolved Walt, but would have reminded us of the man in his briefs in the New Mexico desert from the pilot. The show could have ended with Walt with a barrel full of money, useless except to procure drugs that merely delayed the inevitable or could serve as kindling to the stove that kept his modest New Hampshire hovel warm. This isn’t about trying to rewrite the ending of the show. Rather, it’s about demonstrating that “Breaking Bad” produced two pretty great endings that ended up being preludes to something much less interesting, far less complex, and far more frustrating.
Also frustrating? AMC’s decision to cash in on the success of program, up its ad rate for the show during its finale (to the tune of $300-400 per 30/second spot), and then pummel the audience to death with commercial breaks that all but ruined the flow of the show in the first forty-five minutes of real-time airing. Yes, we should be talking about the content of the episode here. But we are also talking about the viewing experience of the episode as well, and given the show’s cultural importance, the rise of social media, and the host of factors external to the episodes themselves, it’s impossible NOT to talk about how the awkward act breaks took me out of the flow of the episode until Marie called Skyler. After that, the show and the network seemed to finally agree on how long a damn act of the episode should last. Commercials don’t impact Vince Gilligan’s writing…but they do impact how people consume his writing. And those who watched the series on Netflix in anticipation of the final eight episodes have to be wondering if next time around they might simply wait for ALL the episodes of the Next Big Thing to be available. AMC decided it had one last shot to cash in (unless Chris Hardwick is conducting a Ted Cruz-like filibuster on “Talking Bad” as you read this), and sacrificed the communal experience for those watching the finale in favor of lining its pockets.
There’s much more to say about this finale, and both I and, well, the entire freakin’ internet will have plenty to say in the days to come. I’ll be podcasting with Mo Ryan per usual on Monday to discuss the episode and the series in full. By then, an encyclopedia’s worth of words will have been published on the series, and we’ll have a collection that will rival Hari Seldon’s “Encyclopedia Galactica” from Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series. For now, we’re left with the final image of the show, a mirror shot to that which ended season four’s “Crawl Space”. There, we saw Walter cackling in what looked like his own grave. This time, we saw a small on his face as life left his body. “Crawl Space” was a horror show. But “Felina” was something much more horrific: a finale that opened the door for Walter rather than definitively close it forever. The age of the antihero is coming to a close, but those it has depicted haven’t changed nearly as much as we may have suspected.