BREAKING BAD: “Felina”

And so it ends, with a surprisingly elegiac, old-school sendoff for Walter Hartwell White.

I don’t know…the whole thing felt kinda shady, morality-wise?

–Skinny Pete

In “Granite State” and now in “Felina,” Walt is a ghost. With the clock of his own mortality ticking louder than ever, all that remains is to return to the ABQ, haunting those he left behind one more time.  We had our climax two weeks ago, and now things must simply resolve.

Initial reactions to this finale have been disappointingly mixed; some say it was too “neat” or “slow” or “predictable” or what have you. We’ve been conditioned to expect either hit-the-fan insanity (LOST) or polarizing ambiguity (The Sopranos), but Vince Gilligan laid the track for this plaintive conclusion long ago; that an outcome feels inevitable should not count against it. It means it’s right.

The episode has a dreamlike quality; it’s quiet and methodical. Gone is all of Walt-as-Heisenberg’s bluster: he’s a man who knows he’s reaching the end of the path, and puts his affairs in order with cold efficiency. Having shown their susceptibility to manipulation, the Schwartzes are perfect pawns for Walt — not to kill, as was suspected, but to use. His terrifyingly silent entry to their home and subsequent instruction was fascinating in its stillness. This is an attitude we have never seen from Walt before now. He’s not done lying, but he’s finally done lying to himself. Like when he prays(!) to find the keys to a car he needs to steal, the Universe will bend its will to him once more.

He enlists Elliot and Gretchen to give his remaining millions to Flynn when he turns 18, and threatens them with unseen hitmen (who turn out to be Badger and Skinny Pete armed with laser pointers, in the episode’s only moment of real levity–thanks for the memories, Badger & Pete!). Everything is completely planned out in his mind, every detail accounted for, except for that one problem dog that should have been put down long ago: Jesse.

Jesse’s essentially a zombie now, every shred of his former self scrubbed away by Todd and the rest of the neo-Nazi gang. The blue meth he’s producing is better than ever these days, because his current psychological state frees the cooking from the “human element” that Walt would rail against. Jesse is a machine, a meth-making robot whose heart has been removed.  When Walt realizes that Jesse must be the one responsible for the Heisenberg recipe still being out on the streets, we see a bitter flash of the old Walt, but just for a moment. There are bigger fish to fry.

Here the show catches up to the flash-forwards begun in last year’s season premiere. Now armed with the gun and the ricin, Walt has just a few more stops on his itinerary. The slow burn of this episode decelerates even further, as Walt visits his family one last time, and is able to finally admit the truth about the enterprise that has driven him for six seasons: “I did it for me. I liked it; I was good at it…I was alive.” At last, just before it’s too late, he lays his soul bare to Skyler, and she understands.

We’ve spent the last several weeks watching all of Walt’s plans come to ruin, so it’s almost a throwback to get a caper like this, where everything actually goes according to plan (but he doesn’t “win” — that’s a very different construct).  Our sympathies are engaged almost by default; Todd, Uncle Jack, and Lydia deserve punishment, and the best man to give it out is the man who has already been punished himself.  Viewers long ago predicted the intended uses for the machine gun and ricin, and that we turned out to be right doesn’t mean it was dramatically wrong. Is it fan service, or taking the easy way out, to believe in cosmic justice? I don’t think so.

Lydia and Todd are meeting in the open now, sitting at the same table, giving Walt the perfect window to enact his final gambit: claiming that he has a “new way” to cook that doesn’t require methlamine, which piques their interest enough to earn him an invite to the group’s clubhouse.  Whether they actually intend to hear him out or are laying a trap doesn’t matter to Walt, who has his own plans anyway, beginning with what he slips into Lydia’s beloved Stevia. Then out in the desert, he makes that robot that Jesse hoped for back in “Four Days Out:” a bullet-spewing death machine, activated by car key.

So what if the buildup to the series’ final set-piece lacks the white-knuckle tension of earlier episodes? On Twitter, @Cosmis made the point that these last two episodes are all epilogue. This is the falling action. This is the release. This is the equivalent of Frodo at the Grey Havens, if Frodo elected to kill a bunch of Nazis before getting on the boat. All Walt has to do is surreptitiously get his car keys off the pool table, and this thing is over.

