Kevin McFarland on the final, magnificent episode of Breaking Bad, which by any calculation was a 100% pure, crystal-blue cook. Spoilers.
“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And…I was…really…I was alive.”
It’s not possible to summarize a 47-hour tragedy that led to uncontrollable and exasperated laughter, weeping, and gasping—-not to mention the stunned silence. Personally, Breaking Bad started for me in a room in Prague in the summer of 2009 while I was studying abroad. I had watched the pilot when it aired because of my affection for Bryan Cranston after Malcolm In The Middle-—the last show my family watched together in our house every Sunday before growing up intervened-—but didn’t catch up on the show through the end of the second season until that summer, glued to a computer screen. And I’ve spent hours over the past four years talking to my father, mother, and brother about the show, comparing reactions and interpretations, or how the show tugged at larger psychological questions. It’s the one television program all four of us watch, and as a family, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that while living in different places across the country, it brought us closer together in appreciation of a gargantuan accomplishment of dramatic art.
So I will suppress the urge to summarize as much as I can, but contrary to the almost perfunctory nature of tying off every last loose end, I think there’s a veritable ocean to dissect about “Felina” and what it means for the series. This is an episode didn’t provide that conversation-starting powder keg of other shows like The Sopranos or The Shield offered: immediately controversial or featuring a showstopper of a final statement. I expect that “Ozymandias” will go down as one of the best episodes of the season and one of the best of the series, reveling in an obsessive need to link all of Walt’s past decisions with what led to an irrevocable violent break.
But I feel that does a disservice to the comparatively modest goals of "Felina" and how well it ties the remaining threads together. Rather than an expansive, sweeping, examination of overarching implications, Vince Gilligan's final hour zeroes in on Walt to systematically provide endpoints for each of his key business and personal relationships. He doesn't need to talk with everyone, merely affect them in some slight way.
Audiences put pressure on creators to deliver series finales that fit with what they most desire. There’s nothing here to rival the cathartic comeuppance of the final shot in The Shield finale, nor the frustrating middle finger of ambiguity that ended The Sopranos. But those are just my reactions to those respective final episodes. The Shield cut the legs out from under a master manipulator in such breathtaking fashion that it is still the high bar to clear for a series finale. And The Sopranos ending, cutting off seemingly at random, with so much open to interpretation, fit with the scattered and at times surreal nature of David Chase’s show.
More than anything else, I felt like “Felina” fit exactly the story Vince Gilligan, his fellow writers, and the actors have been trying to tell for the past 62 episodes. Breaking Bad began, from the very opening of the pilot, as Walter White’s story, building to ensnare his family, Jesse’s addict buddies, Gus Fring and his crew, Mike Ehrmantraut, Saul Goodman, and all the little side characters. It built to include El Paso, the extended DEA network, international drug cartels, and an international corporate conglomerate capable of shipping illicit materials to the Czech Republic virtually unnoticed.
But the final season-—the last 16 episodes—-methodically chipped away at Walt’s ascendance after destroying Gus’ operation, slowly stripping everything away, until only Walt was left, and he made the choice to engineer one final day to intercept everyone and go out on his own terms. It’s possible to call that misstep, allowing such a vile and black-hearted man control of his own destiny instead of crumbling as his world falls all around him, leaving him lost and alone with nothing to show for his efforts. But what all-around nice guy Vince Gillian has said all along is that he sees just a hint of himself in Walt. And by intervening to write and direct Walt’s final rodeo, he seems to be saying that even the most morally bankrupt can snatch a bit of agency and humanity.
“Just get me home.”
Structurally, “Felina” breaks down almost too neatly—-a sentiment we’ll revisit at least a few times here—- into three segments that run just over 18 minutes. The first settles Walt’s distant past dating back to Grey Matter and the point at which his life deviated from his potential; the second allows him to be a spectral journeyman revisiting various partnerships throughout Albuquerque; and the third gives all the “Face Off” fans one last glimpse at Walt the master tinkerer.
