Breaking Bad Series Finale Recap: ‘Do It Yourself’

Breaking Bad

Season 5 Episode 16
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 16 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Breaking Bad

Season 5 Episode 16
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

“Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

“Hello, Carol.”

That is, if I’m not mistaken, the first line in the final eight-episode stretch of Breaking Bad, uttered at the end of the prologue in “Blood Money.” We heard the name of that previously unmet neighbor, Carol, again in “Felina.” The episode’s title is an anagram for “finale” as well as a reference to The Girl in Marty Robbins’s classic “El Paso,” whose lyrics are echoed in this chapter’s Western-ballad-like tale of an outlaw dying an outlaw’s death. In a phone conversation between Skyler and Marie about Walt’s return to Albuquerque, series creator Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed this series ender, repeated her name, and even had Skyler situate her geographically. “Hello, Carol”: or hello, Carol. As in A Christmas Carol.

“Felina” is not set at Christmas, but it has a feeling of Dickensian reckoning, with closure galore but minus any real sense of hope. The guns-a-blazin’ finale capped by Jesse strangling Todd, telling Walter to go eff himself in not so many words, and roaring off toward freedom (while cackling like a maniac) lent the whole thing an illusion of cathartic awesomeness: greatest episode ever!

But that’s what it was: an illusion. For all intents and purposes, Walter White died when he said good-bye to Skyler in “Ozymandias” and entered Saul Goodman’s makeshift private version of witness protection. In this episode and last week’s, we were really watching a ghost, at times vengeful and terrifying, but mostly sad and hopeless. A guy who seemed to think he was a decaying but still formidable modern version of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning — a guy who’d figured some things out and was ready to act, dammit, settling old scores, righting old wrongs, and helping his wife and kids buy the largest turkey in the window — but who was ultimately, probably, more like Jacob Marley, materializing in people’s homes to scare the hell out of them by pointing an accusing finger or moaning in misery while clanking his pitiful irons.

“I wear the chain I forged in life!” Marley tells Scrooge. “I made it link by link and yard by yard! I gartered it on of my own free will and by my own free will, I wore it!”

So did Walter. Say what you will about the lying, murdering, meth-dealing ex-schoolteacher: He’d screwed things up so badly that he could never set everything right, but in his own fearsome stumblebum way, he tried.

He bullied Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz into acting as a money-laundering service for his remaining drug cash, $9,720,000 (I love Gretchen “shaking” Walt’s hand as if it’s a leprous flipper) and ordered them to deliver it to Walt Jr., on his 18th birthday, on pain of assassination by “the two best hitmen west of the Mississippi” (actually Skinny Pete and Badger shining laser pointers through their picture window). Walt gave Skyler the lottery ticket that once held the GPS coordinates of his meth nest egg but that now, sadly, revealed the location of Hank and Gomie’s corpses, and urged her to use it to get a better deal from the feds. Then he went out to the Nazi compound, his car trunk hiding the MacGyver-rigged M-60 he bought from that arms dealer in “Live Free or Die,” and wasted Uncle Jack and all his guys, man. Just wasted them, dude, like right through the walls, like in a Steven Seagal movie, or Scarface, or whatever, awesome, righteous …

About that last fifteen minutes. I’m not crazy about it. It boasted major firepower and nearly mathematical score-settling, which is what a good many fans wanted and needed. Jesse strangles Todd with his handcuff chains. Walt shoots Uncle Jack dead, not even giving him a chance to bargain for his life. Walt tells Jesse to go ahead and shoot him because he knows he wants to. And Jesse, who told Walt on the phone in “Rabid Dog” that he would never again do anything Walt wanted, made him say, “I want this,” then told him, “Do it yourself” — and Walt did, quite accidentally, via a ricocheted bullet.

As Walt dies, he gets the classic God’s-eye-view, spirit-leaving-the-body shot. The echoes of Travis Bickle’s final rampage in Taxi Driver feel, if not inevitable, then appropriate, because “Felina” isn’t just a finale, but a comment on finales, and the finale’s creative and marketplace need to satisfy as many viewers as possible, whether they saw a show’s main character as a super-cool antihero, a pathetic scumbag, something in between, or none of the above. Just as Travis’s brothel invasion was an act of psychodramatic bloodlust that was interpreted by the public as a brave white knight rescuing a damsel in distress, Walt’s return to Ft. Hitler was a deeply selfish act rooted in his own pathology, but you could still interpret it as selfless, or at least partly well-intentioned, without throwing your rhetorical back out. It was satisfying in one sense yet weirdly anticlimactic in another. Why? Maybe because “Ozymandias” already felt like the show’s emotional and philosophical climax: a bouncing Betty whose detonation left bits of argumentative shrapnel all over the Internet. In comparison, this episode and last week’s felt like a drawn-out denouement, more whimper than bang — and as I watched Walt skulk around rattling his chains, I became increasingly convinced that the last two chapters were supposed to play that way, like a spectacular postscript. This ending is perhaps not as conventional as it looks, and I suspect it would be a huge mistake to describe it as a finale in which Walter redeems himself or goes out on his own terms, etc., because the evidence really isn’t there.