Jack never intended to bargain with Walt, but before his men can pull the trigger Walt uses the only piece of information he has to his advantage, crying foul on Jesse’s apparent “partnership” despite Walt’s order to have him killed months ago. Jack, his honor impugned, drags Jesse out of the lab to show that he’s not a “partner,” but a slave. Seeing what has become of his symbolic son, Walt engages whatever ions of humanity remain in him and spares Jesse from the impending bloodshed. The machine gun, rigged up inside Walt’s trunk, fires for what seems like an eternity.

The resolutions come quickly now. Jesse achieves payback, Princess Leia-style, by strangling Todd with his chains. Walt, meanwhile, doesn’t even care that Jack knows where his money is (what good is it?), and puts a bullet in his head to finish him off. We see that Walt caught a ricochet in the remote-controlled attack, and is now really and truly a dead man. He intends to give Jesse the satisfaction of ending Heisenberg himself (“Do it,” he calmly pleads) but Jesse can’t–he doesn’t want to.  He wants to hear Walt beg, but won’t take any more orders, or take another life. The revenge on Todd pays for all.

Our cathartic release in these final moments comes from Jesse peeling out of the compound, having emerged from the lowest pits of Hell like Dante, full of a violent joy we didn’t think he could ever feel again.  Most importantly, he can feel again. The camera brilliantly cuts mid-scream, allowing the sound to linger on in our minds.  Jesse is finally free: free from cooking, free from Todd, free from Mr. White. The world is open to him, maybe for the first time in his life.

Walt, with only moments left to live, trudges down to the superlab, taking in what he’s “accomplished,” what his arrogant brilliance has wrought. After all of this, on what are his final thoughts? What has been his truest love? What is “his precious,” as Vince Gilligan put it on the aftershow? The chemistry.  To the sounds of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” the final shot of the series echoes Season 4’s “Crawl Space,” with Walt’s maniacal laughter replaced with…silence. The cancer didn’t get him, which is all he wanted in the first place. It’s over.

And it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Lots of Extra Thoughts:

-Walt’s closing of the gates outside the Schwartz home reminded me of Game of Thrones in its foreboding chill, and I half-expected their in-home stereo to start playing “The Rains of Castamere.” Fortunately, the show was saving the slaughter for later.

-Supporting my theory that Walt is essentially already a ghost, he is also able to slip in and out of the new White residence unnoticed, and it’s not like he was really trying to be stealthy. He just walks around a corner.

-This final episode was directed by Vince Gilligan himself, who gives us one flourish in the shot inside Skyler’s kitchen, pushing in to reveal that Walt has been there the entire time, just standing behind a post. It’s mise-en-scene 101, and brilliant.

-Briefly confusing, however, is Jesse’s escape, shot in such a way to make me think that he was going to run Walt over with the car on two separate occasions. Was it accidental, or is Walt just giving Jesse one more chance to do it for him?

-I liked the understated way Lydia’s fate was finally revealed, but not so much the obvious attention paid to her tea in the diner. If we never know how Walt got the ricin in, it’s okay to not foreshadow it so heavily at the beginning of the episode.

-How does this rank with other all-time finale episodes? It’s a fool’s errand to rate them objectively, but I’d say that the conclusions of LOST, The Wire, and Friday Night Lights hit me harder emotionally, even though Breaking Bad‘s final season as a whole is vastly superior to all.  It’s something that really shouldn’t be answered only a day after watching it.

-Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, and Aaron Paul are all extraordinary, and have been since the beginning. There’s nothing I can add to that that you haven’t heard before.

-Finally…this has been an incredible ride. I was speechless for a long time when it ended last night, and I struggle to find the words to properly eulogize it now. What Gilligan has achieved is monumental, on the Mount Rushmore of legendary television, and while I’m sad that it’s over I’m thrilled it ended so well, and — like Walt– on its own terms.  It was at once scientifically pristine and emotionally raw, with the most exceptional cast, top-to-bottom, found anywhere. The hyperbole will fly for a while, but the simple truth remains that this was an extraordinary show, bearing immense moral weight for our times. It was weird and messy, and brilliant, and unexpected, and as perfectly constructed as a series can be. We’ll never see anything like it again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.