The cold-open prologue is as close to religious devotion as Walter White gets. Freezing in an unlocked car caked in snow, police lights flash in the background, and he utters what amounts to a prayer, that he be allowed this final act to set up the dominos one last time. And just like that, the lights fade, Walt tips the sun visor, and Vince Gilligan drops the car keys into Walt’s hands, reward him for his supplication. This is the strongest indicator in the finale of something that has been clear all along: Gilligan has no interest in telling a fundamentally realistic story. Breaking Bad employed consultants on every aspect of the production, but from a narrative perspective, this is Shakespearean tragedy, where convenient twists of fate conspire to make a crucial letter miss the intended recipient resulting in star-cross’d suicide.
Picking up where “Granite State” left off, Walt’s first order of business is to visit the new home of his former partners Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz in the only truly shocking, unexpected, and brilliant scene in the finale. It’s a tour de force of showy, fascinating directing by Gilligan, using a few extended takes—one about 30 seconds, the next about 80 seconds—with Walt lingering in the darkness, invading the Schwartz’s home, terrifying them both with his calm demeanor. In Walt’s mind, he’s going full Funny Games with the home invasion, coercing two people completely unfamiliar with the world Walt got involved in to follow his directives out of fear for what he now represents. These are people that Walt can bully with empty threats. When Elliott attempts to defend his wife with a knife, Walt diffuses the situation with a knowing grumble: his wife used a bigger knife to get him out of the house.
The plan is simple: give them his remaining money, to be transferred to Flynn—-permanently I hope, the change now a grim foreshadowing of how ashamed it would eventually make anyone to call him his father’s name—-in the form of a trust activated on his 18th birthday in 10 months. A sign of charity, given to the innocent victims of a “monstrous father.” But unlike Robert Forster’s vacuum cleaner repair man, Walt takes extra precaution to scare his former business partners into obeying his command when two laser sights appear in the most frightening music cue in the episode. Having struck an appropriately lasting fear into severely effete, white-bread people, he departs and reveals the ruse: Badger and Skinny Pete held the sights. (“The whole thing felt kinda shady, like, morality-wise?”) It’s a brilliant throwback to the kind of intimidation Walt believed himself an expert at in all situations-—and it’s the first sign of reflexive fan service, extending a popular aspect of Walt’s evil side to scare the living hell of the “beautiful people.” Walt’s final words to the first pair he blamed for his lot in life other than himself: “This is where you get to make it right.” As though they’ve wronged him so egregiously that he now enacts this demand as a form of punishment for enjoying success so much.
However, I read that moment as both Walt exacting the kind of vengeance he’s desired for his entire life on Gretchen and Elliott, but also doubling down on faith in the inherent good of people who ended up surpassing him in every way. He gives all of his money to the two people who succeeded where he was too proud to coexist; makes a powerful but empty threat against them to follow his wishes or else risk their lives looking over their shoulders as vanilla, fearful scientists; allows his life’s work, the money he “earned” to be subsumed by Grey Matter, trusting his professional enemies with providing for his family, even when restricting them from spending a single cent of their own money; and remaining the private, uncredited man behind a public display of charity, with a precious few knowing the truth. Of all the satisfying and cathartic moments in the finale, this is one that represented the most to me how deeply rooted Walt’s darkness had always been, for its duality as both Walt’s cunning triumph and his foolish Hail Mary.
“It’s over, and I needed a proper goodbye.”
Though “Felina” is distinctly Walt’s swan song, I was stunned by the emotional gut-punch of Jesse daydreaming while cooking meth, imagining himself a carefree woodworker while constantly reminded of his status as a captive prisoner, leashed like a dog, treated as a subhuman, submissive only to prevent more violence from raining down upon the ones he cares about.
I can’t think of another episode of Breaking Bad that made me feel so tense while simultaneously spelling out events that had been resting in my mind for weeks. Take the coffee shop meeting between Lydia and Todd that Walt invades. Gilligan’s camera lingers on that Stevia packet—-the only one in the little bin on the table. And they don't just let the detail sit, but point at it, highlight it, and encircle it with flashing neon lights. So much of this finale sets up perfectly for Walt, right from the moment the car keys fall into his hand. I imagine dissidents are going to cry foul at the sheer amount of things that fall Walt’s way during “Felina,” how he moved about Albuquerque as though nobody but Hank would be capable of tracking him down. Walt’s freedom in the absence of a true opponent tracking him down felt uneasily simple. But it’s the most theatrical ending to a very theatrical show, and as long as you can accept Breaking Bad on those heavily Shakespearean terms, it is extremely satisfying.