Vince Gilligan is already on record as saying he didn’t want to do a Sopranos-style head-scratcher ending; but it’s sort of hilarious how, in pushing against that, he came up with something that evoked the closing moments of Cheers, in which Norm Peterson helps Sam Malone realize that after all those years of wandering he did find “his one true love” — not Rebecca, not Diane, but the bar itself. Similarly, Walt’s meaning and purpose lies not in money, or in “helping his family,” but in realizing the immense (destructive) power of his finally liberated intellect. The second to last shot we see of him is a distorted image of his face and shoulders reflected in the side of a meth cooker, his bloody fingerprint frame right. (As Gilligan put it in the Breaking Bad postshow wrap-up, “In that last scene, he is with his Precious.”)

Why did Walt return, exactly? There is no “exactly.” That and the overall sense of messiness — of intended and untended consequences jostling against each other — makes this series ender work, even if the Nazi compound sequence felt a bit too conventional-Hollywood-action-filmish, like the sort of set piece that, twenty years ago, would have climaxed with Arnold Schwarzenegger impaling a henchman on a fence. (And surely I’m not the only viewer who was a little bit disappointed that, after umpteen reminders of Lydia and her tea and her Stevia, it was she who ultimately ingested the ricin; I was hoping for a classic Gilligan fake-out there.)

There was pride behind Walt’s journey home, for sure. It was mixed with a genuine desire to protect his family (the Nazis had threatened Skyler’s life, and they were still out there, just a car ride away). Walt also went back for purely ego-driven reasons, because he wanted to protect his “legacy”: the blue meth, the Heisenberg legend, and the remains of the empire business he bragged to Jesse about in “Buyout.” By seeking to wipe Jack and Todd and their scurvy colleagues off the face of the earth, he’s rewriting his history with Gretchen and Elliott — or at least Walt’s version of it, a tale of betrayal and lost opportunities at greatness, a legend, a legacy. But what “satisfaction” does Walt get, really? As Myles McNutt pointed out, “Although Walt creates the conditions for his family to be secure financially, legally, and physically following his death, that does not mean that their lives will be happy ones, nor does it suggest that every part of Walt’s plan will unfold simply as the years pass.”

Very true; on top of that, look at the parts of Walt’s cobbled-together “master plan” that don’t go as he wanted them to, or that are complicated by unforeseen twists, such as learning that Jesse (whom he tarred as a rat and wanted dead) was alive and cooking for Jack, or the way that the same device that’s supposed to kill the Nazis ends up accidentally killing him, too. He gets to say good-bye to Holly, but she’s a baby, so she’ll never know anything about him except what she reads on the Internet and in the inevitable true crime books. He doesn’t get to say good-bye to Walt Jr., which is probably just as well, since the last time the boy talked to his dad, he tearfully asked him why he wouldn’t just die already.

In scene after scene, Walt doesn’t so much enter significant spaces as materialize within them. The cleverest and most breathtaking shot in the episode is that slow push-in on Skyler’s kitchen that reveals that Walt was there the whole time, his body obscured by a narrow beam. In the wide shot of Walt sneaking into the Schwartzes’ mansion, it takes an unnervingly long time for Gretchen to notice him there, even though he’s just a few feet away from her, and then directly behind her. Like Mr. Cellophane in Chicago, you can look right through him, walk right by him, and never know he’s there. It all feels a bit like karmic punishment expressed via clever compositions — as if Breaking Bad itself has had enough of Walter and is shunning him. (“In life, my spirit never rose beyond the limits of our money-changing holes!” Marley tells Scrooge. “Now I am doomed to wander without rest or peace, incessant torture and remorse!”)

The key exchange in the episode, and the one that cuts the most sharply against anybody reading “Felina” as saying that somehow “Walt won,” comes during that kitchen conversation with Skyler. She thinks Walt is about to repeat that moldy canard about how he did it all for his family, but to her astonishment — and ours — he instead says, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.”

This is not an explanation or a justification. It’s the first bluntly honest thing Walt has said to Skyler in quite some time. It’s a confession, not in the legal sense, but in the religious sense: the capital-C Catholic sense. Bless him, viewer, for he has sinned. In death, the camera rises over him, looking down. How small he seems.

Breaking Bad Finale Recap: ‘Do It Yourself’