last rites

Seitz: One Last Look at the Breaking Bad Finale

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 16 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC
Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Now that a few days have passed and we’ve all had a chance to pick apart the end of Breaking Bad, it feels like the right time to ask: Was the finale one of the greatest in TV history? I’d argue yes, mainly because although the final episode was superficially conventional, its effect has been disorienting, and that’s a remarkable achievement in itself. You can make a case for the finale doing whatever you needed it to do as a viewer and not be entirely wrong, yet somehow the episode doesn’t seem like a mush-ball that cagily refuses to make choices and commit to them. It’s as precise in its effects as the best Breaking Bad episodes. But for all the complaints about its check-a-box neatness (and there have been many), “Felina” is as much of a projection screen as the finales of The Sopranos, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica, all of which proclaimed, in their ways, “I am inscrutable, take me seriously.” As Damon Lindelof, co-executive producer of Lost, put it in a quasi-confessional piece about his own show’s finale, “The better the show, the deeper it forces you to look at yourself.” Which is another way of saying that when you talk about what Breaking Bad’s ending “means,” you’re really talking about what you personally need it to mean — the Rorschach impulse.

You could say “Felina” is a complex, disturbing, and in some ways punitive ending to the series and not be incorrect. No less an authority than Bryan Cranston described it to EW as “a tragedy of almost Shakespearean level,” and added, “It’s not ‘good conquers evil,’ it’s not ‘good guys against the bad guys,’ it’s much muddier than that. Shades of gray.” But you could also read it as a simple send-off, erring on the side of neatness and fan service, and at times pandering to Team Walt. “Compared to the nihilistic bent of ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Granite State,’ ‘Felina’ borders on comfort viewing,” wrote Emma Dibdin in Digital Spy.

Even the title of the last episode invites multiple readings. “Felina,” of course, anagrams neatly to “finale,” which suits the multi-valent effect of that episode and the five seasons that led up to it. Breaking Bad’s mostly linear but occasionally scrambled chronology kept juxtaposing old information against new, and sometimes created moments that didn’t exist in the “past” as we once knew it, in order to illuminate the present. (The prologue phone call that kicked off “Ozymandias” might be the greatest example — foreshadowing Walt’s “performance” in the infamous phone call to Skyler.) “Fe” “Li” and “Na” are also elements on the periodic table, which, through a generous interpretive pirouette, could be translated as “blood,” “meth,” and “tears.”

And then of course there’s Feleena, the heroine of Marty Robbins’s ballad “El Paso.” As critic Spencer Hall writes, the use of that country-western classic signaled that “this was not going to be the cathartic, floaty, emotional finale. This would be a cowboy story, and in the end that cowboy would not make it out of the story alive.” I’ve read a lot of pieces that attempt to explain what, precisely, the Feleena of Robbins’s song represents in relation to Walt; the most convincing is Ian Rosenwach’s theory that it’s Heisenberg, Walt’s alter ego, “his mistress, his muse,” the creature he snuck out to see late at night when Skyler was tending the homestead that meant so much to him.

This would certainly jibe with Vince Gilligan repeatedly saying that Walter died like Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, in the arms of his precious: the meth cooker that reflected his distorted face back at him in the episode’s penultimate shot. It’s a bit too schematic to say that the finale reconciles and combines Walt and Heisenberg in some kind of twisted deathbed catharsis — but you could make a case for that as well, as Scott Eric Kaufman did. And you wouldn’t be wrong.

It’s amazing that any episode of TV could feel so rock-solid yet be so fluid in its possible meanings. It’s happy. It’s sad. It’s neat. It’s messy. Walt won. Walt lost. Walt won and yet he lost. Everything that happened in the finale really happened, exactly as it was depicted onscreen. What happened onscreen is not to be trusted, as it seems to be colored by Walter White’s mental state, which is fueled by a desperate need to be vindicated or redeemed or understood, or at the very least to set things right, whatever “right” means in this rather sad and grubby context. Emily Nussbaum made the case for it being a sort of dream ending, though she stopped short of suggesting that it was an “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” redux. She’s not wrong, either.

I don’t begrudge anybody who needs to see “Felina” as a “happy” ending, one that redeems or vindicates the hero, wholly or in part. If that’s what you need to get out of it, that’s what you need to get out of it, and Gilligan & Co. made it pretty easy to read that way. As Maureen Ryan wrote, “Walt basically took over” in a finale that minimized emotional impediments to rooting for him (including the episode’s evident glee over the death of Lydia, an unlikable character who nonetheless had an innocent daughter at home, and Marie’s grief over her husband, who wouldn’t have been killed by Jack if Walt hadn’t called in the neo-Nazis as cavalry). “These weren’t ants in a maze, this was King Ant writing the history of his conquest. His version of the tale, that is. Not a lot of other voices were heard.”

Gilligan himself has (somewhat contradictorily, given his Gollum comparisons) praised Walt in various interviews for manning up at the end and keeping the promise he made to provide for his family. Nussbaum’s “dream” interpretation meshes with this, in the sense that what we’re seeing in “Felina” is perhaps Team Walt’s fantasy of a bad man breaking good at the end, settling scores, putting his great brain to practical use, and, if not redeeming himself, then at least gesturing in that direction with obvious sincerity.

I prefer to think of “Felina” as a tale of a character who spent the better part of the last five seasons becoming the captain of his own ship and turning it around so that it bore him, his family, his associates, and his community toward increasingly dark waters, and who tried to turn the boat around again at the last possible second and failed. And for all the episode’s superficial signifiers of “triumph” — such as Walt terrorizing Gretchen and Elliott into laundering some of his drug money for Walt Jr.’s benefit, and his unexpectedly honest statement to Skyler that he really did all this for himself, not for his family, as he kept insisting — it’s a bittersweet ending if you think about it for five seconds, and more bitter than sweet if you think for six.