And then the building montage, aided by what I can only assume is an intentional callback to one of the best shots in the show’s run. Walt, framed by a window in an abandoned structure, recalling “Crawl Space” as he builds his mechanical arm of death to rig up the final battle. This is the first sign that Breaking Bad will build to the “bloodbath” finish hinted at by a few cast members.
The scene between Skyler and Walt features the only appearances by Betsy Brandt (on the other end of a phone call) and Anna Gunn, putting a fitting grace note on the most difficult and tumultuous relationship on the show. It has the other gasp-worthy camera move in the finale, a slow track in after Skyler hangs up the phone, revealing Walt behind a support column. Walt plainly states his intentions, which essentially puts into words this second of three acts. He gets to say goodbye in his own way to may people, and leaves on a dark but less viscerally upsetting note than his last phone call with Skyler. He even gets to say goodbye to Holly. There is nothing Walt can do to apologize, to atone, for all the havoc he wreaked upon his wife-—though it must be said she’s been more publicly punished and privately guilt-ridden for being complicit that Walt. But he does one small good thing while revealing the depth of his failure: giving the lottery ticket revealing the location of Hank and Gomez’s grave, which Skyler can use to deflect grand jury charges against her.
Their conversation comes right around the midpoint of the finale, and it’s significant as the first time Walt has been totally, utterly honest about his motives and his feelings about his actions since his cancer diagnosis. He finally unburdens Skyler with the truth—-and damn if there’s not a glint in Anna Gunn’s eye that Skyler still loves Walt somewhere down there after everything. I loved that Gilligan chose to stay on Gunn’s reaction to Walt finally admitting the truth, only cutting back to Bryan Cranston to finish the line as it slowly escaped his lips. It is a beautiful and heartbreaking final shared scene between two deserving Emmy winners.
And in perhaps the most haunting silent scene in the episode, Walt watches his son-—the boy who he will never get to see again, whose live he irrevocably changed and only tenuously hopes to provide for in the future—-walk into his new home, and then Walt turns and walks out of focus. The camera lingers, panning down as his figure blurs so much he’s almost indistinguishable from the landscape. Walt is a walking spirit, already disappearing into the desert sands.
“I want this.”
I said previously that regardless of how anything else ended, that fans would be satisfied if Jesse killed Todd. Well Breaking Bad acolytes, you got your moment, after once again Walt’s entirely unpredictable tactics succeeded with pinpoint accuracy, taking out Jack and every one of his men except for Todd with the M60 contraption. That leaves Jesse with just enough strength and an opening to exact revenge on his captor, stunned and disoriented following the hit. (I’m not sure Todd believes that Walt could get the upper hand.)
I’m confident that this is the worst I have ever felt about feeling good that a character I root for triumphed by murdering a character I root against. Jesse killing Todd accomplishes nothing to me but fan service in retribution for all the pain and suffering Jesse endured. If I had it my way, Jesse would have never killed again, but one of the great things about Breaking Bad is its sense of moral relativism, making the convincing argument that Jesse can make just one exception for Todd, the dope who chained him up like a dog and shot an innocent child. Yes, I was extremely, uncomfortably happy that Jesse used his own bonds to choke out Todd’s last breath, but that is the “Not my daughter, you bitch!” moment, where fan service felt just a hair less satisfying that it should be, because I cared so much about Jesse getting out with his hands as unsullied as possible.
