We have all had time to process the series finale, “Felina,” of AMC’s Breaking Bad. There were those who loved the finale, those who despised it, and many people didn’t watch it, mostly because they had never watched the show before. But now as the dust and gunpowder have settled, as we think about the whole series that culminated in that finale, we need to take a few steps back and think deeply about what was one of the greatest TV dramas ever.
Taking those steps back, it is almost as if I am in a museum studying a piece of art. When you can look at something so overwhelmingly powerful and almost perfectly conceived, let’s use Pablo Picasso’s Guernica as an example, you cannot stand too close, but you also don’t want to stand too far away. So how do you begin to truly appreciate something so massive, so complicated, and still not miss something? One thing is to not negate the work with brevity, and another is to revisit it often enough to gain understanding, to see something missed last time, and to try to appreciate the whole as well as the individual parts from which it is composed.
To me Breaking Bad is very much like Geurnica, including the requisite violence that comes with all wars. Guernica shows the devastating impact on individuals from a bombing during the Spanish Civil War. What was Breaking Bad but a show that illustrated the effects on individuals from a mushroom cloud called Walter White (Bryan Cranston). His violent explosions as Heisenberg set events in motion that finally became totally clear in the last three episodes, but anyone who watched the show over five seasons had to know where it was heading, unless some viewers were wishing it would not be so or tragedy could be averted.
Show creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan has been known to say that Breaking Bad was the story of Mr. Chips becoming Scarface, but that doesn’t begin to do justice to what happened during those five seasons. This is why we need to step back, to admire that work of art, and try to assess it on the “whole” work rather than a few final episodes.
From the first episode in season one, we saw the scope of Walter Hartwell White’s drop into the depths away from the light. By making a conscious decision to “cook” an illegal drug for profit (even if ostensibly to make provision for his family after a diagnosis of terminal and inoperable cancer) Walt chose to enter a world where violence and death were always seconds away. He fortunately escapes the first episode with just some damage to his RV, but in the process he has broken the law and taken out two drug dealers. This start of things opened us up to go along for the ride, to see how this seemingly mild mannered chemistry teacher could turn into something even he himself won’t recognize. After that first episode, I know I was hooked and would be there (62 episodes later) when it all would end.
Perhaps none of us accepted where Breaking Bad was going, but as Walt became increasingly dark, and the heft of his deeds started involving more people, we had to begin facing the inevitable. I know that Jane’s death sort of caught me by surprise – I didn’t think Walt would let her die, but the after effects (especially the plane crash), shook me up and made me realize that Walt was digging a hole from which there would be no escape.
There is no way to truly think of him as “good” after that, and yet we still see him going through the motions, being the family man, and professing even to himself that all he is doing is for his wife and children. People wanted to believe it because Walt wanted to believe it too, and if it were other than that then the evil heft of his deeds would be almost unfathomable.
This is why when Walt finally admits to Skyler “I did it for me” in “Felina,” there is a slap across the audience’s faces louder than Cher hitting Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck. If we were still in a collective fog, that slap had to bring us out of our trances. It was finally the “confession” that Walter Hartwell White needed to make, and not that it provided Walt redemption (that would come later with Jesse), but it allowed him to settle things with Skyler and to see his baby Holly one last time.
So looking at the whole series, the first episode and “Felina” provide apropos opening and closing to the video novel. We got hooked at the start, kept reading all the way through, and got to the last page and felt closure, even as our anti-hero lay in his own blood staring at the camera. We take a step back, and just as the whole of Guernica involves all its parts, every episode moved the story along the way to its only logical, and painful, conclusion.
No, amazingly most of us never wanted Walt to die, but that seemed rather incongruous since we knew from the start that he had inoperable cancer. It was likely that he would die from a bullet first (as he does), but the cancer was always there, with his bald head a constant reminder of the fact. We also never wanted Hank to die, but looking back over the series that likelihood should have never been discounted. Even in the first episode Hank is depicted as having cockiness and an edge that bothers Walt a little bit. The way he holds his gun, shows it to Junior, and then invites Walt for a ride along to a DEA arrest scene should have been foreshadowing that Hank would not survive the finale.
Now that we all know the ending, I suggest that you to go back and look at the beginning again and try to go all the way through the episodes (Netflix is your best bet right now). You will appreciate Gilligan’s mastery of tone and his visual acuity, and there will be a growing sense in you of an appreciation of direction. We may not have known where Walter White and company were going, but it’s clear that Gilligan knew all along.
There have been some negative reactions to the finale, especially about the way Walt seemed too conveniently to tie up loose ends. The truth is that it makes perfect sense that a man who knew he was dying would want to do this. How it happens follows what Jesse told Hank on the video confession; Walt was smarter than everyone and luckier too. That is why when he rigs the machine gun to go off at a touch of a button, we should have appreciated that this is Walt using that intelligence and luck to outsmart and outgun the neo Nazis who seemed to be a good deal worse than he was.
Walt’s final actions save Jesse’s life in more ways than one. By diving on Jesse, Walt shields him from the bullets and takes a couple in the process. He also is liberating Jesse from the meth lab hell where Jesse would no doubt have spent the rest of his life until Todd’s Uncle Jack no longer had use for him.
Just like the old gunslinger sliding a gun across a saloon bar, Walt slides a gun along the floor to Jesse. Not only has he saved him, but now Walt is giving him the chance to take revenge on him. The fact that Jesse lets him live is more about Jesse saving his own soul than allowing Walt to live. Jesse drops the gun and tells him to do it himself, so when Walt and Jesse stand outside the bullet riddled clubhouse where all of Jesse’s captors lay dead, there is a final nod between them, sort of like two gunslingers in the street deciding not to draw after all.
After Jesse drives away in the happy lunacy of freedom, Walt goes into the lab to look at the set-up but also to say goodbye, not just to the meth making process that empowered him but to the chemistry that was his first love. When Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” starts playing, and as Walt falls to the floor and dies, we know that the “blue meth” was his true love all along. Walt is finally at peace in the place where he was always going to end up being. The fact that he tied up loose ends just keeps within his character’s keen intelligence and need to be in control. Why wouldn’t he be that way right up until the end of his life?
Breaking Bad is real art and something we can appreciate for years to come. All the recent hype would make one think the only thing that mattered were these last episodes, but the truth is that all the others leading up to the end are worth seeing again, appreciating them for such great craft, and realizing that in this case the artist respected his audience as much as he loved his work of art. This is why it is so sad to see Breaking Bad end, but by ending it so decisively and distinctly, Gilligan proves that he is a true artist whose work will be remembered and appreciated for many years to come.
Photo credits: Guernica- hyperhistory.com; Cranston – AMC