Walter White’s menace detonated in Gilligan’s fictional New Mexico with the force of a reactor meltdown, and the hero’s desperate attempts at cleanup can’t begin to mop up all the fallout. Skyler was once a respected professional woman and mother; now she’s the Lady Macbeth of Albequerque, left to bear the brunt of public hatred against Walt while eking out a meager living as a taxi dispatcher. Walt’s brother-in-law is dead, and it’s absolutely Walt’s fault, even though he didn’t personally pull the trigger, as Hank wouldn’t have been in that horrible situation if Walt hadn’t decided to cook meth in the first place (Gilligan pointedly reminds us of this in the scene where Walt visits his old, now-abandoned house and has precisely one flashback, to the moment when he asked Hank to go on the ride-along and happened to notice Jesse climbing out of a window across the street from the DEA bust). Sure, Walt “gave” Jesse his freedom, after having delivered him into torturous enslavement for five months in “Ozymandias” and indirectly causing the murder of Andrea, the mother of the child he poisoned in season four. As “gifts” go, this is on par with giving a man the “gift” of a deep breath after holding his head underwater.

Taking these narrative facts and others into consideration, I can’t see how anybody could look at this last episode, or the preceding seven, or the four and a half seasons prior, and think Walt turned the boat around and sailed it back toward goodness, or that he achieved anything beyond a very crude, reptilian sort of victory: using his brain to start an “empire,” make a fortune, and finally, after four-plus decades of relatively nutless adulthood, grow a pair. The core of that character arc is an appealing fantasy, of course. It’s the appeal of the gangster picture, or any genre in which we get to see fictional proxies do tough or cool or “bad” things that we’d never dare do in real life. Nobody but a teenage boy or a Todd-level sociopath would look at Tony Montana or Henry Hill or Michael Corleone and think, Okay, he wasn’t great person, but he sure did try! There’s an aspect of sports-fan/video-gamer fervor, too — an intense and weirdly defensive identification with a beloved show and its violent protagonist. The dudebro posturing around Breaking Bad had many cable-TV precedents; the big one was The Sopranos, a series that, in its final season, was parsed on sports radio with as much geeky enthusiasm and personal investment as the Yankees starting lineup.

Gilligan muddied things up by softening toward the end of the series and loving Walt a bit too much; but this is an understandable danger of writing any sort of fiction. It’s the same sort of reaction that many actors have when playing characters that are dishonest, cruel, or otherwise fundamentally unsympathetic. They have to find a way to like that character regardless, otherwise they can’t play him without editorializing or coming off as detached, smug, or superior, and damaging the story. It’s a form of tactical transference, and one unfortunate by-product is an inclination to pander, as “Felina” did in the scene where Walt invades the Schwartzes’ home and asserts supervillain-like dominance over them, at one point making fun of Elliott’s tiny knife. Get even a little bit of distance from the scene and it’s a hilarious bit of Team Walt flattery: For all his murderous invention, Walt is a smoke-and-mirrors alpha male who preens while terrorizing Skyler, Jesse, Saul, and other physically unthreatening characters, but wouldn’t last a second in a fight with a real thug like Tuco, Gus, or Mike.

That’s not to say that I’d have liked “Felina” better if Walt had been clearly and unambiguously “punished” or made to crawl and beg. I liked this ending a lot, in part because even though it puffed up the Heisenberg legend to Macy’s-float size, if you paid attention you could hear the helium pump sputtering. Walt was punished in “Felina,” in a non-obvious way. Many of the people Walt theoretically loved are dead because of his actions, and Walt is dead to many of the living — in the sense of “dead to me.” He’s repeatedly photographed as if he were a ghost haunting his own life. The final two episodes of the series feel like an epilogue to me, an exceptionally dark and violent postscript, marinated in futility. The most haunting shot in the entire episode is that close-up of Walt staring through the window at the son who disowned him and who thinks of him (rightly) as the man responsible for murdering Uncle Hank. The episode’s echoes of Taxi Driver and its ancestor The Searchers fuse with “El Paso” in this shot. It’s a modern suburban variation of that iconic final image of John Wayne in the doorway at the end of The Searchers, a spirit doomed to wander forever between the winds.

For all his talk of loving his family and wanting to provide for them, and for all the tears he shed over Skyler and Walt Jr. and Hank, and for all the tenderness he showed baby Holly in moments of repose, the only thing Walt truly seemed to love was the adrenaline rush of creation — the thrill of thinking something up, be it a meth recipe or a distribution scheme or a plot to destroy his enemies, and then carrying the plan to fruition. How fitting, then, that the penultimate shot of “Felina” is a hilariously, wonderfully sick version of a lover’s embrace. Walt touches his true love for the last time, but rather than gaze into a pair of beautiful eyes, he stares into a cold metal surface, into his own reflection — a reflection that’s monstrously distorted — and then falls out of frame, dead.

So no, I don’t think it’s a “happy” ending. But I understand why many viewers would need to think of it as happy, considering how deftly Breaking Bad pushed those buttons that made us identify with Walt, and I’m the first to admit that Gilligan and his writers built to a conclusion that can give us nearly everything we want or need. It’s not merely a happy or sad ending. It’s an ending that leaves us alone with a mirror. One little kiss and Feleena, good-bye.

Seitz: One Last Look at the Breaking Bad Finale