But then Walt and Jesse are alone together again, in the midst of mayhem, death, and destruction orchestrated by Walt. In the course of the show, Jesse has been Walt’s student, his guide, his son, his partner, his thorn, his enemy, and his downfall. And the horrors that Walt has inflicted on Jesse will never be fully muted. Jesse is so finished with Walt that he doesn’t shoot him and take that violent catharsis. One way to read that moment of Walt sliding the gun over to Jesse is that Walt knows his ultimate fate. He will die soon, and he allows Jesse the choice of whether to take violent action and get revenge, or to leave. Jesse chooses not to let Walt have the easy way out (in his mind), and abandons the man who never gave a shit about him.
And Lydia, well, her fate is sealed thanks to her routine. As Walt says, “10AM, every Tuesday morning, you and I met here. You’re rather schedule oriented, I guess.” She gets to know her fate, and stew in the final moments, unable to do anything about it, leaving a body behind for her daughter, as she once begged Gus Fring's hitman Mike Ehrmantraut to allow her. It’s her worst nightmare, but for a cold, nervy woman exploiting a pathetic crush to carry out mass murder so she didn’t have to get her hands dirty, another fitting end.
Jesse gets one final hurrah of an exit, an exhilarating escape, hopefully to get Brock and then to Alaska or other, more antipodal locations, far away from the trauma of Albuquerque. And then Walt is alone with the lab, nursing a gunshot wound, self-inflicted in a way. He was the architect of his own destruction, from family man and high school teacher down to lonely ex-meth kingpin, and then he physically caused his own death, a delayed suicide in the act of revenge, under the guise of saving others.
It’s almost too clean—-except for that bloody handprint Walt leaves contaminating the lab. Gilligan hermetically sealed this show with a perfect capstone to Walter White’s story, entombing him in an episode where Walt doesn’t redeem himself, but dies after making all the final moves he wanted. He won’t live to see whether it all carries out according to his plan, but he dies at peace with his decisions, in a lab with equipment he helped design. These are his tools, and he is the craftsman, the artist. Whether that specifically molded ending satisfies you is not the point. It is the ending that fit the “finite” story of Walter White. And I loved it.
I don’t weep for Walter White. But I think I understand him, and sympathize with the heart of his plight, to achieve significance, even on a private scale only truly known by a select few. There is a small piece of that bitterness inside all of us over a cursed missed opportunity or a road not taken. There is the potential for that seed to lay dormant until the right set of circumstances—-a brother-in-law offering a ride-along, a former student falling off a rooftop—-causes the dark plant to thrive inside.
I’m glad we got to see Badger and Skinny Pete again, and I recognize that they were the two most prominent side characters throughout the series. BUT SERIOUSLY: WHITHER HUELL? Yes, the DEA agent guarding the door probably got a call about what happened and Huell was charged for his role in the operation or released based on evidence provided.
I am glad that neither the “Walt wears a wire” nor the “Walt already killed Skyler” conspiracy theories turned out to be true about the breakfast flash-forward. Those events would have cheapened the ending for me.
Once again the music supervisors and Gilligan deserve extra credit for selecting some very poignant songs. Using Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” has some nice foreshadowing in the lyrics, as well as the name “Felina” that’s also the obvious anagram of “Finale.” Add to that the use of Badfinger’s “Baby Blue,” and you get a fitting end to one of the most obscure and ingenious soundtracks in television history.
And if you’d like a simpler version of the many thousands of words I just spilled on this finale, here’s the incomparable The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
“You look terrible.” “Yeah…but I feel good.”
And with that, I take my leave. Thank to everyone for reading and commenting over the past two months. This has been a dream come true. Now I’m off to finish writing my next draft of Badger And Skinny Pete Are Dead, premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival sometime in the next few years if I can just sell enough blue crystal to sponsor the production.
Read Season 5 episode recaps and all of our Breaking Bad-related posts in our Breaking Bad archives.
Published 11:22 am Mon, Sep 30, 2013
More at Boing Boing
I've just completed an amazing audio-binge: listening to every single episode of the incredible, spooky, funny, and monumentally charming Welcome to Night Vale podcast. It's one part David Lynch, one part New Weird and one part Bizarro fiction.
Stewart Butterfield tells how a few million dollars worth of art, created for a beloved massively-multiplayer game, ended up in the public domain after its death.