“I Was Good At It” Breaking Bad Series Finale Recap “Felina”
“The whole thing felt kinda shady, like, morality-wise?”
When I was a kid I loved the Prydian Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander. Its mix of high adventure and grounded characters connected with me in a way that nothing—not even my beloved Star Wars trilogy—ever had before. I’ll always remember reading the final pages of the last book in the series, The High King. It’s a happy ending, but one tinged with sadness. Taran is offered a choice to live forever in a golden realm, or stay behind and keep the promises he’s made to the people of Prydain—and die, as all mortals must. Taran chooses the latter, and though he becomes king and wins the hand of Princess Eilonwy, in time their names are lost to legend and myth. It’s a bittersweet, but satisfying, way to wrap up the grand coming-of-age epic, and it’s cast quite a shadow over every other finale I’ve read or watched since the night I read those final words. The chief takeaway? You can have a happy ending or a sad ending, but to have a resonant ending you have to stay true to the world you’ve established.
You can bitch in the face of the howling blackness of the Sopranos finale all you like, but it’s an appropriate resolution to Tony’s petulant, nihilistic existence. Six Feet Under ended a little too maudlin for you? Well, Jesus Christ, what show were you watching all those years? Did The Wire finale wrap things up a bit too neatly, or hit the “everything is a cycle” theme too hard for you? Well, that was the thesis statement from the first episode forward. So, then, if all we really need in a finale is for the series to end according to its own rules, what are we to make of Walter White winning?
In the days before the finale aired a meme image circled the internet that showed how everything terrible that had happened to Walter White in the last three seasons sprang directly from his decision to let Jane die. Her death sends Jesse spiraling into drugs, which gets Walt to put him in rehab, where he meets Andrea. When he meets Andrea he becomes attached to Tomas, her cousin, who kills Combo and is later killed himself—this sends Jesse after the dealers that killed him, which Walt must save him from, putting Walt at odds with Gus, leading to Walt blowing off half of Gus’s face, which leads into every bit of the twisty plot of season five, and the dissolution of Walt’s empire. And that seemed to be how the moral universe of Breaking Bad worked. Walt allowed an innocent girl to die, and everything past that moment just dug him deeper into the shit hole he’d created for himself. Hell, just two episodes back in the terrifying “Ozymandias” (now officially the greatest episode the series will ever produce), a direct link was tied between Hank’s death and Walt’s decision to cook meth in the first place.
Divine retribution is alive and well in the Breaking Bad universe, and Walt himself had become so corrupted that he seemed beyond redemption. Did we even want redemption for Walt? Was that even a thing that was possible? According to “Felina”, it is. But here’s the thing—did Walt even want redemption for himself? As he stares in disgust at peppy yuppies Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz disavowing his legacy on Charlie Rose, at the end of last week’s “Granite State”, Walt seems propelled into action for revenge. And he gets revenge on them, safe in the knowledge that they will spend the rest of their days looking over their shoulders for the hit they won’t see coming, courtesy of the “best hitmen West of the Mississippi” (actually Badger and Skinny Pete with laser pointers), and it is satisfying, and incredibly tense. The encounter begins with the very real possibility that Walt has just decided to go on a killing spree. When instead we see that Walt has finally found a way to get money to his family it’s an ingenious twist—and the only real surprise of the episode.
Walt’s other targets are Lydia, Jesse, and the Nazis—the core of another empire that he built, that carries his name, but moves on without him—and here’s where the problem with the episode lies. Lydia and the Nazis were never developed as well as Gus Fring, so their deaths seem merely obligatory. Sure, Lydia’s going to die by Stevia, because they kept beating us in the head with her sweetener of choice, sure, Walt’s going to shoot it out with the Nazis because Vince Gilligan’s stated goal was to turn him into Scarface, and that involves machine guns. But the real showdown here is between Walt and his protégé, his surrogate son, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse doesn’t speak in this episode until the last ten minutes, and their meeting is filled with so many writer’s contrivances that it lacks any of the organic flow that their old clashes did. Uncle Jack, a man that we just plain don’t know, is so hurt by Walt’s accusation that he has teamed up with a rat like Pinkman that he parades Jesse in front of Walt in chains—why he does this in his living room, when he’s asked Walt to be taken out and shot, and could therefore just shoot Walt in the lab where Jesse is cooking is anybody’s guess. The only reason that matters is that they need to all be there, and all standing, for Walt’s trunk machine gun mechanism to take all of them out.
