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TV Review: ‘Breaking Bad’ Finale – Sympathy for the Devil

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finale 2    Please beware that this article contains spoilers.

Okay, it took me a while to compose myself after watching “Felina,” episode 16 of season 5 of Breaking Bad. It was hard enough dealing with the end of things, knowing there will be no more new shows, and basically I got what I have wanted all along from the show. It seems that series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan (who wrote and directed this episode) crafted the ending in such a way as to give as much of a satisfying ending as possible within the context of the history of the show. Perhaps that is my problem with it, or should I say I am not having any problem with it – I know that does not make sense, but my not having a problem with it is a problem because this is Breaking Bad.

I think that by giving most everyone much of what they wanted, “Felina” may have been just too perfect. Also, with the accumulation of emotion from “Granite State,” the previous episode, we came into the dangerous territory of, despite all his many transgressions, feeling sorry for Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Credit that to the writing, the directing, and mostly to Cranston’s acting. He has an incredible way to transmit pain and affliction – with a grimace, a smirk, or even a deadpan stare. In lesser hands this would have been maudlin and ineffective, but instead we got into the suffering and felt it personally, causing us to have sympathy for the man who Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) called the devil.

So I guess my issue with “Felina” is that it is too perfect, just too damned good even though I wanted it to be that way. From those first moments in the frozen car in New Hampshire, Walt sits there in the dark as the lights from police cars go by. Damn, I should want him to be caught (even knowing from the flash forwards that he will not be) and yet I am right there with him, wanting him to get back to New Mexico to take care of business. Then he starts the car and strains of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” play on the car stereo, and we know the direction we are heading in.

By the time we get to the palatial home of Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (Adam Godley and Jessica Hecht), Walt is sitting in the shadows waiting for them. As they come into their swanky digs and make insipid rich folk talk, Walt emerges from the vapors like a walker (from another great AMC show The Walking Dead). Walt glides along the floors like a ghost, touching walls and curios as if to feel the wealth that he could have had (if not for leaving Gray Matter) permeate his skeletal hand.

finale 4When Gretchen sees Walt she screeches, causing Elliot to come running to her defense with a butter knife. Walt tells him if he wants to go that way he needs a bigger knife. It is a brief comical moment, but then we get to the reason for his visit. No, he’s not there to poison the champagne with ricin, but rather to enlist them in making sure that Walt Jr. will get his money, almost $10 million of it. He explains that they will do this as what will seem like a goodwill gesture on Walt Jr.’s 18th birthday. While Walt and we sense that they may renege on the deal, two beams of red light are trained on Elliot and Gretchen by “assassins” waiting outside in the dark. He warns them that they will be watched for the rest of their lives by these killers, so they better make good on the deal. When Walt leaves we can only imagine Gretchen and Elliot will have to change their underwear.

Back in the car we get our second and last glimpse of humor in the episode, in the form of Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker). They are feeling a little bad about using laser pointers to scare the beautiful rich people, but Walt hands them each a wad of cash to get them feeling better. They also reveal an important factoid – the blue meth is still out there, forcing Walt to believe that Jesse has teamed up with Lydia (Laura Fraser) and Todd (Jesse Plemons). He will later meet up with them at Lydia’s favorite café and give her a going away present in her tea (the ricin disguised as stevia sweetener).

Tfinale 5he rest of the episode filters down from there, with Walt basically crossing his t’s and dotting his i’s. He goes to see Sklyer (Anna Gunn), again a wisp of his former self standing in the little kitchen of her rental. This scene is beautifully rendered, bringing together all the years of lies and pain and suffering when Walt reveals the most important and salient truth – “I did it for me.” All the doing it for his family stuff is thrown away, and this truth allows him to have some kind of final peace with Skyler. He gives her the lottery ticket which bears the coordinates of Hank and Steve’s graves, and even in this gesture he grants Marie (Betsy Brandt) a closure she may have never had.

At this point we are building our sentiments and getting closer to seeing redemption as a possibility for Walt, and here is where the episode disappoints me the most. After he reveals the “I did it for me” truth, there should be no sympathy at all for this devil. He was the man who professed to be “in the empire business,” and now we know it was always his goal to rake in the money and establish a legacy, one perhaps on par with what he would have done if he had stayed with Gray Matter.

But Gilligan has crafted yet another twist that will get us liking Walt a little more than we should – he is given the chance to save Jesse. When he goes to see the neo Nazi crew at their compound, he talks to Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) about a new method of making meth, and there seems to be a clear purpose to take everyone out – including Jesse. He has rigged the M60 machine gun to go off with the touch of keychain car alarm fob (like Hank said, he was the smartest guy he knew), but things are not going well and it seems Jack is going to kill him, so once again Walt plays the Pinkman card.

