A Crystal Blue Heart Of Darkness: Final thoughts before the 'Breaking Bad' finale

Kevin McFarland looks back on Season 5 of "Breaking Bad," in advance of the final episode. All Bad things must come to an end, but what a good Bad thing this series has been. Spoilers.

If you’ll permit a brief tangent: Joseph Conrad’s "Lord Jim" has sneakily become one of my favorite books, slowly growing in my esteem over many years since I first read it, to the point where I love it far more than "Heart Of Darkness." It has one of my favorite and most-quoted scenes in all of literature, arguably the most famous passage in the novel. The narrator, Charles Marlow (Conrad’s stand-in who also narrates of "Heart of Darkness") talks with Herr Stein, an eccentric trader and butterfly collector, who opines on humanity’s impossible quest of the ideal:

“A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns—not true? No! I tell you! The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.”

As Ursula Lord wrote in her book on Conrad’s novels, “this passage is simultaneously pessimistic and bravely accepting of the challenge of life itself.”

I keep coming back to that scene as I think about the end of Breaking Bad, this idea of submitting yourself to darkness, to a destructive element, and Walter White’s spiral into crippling solitude. It’s also a metaphor for how I manage to recommend the show to anyone who hasn’t seen it before, but fears the daunting task of watching something they know will have no hope of a happy ending.

Do not be afraid, do not avoid what is difficult but certain in life. Submit to the destructive element, and with the exertions of your mind make the deep, dark ocean of Shakespearean tragedy keep you up.

To be frank, I have absolutely no idea what will happen in the Breaking Bad finale. And that doesn’t bother me. It’s useless to me to field predictive questions asking my opinion on Walt’s fate, or any of the other characters. I just want to sit back, shed a few tears, and let the story finish on its own terms. The Breaking Bad pick ‘em card that’s been floating around the Internet the past few days reeks of this rabid fascination with being retroactively clairvoyant. Sports have been infected with the same desire for accurate punditry. I am not obsessed with being right about this show. I don’t want to be able to predict what will happen. It’s not fun--or my job-—to be right about where the chips fall. I just want to be able to pick up the pieces that remain and try to make sense of them.

So with that, I’ll leave off with a bit of further review on some elements that went unremarked over these final episodes, or anything I found particularly relevant to the finale:

1. When the news came down that AMC would wrangle Chris Hardwick for a Talking Dead-style aftershow called Talking Bad, “skeptical” would not begin to describe my feelings. If anything, that was the first sign of a set of frantic moves by AMC--splitting the final season of Mad Men, commissioning Better Call Saul and a Walking Dead spinoff-—that tells me the network would rather cling to past success and coast instead of put in the hard work to establish new shows on the same level. Low Winter Sun has been a disaster. But after watching these final discussion shows, I’ve been amazed at the conversations begun in the time constraints of a half-hour live studio show. In particular, Parks And Recreation star Adam Scott proved to be an incredibly detailed commentator. But the best moment for me was during Bryan Cranston’s interview a few weeks ago, discussing his character:

“Walt has changed. He used to be methodical, a scientific mind. And now he’s much more emotional, this experience these last two years of his life have created an emotional being which he never really was open to before. So he’s impulsive, hence the shooting of Mike, [after] being insulted by him. Leaving the book out. It was sloppy; it was careless.”

2. From the opening flash-forward in “Live Free Or Die”: Walt has breakfast at a Denny’s in Albuquerque, having driven back across the country for whatever he has planned. After seeing Walt arrange his bacon into a 52 for his birthday, the waitress mentions the offer of a free birthday meal, which Walt initially refuses. Her response: “Really? Free meal. Free is good, even if I was like, rich. Free is always good.” If the showrunner fallacy has taught me anything, it’s not to credit re-watch epiphanies to any one person, but the resonance of that accidental sentiment. Walt is exorbitantly wealthy and yet trapped by the scenario he engineered. This turned out incredibly prescient in light of the final season.

3. We need to pay more attention to casting directors and how instrumental that particular role in production has played in making Breaking Bad such a phenomenal series. Jesse Plemons and Kevin Rankin (Todd and Kenny) have shown the polar opposite from their "Friday Night Lights" characters (Landry and Herc, respectively). And though it took me a while to realize it, Uncle Jack is Michael Bowen, who I know best as Buck from Kill Bill: Vol. 1. This is a series that shows how much we take casting directors for granted.

4. The cinematography has been incredible throughout the show, but I failed to zero in on the first post-credits scene in “Buried” that depicts Walt and Hank in an old-fashioned Western standoff. The sequence is essentially framed as a duel between gunslingers, wind whistling around, complete with the little kid’s RC car playing tumbleweed in the background.


Image courtesy AMC

5. Also from “Buried,” perhaps the only moment of pure, unadulterated joy in the final eight episodes, courtesy of Huell and Kuby. Breaking Bad has taken the Rosencranz/Guildenstern model of comic relief—like Laurel and Hardy or C-3PO and R2D2—in crafting characters like Huell/Kube and Badger/Skinny Pete, right down to the Pete’s incredibly poignant and sad abilities as a piano savant.


Image courtesy AMC

6. I suspect the lasting image of the season for me will be the location where Saul tells Jesse, and then Walt, to wait for Robert Forster’s vacuum cleaner repairman in order to disappear with a new identity. The actual shooting location is the John B. Robert Dam in Albuquerque, which is a dry spillway designed for flood control. It’s a beautiful and haunting array of giant cement slabs, and I know I’ve noted several times how much they resemble gravestones. Walt standing in front of a giant metaphor for the ways in which man attempts to control the natural world, and one that strongly connotes death, speaks to me as a defining image for the character and the series. Appropriately, the dam has already become a pilgrimage point for fans of the show before the finale.


Image courtesy AMC

7. Let’s revisit a few of the callbacks from “Ozymandias” for a bit:

First, the way the dissolves change the landscape at To’Hajiilee, from Walt and Jesse’s first cook, to the barren reservation, to the shootout:


Image courtesy AMC


Image courtesy AMC


Image courtesy AMC

And here’s that opening shot of Skyler on the other end of the phone call that opens the episode:


Image courtesy AMC

And then Skyler’s choice between the phone and the knife:


Image courtesy AMC

There are so many images from “Ozymandias” burned into my brain. But what I keep returning to is how strongly the episode—-and arguably the series as a whole—-ties into Percy Shelley’s poem. From the “two vast and trunkless legs” of Walt’s pants to the “shattered visage” in the sand, to the solitary white king on the chess board at the fire station, there’s a full essay’s worth of detail in that one episode about “Ozymandias” and the obsession with tying the season and series up in callbacks. It is truly an outstanding achievement, one that has only improved on multiple viewings for me over the past few weeks.


Image courtesy AMC

8. Music selection has also been a totemic positive for the show, but instead of talking about the song cues, I’ll end with Dave Porter’s incredibly score. The second volume of his music for the show was released on Friday, so let’s end with the first track from that new album, “Sunset End Credits.” I’ll see you all right here after the finale to pay tribute to what has been a brutally rewarding five and a half year journey.

Read Season 5 episode recaps and all of our Breaking Bad-related posts in our Breaking Bad archives.

Published 9:21 pm Sun, Sep 29, 2013

About the Author

Kevin McFarland is a freelance writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming at The A.V. Club, Paste Magazine, This Was TV, and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.

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