Part of the fun of Breaking Bad was always watching the ways that Walter White had to scramble to make his plans work in the face of complications. Had Jack called his bluff—had Jack’s henchmen insisted, say, with a gun to his head, that Walt actually park where he’d been told to park—Walt would have had to scramble again, would have had to use that magical brain of his to exact his revenge. That would have been thrilling in a way that the showdown as scripted wasn’t. The only part of the fight that feels energetic and scary in any way is Jesse’s Slave Leia-style takedown of creepy-crawly Todd. Because we like Jesse, because he deserves some sort of revenge for his time in captivity, but also because Todd feel more like an actual character than Lydia or Jack ever did.
The plot contrivances and weak targets make the last ten minutes of Breaking Bad ring false. But ten minutes does not an episode—or, certainly, a series—make. I’ve started with the weaknesses because they are glaring, but there are many strengths here. The scene between Walt and Skyler, in the truly depressing apartment that she had the kids must live in now, is an astonishing bit of acting from Bryan Cranston and especially Anna Gunn, who is the absolute MVP of this season. The apartment itself is dingy and wrong, especially as you see little reminders of the life that had been, with those god-awful family portraits and the wooden fork and spoon decorations jammed into the tiny space. And then Skyler finally calls Walt on his bullshit and begs him not the give her the “I did it for the family” line, and Walt finally tells the truth.
“I did it for me,” he says. “I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.”
That much has been obvious since the pilot episode, when being around that much violence and gore and excitement gave the supposedly meek Walter White a giant, literal, boner—but Walt’s never admitted it, even to himself. It’s an important moment, and one that the long-suffering Skyler, for all of her complicity in the maintenance of Walt’s empire, truly deserves. The confession buys Walt a moment of goodbye with Holly, but he must watch Flynn from a distance. Walt’s legacy could have been Flynn and Holly, but he chose another, and instead of dying with them gathered around him he dies in the arms of his true love—the cold embrace of his lab. Of chemistry and science and all of the things that he understood so well.
If you know the rules of chemistry you can make those elements do whatever you want them to do, and Walt knew how to manipulate those elements even better than he knew how to manipulate people. It’s a fitting final moment for him (the Badfinger song “Baby Blue” that accompanies his final moments is thematically and lyrically appropriate, but man is it a crappy song), and a fitting final shot for the series, a deliberate echo of the end of “Crawl Space”, as the camera slowly pulls away from Walt’s frozen face. That time, the camera wobbled (a very real consideration of the fact that it had to pass up a thin wire, but also a nice mirroring of his inner state) and Walt was frozen in horrified paralysis. This time, he’s satisfied at last. He’s home.
And that’s it. Everyone that Walter White wronged is guaranteed an out in one way or another—Skyler and Flynn will soon be the benefactors of $9 million of Walt’s money, Marie will be able to bury Hank, and Jesse is free—not just in the literal sense, but free of his obedience to Walter White. After all of the Nazis have died, Walt kicks his gun over to the boy and asks him to finish him off, “It’s what you want,” Walt says. Jesse’s not buying it. “Say the words!” he demands. “It’s what you want.” And with that, Jesse has a choice, and he chooses to walk away. Their final moment together is a wordless exchange, as Walt stands, obscured by shadow, and nods to Jesse. Jesse doesn’t nod back—doesn’t acknowledge the man that Walt once was that directly—but there is sadness on his face. It’s a well-played moment, but for the very last moment between these two men, it’s not enough.
If the end is anti-climactic, it’s because we’ve already had a grim climax in the desert two episodes back. But if the episode feels off theme, that’s something very different. Because Walter White wins. His stated goals throughout the series have been to provide for his family and to die with dignity, at his “perfect moment”, and in this episode Walt is allowed—maybe even divinely allowed, as demonstrated by his prayer in the cold open—to create a new perfect moment. Walt admits to Skyler that those goals were bullshit, but he’s still able to fulfill them. That makes the finale less satisfying than I might have hoped, and it makes all of those wonderful connections of the previous seasons ring less true.
Season Five, Episode Sixteen
Breaking Bad Season Five: A-
Breaking Bad the series: A