No matter how much Jack doesn’t like Walt and wants to kill him, he has some kind of dubious code that makes him not want to be associated with a “rat.” He tells Todd to go get Jesse from the dungeon where he has been cooking the meth, and once Walt sees Jesse brought into the clubhouse in chains, ragged from months of imprisonment, something overcomes him. In this moment – one might even call it Walt’s reclamation – he dives at Jesse, knocking him to the floor as he pushes the button. The machine gun satisfyingly tears all the Nazi gang to shreds, leaving Jack barely alive and Todd unscathed.

As Todd crawls to the window to see who attacked them, Jesse takes his chains and wraps them around Todd’s neck. I can imagine a collective scream of “Yes!” from viewers as Jesse sucks the life out of killer Richie Cunningham, and Walt walks over to the wounded Jack with a gun. Jack begins to warn Walt that he will never find his money, but doesn’t get to finish his sentence as Walt shoots him in a way reminiscent of how Jack killed Hank. There is no mercy for Jack, of course; but, more importantly, Walt does not even a care about the money because, as he said earlier, “It’s over.”

Walt slides the gun across the floor to Jesse and tells him to kill him. Jesse holds the gun and contemplates killing Walt, but notices that Walt is wounded. Whether or not Jesse realizes it, Walt took that bullet for him when he knocked Jesse to the floor. Jesse cannot kill Walt, and he tells him to do it himself. At this point Todd’s cell phone rings, and Walt answers it and hears Lydia ask if the job is done. Walt tells her that she is poisoned and basically she’s had her last chamomile tea.

finale 3As Walt and Jesse leave the clubhouse together it is unsaid that it is truly over between them. Jesse gets into a car, drives off into the night, screaming and laughing and crying like a loon. Of course, most everyone sees Jesse – even despite his own transgressions – as being the victim of circumstances in this equation, wanting out but never being able to get free. Finally and irrevocably Jesse has that freedom. You can just imagine him putting the pedal to the metal and not stopping until he gets to Juneau.

Walt staggers into the sophisticated meth lab where Jesse toiled for so long. One man’s prison can be another’s paradise, and Walt lovingly touches the equipment, and we know from what he told Skyler that making meth made him feel alive. As police cars start pouring into the compound, Walt falls to the floor and dies staring up at the ceiling with his arms widespread. Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” is cued up, and as we hear the lyrics “Guess I got what I deserved,” we get the feeling it is much more powerfully connected to the last seconds of this show than Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” was to the last moments of The Sopranos

finale 6As Walt stares lifelessly at the ceiling, we should admit to ourselves that he got nothing of what he deserved. While the story has been crafted so carefully and lovingly, it is clear that Gilligan and company wanted Walt to almost take it all. In good conscience they didn’t let him walk away, say off to Omaha where could have haunted Saul Goodman’s Cinnabon, but the way it ends Walt rights almost all the wrongs, kills all the people supposedly worse than he is, gets the money to his son, and saves Jesse’s life. If that is not setting him up for redemption 101, I don’t know what is.

Still, we are reminded of the “Ozymandias” episode and the poem of the same name, and we wonder if all his works are truly decimated if he had his cake and almost ate it too. If Walt dies on his own terms (and clearly that is the case), does it not stand that he not only got away with it but comes off looking like some kind of anti-hero?

In the end I am as guilty as the next person for wanting Walt to do all the things he did in “Felina,” but somehow I can’t get myself to feel good about it. In an alternate universe, if the Nazi gang killed Skyler and kidnapped the kids, or even if Walt had been caught, the money taken away, and he had to rot in a jail cell with no one ever visiting him as he slowly died from cancer, that may have been the right and “just” way to go. I wouldn’t have liked it perhaps, but I would have felt better in the end.

As it is the meth king is dead – long live the king. And indeed Walter White will live on in our memories and, his saga will be available on a DVD compilation that will inevitably be diagnosed for a long time to come. Breaking Bad was one of the most powerful, creative, and original series to appear on television. Its legacy is definitely secure, even if the finale made us have a little too much sympathy for a devil who wanted everyone to know his name.

Photo credits: AMC

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • bliffle

    No comments! Amazing!

  • Victor Lana

    Thank you, Bliffle. I am still sort of dazed and confused that the whole thing is over.

  • bliffle

    I guess that my longer comment was excised.

  • Victor Lana

    I am not sure what happened. Why not check with Chris?

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com/ Christopher Rose

    It most certainly was not, bliffle.

    I’ve checked back through the last two days comments and can’t find anything by you that has not been published.

  • bliffle

    Maybe my comment disappeared in the internet after my submission. It’s happened before. I’m not very trustful of this modern internet, dominated by commercial interests who feel entitled to spy on us as well as censor our utterings, I prefer the old internet of 20 years ago. That comment dealt with the relative morality of various characters.

    But I’m loathe to attempt that moralistic comment again because I’m caught on the horns of my own moral dilemna, wherein I hold the fate of a relative, who stole several dollars from me, in my hands and I hesitate to act.